Ride to Meet Your Fortune. A Final Thought From the Wisdom of Tom Bombadil

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 143-145

I had intended to be safely within the hospitable walls of The Prancing Pony in Bree by now but I will have to leave that pleasure until next time. You see, one thing kept niggling at me after last week’s post. I was reasonably satisfied with my thoughts on Tom Bombadil’s encouragement to the hobbits to keep up their merry hearts but I had said almost nothing about the last words that he said to them.

“Ride to meet your fortune.”

Back in August 2017 I wrote about Sam Gamgee’s decision to trust to luck on the roads of Mordor, the last place you would think where any luck might be found. If you click on the tag, luck, at the end of this post, you will be taken to that piece. I wrote about Tom Shippey’s musings upon the subject of luck in his magnificent The Road to Middle-Earth (Harper Collins 2005 edition pp.170-74) and I wrote about the way in which Sam understood what it meant to trust his luck.

Tom Shippey

In these pages, Dr. Shippey refers to the translation of The Consolation of Philosophy ascribed to King Alfred the Great and written originally by the 5th century philosopher, Boëthius. My own personal choice for the founding myth of the English nation is the winter that Alfred and his small group of loyal followers spent on the Isle of Athelney in the Somerset marshes hiding from the Danish invaders. Eventually Alfred overcame t invaders and established the kingdom that became England. Alfred (like Faramir in The Lord of the Rings?) was both a warrior and had a deep love for scholarship. As well as making the greatest work of early medieval philosophy available to his people in the English language he also had Pope Gregory the Great’s treatise on pastoral care translated into English for his clergy. Now that is how to found a nation. Would that we had more of his kind among us in our own times.

An imaginining of Alfred the Great

Boëthius gives much thought to the subject of fortune or wyrd. Tom Shippey quotes this passage from his great work.

“What we call God’s forethought and his Providence is while it is there in his mind, before it gets done; but once it gets done then we call it wyrd.

Boëthius is thinking about the fall in his personal fortunes. Once he was a senator of Rome but now he is a prisoner of King Odoacer the Goth and he awaits his death. The wheel of fortune is inexorable but philosophy enables him to bear either good or bad. We still speak of someone as being of a philosophical disposition in this sense today. The hobbits too have little control over what lies ahead of them. They cannot prevent the wheel of fortune from turning. They have no choice but to ride to meet it. Actually, they do have a choice. They could follow the advice of Fatty Bolger and hide in Crickhollow but if they had followed that advice they would merely have waited for the Black Riders to arrive and find them. Either you ride to meet your fortune or it comes to meet you. Either you can meet it with a merry heart and while being wary you ride boldly or you try to hide from it.

Even as Tom Bombadil speaks these words the hobbits are afraid. They are on the Road once more and it is on the Road that the Nazgûl seek them. “The shadow of the fear of the Black Riders came suddenly over them again. Ever since they had entered the Forest they had thought chiefly of getting back to the Road; only now when it lay beneath their feet did they remember the danger that pursued them.” Danger lies behind and before them and they have little control over it. All that they can do is to keep on going, to keep up their merry hearts, to be bold but wary and to ride, not away from their fortune, but towards it, to meet it.

Frodo before The Witch King of Angmar

Trusting to Luck on the Roads of Mordor

Life sometimes takes you to places that you would rather not go to. Tolkien found himself in the trenches of the Western Front on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 when nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed in a single attack on the German lines and a further 40,000 were wounded. He gained a great respect for ordinary British soldiers and largely based the character of Sam Gamgee upon those who he got to know. Sam, like those men, would rather not be in the trenches. He does not pretend to some kind of heroism. As far as he is concerned behaviour like that would be entirely inappropriate, like pretending to be Aragorn, or Faramir, or Boromir, or… Frodo for that matter. Sam just gets on with whatever needs to be done. Things like dealing with “Gollum’s treacherous attack, the horror of Shelob, and his own adventures with the orcs.”

Sam has no sense of entitlement. He does not believe that he has an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He hopes and even expects that Frodo will treat him fairly and with due respect but that expectation lies within certain bounds. He does not think of himself as Frodo’s equal.

And Sam believes in luck. Not that he thinks that he has a right to it but that he wants to give it a chance if possible. In his fine study, The Road to Middle-earth, Tom Shippey reflects on the place of luck in Tolkien at some length. Shippey tells us that the poet of Beowulf “often ascribes events to wyrd, and treats it in a way as a supernatural force.” But Shippey notes that luck or wyrd is not the same thing as fate. There is an implacability about fate, there is nothing that you can do about it; but you can change your luck. As Shippey puts it, “while persistence offers no guarantees, it does give ‘luck’ a chance to operate.”

And so Sam decides to go in search for water and, as he does so, he says to the sleeping Frodo, “I’ll have to leave you for a bit and trust to luck.”

Sam does find water but he also nearly runs into Gollum and his response to these events is to say, “Well, luck did not let me down… but that was a near thing.” In other words, it is wise not to push luck too far.

Later, when they are forced to take the road, Frodo and Sam are overtaken by a company of orcs on the way to reinforce the garrison at the Black Gate as the armies of the West approach. They know that they cannot escape and Frodo despairs. “We trusted to luck, and it has failed us. We are trapped.” Sam, however, is not so quick to give up. “Seems so,” he says. “Well, we can but wait and see.” They are not able to escape the orcs’ attention but later, in a moment of confusion, they are able to escape and so continue their journey to the mountain. Their persistence has given luck a chance to operate.

In recent weeks in this blog we have thought about the role of Providence in the hobbits’ journey through Mordor. We have seen the part played by the gifts of the Valar in the light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass of Galadriel and in the retreat of the smokes of Orodruin before the West Wind. Shippey reflects on the relationship between Providence and Luck in King Alfred the Great’s translation into Old English of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, a text that was one of the most influential in the shaping of the medieval mind. He comments that “What we call God’s fore-thought and his Providence is while it is there in his mind, before it gets done; but once it gets done, then we call it wyrd. This way anyone can tell that there are two things and two names, forethought and wyrd.” Sam is content to live in the experience of luck or wyrd and leave the discernment of Providence to kings or scholars. The result is that he lives life cheerfully and thankfully and he never gives up.