There are Many Strange Men On The Roads. Is this the Real Strider?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp160-68

It was only after posting last week’s blog that I really began to ponder Tolkien’s description of the man in the corner of Barliman Butterbur’s common room. Let me take you back there again.

“Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud.”

Strider in The Prancing Pony by Anthony Foti

Apart from a sudden desire to know in what way his pipe was “curiously carved” it was those words, “strange-looking”, that caught my attention. In what way, strange? Those who come to know Tolkien’s work quite well know that he is never a lazy writer. There will be a reason why he will have chosen this description. To describe the man sitting in the shadows as weather-beaten is obvious enough. He is a man who has walked many miles in those boots and in all weathers. Not for the men of his time the artificial protection of the ton of metal about him that keeps us and the weather separate from each other. Now if we meet someone who is truly weather-beaten it is something that is worthy of note, even strange, but not in those days. The faces of even quite young men would be wind-darkened and their hands tough and leathery. No, this is not what makes this man strange.

Nor is it the fact that he is not a regular fixture of the common room of The Prancing Pony that makes this man strange. There are many strangers in the only place of comfort on the long journey between Rivendell and the Shire or on the Greenway that runs northwards from Dunland and Rohan. Some of these are strange enough to be a cause of concern to the Breelanders. One of these southerners, “a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future”.

No, this is not what makes the man in the shadows strange, and, in any case, Butterbur tells Frodo that he is a fairly regular visitor to Bree. No, what makes him strange is that he is not one of the usual kind of people who visit The Prancing Pony. He is neither a local farmer or artisan nor the usual kind of wanderer upon the road. The quality of his pipe and his boots should be a clue to an identity that is different from others. Everything about him speaks of mystery.

The Rangers of the North

But Frodo who, after the highly disturbing incident with the Ring after his comic song on the table top, is starting to see everyone as a potential threat, and soon begins to think that this man is a rascal, a rogue. And when the hobbits meet the stranger in their room after the events in the common room Frodo is not much comforted by his words.

“You must take me along with you, until I wish to leave you.”

Eventually it is Gandalf’s letter left in the hands of Butterbur that convinces Frodo and his companions to put their trust, albeit with some reluctance, in this man. And such is the way with decisions that have to be made in unfamiliar situations. When we are at home, surrounded by the familiar, our choices are more often than not a weighing up of possibilities about which we have some knowledge. But ever since Gandalf revealed to Frodo that the ring that Bilbo had left behind on the day of the Long-expected Party was in fact the One Ring made by the Dark Lord to rule all things, Frodo has lived in a world that is unfamiliar and in which he has to make choices with little to go upon that he fully understands. This Strider, this strange man who is sitting in his room as if he owned it, may be a rogue. Frodo is risking his life in the decision that he makes. Is Strider the man that Gandalf’s letter speaks of or is he one of the “many strange men on the roads”? A strange man he most certainly is. His looks are against him. What decision will Frodo make?

My looks are against me

Keep Up Your Merry Hearts. Tom Bombadil Bids the Hobbits Farewell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 141-145

Tom Bombadil tells the hobbits that he will accompany them on their journey from the barrow in which they have been imprisoned until they reach the Road once more. As Tom puts it, the hobbits are “so good at losing themselves” that he will not feel happy until he has “seen them safe over the borders of his land”.

The hobbits are delighted that they will have Tom’s company for a little while longer. They enjoy his joy and they feel safe with him. He has rescued them from disaster twice; once from Old Man Willow and once from the barrow wight. On both occasions they stumbled into danger entirely unawares. We should not blame them. Until now they have all lived lives entirely free from danger, the kind of lives that we all wish for our children, for no-one wishes that their children’s lives should be deliberately put at risk, but now they will often be in danger and they need to learn how to live with this.

Farewell Tom Bombadil

Tom gives them sound advice. Probably, as with most advice that we are given, the hobbits will soon forget what Tom has told them, but somewhere his words will take root within them. In the days that lie ahead they will face many dangers, toils and snares and each experience will make Tom’s words more real until both word and experience will be woven together as one. When they are finally returning to the Shire, and begin to hear ominous news about what awaits them, Gandalf leaves them to enjoy a good long chat with Tom Bombadil and tells them that they do not need looking after any longer.

Tom’s words to the hobbits are both a celebration of what they already are and, at the same time, a warning of the qualities that they need to develop if they are to have a chance of surviving what lies ahead.

“Be bold, but wary! Keep up your merry hearts, and ride to meet your fortune.”

The hobbits understand this kind of wisdom. It is a wisdom shared through proverbs that are easy to teach and to recall. It is a wisdom well known in non-literate peasant cultures but no-one should make the mistake of mistaking simplicity for shallowness. Tom Bombadil’s wisdom is profound.

The quality that Tom celebrates in the hobbits is their “merry hearts”. He recognises this quality within himself and he approves of it in them. Throughout the story others will both remark upon the hobbits’ childlikeness, seeing this especially in Merry and Pippin, and many will enjoy it. Even Denethor, in all his world-weariness and cynicism, will for a brief moment seek to keep Pippin near him, surely recognising as he does so something that he has long lost but misses still. Throughout The Lord of the Rings there is the feel of a world grown old and sad, a world that is passing away. Merry and Pippin will make others glad that they are alive or at least remind them of a time when they were glad and, perhaps, rekindle within them the hope that they might find such gladness again.

Concerning Denethor by Luke Shelton

But merriness will not protect them from harm. Already they have encountered terrible danger and on each step that they take they will be surrounded by it. Their merry hearts will enable them to endure dangers but they will need to learn boldness tempered by wariness if they are to have a chance of surviving them. As we have seen, wariness is most certainly something that they have not yet learned.

Keep up your merry hearts

I am not sure that Merry and Pippin will ever learn wariness and Frodo and Sam will be forced to place their entire lives into the care of someone who wishes them nothing but harm. Simply by going on with this journey the hobbits are embracing boldness. Simply by riding eastwards along the Great Road they are facing their fortunes, separately and together. And simply by being themselves they are riding towards their fortunes with merry hearts.

For those interested in exploring the use of proverbs in The Lord of the Rings I would warmly recommend The Proverbs of Middle-earth by David Rowe.

The Story of Meriadoc Brandybuck. Or The Necessity of Getting Out of Your Depth.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 107,108

There are few things more annoying than when someone for whom you don’t have very much respect gets something absolutely right. I don’t know how much respect the other hobbits have for Fredegar Bolger (or Fatty to his friends) although I do note that little attempt is made to persuade Fatty to come with them when he tells the other hobbits that he will not come into the Old Forest with them.

Fatty’s main contribution to the discussion about how the hobbits are to leave Buckland without attracting the attention of the Black Riders is to warn them of the dangers of the Forest. By contrast, Merry is both confident and competent. He has been into the Forest before. He speaks about the path that he intends to take. He gives a lesson on the history of the Forest or at least the history that hobbits have been a part of. He has ponies ready for the journey and all the supplies have been prepared. He has anticipated Frodo’s insistence that he must leave the Shire immediately. He has been making preparations for just this moment all through the summer. And with a little help from Pippin he has even composed a song that is suitable for the occasion drawing upon his knowledge of hobbit history. “It was made on the model of the dwarf-song that started Bilbo on his adventure long ago, and went to the same tune”.

Merry takes charge at Crickhollow

One day Merry will make a fine Master of Buckland but on this day everything will go completely wrong and Fatty will be proved completely right.

“I only hope that you will not need rescuing before the day is out.”

Merry and his companions will need rescuing before the day is out. In fact if rescue had not been at hand the quest would have ended in disaster almost before it had begun. And things do not really get much better for Merry from that point onwards. He will lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe and will need to be rescued many times.

Rescued from the barrow wight by Tom Bombadil. Rescued from the Black Rider in the streets of Bree by Nob of all people and rescued from starvation in the Forest of Fangorn by Treebeard. Eventually he will complain bitterly of being no more than an item of baggage in the story and perhaps his lowest point will be when Théoden of Rohan will announce to him that he is to be left behind when the Riders go to war outside the gates of Minas Tirith. He has been of some value as a kind of entertainment for the king on the journey from the sack of Isengard to the gathering at Dunharrow but he will be of no value at all in the serious business of war. And even when he does go, thanks to the intervention of another character who has been left behind, he finds himself being addressed by a soldier who has just stumbled over him as “Master Bag”. It is the one name they know him by, the name that speaks of his humiliation.

Merry’s journey is in many ways a miserable one and yet he neither falls into bitterness nor despair. Two qualities will sustain him throughout and these are his cheerfulness, by which I mean that he has the ability, no matter how great the humiliation, to be ‘cheered up’ to find cheer as soon as he is able, in the house of Tom Bombadil, in the dwelling of Treebeard and in the wreckage of Isengard amidst the spoils of battle. A moment of pleasure is always able to put all suffering out of his mind. And the other is what Gandalf calls, “his gentle loyalty”. There may be many times in which Merry is unhappy but at no time is his self-pity of more importance to him than the welfare of his friends.

Merry cheers up at the house of Tom Bombadil

And so the time will come when he will play a central role in one of the great deeds of his Age in Middle-earth. And he will be there because of his gentle loyalty. When he sees Éowyn standing hopelessly before the Lord of the Nazgûl on the Pelennor Fields it will be pity that fills his heart and, Tolkien tells us, “suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided.”

“She should not die alone”. Ted Nasmith’s evocation of the fight with the Lord of the Nazgûl.