Bilbo Wants to go on a Holiday. But Frodo is Still in Love With The Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p 32

One of the deepest longings in all of our lives is to belong. The Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, wrote, “Your longing is often wiser than your conventional sense of appropriateness, safety and truth.” We might say then that the conventional (and who is more conventional than a hobbit?) is a kind of training in the dulling of one’s sense of longing and replacing it with what is regarded as appropriate, safe and true. Most hobbits receive this training with their mother’s milk and their father’s carefully garnered store of well worn proverbs. But not so Bilbo Baggins and his nephew and heir, Frodo. Of them O’Donohue might have written, “Your longing desires to take you towards the absolute realisation of all the possibilities that reside in the clay of your heart; it knows your eternal potential, and it will not rest until it is awakened.”

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Bilbo and Frodo will both undertake a pilgrimage through the events recorded within The Lord of the Rings that will end with a final voyage from The Grey Havens to the Undying Lands of the True West. In the twenty or so years that comprise the story Frodo in particular will journey through lands of wonder but then into hell itself before returning to the Shire and discovering that for him, at least, it is no longer home. It is my belief that in the West he finally achieves peace and healing but not his final homecoming. As Aragorn will one day say to Arwen, “We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.” In hope Aragorn glimpses the eternal of which O’Donohue speaks. I believe that both Bilbo and Frodo will come to see it and long for it too.

But not yet. Now at the point of the story when Bilbo is able to leave the Shire and the Ring behind him his imagination, rich though it is, has not yet opened to him his eternal home.

“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf- mountains; and then find somewhere where I can rest. In peace and quiet, without a lot of relatives prying around, and a string of confounded visitors hanging on the bell. I might find somewhere I can finish my book. I have thought of a nice ending for it: and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.”

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The Happy Ever After ending goes with us throughout our days. At this point in the story only Gandalf has some sense of what might have to be endured before it can be achieved and even he does not know the details of the story. But his hope that Bilbo might find his own Happy Ever After is heartfelt.

Bilbo’s longing will take him from the Shire but not so, at least as yet, will Frodo’s. Bilbo says of him:

“He would come with me, of course, if I asked him… But he does not really want to, yet. I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains; but he is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers.”

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This is the landscape of the English Midlands in which Tolkien himself grew up. There are hills but none are especially challenging, even for young or elderly legs. And any walk through its countryside will be through a patchwork of woods, fields and little rivers.

In the first of the pieces that I posted in this blog on The Fellowship of the Ring I quoted Patrick Kavanagh on learning to know and love your parish, the land in which you dwell.

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.”

As one whose early years were at first a succession of temporary homes in different farms, then student rooms, then a voyage to Africa I find that I cannot read Kavanagh’s words without them evoking a deep longing within me. I don’t think that the conventional was ever really an option for me but home was always my deepest longing. To have arrived in a lovely home and to be happily married has long been a source of profound gratitude in me but I know that it is not my final Happy Ever After. I am trying to get to the woods, the rivers and the fields in the way that Kavanagh speaks of but just as with Bilbo and Frodo I know that even the heartbreaking beauty of the earthly paradise of the Undying Lands could not satisfy my longing for a true home. That lies elsewhere “beyond the circles of the world”.

The Battle Before the Black Gate. Do the Best Stories have Happy Endings?

I had intended to return to Frodo and Sam at the Tower of Cirith Ungol this week but I felt that I needed to offer one last meditation on the “hopeless” battle before the Black Gate of Mordor before I leave it for a while. At the very least I felt that I owe it to Pippin who is lying under the body of a Troll chieftain that he has just valiantly slain in defence of Beregond of the Guard, his friend. I can’t just leave him there without hope!

When I first read The Return of the King as a teenager it was a volume that I had borrowed from my school library. After eating my evening meal I disappeared to my room and read and read and read…

I wonder how long it took me to read the section from the end of Book 5 and the battle before the Black Gate to the moment when Gandalf calls upon the armies of the West to “stand and wait!” I was reading as fast as I could but even so it must have been a good hour or so before I got there. Tolkien’s happy ending, his eucatastrophe, as he termed it, was something for which I was made to wait. I had to endure the endless journey through the horror of Mordor that Frodo and Sam had to make in order to reach Mount Doom and once there I had to watch helplessly with Sam as Frodo failed in his mission and all was saved only by the unlooked for intervention of Gollum.

But still the happy ending came. Did it come because of the courage of the Armies of the West and their brave captains? Did it come because of the faithful witness to the Good that Gandalf had born through the long centuries of his sojourn in Middle-earth? Did it come because of the friendship of the nine companions who set out from Rivendell just three months before? Did it come because Frodo staggered, step by weary step, supported and, at the last, carried by Sam up the slopes of Mount Doom?

After we have given due praise to all of the characters that we have come to know and love in Tolkien’s great work, and each of them deserves great praise, we have to say that none of these things actually brings about the happy ending. That comes through grace alone, from something that lies beyond the endless repetition of cause and effect.

This is one of Tolkien’s greatest contributions to the culture of our time and one which has brought the greatest anger from literary critics. Most of all Tolkien has been accused of being an escapist. Life, real life, the critics say, is not like that. Tolkien is treating us as if we are children. This is mere fairy tale and it is time for us to grow up and embrace reality.

Tolkien faced this criticism head on in an essay first printed in 1947 entitled, On Fairy-Stories. In it he wrote, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears  (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back”.

It is this “sudden glimpse of Truth” that is so subversive to the “chain of death” that is held to be the only reality by the so-called modernists. And it is precisely from that prison, surrounded by the chain of death, from which Tolkien calls us to escape. Is it a coward who cannot face up to reality who tries to escape from this prison? Surely it is the ones who tell us that the prison is the only reality and that there is no freedom beyond it who lack courage. The courageous life is the one that refuses to submit to the tyranny of the “chain of death” as do Tolkien’s heroes.