The Pity of Bilbo.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 55-59

The story of Gollum that Gandalf tells comes to a great climax in two separate passages in which Gandalf speaks of Pity. The first comes after Frodo’s desperate cry, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

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And Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.”

The second climax comes as Frodo cries out, “He deserves death”.

And Gandalf replies, “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least.”

Readers of The Lord of the Rings know that Gandalf’s words are prophetic. The fate of all the Free Peoples is indeed ruled by Bilbo’s Pity because it is Gollum who takes the Ring to the Fire in which it had been forged when, in the violence of his attack upon Frodo and his uncontrollable excitement in regaining possession of the Ring, he overbalances and so falls into the Cracks of Doom. And Frodo is delivered from the overwhelming power of the Ring that has overthrown his mind at last by that same Pity. If it had not been for Bilbo under the Misty Mountains and then Frodo himself when he captures Gollum beneath the Emyn Muil there can have been no triumph.

And yet… after Gandalf has told the tale of Déagol’s murder and Gollum’s dreadful deeds in Mirkwood (did he really sneak through windows to steal and eat small children?) and how he had betrayed the existence of the One Ring and the name of Baggins and the Shire to the Dark Lord himself so that the search was now on for its whereabouts, how can we blame Frodo for what he says?

And when he says that Gollum “deserves death” surely he is right. He deserves death for the crimes he has already committed and also to prevent the appalling consequence of the Ring falling into the hands of the Dark Lord.

Yet when Gandalf responds to Frodo’s cry he is not persuaded in the slightest. He ends his argument with the appeal to Pity which is appropriate in one who sat in the school of the Lady Nienna, the Lady of Pity, of Mercy and of Mourning, the one who taught the importance of lamentation, of tears, in the life of Arda. It is Pity that eventually leads to the destruction of the Ring and the downfall of Sauron but Pity cannot guarantee any outcome. What Gandalf appeals to before he speaks of Pity is something quite remarkable.

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“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

The remarkable thing that Gandalf appeals to is the ability to take away and to give life. It is a great sadness that we are all capable of taking away life and so we give much thought to this power. Who has the right? Under what circumstances can this right, if right it is, be exercised? And so we think about murder, manslaughter,judicial execution and warfare, just or otherwise. Much of our judicial attention is given to preventing death or to punishing those who cause it illegally.

But what about the giving of life? This ability plays such an important role in Tolkien’s work. And it is made clear from the beginning that this right belongs only to God, to Eru, the One, Illuvatar. Morgoth seeks to create life, but fails, and at the last is able only to mar the creation in mockery of Illuvatar so forming the twisted shapes of the orcs and trolls and other fell creatures. And Aule does give life to the dwarves but has to make them sleep until the permissive word is given by the source of all life.

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So, Gandalf argues, if you do not have the right to give life what right do you have to take it? Both the giving and taking of life is a denial of Providence the hand of grace that orders all our affairs whether we are small or great. And in many ways the whole of The Lord of the Rings is an extended meditation upon Providence, upon those who are willing to trust it and those who try to resist it.

Bilbo and Frodo Were “Meant” to Have the Ring. The Hand of Providence in The Lord of the Rings.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 53-57

Frodo is disgusted by the story of how Sméagol had murdered his closest friend, Déagol, and taken the Ring and so began the journey from being a hobbit to becoming the “loathsome creature” that Bilbo had encountered deep beneath the Misty Mountains many years before. Gandalf tries to engage Frodo’s sympathy for a fellow creature but at this point in the story he has little success. Frodo even finds it difficult to believe that Gollum might have been a hobbit like him.

We cannot really blame Frodo for his reaction to Gollum and in a further reflection that will be published soon we will think about how we learn to pity another. Frodo has to go some distance yet down the road of experience in order to learn pity and it is not only experience itself that teaches. Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar and so belong to the same order of angelic being with the same long experience of time and all its sorrow and joy. And yet while Gandalf has learnt Pity Sauron has entirely rejected it. Among the Valar, the Divinities of Tolkien’s legendarium, Gandalf sought out the Lady Nienna as his teacher while Sauron sought out Melkor who became Morgoth. Consequently Gandalf never achieved the power that Sauron did but he did learn Pity and Patience which were to prove to be so much more important.

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Gandalf as Olorin and The Lady Nienna

One of the most important things that Gandalf learnt through his long practice both of Pity and of Patience was the ability to discern the significance of small things. Whereas Sauron could think only in terms of the exercise of his own will and whatever might aid or frustrate it Gandalf could see the exercise of another hand in history to which he must pay close attention and that this hand is as likely to work through small things as through great.

When he speaks of the Ring being found “by the most unlikely person imaginable” Gandalf is speaking of the work of this hand.

“Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring  and not by its maker.”

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Gandalf is capable of discerning that “something else at work” in the astonishing moment of chance in which Bilbo places his hand upon the Ring because of his long practice of paying the closest attention to things. And when we speak of things we are not speaking of those things that are generally regarded as important but of small things. Things like hobbits.

Gandalf expects to see the hand of Providence at work in such things. Sauron does not look for the hand of Providence at all. The direct intervention of the Valar at the end of the First Age and that of Eru, the One, when Ar-Pharazôn of Númenor attacks the Undying Lands, takes him entirely by surprise. But that he might fall because of hobbits is a possibility that could never have entered even his darkest thoughts. You require certain powers of imagination in order to see Providence at work and Sauron not only has no imagination but he despises it. It is necessary to have imagination in order to people the world with hobbits and dwarves and ents. Sauron, like his master, Morgoth, before him, can only think in terms of slaves and of usefulness.

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At The Entmoot by Stephen Hickman

Oh, the limitations of the practically minded! Those whose careful cost-benefit analyses can only be constructed in terms of profitability. Those who are prepared to declare whole peoples useless and to construct realities in which the useless no longer exist. Those for whom trees have only value as a carbon based energy source. Those who can only look at land as potential real-estate. At the last they must fall before the playful, the imaginative and the foolish.

Gandalf is accused of being trivial in his love of pipe-weed, fireworks and hobbits and accused of madness in entrusting the Ring to a “witless halfling”. But he has seen something that others have not. That no-one can simply abandon the Ring (or cast it into the Fire for that matter) unless another hand is at work and he has discerned that hand at work in the hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

And that is an encouraging thought!

Why Did Sauron Make the Ring? Gandalf in Frodo’s Study at Bag End.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 50,51

In 1949 Herbert Butterfield, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, published a series of lectures that he had given under the title of Christianity and History. I do not know if he had any contact with The Inklings. He was a Cambridge Professor and they were based in Oxford. But I rather think that Tolkien would have approved of Butterfield’s thoughts contained in this quotation from those lectures.

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“The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future- reaching out into the future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake.”

When I asked whether Butterfield and the Inklings could have known each other it was because it seemed to me that Butterfield could have been describing the action of Sauron in the forging of the Ring. That Sauron imagined himself, not only as king of the earth, but as the king. Sauron forged the Ring in order to achieve kingship, declaring his intent in the words that he inscribed upon it.

One Ring to rule them all.

Sauron is one who fears disorder; one for whom order is only certain when he is in absolute control. This means that all other powers, even and perhaps most especially Providence itself, must first be found and then bound in the darkness. And why the darkness? Because the light is not under his control and the light is able to penetrate even the most carefully constructed of his defences. The same goes for the unruly weather. The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

And Sauron fears those who are born of the Spirit, those who are truly free, who will not bow the knee to him; and so he labours endlessly to corrupt the free and to bind them to him for ever. It is the Ringwraiths, the Nazgûl, who are the most tragic of these people. They are those who traded their freedom in exchange for power and so as Gandalf expresses it heartbreakingly, they became “shadows under his great Shadow”. It is hard to imagine any image that could convey the sense of something or someone who has less substance than a shadow within a shadow. This is the end of all who seek power and control and who grow to fear freedom above everything else. Butterfield describes Sauron so well when he speaks of one who is farsighted in the wrong way, someone who seeks to eliminate all unpredictability and risk from the future. As Butterfield puts it, someone for whom “there must never be a single mistake”.

Compare such a spirit to the astonishing risk of putting your trust in hobbits! Perhaps this is a moment to consider how great a risk this is. Later in the story Denethor, the Lord of Gondor, will declare Gandalf’s trust in hobbits as madness and the hobbits themselves as witless. Gandalf does not argue with him or try to justify his trust. His choice is the worst that could possibly have been made. Except, that is, for every other choice.

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But the same quotation from Butterfield that opened this short reflection goes on to describe the choice that Gandalf does make and the one that Frodo accepts and makes his own.

“Each of us should rather do the good that is under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump.”

This is what Gandalf and Frodo speak of on that Spring morning in the Shire. Not some vast plan to solve all the problems of Middle-earth but the decision to take one course of action. And at this point the action is only to take the Ring out of the Shire because the Dark Lord now knows that the Ring is there. The first choice to do good is very limited in its scope because at this point Frodo and, even, Gandalf himself does not know what to do next. But it is enough. The lump of dough will be leavened beyond all imagining.

(Image Below, The Fall of Sauron by Caoronach http://caoranach.deviantart.com/art/Fall-of-Sauron-349619911)

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Things That Can Only Be Spoken of in Daylight. Gandalf Speaks of the Corrupting Power of the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 45-48

When Frodo and Gandalf begin to speak about the Ring it is as if every word emerges from a profound silence. Not just the silence of the night that has passed but the silence of long years whose shadow now lies over this comfortable hobbit hole in the heart of the Shire. At last Frodo speaks.

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Gandalf and Frodo in Bag End by Alan Lee

“Last night you began to tell me strange things about my ring, Gandalf… And then you stopped, because you said that such matters were best left until daylight.”

And so Gandalf begins to tell the story of what Frodo has always called, Bilbo’s Ring. And it is a story of power and of possession.

“A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later- later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last- sooner or later the dark power will devour him.”

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The One Ring by Badriel

What Gandalf has done here is to describe to Frodo both what it will mean to possess a Ring of Power and what it means to desire power over others. It was the 19th British historian, Lord Acton, who famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What Tolkien describes here is what happens when absolute power is achieved by means of a particular item and linked to a particular desire. The One Ring appears to convey two things. One is power over others. The other is power over death itself. Thus the one who possesses it will believe themselves to be entirely invulnerable both to the power of others and even to death. But what Tolkien shows is that the corruption that Acton spoke of in relation to power is not just the loss of a moral sense. Sauron had already made this bargain long before the forging of the Ring and did so without a backward glance. All that he desired was absolute power and his assumption was that everyone else desired this too. What he did not know was that in the forging of the Ring in order to achieve power he was giving his Self to the thing that he had made. He was able to appear, first to Celebrimbor and then later to Ar-Pharazôn of Númenor, in a fair guise. But he lost this capacity and throughout the Third Age he could only appear as a thing of terror. And when the Ring eventually goes into the Fire there is nothing left of him but a mist in the wind, malicious but utterly powerless.

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This is what it means to be corrupted. This is what all who desire power over others believe themselves to be exempt from. They believe that they have achieved a level of self-possession through the exercise of that power that will mean that they are the masters of their own destiny. But what we learn here is that the wielders of power, those who achieve it by means of a Ring of Power, fade. And what we also learn is that those who spend too much time with a Ring of Power are eventually corrupted by it. Even Bilbo was beginning to fall under its influence saying that it was “growing on his mind”, that “he was always worrying about it”, that he felt “thin and stretched”. Eventually even Bilbo would have fallen under the power of the Ring and surely with the Nazgûl hunting for it high and low and drawn to it because it has power over them they would have found Bilbo and found the Ring too. But might we say that a swift end at the point of a Nazgûl blade or even torture at the hands of the Dark Lord would be preferable to the terrible fate that would have befallen him through possession of the Ring? Perhaps when we pray that we might be delivered from evil it is more a prayer that we might not become evil ourselves than that we might suffer from the evil of another.

“Keep it Safe, and Keep it Secret!” On What Takes Place at Bag End after Bilbo Leaves The Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 35-40

Bilbo leaves the Shire after the party in search of a holiday but for Frodo, at least at first, life is anything but leisurely. This is all Bilbo’s fault, of course. The manner of his disappearance means that the conventional hobbits feel abused by him. Some are simply outraged; the Sackville-Bagginses try to regain possession of Bag End; while some of the younger ones cannot help but try to find out whether there is more to the stories of Bilbo’s fabulous wealth than mere rumour. All in all Frodo spends some time after the party more or less under siege in Bag End.

It is during the process of repelling invaders that Gandalf returns. At first Frodo and his friends try to repel him too, or at least to ignore him.

“Suddenly the wizard’s head appeared at the window.

‘If you don’t let me in, Frodo, I shall blow your door right down your hole and out through the hill,’ he said.”

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Gandalf wishes to speak about the Ring. At this point in the story he merely refers to the Ring as “It”. This is what needs to be kept secret and safe. It is clear that Gandalf already has his suspicions regarding Bilbo’s “magic” ring. He knows from his Ringlore that “magic” rings don’t just turn up from time to time. There was only one time during the Second Age in which Rings of Power were created and every single one of them had a connection to the Dark Lord. Seven Rings were created for Dwarf lords and Nine for Lords of Men. Three were forged by Elven Smiths but were never touched by Sauron although Celebrimbor of Eregion received guidance in their making from the Dark Lord in his fair guise of Annatar. And then there was the One Ring to rule them all.

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Even now Gandalf fears that Bilbo’s ring might indeed be the One Ring. So why does he not act upon his fear straight away? It will be nearly seventeen years before he returns to the Shire and confirms his fears. In that time Sauron will have almost completed all his preparations for war and at the end of it he will send out his most deadly servants, the Nazgûl, the keepers of the Nine Rings, in search of the One. During those years no great alliance of the free peoples of Middle-earth will be formed as took place at the end of the Second Age, an alliance strong enough to overthrow the Dark Lord. And the one alliance that has remained, that between Gondor and the Kingdom of Rohan, will be systematically weakened by the work of Saruman the traitor.

I have two thoughts regarding these years of relative inaction.

One is that Gandalf knows that he cannot afford to make any mistakes regarding the One Ring. It is much too big for that. If he were to gamble on the identity of Bilbo’s Ring and get it wrong the consequences would be catastrophic. He knows that at the end this is not a war that can be won through force of arms. Sauron can be delayed but this time he cannot be defeated. Gandalf knows that at the moment of the crisis of the Age everything will depend upon a madness, upon a gamble in which everything is wagered upon one slender possibility.

I exaggerate! To describe the possibility as slender is a nonsense. The wager will be made on an action that is as close to impossible as can be conceived. Gandalf knows this even now and so he needs to be sure.

The second is that at the moment when Gandalf leaves the Shire and the Ring he does not know what to do next. He knows enough not to try to take the Ring himself. He fears what it might do to him if it turns out to be the One. He knows that when the time comes everything will have to be risked upon one throw of the dice. But what this will mean in an actual plan of action he does not yet know. He needs time to think.

“Frodo saw him to the door. He gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Frodo thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he were carrying a great weight. The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.”

 

Bilbo Baggins Lets Go of The Ring. With a Little Help From a Friend.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 30-35

The One Ring has had a long and unhappy history since its forging in the Second Age of the Sun. Its purpose in its conceiving was to increase the power of its maker, Sauron, the Dark Lord.

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

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Rule has ever been its purpose so that all the work that has ever been done in freedom by Elves, Dwarves or Mortal Men should itself become the work of one being and enslaved forever to his will and purpose.

The Ring is a fearful thing and yet it has never quite accomplished that for which its maker purposed it. Even when it was in Sauron’s possession it never quite gave him the power he desired. He had to submit to the greater power of Númenor and, at the end of the Age, in battle against the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, had it taken from him by force by Isildur, son of Elendil. And although he grows in power once again towards the end of the Third Age the Ring, now the focus of an all-consuming desire, remains hidden from him.

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The Ring has had its own history throughout this time, betraying first Isildur to his death and then the unhappy Déagol too until it falls into the hands of a hobbit lost in the endless tunnels under the Misty Mountains. And in this moment of its history a theft takes place undoubtedly but no murder and so its history begins to change. At no point does the Ring ever change in nature but it is clear that another power is at work as well as its own entirely malevolent one.

I think we can say that Bilbo meant to give the Ring up and to leave it to Frodo. It is just that at the moment when he has to make a choice he finds that he is unable to do so.

“Into the envelope he slipped his golden ring, and its fine chain, and then sealed it, and addressed it to Frodo. At first he put it on the mantelpiece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck it in his pocket.”

Poor Bilbo! The Ring is so much stronger than he is and if it had not been for Gandalf’s intervention it would have taken complete possession of him and dragged him down into a living perdition. Indeed already it has begun to do its work. Bilbo speaks of feeling “all thin, sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread”. He speaks of an “eye looking at me” of not being able to rest without it in his pocket.

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Eventually Gandalf has to hint at his own power in order to make Bilbo give it up. This is no act of a bully seeking to force someone weaker than himself to give up freedom for servitude but rather the opposite. Gandalf uses his greater power to free Bilbo from himself or should we say to free Bilbo from his false self from the self that can never be at rest while in possession of the Ring? Or perhaps that he can never be at rest while the Ring seeks to gain possession of him?

The true Bilbo leaps into full view almost as soon as he makes the decision to let go of the Ring.

“It was a fine night and the black sky was dotted with stars. He looked up sniffing the air. `What fun! What fun to be off again, off on the road with dwarves. This is what I have really been longing for for years.`”

A good spiritual guide might tell Bilbo that the thing that he had thought that he had desired the most was in fact nothing more than an adhesion “on the wings to love and adventure,” as the poet Patrick Kavanagh puts it. But perhaps Gandalf is better than that for rather than telling Bilbo that this is what the One Ring has become to him he actually sets him free. Later in the story he will do the same for Théoden of Rohan.

But now let us watch with Gandalf as the 111 year old hobbit leaps over a low point in the hedge and heads off down the road to his own “love and adventure”.

Bilbo Baggins’s Little Joke

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-30

How might the Ring, the “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie”, how might it have eventually taken possession of Bilbo had he kept it long enough?

I think that we get a clue that might help us answer this question in Bilbo’s “little joke”. The joke is first introduced to us in a conversation between Bilbo and Gandalf. Gandalf urges Bilbo to stick to his “whole plan”, in other words to give up the Ring of his own accord. Bilbo answers, “I mean to enjoy myself on Thursday, and have my little joke.”

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Gandalf plainly does not appreciate the joke and wonders who will laugh as he shakes his head. Bilbo’s reply gives us an insight into his character.

“We shall see,” he said.

In other words Bilbo does not much care who does or does not laugh as long as he enjoys himself. You see, Bilbo has a very high opinion of his own cleverness and a fairly low opinion of the cleverness of his fellow hobbits. One might argue that he has good reason for both opinions. Although his actual finding of the Ring was entirely fortuitous (except for the “meant to find it” that Gandalf will one day tell Frodo about!) his use of it thereafter until the end of his adventures as recounted in The Hobbit shows a high degree of intelligence, common sense and an ability to remain calm in a crisis. Even among his companions on the expedition to the Lonely Mountain the Ring chose the person best able to make use of it, excepting Gandalf, of course. And eventually Bilbo comes to realise this himself.

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I do not mean to be critical of him here. Self-awareness is praiseworthy and false modesty has little to recommend it. Bilbo’s growing self-confidence plays a vital role in the events of The Hobbit but there is little doubt that Bilbo becomes really quite pleased with himself.

Pleased, that is, until he realises that the Dwarves’ thirst for wealth is in danger of causing catastrophe among the Men of Esgaroth on the Long Lake, the Elves of the Woodland Realm and also the Dwarves themselves. At this point it is not so much Bilbo’s cleverness but his kindness that comes to the fore. At no point in the story does he wish to do harm to anyone, not even those who wish to hurt him, as can be seen in his sparing of Gollum.

But it is his cleverness and not his kindness that leads him to decide to use the Ring in order to make his disappearance from the Shire all the more dramatic. He wants to be talked about, to enjoy a certain notoriety and he wants to enjoy the effect that he makes. When Gandalf asks the question, who will enjoy your joke, the answer is, no-one, that is no-one except Bilbo himself and for Bilbo that is quite enough.

How would the Ring have insinuated itself into Bilbo’s heart? Surely by isolating him within his own self-satisfaction until there was room for no-one else. Once that had happened other people would either be fools or a threat. Even on the night of the party we see how Gandalf is a threat, one who might take the Ring from him, while he wants a holiday from everyone else. One wonders if he had taken the Ring with him whether he would ever have found a resting place. Later in Rivendell Bilbo will complain that he has been refused permission to go back to Hobbiton to get the Ring. “They seemed to think that the Enemy was looking high and low for me, and would make mincemeat of me, if he caught me tottering about in the Wild.” Bilbo may have been talking lightly but he was speaking a truth that went deeper than his words. He would have become a lonely figure “tottering about in the Wild” and eventually  he would have fallen into the hands of either the Enemy or of Gollum.

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But Bilbo is saved from that fate both because there is a goodness that goes very deep down inside him and thanks to the help of a very good friend. But more on that next week.

 

Bilbo’s Magnificent Party

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-28

Readers of works of literature from the mid 20th century might notice that food seems to play a particularly important role in many stories of the time. Later in The Lord of the Rings a clue to this is given by Beregond of the Guard of the Tower in conversation with Pippin. Pippin is anxious to find something to eat after his uncomfortable interrogation by the Lord Denethor. Beregond regretfully informs a rather disappointed Pippin that he has already broken his fast as well as any in the city but adds “They say that men who go warring afield look ever for the next hope of food and drink”.

The Lord of the Rings was written largely through a time of food rationing. Hobbits, in particular, are creatures of feast and fast and have a particular enthusiasm therefore for feasting. The description of the food and drink at Bilbo’s party is full of delight and pleasure.

Last week’s reflection led to a lively conversation in the Comments Section on Gandalf’s relationship with the Shire. The debate centred on whether Gandalf acted in the way he did in the Shire as a strategy to win the hearts of the hobbits or whether it was all unplanned and entirely providential. I think that eventually it was agreed that Gandalf did consciously seek to warm the hearts of those among whom he travelled. It was this quality that first drew Círdan of The Grey Havens to him. Círdan gave the Ring, Narya, to Gandalf, saying “Take this ring, Master… for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”

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Gandalf walks the lonely roads of Middle-earth doing just this work so that when Sauron begins his great war to regain the One Ring and to achieve mastery he is opposed by all the free peoples despite his efforts to divide them. But I would add something more and that is that the hobbits touch and awaken something in Gandalf’s heart too. They teach him how to play. It would be hard to imagine Elrond of Rivendell or Dáin of Erebor or Denethor of Gondor playing in the way that Gandalf does. I could imagine Galadriel dancing among hobbit maidens but it would be a queenly dance.

Gandalf is not lordly when he is in the Shire. He is childlike in the way in which a grandfather is childlike. He has seen life and he has been marked by it. From the Lady Nienna he has learned pity. From hobbits he has learned pleasure. And he knows that deeper even than sorrow lies a joy that cannot cloy.

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“The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarrappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.”

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I would encourage readers to read that passage aloud and to savour each word and sound. Each name of a firework is meant to be musical but it is not the music of Elrond’s halls but the music of a country party with lots of laughter and a little mischief too. Peter Jackson captures this well in his films by introducing the characters of Merry and Pippin here. Their soot covered faces as they emerge from the smoke of the exploded rocket, one of Gandalf’s hands tightly gripping each of their curly heads, conveys this well.

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A serious life can be a playful life too. Rowan Williams describes his friend and colleague, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in this way, saying that Desmond Tutu loves being Desmond Tutu. The same man who risked his life in the struggle against apartheid and who wept openly as he listened to the many stories of suffering during the time that he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also knows how to enjoy a good party.

Near the end of The Lord of the Rings Gandalf announces to the four Travellers that he is going to visit Tom Bombadil for a good long talk. I suspect that a lot of that talk was full of laughter.

 

There Will Be Fireworks at the Party. Gandalf Returns to the Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 24,25

Hobbits may devote a lot of energy to keeping mystery out of their lives but if it comes in a package that can be controlled and is predictable then they might even welcome it. The key to this kind of mystery is that if it comes it will not be too disturbing and that it will go away again leaving everything unchanged.

So it is with Bilbo Baggins’s ‘long expected party’A party is a welcome distraction to the sameness of life and no-one will turn down the opportunity to receive presents. The hobbits will even put up with the arrival in Hobbiton of outlandish folk as long as they all go away again when all is done.

The most exciting visitor of all is Gandalf and when Tolkien first introduces him to the story it is through the eyes of hobbits.

“A cart came in through Bywater from the direction of the Brandywine Bridge in broad daylight. An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.”

This description places Gandalf within a tradition of magical old men that inhabit the stories of both hobbits and us too. The hobbits know him through his fireworks. Not through their experience of them but through stories of long ago, the stories of a legendary figure in Shire history, the Old Took, who lived longer than any other hobbit and at whose birthday celebrations a magnificent firework display once took place.

It was Gandalf the Wizard who brought fireworks to the Shire then and he has brought them back again after a gap of a hundred years.

200px-Darrell_Sweet_-_The_Arrival_of_Gandalf

Darell Sweet The Arrival of Gandalf

Later in the story Sam Gamgee will say these words in honour of Gandalf’s fireworks.

“The finest rockets ever seen: they burst in stars of blue and green, or after thunder golden showers came falling like a rain of flowers.”

As we have already seen when we are first introduced to Sam he is able to take an experience like the enjoyment of fireworks and travel through it to a deeper mystery. Most of his fellow hobbits treat the fireworks like we might a fairground or theme park ride whose danger and mystery is acceptable because it is limited. You are frightened but you know that you will get home again alive.

The point about Gandalf is that in his true business there is a very good chance that you will not get home alive. He is one of the Istari, one of seven Maiar who were sent by the Valar, the divine governors of Arda, of the world, to oppose Sauron, the Dark Lord, who seeks mastery of Middle-earth. And if anyone makes the mistake of underestimating the old man in a pointy hat who makes marvellous fireworks then it is surely enough to remind them that Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar, both belong to the same order of being within Arda.

gandalf_vs_balrog_by_danielpillaart-dajzr14

Gandalf vs Balrog by Daniel Pillaart

The hobbits do underestimate him. If they really knew what he was they would be terrified and they would flee from him. But why does Gandalf present himself in this way? Saruman, who Gandalf calls the leader of his order, certainly does not understand this. He notes that Gandalf enjoys smoking the pipeweed of the Shire and seems to enjoy the company of hobbits and he thinks of both of these as laughable.

Saruman is only capable of thinking of others either as useful to his own ambitions or as useless. At this point in the story hobbits are useless to him. Gandalf is different. He takes pleasure in hobbits for their own sake. He loves the delight and wonder that his fireworks produce, loves the moments when grown hobbits allow child-likeness into their hearts again. And he delights in hobbits’ simple pleasure in good food, good beer, good smoking and good company so when he arrives in the Shire for a time he is able to lay down his many burdens. He is just the funny old man who does marvellous tricks and magnificent firework displays. And that is enough.

Gandalf comes to the Shire in search of simple pleasure and so when in this simple place he is given the way to overthrow the Dark Lord it is a complete surprise but perhaps it is only those who know how to take joy in people and things for their own sake who are capable of receiving gifts that can change the world.

Dear friends, I intend to add the audio file for this week as soon as possible but my technical assistant, my daughter, Bethan Winter, is down in London at the moment and I need her advice! I am sure that after a week or two of practice this will all be second nature to me!

The Keepers of The Elven Rings Bid Farewell to Middle-earth

 

There are three others who set sail into the West from the Grey Havens. Actually I should not have described them as the “others”. This ship was originally meant for them and not for the Ring-bearers. At the ending of their work in Middle-earth, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, the keepers of the Three Elven Rings, were to depart into the West. Arwen was meant to go with them but when she made her choice for Aragorn and for mortality it seems that she was the first to suggest that her place in the ship could go to Frodo. In his letters Tolkien said that Arwen was not able to make such a decision because it was not hers to make but that Gandalf, the true representative of the Valar in Middle-earth, could. It was he who offered the place that was to be Arwen’s to Frodo and realising that the wound of the Ring could not be healed in Middle-earth he also invited Bilbo to make the journey.

Saruman knew that the Three Elven Rings would lose their power when the One went to the Fire but he seems to have thought that their keepers would then diminish with them as unhappy exiles in Middle-earth and that his own unhappiness would be something that he would share with those that he had sought to betray and had learned to hate. His own rejection of grace and his embrace of despair and bitterness had led him to believe that this would be the destiny of his enemies also. The speedy healing of the Shire was a thing far beyond his miserable imagination. And he seems not to have any conception of the grace of the ship that would pass into the West either. Perhaps this was because he knew that to return to the West would also mean to stand before the Valar for judgement and, just like Sauron at the end of the First Age, this was something that he could not countenance. That this grace would be extended to others seems to have been beyond his imagination also.

I think of the journey into the West as being different in nature for each of the Three Keepers.

For Gandalf it was to be rest after his long labours. Although he was tempted to take the Ring and to use it to gain victory over its Maker this was a temptation that he was able to overcome. He was also able to overcome his fear. Tolkien tells us that he was at first unwilling to undertake the mission of the Istari, of the Wizards, to stand against Sauron. He felt himself to be inadequate and was afraid. That he was able to overcome his fear and to offer himself just as he was to the task was a great victory. The victory over the Dark Lord was never accomplished by superior power but by faithfulness and self-sacrifice. Gandalf laid down his life for his friends in the great battle against the Balrog of Moria. He was given his life back and so continued to victory but not a victory that he achieved through his own or any other’s might but one that was achieved through the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and the strange grace of Gollum’s taking of the Ring to the Fire.

For Galadriel the return into the West was something that for long years she believed to be impossible and perhaps for a time did not even desire. When she, like Gandalf, was tempted to take the Ring, it was her dream of becoming a Queen over all Middle-earth that she laid down. “I will diminish and go into the West and remain Galadriel,” she said to Frodo. This is what she now accepts as the ship finally departs.

And Elrond? I think that for him there is a particular sadness that is bound up with his separation from Arwen. Of course there is the sadness of the separation itself. But there is something more. Elrond is half-elven but not just by birth but also by choice. At the end of the First Age his brother, Elros, made the strange choice of mortality. Elrond rejected this and now at the end of the Third Age, Arwen, too, makes the choice of Elros and rejects the choice of her father. As he steps onto the ship and confirms his own choice he steps away from mortality and from his daughter. He too must embrace his own destiny for good and ill. He must overcome his bitterness and be healed.

The last pages of The Lord of the Rings are as incomplete as any in literature. Tolkien believed in the “Happy Ever After” of the fairy-story and yet he does not grant this to his characters at the end of this story. Full of uncertainty each one of them in stepping aboard the ship must embrace their own destiny. What that destiny is, lies, not in their own hands, but in the hands of the One to whom they now entrust themselves. As we read these last pages we too are invited into our own leap into faith as we let go our own control of our destiny.