The Shire is Stranger than Frodo Thinks. The Hobbits Encounter with the Nazgûl and with Elves.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 73-80

There is a phrase that shows just how disorientating it is when something happens in your backyard that is entirely unexpected. Frodo has just encountered one of the Nazgûl for the very first time. He has no idea that what he can see, just a few yards away, is one of the most terrifying things that he could ever meet unless he stood before the Dark Lord himself. He begins to have an overwhelming desire to put on the Ring, convinced that he would be safe if he did so. “And I am still in the Shire,” he thinks.

I am still in the Shire

Still in the Shire. Still in a place in which every blade of grass, every tree and rise and fall of the road speaks of familiarity and of predictability. The unexpected has no place in the Shire. Of all places in Middle-earth this is the one where the outlandish is where it should be; in the lands outside and beyond the borders. You would have thought that Frodo Baggins, of all hobbits, would have known that this was not true. The stories and actions of Bilbo, his friendship with Gandalf, and his own dealings with the world outside should have taught him that the world is not safe and predictable. As the poet, Louis Macneice put it (in a poem entitled, Snow, written in my parents in law’s house in Birmingham, England), “world is suddener than we fancy it”.

But that, of course, is the problem, even for Frodo. We fancy the world to be in a sense, on time. Not too late or we will make a complaint to the management. Nor too soon neither. Every event that departs from this ‘law’ we regard as abnormal. Except the abnormal keeps on happening. But this event is so abnormal that perhaps we could forgive Frodo. I think that the Powers do forgive him. He is not yet ready for this encounter and so Something prevents him from putting on the Ring, his life is saved, the Ring is not returned to its Maker and the world is not yet subjected to darkness.

World is suddener than we fancy it

And Something brings him into contact with another power at work in the world, a power that even the Nazgûl are not quite ready to match themselves against. Not just yet, anyway. When the hobbits encounter the Nazgûl for the second time Frodo wants to put on the Ring once more but “this time it was stronger than before. So strong that before he realised what he was doing, his hand was groping in his pocket”. The Ring has only one desire and that is to return to its Master and Frodo is no match for it.

But “world is suddener… world is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural” and in its glorious plurality a large company of High Elves just happens to be on the same stretch of road in the Shire as the hobbits, the Nazgûl and the Ring, at precisely that moment and, once more, Frodo and the world is saved.

Is this a writer’s tendency to allow a coincidence to occur in order to solve a problem with the plot? Or is it how this writer understands the world? I think that the latter is the case. Tolkien’s enchanted world, suddener, crazier, more of than we think, incorrigibly plural, is one in which powers are at work of which we are not usually aware. We might use the word, Providence, to describe these powers. You will remember how when Gandalf said that Bilbo was meant to have the Ring he spoke of “something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker”. Tolkien was always reticent when it came to his Christian faith and his imaginative work, especially in The Lord of the Rings. He chose to know no more than the main characters in his story, who were the hobbits, except by implication. They must learn about the powers at work in the world just as we do. But the world is suddener, and in it there are High Elves, the eldest of the children of Ilúvatar, who see its suddenness, its craziness and plurality with perfect clarity. And they take the hobbits under their protection.

World is crazier and more of it than we think

Gaffer Gamgee is Afraid of the Suddenness of the World but Sam is Learning to Love it.

Welcome to what is effectively a relaunch of my blog, Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings. I first began to write this in the autumn of 2012 and began to publish it on WordPress in October 2013. If this is your first visit then a very warm welcome. If you have been here before or you are a regular reader, welcome back!

The intention of the blog is to offer a weekly reflection on Tolkien’s great work in search of its wisdom. Tolkien was a central member of a group of writers and scholars, known as The Inklings, that used to meet in order to read and discuss their work with each other in Oxford in the mid 20th century. If you would like to know about them then I would warmly recommend a series of talks that you can find on YouTube given by Malcolm Guite. If you type in Malcolm Guite and Inklings when you visit YouTube you will find them easily. I just tried it and it works! The Inklings were regarded as highly unfashionable in their day by the literary establishment but I believe that they will prove to be one of the most important intellectual and literary influences, not just of their own time but of ours too. Tom Shippey’s fine book, J.R.R Tolkien, Writer of the Century, is a good read on this.

Just a note on this week’s blog and a personal connection. I refer to Louis MacNiece’s wonderful poem, Snow, in the post. When I first began to get to know my wife, Laura, back in the early 1990s, I noticed a framed copy of the poem in the hallway of her parents’ home in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England. The reason for this, so I learned, was because MacNiece had written this poem while a guest in the house some years before. It was in the time of a previous owner of the house but the summer house in which he wrote it remained very largely as it was at the time. We knew it mainly because at one time 21 of us used to sit down in it to eat on Christmas Day each year. A big fire used to roar in the fireplace. It was necessary on cold winter days. My mother in law, Bridget Pugh, used to teach English Literature at Birmingham University, and even in her later years also regularly taught a semester in Duluth, Minnesota. I am glad to say that she would teach a class on Tolkien.

Regular readers of the blog will notice two new things. One is that I include a page reference to my Harper Collins edition of The Lord of the Rings. That is to make it easier for readers who are reading the book to see what part of the story I am referring to. The other new thing is that I include an audio file of my reading of the post. This is at the encouragement of my wife who thinks people will like it. I would also like to thank my daughter, Bethan, who has helped me with the technical side of things. Please do let me know what you think of this in the comments section.

So,  introduction at an end, I invite you to read or listen or both and most importantly to enjoy another reading of The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Readers,

Barliman_Butterbur

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 21-24

To know and to love a plot of land is no shame and does not diminish or shrink the soul in or of itself. It was the great Irish poet of the mid-twentieth century, Patrick Kavanagh, who wrote of such knowledge and such love:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

The Gaffer, Master Hamfast Gamgee, of Number 3 Bagshot Row below Bag End in Hobbiton, the Shire, knows the gardens that he tends for Mr Bilbo Baggins. He knows every furrow and every corner, the right times to plant and the right times to harvest, but perhaps we might say that he has never fully experienced the gardens that he has spent a lifetime looking after.

To fully experience something is to look, not at, but through it. It is to have the vision that George Herbert speaks of when he writes:

“A man who looks on glass, on it may stay his eye; or if he pleaseth through it pass, and then the heaven espy.”

Or William Blake who speaks of seeing “A World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”.

This is the poetic experience that Kavanagh speaks of and that the Gaffer has never known or valued and which he fears in watching his son, Sam, grow up. He knows that the world is “suddener than we fancy it” as Louis MacNiece speaks of in his poem, Snow. He speaks of “mountains of gold” in foreign parts, the places to which Bilbo mythologically travelled long ago, but he seeks to protect himself from such experience by reserving it for the gentry, the business of his betters, as he puts it. This allows him to remain within the safety of cabbages and potatoes and to keep his distance from Elves and Dragons.

Poor Master Hamfast! What glory he will never see, even the glory right underneath his very nose. The very cabbages and potatoes that he regards as symbols of safety and security would, in the hands of an elven cook, become a heavenly banquet.

For the Gaffer’s son, Samwise, everything is laden with possibility although at this point in his life the possibility lies elsewhere. One day he will be gardener to the Shire and bring this possibility within the very boundaries that his father thinks to be safe and known. Sam is learning his poetic experience through the “stories of the old days” as the Gaffer puts it and he has learned to read and write. Already he begins to know that the mythic, the world of Elves and Dragons, lies within his grasp, but not here, not in Hobbiton or the Shire. He still believes that he must go elsewhere to experience it. The Gaffer believes this too. Perhaps because he too believes that the mythical cannot lie within his own garden he is afraid. He is afraid of foreign parts and he is afraid of losing Sam to such an experience.

I grew up in the English countryside on farms that my father ran for wealthy people. It was a world of cabbages and potatoes, or pigs and fields of wheat in our case, but beauty and joy kept breaking into my life. A walk with my father through a wood filled with bluebells and sensing the strangeness of the church to which we had gone together. Walking across a room and suddenly standing transfixed in joy as a piece of orchestral string music began to play on our television set. And listening to the wonderful Miss Maher reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to us in my village school as the dusk of an autumn afternoon began to descend and I walked with Lucy Pevensie for the first time through the wardrobe into Narnia. Like Sam my ability to see, to listen, to go beyond the surface of things to the heaven that lies beyond was being formed.

“I hope no harm will come of it,” says the Gaffer. But harm does come. Sam will be be taken into a world that is far too big for him, to dangers that no other hobbit has ever faced, but he will see wonders that no other hobbit has ever seen.

The two go together.