It is But a Trifle That Sauron Fancies. Gloín tells of the mission of the messenger of Mordor.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 234-36

One by one the company who are the Council of Elrond tell of how it is that they have come to Rivendell and as each listens to the other they begin to learn the truth of what Elrond says of how it is that they are sitting there on that October morning.

“You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.”

The Council of Elrond

And so it is that Gloín is the first to give an account of why he is in Rivendell that day. A messenger of Sauron had come to the Kingdom under the Mountain seeking news of hobbits. For “one of these was known to you on a time”. That hobbit, of course, is Bilbo and the messenger seeks him because of the Ring. Although it is not stated explicitly it is clear as we read Gloín’s account that the messenger is a Ringwraith, one of the nine, the Nazgûl. His breath came “like the hiss of snakes” and all who stand near by shudder. Sauron wishes for his embassy to have a maximum impact and requires a herald who will be a cause of fear in all who hear him.

The Messenger of Sauron

But if Sauron’s intention is to create fear what he achieves is to inspire resistance. The messenger’s mention of hobbits serves only to remind Dáin Ironfoot, the King under the Mountain, of his bond of obligation to Bilbo without whom he would never have gained his crown. And it serves also to remind him and the other chieftains of the dwarves of the alliance that fought the Battle of the Five Armies and the shelter and counsel that Thorin Oakenshield’s party received at Rivendell during their journey. For we should not assume that just because Gloín and his companions are present at the Council that this represents a normal state of affairs in which ambassadors go to and fro between the hidden valley and the lonely mountain. If there is an ambassador whose labour in making alliances between the free peoples of Middle-earth is bearing fruit on this day in Rivendell then it is Gandalf, the Grey Pilgrim, the one who encouraged Thorin to make his journey to Erebor and who, for some strange reason, had him take a hobbit with him. And it was Gandalf who brought together the men of Dale and Esgaroth, the elves of the Woodland Realm and the dwarves to defeat the orcs of the Misty Mountains. Gandalf has followed hunches, grasped at straws, and held onto fool’s hopes many times and for many years before this moment, many times before the decision is made that will be the outcome of this Council.

The Battle of the Five Armies

Sauron too has been a builder of alliances over many long years. He is gathering them together for the great war even as the Council deliberates. He knows that many of the peoples of Middle-earth are not natural allies for all Gandalf’s efforts. There has been little love between elf and dwarf through the ages, much suspicion and sometimes outright hostility and even war. The dwarves have fought many battles against orcs through the centuries but apart from the Battle of the Five Armies they have fought them alone and they have usually felt alone in the world. Sauron’s alliance building is usually a mixture of threat and gift and so it is with the dwarves. The threat is war and the gift is of two of the rings of power once held by dwarf lords, rings that greatly increased their wealth. What choice will the dwarves make in the war that is to come?

It was no accident that Elrond placed Frodo and Gloín together at the table top of highest honour at the feast the night before. Gloín, the companion of Thorin Oakenshield had to become acquainted with the heir of Bilbo, the Ringbearer. He had to be reminded bodily of the bond between dwarves and hobbits, with the family of Bilbo.

“You have done well to come,” Elrond says to Gloín after Gloín speaks of his fears. “You will hear today all that you need in order to understand the purposes of the Enemy. There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it. But you do not stand alone. You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the western world.”

“You do not stand alone”. Krystyn Janelle’s imagining of the Lonely Mountain.

Watch “Хоббит / The Hobbit (СССР / USSR, 1985 г.)” on YouTube

On Friday I posted a reflection on my blog about the encounter between Frodo and Glóin as they sat together at the feast in Rivendell and how this reconnected the stories of the Shire and the kingdom under the mountain, stories that were so remarkably woven together when Gandalf persuaded Thorin Oakenshield to allow Bilbo Baggins to become a part of his quest to regain the mountain kingdom from Smaug the dragon.

As I pondered the story that Tolkien told in The Hobbit I was led by my daughter, Bethan, a doctoral student at Oxford University, to the great Soviet cultural critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, and his concept of the carnivalesque. Bakhtin’s work was on the 19th century Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the 16th century French writer, Rabelais. In both of them he finds a world that is turned upside down. As Bethan and I spoke together I became increasingly convinced that we can add another work to Bakhtin’s list, The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien.

As I pondered this I recalled once watching a film adaptation of The Hobbit that was made in Russian during the Soviet era that charmed me at the time I watched it. Instinctively I felt that its retelling of Tolkien’s story as a folk tale had an authenticity to it that I found sadly lacking in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Many have commented on the difficulty in reconciling the fairytale aspect of The Hobbit with the mighty epic that was both The Silmarillion and also The Lord of the Rings. My feeling is that Jackson kept trying to make the story heroic and epic in nature, even trying to turn Bilbo into a character who might belong in such a story. My belief is that this delightful Russian retelling of the tale is much closer to its true essence.

And while I am expressing appreciation for people who have helped develop my own understanding of Tolkien’s work I would like to thank a blogger who writes under the name, The Catholic Knight, for reminding me of the wonderful section of Tolkien’s, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth that deals with the quest for Erebor. If you have a copy then read these pages for yourself. You can almost feel yourself to be with Tolkien, perhaps at a gathering of the Inklings, as he wrestles with the question, why did he recommend Bilbo to Thorin? Each one of the answers is profound and, in my view, leaves the subversive carnivalesque nature of The Hobbit intact.

A final thought. Don’t worry if you don’t speak Russian. Any lover of The Hobbit will have little difficulty in following the story and you might find a version somewhere with English subtitles.

The Feast at Rivendell. Frodo is Seated at Elrond’s Table Amongst the Great.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 220-223

If we are to understand the true significance of the feast that takes place on the evening after Frodo first awakes in Rivendell then we need to understand it as if it is a great state occasion. Elrond does not preside in his great chair at the end of a long table upon a dais every day. This is an occasion of real significance.

Peter Xavier Price imagines Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel at the Feast

There are many reasons why they should hold such a feast, says Gandalf to Frodo. “I am one good reason. The Ring is another: you are the Ring-bearer. And you are the heir of Bilbo, the Ring-finder.”

So we learn much in just a few words about the reasons why, in the world of Elrond and of the wise, honour is granted. There will be royal halls later in the story where Gandalf will be received with no honour at all. And Frodo, and to some degree, Bilbo too, regard themselves as those to whom all these events have simply happened. Frodo knows that he never sought the Ring. The Ring sought him out. But the court of Elrond in Rivendell is no meritocracy. As Gandalf said to Frodo at Bag End when Frodo asked why he had been chosen to bear the Ring, “Such questions cannot be answered… You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate.”

Frodo is not honoured because he is one of the great. He is honoured because he has been chosen and it is the choice that must be honoured. But there will soon come a time when Elrond will declare that Frodo is among the great and that will be because he will accept the burden that has been laid upon him. That we will think about in a few weeks time.

As Frodo sits nervously among the great at table he sees Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel close by, revealed in their glory. Tolkien draws upon all his wordcraft to convey think to us and so doing achieves far more than any picture. And so he says of Elrond that his face was “ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful.” As we read those words it is not a picture that we see. Tolkien tells us nothing about the shape of Elrond’s nose or mouth, for example. What we see, we see by means of the thoughts of our hearts, and those who know the prayer to which I allude will also know that those thoughts must be cleansed before they can enable us to see clearly.

Peter Jackson imagines Elrond, Lord of Rivendell

So it is that Tolkien shows us that Frodo is learning to see. Later Galadriel will make reference to the keenness of Frodo’s sight. Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel are among the immortals and unlike ourselves whose appearance is shaped by factors both inward and outward over which we only have some control, they are able to convey the truth of who they are. Glorfindel is “fair and young and fearless and full of joy. Gandalf has an aged face with eyes “like coals that could leap suddenly into fire”. And Elrond, neither young nor old seems venerable “as a king crowns with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength.” Later when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli encounter Gandalf they are not sure if it is he that they see or Saruman.

As a maia, an order of angelic being to which both Sauron and Saruman also belong, Gandalf has power over how he is able to appear; but this power can also be lost. In seducing Celebrimbor into teaching him the craft required to make the Ruling Ring Sauron was able to appear fair. After he seduced Númenor into its catastrophic act of rebellion he lost that power and could only be the Dark Lord thereafter. And when Saruman dies “the long years of death” are revealed in his hideous face. Gandalf remains faithful to his order’s obedience to Ilúvatar and so conveys both wisdom and strength in the face that others can see.

All this Frodo is able to see because his sight grows keen and his eye is innocent. He does not yet know that he is able to see what others cannot.

Kappriss imagines Sauron the Seducer before the Fall of Númenor

What Happened at the Fords of Bruinen? Gandalf Explains All to Frodo in Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 215-219

Gandalf explains much to Frodo as the hobbit rests in his wonderful bed but one question above all still bothers him.

“Just give me news of my friends, and tell me the end of the affair at the Ford, as I keep on asking, and I shall be content for the present. After that I shall have another sleep, I think; but I shan’t be able to close my eyes until you have finished the story for me.”

We thought about the events at the Fords of Bruinen a few weeks ago when we were introduced to Glorfindel and his decisive intervention. Now we return to them as Gandalf explains to Frodo what was happening to him on that day. Gandalf explains to Frodo that the Ringwraiths could see him even when he was not wearing the Ring because he was “on the threshold of their world”. The Morgul-knife, with which the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of Minas Morgul, had pierced Frodo in his shoulder, had broken inside the wound and had left a splinter there. He had tried to pierce Frodo in his heart and if he had succeeded he would have done a deed that would have been worse than murder for Frodo would have become a wraith, he “would have become like they are, only weaker and under their command”.

And now we know why Gandalf looked at Frodo so closely. How far into the shadow world had Frodo gone? Was there any lasting damage caused by the Morgul Blade as the Witch-king intended or had Elrond been successful in both removing the deadly splinter and in preventing Frodo from slipping out of the world of substance and into the world that the ringwraiths knew?

What is clear is that Frodo’s resistance played a crucial role in his escape and then his recovery. As Gandalf puts it, “Your heart was not touched, and only your shoulder was pierced; and that was because you resisted to the last”. Frodo’s resistance was crucial at that point and then at the Fords of Bruinen when he called out, “You shall have neither the Ring nor me”. But most important of all was the fact that he was able to resist tye journey of the fragment of the blade from the shoulder to the heart.

Frodo resists until the very end of his strength

Frodo’s resistance was aided at the beginning by Strider’s application of athelas to the wound. Even though he is not yet king it is a sign of his true identity that this herb, that seems to share his hiddenness in its apparent insignificance, responds both to his touch and his voice. Strider is the true king who is to come and the world listens to his voice.

But this is not the only aid that Frodo receives. When his hobbit companions said to him, “We are your friends, Frodo”, on that night at Crickhollow when the “conspiracy” was unmasked, these were not mere words. The friendship of Merry, Pippin and, above all, Sam was shown in the unloading of Bill the pony and the carrying of great burdens; it was shown in hobbit cheerfulness even in adversity; it was shown in Sam’s song about trolls at the discovery of the place where Bilbo’s first adventure took place; and it was shown at the Fords of Bruinen when they all ran towards the deadliest of danger in the ringwraiths. And, as readers of The Lord of the Rings know, this was not the last time in the story that this friends were willing to lay down their lives for the love of a friend.

Sam Gamgee cheers his friends with a little song

Of course, none of this would have been to any effect if the hobbits had been alone. The Nazgûl would have been too deadly a foe and the Ring, and Frodo too, would have been taken away to Mordor had it not been for the intervention of Glorfindel and the power in the river that awaited any attempt to cross by an enemy. The waters in the river rose and the steeds of the ringwraiths were swept away, their riders forced to return to Mordor having failed in their mission and to be rehorsed.

All of this Gandalf explains to Frodo but he also tells him that while “fortune or fate” may have helped him to escape his deadly foe so too did courage and all through the story that courage will make all the difference.

Frodo has mighty allies

“Only a Ranger!” Gandalf Puts Frodo Right About Strider.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-219

The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, told a story of a prince who, in order to win the love of a peasant girl, decided to live among her people as a fellow peasant and to hide his true identity. Eventually he marries her and we await the moment when he will reveal himself to her. But then, Kierkegaard asks us, does he have to do this? Why can’t he remain a peasant for the rest of his life out of the same love that him to disguise himself in the first place?

As you ponder the philosopher’s question your thoughts may turn towards Strider, or Aragorn. The poet, priest and scholar, Malcolm Guite, has published a series of poems on the great O Antiphons of the Middle Ages that have a prominent place in the liturgy of the Advent season. In a note on his poem on O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations, Guite comments that the antiphon speaks of Christ as both king and also as a dusty potter working with the clay of our humanity, and then he says, “he is the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider!”

The One Who Walks Alongside Us

Aragorn, or Strider as he is known to the people of Bree, has walked alongside Frodo and his companions all the way from Bree to Rivendell, clad in boots that have seen much wear and are “caked in mud” with a “travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth” wrapped around him. As Frodo thinks back over the journey he begins by telling Gandalf that at first he had been afraid of Strider, then that he had become fond of him.

“Well, fond is not the right word. I mean he is dear to me; though he is strange and grim at times. In fact he reminds me often of you.”

Finally, Frodo says, after making a few general and rather dismissive comments about “the Big People”, that he thought that Strider “was only a Ranger”. And so we return in our thoughts to the king who walks alongside us in rags. Those who learn wisdom come to understand that no-one, absolutely no-one, can be dismissed with the word, only. All people are more than they seem and if we take the time to be with them we begin to discover in what ways they are more than they seem. But Gandalf is anxious to let Frodo know that to say, “only” in relation to a Ranger, is an even greater insult.

“My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.”

The Great Story into Which Frodo is Drawn

It was Strider’s ancestors who first entered Beleriand in the last centuries of the First Age where they were befriended by the Elves and gave them aid in their wars against Morgoth. That this was the people of Númenor who lived within sight of the Undying Lands. At this point of the story Frodo still has no idea that when Strider had sung the Tale of Beren and Lúthien in the camp below Weathertop he had been singing of his forefathers and foremothers. He does not know how great is the story into which he has been drawn and in which he is to play so great a part. There is one point at which his perception is entirely accurate and that is when he says of Strider “that he reminds me often of you”. But he has not learned to trust his perception. He does not yet know that he, the Elf-friend, is growing in greatness. Perhaps it is just as well, for it necessary that as we grow in greatness we must also grow in humility, to learn that everything is not gained as an achievement but given as a gift. This is the last time that we will refer to Aragorn as Strider but as Aragorn will say at a later stage of the story, Strider “has never been away”.

Strider has Never Been Away

And so we return to Kierkegaard’s story and to his question. Does his prince need to reveal his true identity to his beloved? Might not they live perfectly happily together as peasants for the rest of their lives? Perhaps they might, but equally, they might live together in happiness as a prince and princess. As Frodo is drawn into the great story so too he is becoming great, as Gildor Inglorien first recognised when he named Frodo, Elf-friend, and as Goldberry saw too in the house of Tom Bombadil. Just as with Kierkegaard’s prince, and just as with Strider, he will learn either to assume that greatness or to lay it aside as he chooses or as is necessary. Why cannot Kierkegaard’s peasant girl learn to do the same?

Frodo is Lucky to Be in Rivendell “After All the Absurd Things” He Has Done Since Leaving Home.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-19

As I wrote last week it is altogether too pleasant to think of getting out of bed after nearly three weeks in the wild since leaving Bree. Even Gandalf’s chastisements feel like pleasantries compared to the terror of the attack below Weathertop, the agony of the long miles from that moment and the flight across the Fords of Bruinen with the Black Riders in close pursuit.

Frodo recalls all that has happened to him. “The disastrous ‘short cut’ through the Old Forest; the ‘accident’ at The Prancing Pony; and his madness in putting on the Ring in the dell under Weathertop.” But he is still too tired to be able to judge himself and besides Gandalf continues after a long pause:

“Though I said ‘absurd’ just now, I did not mean it. I think well of you-and of the others. It is no small feat to have come so far, and through such dangers, still bearing the Ring.”

“I think well of you”

It is a major part of Tolkien’s skill as a storyteller that we have become so used to seeing the story through the eyes of the hobbits as, apparently, they stumble from one near disaster to another from the moment they set out from Bag End that we do not realise what an achievement their safe arrival in Rivendell is. Months later, in the pavilions at the Field of Cormallen, a bard will sing of these things as the deeds of mighty heroes and the armies of Gondor and Rohan will acclaim Frodo and Sam as such. For their part, the hobbits do not believe their own press. Perhaps it is as well that they don’t. To regard oneself as a hero is unwise. In a few weeks time we will be introduced to a character who longs to be seen by others as a mighty hero and have them come flocking to his banner. Things will go badly for him before his final redemption.

We could have looked at the journey of the hobbits from a number of other perspectives than their own. For poor old Fatty Bolger even the choice to go through the Old Forest is madness and that is before he encounters the Black Riders for himself. Aragorn does not think very highly of them, certainly at first when he meets them in Bree. After the raid on The Prancing Pony by the Black Riders and the loss of the pack ponies he gazes long at the hobbits “as if he was weighing up their strength and courage”. We get the impression that, at this stage of the story, he does not have much expectation of their ability to make the journey to Rivendell.

“weighing up their strength and courage”

He is nearly right, of course. And so is Gandalf. Frodo and his companions are lucky to have reached Rivendell. But then so too is Aragorn. And, as we shall learn later, so too is Gandalf. Perhaps it is Tom Bombadil who sees things with the most clarity. Tom makes no judgements about the hobbits knowing, as he does, the dangers of the world. Through his experience over many years he has learned the measure of these dangers, both those against which he can pit himself and those against which he cannot. As he says before his final farewell to the hobbits, “Tom is not master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country”.

And yet, despite their own frailties, despite their inexperience, even despite the power of the Nazgûl, Frodo and his companions arrive safely in Rivendell. Perhaps, as Frodo says, it was Strider who saved them. Perhaps, as Gandalf puts it, “fortune or fate” helped them, as well as courage. Perhaps, as we weigh up the challenges of life that we must face it is wise if we do not do too much ‘weighing up’. Either we will put too much confidence in our own ability or we will be so terrified that, like Fatty Bolger, we will never try the journey at all. Bombadil’s final advice to the hobbits remains the best. He tells the hobbits simply to be themselves. “Be bold, but wary! Keep up your merry hearts, and ride to meet your fortune!” And this is just what Frodo and his companions have done. And we might say also, this is what fortune has done too.

“Keep up your merry hearts and ride to meet your fortune”

“Where Am I, and What is the Time?” Frodo Awakes in the House of Elrond.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.213-219

I think that I shall be spending the next few weeks with Frodo and Gandalf in the flat ceilinged room with “dark beams richly carved” in the House of Elrond. This is partly because there are few feelings more pleasant than to awaken safely in a comfortable bed after a time of trial. Frodo is so well rested that he has no desire to do anything other than to continue in that state. At first he is so content just to be that he has little or no curiosity about his whereabouts but at last he speaks aloud and says,

“Where am I, and what is the time?” he said aloud to the ceiling.

“In the House of Elrond, and it is ten o’clock in the morning,” said a voice. “It is the morning of October the twenty-fourth, if you want to know.”

Where am I and what is the time?

And that is another pleasure for me. Few people tell the time, ‘o’clock’, anymore and it is a pleasure to hear that word. But it is a greater pleasure to hear the voice in my head and imagination of the one who speaks in reply to Frodo’s question, for it is Gandalf, and just like Frodo I am always delighted when Gandalf turns up. All my life I have sought the company of men like Gandalf. I have liked many older men but I have met few elders, few truly wise old men. O truly fortunate Aragorn, to have been fathered by two such men, by Elrond and by Gandalf, but then Aragorn was being prepared to become a king, to be the father of his people.

Frodo too has been prepared for a great task and both Bilbo and then Gandalf have been fathers to him. And please note that none of the men mentioned here were biologically fathers to either Aragorn or Frodo. That is a relatively simple task, accomplished in a few moments. To be a father like Gandalf is the work of long years and requires much wisdom. Fascinatingly, in the baptism service of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662, the priest addresses only the godparents and not the birth parents. If only we had more godparents like Gandalf or Elrond or Bilbo today, men or women who are teachers of wisdom.

Frodo and Gandalf Speak Together

In a relatively brief conversation Frodo and Gandalf will say much to each other and their speech will be of great importance. That is another reason why I will gladly spend a few weeks thinking about what they say. They will speak of Frodo’s journey, of Aragorn and the Rangers of the North, of Frodo’s close shaves with death, or with something worse even than death, and with his healing by the skill of Elrond, and they will speak of the danger that lies ahead for all the free peoples of Middle-earth. There will be much for us to think about. But here I will end with a thoughtful speculation on Gandalf’s part as he looks upon the hobbit who appears to be healed.

“Gandalf moved his chair to the bedside, and took a good look at Frodo. The colour had come back to his face, and his eyes were clear, and fully awake and aware. He was smiling, and there seemed to be little wrong with him. But to the wizard’s eye there was a faint change, just a hint as it were of transparency, about him, and especially about the left hand lay outside upon the coverlet.”

What can the wizard see that is hidden from those who cannot see as he can? Does this hint of transparency denote Frodo’s journey towards becoming a wraith as was the intention of the one who left the splinter of the Morgul blade within his body? Gandalf ponders this and other possibilities.

“To what he will come in the end not even Elrond can foretell. Not to evil, I think. He may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can.”

Two kinds of transparency are considered here. One is that shared by the ringwraiths who have rejected their bodies in return for a miserable form of immortality. The other about which Gandalf ponders must surely remind Tolkien’s readers of the glass that Galadriel will give to Frodo in Lothlorien that contains the light of the Silmaril borne by Eärendil in the heavens a light in dark places “when all other lights go out”.

A Light When All Other Lights Go Out

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost. Gandalf’s Letter Commends Aragorn to the Hobbits.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 160-168

It is Gandalf’s letter that he had left with Barliman Butterbur that eventually convinced the hobbits to trust the strange man who goes by the name of Strider. Of course, when I say, trust, it must be said that Sam Gamgee did not really trust him. Sam has grown up in a small world,”in a little circle of light,” as Tolkien put it in his essay on Beowulf, The Monsters and The Critics, from which “men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”

Not that Sam expects his journey to end in defeat. Sam Gamgee is a happy ever after kind of a man who expects things, even the darkest things, to end well. Much will ride upon this quality in the events that lie ahead. But Sam has grown up in a little circle of light and regards the world outside as dark and hostile. He does not know how to distinguish between the offspring of the dark and the kings and champions; not yet at any rate. But the strange man who now stands before the hobbits knows this world very well indeed. Speaking of the Black Riders who are pursuing the hobbits he says:

“They will come upon you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help.”

They will come upon you in the wild

This man knows about about the offspring of the dark. “They are terrible!” He has wandered the wild and dark places of the earth for many years having been sent out from the circle of light that is Rivendell by Elrond, its lord, who has been as a father to him. I have written about him and his story in greater detail in other places in this blog over the years and if you click on the tag, Aragorn, at the end of this post, you will be able to read these if you so wish but as this is the first time in The Lord of the Rings in which we meet this king and champion it would be good to say a few things about him.

This is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, chieftain of the Rangers of the North, the last of the line of Isildur, son of Elendil, the hero who cut the Ring from the finger of Sauron with the shards of Narsil his father’s sword. Aragorn still carries those shards, “the blade that was broken”, the symbol of his diminished house. And Elrond sent him out from the circle of light to “that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark” when he was a young man in order that he might undergo an apprenticeship that will lead to this crownless one becoming king.

Sustained by Love

In this apprenticeship he serves in the armies of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, and of Thengel, King of Rohan and he befriends Gandalf, aiding him in his long struggle against the dark. Through all these long years he is sustained by hope, hope that his wandering will not end in defeat but in the renewing , not just of the blade that was broken but of his people. And he is sustained by love, for he loves Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond, who returned his love, but he cannot win her hand in marriage except as king of both Gondor and of Arnor, the first to sit upon both thrones since the great founder of his house, Elendil and he cannot achieve his longings unless the Dark Lord, Sauron, is finally and utterly defeated. So it is that he meets a hobbit who does “want looking after and no mistake”, who might be “on a holiday” and not at the heart of the greatest events of his age and he has to base all his longing upon this encounter and because of his friendship with Gandalf he chooses to do so. “If by life or death I can save you, I will.”

I began these thoughts with a quotation from Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf. In it Tolkien describes an heroic but ultimately hopeless world. Despite their courage the heroes, “even the kings and champions” are finally defeated in their struggle against the dark. Aragorn has no idea whether or not his story will end in defeat. He has to place his trust, all the longings of his life in this slenderest of threads. Is this a story of hope fulfilled or of defeat and darkness? Will Aragorn’s wanderings end in a homecoming or will he be lost in the wilderness?

“The Road Goes Ever On and On”. Frodo, Sam and Pippin Begin a Journey that will change the World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 69-73

Those who know and love The Lord of the Rings know that Tolkien does not exactly hurry to get his story started. This ought to be a problem. Most story tellers know that unless you have gained your readers’ attention within minutes you will have lost them for ever. And yet in the best selling work of fiction of the last hundred years its author simply does not seem to care. What we are treated to as the world-changing epic journey begins is the anachronistic tale of two gentlemen and their servant setting out for a walking holiday.

Two Edwardian Gentlemen Out for a Stroll

Even the more unsettling matters, Gandalf’s failure to make the rendezvous or the encounter between Gaffer Gamgee and the Nazgûl are not permitted to spoil the general sense of well being. At this point in the story the worst thing that can happen is a soreness of the shoulder caused by the rubbing of the straps on a backpack. Happy the man or woman whose problems in life are limited to things such as this.

There is only one thing that disturbs this sense of wellbeing and that is Frodo’s melancholy. If we were to take our Edwardian imagery just a little further then we might liken Frodo’s mood to that which was retrospectively applied to the beautiful summer of 1914. Each memory of that summer was to be marked for ever after by sadness. Those who survived the war would remember the ones who had been lost with whom they had shared that day. And so Frodo looks back at the lights of Hobbiton and of Bywater twinkling in the dark and wonders if he will ever see them again.

An inn in the Cotswolds by night

Pippin has no more concern than to make his journey to Buckland as comfortable as possible and so in the middle of the day on the first full day of walking he declares to his companions that although the road might go on for ever he cannot, at least without a rest. Frodo takes up Pippin’s reference to the road and begins to recite.

The Road goes ever on and on 
   Down from the door where it began. 
Now far ahead the Road has gone, 
   And I must follow if I can, 
Pursuing it with weary feet, 
   Until it joins some larger way, 
Where many paths and errands meet. 
   And whither then? I cannot say. 

It is not the stepping into the Road that is daunting. Even the great journeys come to an end eventually as Bilbo once pointed out. “Do you realise that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, might take you to the Lonely Mountain?” And as you picture the mountain in your imagination its very loneliness calls you to follow the path. This call is to adventure and it makes your heart grow larger. But the “wither then?”, that sense that the Road may never end, that there might never be a homecoming, never a place to rest your head at the last, that is a different matter altogether. And that too is a possibility when you step out of your door and onto the Road.

Tolkien’s use of capital letters in a noun like this is always significant. This road is not a lane that takes you to a welcoming inn or the road to the home of a good friend. It is the Road. It is life itself and you do not know its final end. No wonder most people choose not to entertain such imaginings. They are much too big and most of us, maybe all of us, are much too small. A Gandalf, calling us to adventure, must cross our paths if we are to embark on such journeys. And when he does so the longing must be greater than the fear; at least until the journey is well underway.

The Road goes ever on and on

Samwise Gamgee Introduces Himself

The arrival of Samwise Gamgee into the story is not designed to earn our respect and admiration. That will not come until much later. Gandalf becomes aware that Sam has long since stopped any pretence of working in the garden outside the window by which he and Frodo have been talking and then:

“With a dart he sprang to the sill, and thrust a long arm out and downwards. There was a squawk, and up came Sam Gamgee’s curly head hauled by one ear.”

Actually I am sorry to say that it took me a long time before I was willing to give Sam any respect at all. When, at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo attempted to continue the journey to Mordor alone, the fifteen year old version of myself was delighted that at last he was free of the ludicrous Sam. I was furious when Sam came splashing through the water in search of Frodo. And when Frodo hauled him out of the river into the boat and greeted him with the words, “Of all the confounded nuisances you are the worst, Sam!” I fear that I agreed with him. I was only able to think of Sam as some kind of encumbrance and certainly not as the one without whom the task could never have been accomplished, without whom Frodo would not have got very far.

You see, I am back to the journey of discovery that I wrote about last week. Back to the place where Tolkien was himself when he described himself as “immensely amused by hobbits as such, and can contemplate them eating and making their fatuous jokes indefinitely.”

Oh dear, fatuous jokes. At first this was all that Tolkien expected of hobbits. Clearly, Frodo became an exception to this low expectation, and a remarkable exception at that. But as for the rest of the race of hobbits little more was to be expected of them except an enjoyment of food and drink and a rather dull sense of humour. And at this point in the story I doubt if any more was to be expected of Sam.

And yet he had to go with Frodo. And surely the reason why he had to go was because of the Elves. By this we do not mean that the Elves wanted Sam to go. They had no more knowledge of Sam than of any other hobbit, except Bilbo of course. It is not their knowledge of Sam but it was Sam’s longing to see them.

“I heard a deal that I didn’t rightly understand, about an enemy, and rings, and Mr. Bilbo, sir, and dragons, and a fiery mountain, and- and Elves, sir. I listened because I couldn’t help myself, if you know what I mean. Lor bless me, sir, but I do love tales of that sort. And I believe them too, whatever Ted may say. Elves, sir! I would dearly love to see them. Couldn’t you take me to see Elves, sir, when you go?”

Elves in the Woody End, by Ted Nasmith

Sam has to go on the journey because of his longing. The language that he uses to express it is clumsy, naive and childlike but Gandalf can recognise genuine longing when he meets it. “Whatever Ted may say,” says Sam. Sam and Ted are total opposites to one another. Ted Sandyman, the young miller, longs for nothing more than making a profit and on spending it in The Green Dragon in Bywater. Sam longs for that which appears far beyond him, even outside his grasp. And he will find it. For those whose hearts are shaped by Yearning can never be satisfied until they find what they seek and they will find it. As St Augustine prayed,

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”