Frodo and Sam Rest For a While in The Woods of Ithilien

Frodo and Sam have been here before because the Field of Cormallen lies close to the refuge of Henneth Annûn. These are the woods that they came to on their journey, guided by Gollum, from the desolation that lay before the Black Gate of Mordor to the Crossroads, the Morgul Vale and then the great climb up to the Pass of Cirith Ungol. These are the woods in Ithilien, the desolate garden of Gondor that “kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness” even as they were ravaged by orcs and other foes of Gondor.

It is only a few short weeks since Frodo and Sam were last in these woods in the first days of March. Even then Spring was beginning and the life of the Earth was already breaking through the destructive grip of Mordor after the cold of Winter. “Fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing.” Now the Spring is advanced and in its full riotous glory of smells, sights and sounds. Even amidst the fearfulness of their last visit to Ithilien Frodo and Sam were refreshed by the gentle beauty of this place, now they linger there without fear “visiting again the places that they had passed before.” This time they know that there are no dangers hiding in a shadow or behind a rock or tree. The song of a bird can be heard clearly without the possibility of an iron clad footfall of an orc being listened for amidst its beauty. The “groves and thickets… of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay” can be gazed upon and their aromas drank in without fear that they may conceal an enemy who might do them hurt.

The last time that they were here Frodo and Sam were pressing forward, always aware that every moment’s delay in their journey to the mountain might lead to disaster for their friends and all that they loved. The curtain of water cascading down the rocks that concealed the refuge of Faramir and his Rangers might be gazed upon for a moment as the setting sun lit it with light and colour but always there was the sense as they paused in their journey that there was another step to be taken, another danger to be faced.

Tolkien’s story is filled with pauses in which the characters encounter beauty in a manner that takes hold of them, making them stop to take it in. The hidden valley of Rivendell, the woods of Lothlórien, the glittering caves of Aglarond and the refuge of Henneth Annûn in the woods of Ithilien are all such places. Each one calls them to turn aside for a moment from their task but they are not thereby distractions. A distraction is a pulling or dragging away of the mind from the needful thing. In The Lord of the Rings the encounter with beauty is not a distraction but a recollection. The essential is that which is good, true and beautiful and it is the essential that is threatened by the Dark Lord and yet so woven into the very fabric of reality that the Dark Lord cannot touch and destroy it. We recall Frodo’s cry of “They cannot conquer for ever!” at the flower-crowned head of the statue of the King of Gondor cast down by orcs and Sam’s vision of the star beyond the mirks of Mordor that is inaccessible to the reach of Sauron.

Already Frodo and Sam have known that there is “the dearest freshness deep down things” and so they can wander through Ithilien without fear and contemplate it in a way far beyond that which those who have not known the dark as they have done can do. This is the dawn that awaits those who watch through the dark of the night, the Springtime prepared for those who have endured through Winter.

Sam Gamgee: Warrior and Gardener

Sam Gamgee never intended to be a warrior. To be the best gardener that he could be, working in the garden of Frodo Baggins at Bag End, was an ambition sufficient for him. And he did not resent his lot because he loved Frodo. If he cherished a secret desire then it was to see the world that he had begun to learn about through the stories of Bilbo; but his secret desire had never turned into a root of bitterness within him.

So it is that when he first encounters a battle “of Men against Men” Tolkien tells us that “he did not like it much”. Faramir, Captain of Gondor, has left him with Frodo in the keeping of Mablung and Damrod, two Rangers of Ithilien, for a battle has to be fought. A force from the south is marching toward the Black Gate in order to join the forces of Mordor and Faramir is determined to stop them from getting there. He leads a guerrilla force whose aim is to make Ithilien as unsafe as possible for the enemies of Gondor. Soon Faramir’s men have the southerners on the run and Sam’s first encounter with one of his enemies is with a young warrior who falls dead at his feet.

It was the victorious Duke of Wellington, writing after his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, who said: ” “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” Sam’s immediate response is to agree. As he gazes at the dead young warrior at his feet his heart goes out towards him. He “was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace- all in a flash of thought.” Tolkien is probably remembering his own experience of war here. As an infantryman on the Western Front during The Great War of 1914-18 he was present on the terrible first day of The Battle of the Somme in 1916 in which some 30,000 British troops died in a fruitless assault upon the German lines. The response that he expresses through Sam’s thoughts is typical of a volunteer soldier. The natural empathy between one human being and another has to be trained out of the soldier in order that killing should become “natural”.

By the end of The Lord of the Rings Sam will be a battle hardened warrior but he will never be a killer. The journey that he makes from the garden in Bag End and back again is not one that he he makes because he loves battle and adventure. He makes it because he loves Frodo and because Gandalf told him to do the job. Even his desire to see the wonders of the world is quickly satisfied though he never becomes cynical about them. He delights in seeing the Oliphaunt of Harad but it is not as important to him as finishing the job he has been given to do. At the end of the story he will be a gardener again, taking up his old task with the old love but with a new wisdom.

And as we get to know Faramir, the mighty Captain of Gondor, a little better, we shall learn that he shares much more in common with Sam Gamgee than we might ever have expected when we first met him.

A Dishevelled Dryad Loveliness

Frodo and Sam have journeyed through many landscapes since they left Bag End together stepping out onto the Road that Bilbo once sang about, that “Goes ever on and on”. From the gentle woodlands and fields of the Shire to the tangling branches of the Old Forest to the wilds of Eriador; from the magical lands of Rivendell and Lothlorien to the dreadful desolation before the Gate of Mordor, they have seen so much that will change them for ever.

Now they have arrived in the land of Ithilien, once the garden of Gondor upon its northern borders but now fallen into the hands of the Enemy who has already begun his work of destruction. But the foul work of his servants has only recently begun and although Frodo and Sam see many signs of that work they still see for the first time upon their journey Spring “busy about them” with small flowers “opening in the turf” and birds singing. And Tolkien tells us that “Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a desolate dryad loveliness”.

I cannot think of another occasion in The Lord of the Rings where Tolkien strays from his own mythology, so carefully formed, to bring in an image from another. Perhaps it was a mistake. But it is a phrase of such beauty that maybe we can imagine that if on re-reading his work Tolkien noticed it there, a stray from a classical land, he allowed it to remain and to work its own particular magic upon the land that he described by means of it.

For Ithilien is a land that for centuries has been tended by men and women. It bears testimony to the possibility that human beings of the highest civilisation are capable of living in such harmony with nature they can make a garden that can yet give space to wildness. After many pages of dreariness Tolkien gives space himself to rich language as he writes of the many things that still grow there, of groves and thickets “of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay…and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam”. Simply to write the names of the plants that grow in this land is to write a poetry that delights the senses as well as mind and spirit.

In his recently published book, Landmarks, that wonderful writer about wildness, Robert Macfarlane notes that a recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had culled many words related to nature from its pages so that “acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron…” had all been removed to be replaced for the first time with “attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voicemail”.

The cull did not go unnoticed and when the head of children’s dictionaries at the OUP was asked about them she replied that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood. “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers, for instance,” she said; “that was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”

Nowadays the environment has changed and if we are to accept what she says, children no longer see the seasons. It is hard not to think that if Frodo and Sam were to find themselves in our own world they might think that the servants of the Enemy had been at work among us and that the diminishment of our language was a part of that work even as they saw “wounds made by the Orcs and other foul servants of the Dark Lord” all of whom were just trying to make a living.

I passed by proud swans this morning watching carefully over their newly born brood of five cygnets and a heron rising ponderously from the ground a little further on and rejoiced in them. I have hopes that one day I will see otters near by as others have seen them in the past year. And I write these words in a blog, using a broadband connection and complain when the connection lets me down as it sometimes does in my semi-rural home and I am grateful to them for what they enable me to do.

How do I live this tension well?