When the travellers arrive at Bree they find the gate locked against them and their welcome at first is anxious and even suspicious. But Barliman Butterbur is pleased to see them and after politely listening to the story of their adventures he gets down to the things that really matter, the news of events in Bree.
“There was trouble right here in Bree, bad trouble. Why, we had a real set-to, and there were some folk killed, killed dead! If you’ll believe me.”
And the travellers do believe him because all trouble is real to the one who has to undergo it. It may be that the listeners have done battle with a troll before the Black Gate, with the Witch King of Angmar before Minas Tirith, with the Balrog of Moria, with Shelob in her lair and with the Ring of Doom step by impossible step across the plains of Mordor to the very place in which it was made by the Dark Lord. All this may be true but each violent death is a crime against nature itself and five of the people of Bree died in the struggle against ruffians from the south.
It is the travellers who have seen so much and who have been through so much who have to be the listeners and that is the way of things. Each experience has deepened their understanding and broadened their sympathy and their imagination. Not so Barliman whose knowledge of the world has come only from the stories that he has heard told by travellers staying at his inn. His personal experience has come only from his life within the borders of the Breeland and within them he is a man of some wisdom and courage. We can admire his rushing to the doors of The Prancing Pony armed only with a club ready to defend it against desperate bandits but beyond these narrow limits he could not help much as Aragorn reminded him once when Bree was threatened by the Nazgûl of Mordor.
The travellers have begun to learn a new and a sad lesson and that is that they will find few interested listeners when they return home. Even their wives will be unable to make the kind of sympathetic leap of imagination that is required from a good listener. What I hope the wives will possess will be the quality of listening that comes of a loving heart. They may not fully comprehend what their husbands have experienced but they will care that each thing will have happened to someone that they love. But perhaps in the midst of worries about young children or problems in the household they will not be able to spare much time for listening.
At one time as a parish priest in Birmingham, England I found that I often had to take the funerals of men for whom a major part of their life experience had been service in the military during the Second World War. Two things began to impress me deeply about these men. One was just how young they had been when they were torn away from ordinary life and all that they had seen and done. The other was of a different kind of courage. The courage to return to ordinary life as husbands, fathers and useful members of their communities. As I began to hear these stories I began to develop as much respect for the second kind of courage as for the first.
Now the hobbits will have to learn how to find peace within themselves and not seek it from others. Frodo will pass into the West and find healing there. Merry and Pippin will draw upon the optimism that has been such a source of strength to them and they will draw too upon their friendship with each other. Sam will develop a deep connection to his daughter, Elanor the Fair, to whom he will give the Red Book, the record of the deeds of the Great Years, before he too passes into the West after the death of Rosie Cotton to whom he will remain faithful through the long years.
And Butterbur will find comfort in the turning of the affairs of Bree for the better and after he has learned that the bandits will soon go and peace restored he will go to his bed more comforted than he has been for a long time.
After a journey of wonders the company led by Théoden and Gandalf arrive at the gates of Isengard to find them cast down and in ruins with a great rubble heap piled up beside them “and suddenly there were aware of two small figures lying on it at their ease…There were bottles, bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had eaten well, and now rested from their labour.” And so it is that after all the adventures that have befallen the company since its sundering at Tol Brandir Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are re-united with Merry and Pippin.
This is a good tale to tell at Christmas for as Mary’s great song from The Gospel of Luke chapter 1 tells us, with the coming of the Messiah the mighty are cast down from their seats and the humble and meek are exalted, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent empty away. It was indeed Saruman’s intention to bring the hobbits to Isengard but we can be sure that he had no intention to feast them upon the best of his food amidst the ruins of his once mighty fortress. And yet it is precisely because of his intentions that Saruman has been cast down from his seat and that hobbits, the least significant of creatures, have been the means of his downfall. For the orcs that Saruman sent to bring the hobbits to his dungeons were able to bring them swiftly to Fangorn where they met Treebeard, the most ancient of Ents. And it was through that meeting that the Ents were roused from their long slumber, marched upon Isengard and reduced it to ruins.
There is no doubt that Tolkien takes pleasure in the comic elements of the scene he paints for us. The small figures who could not be less heroic, the piles of empty dishes and bottles, the smoke rising from pipes smoked at ease (and as anyone who has ever tried to smoke a pipe will tell you it is necessary to be at ease in order to smoke one well!) and all this amidst the scene of a terrible battle.
And you can be sure that Saruman does not get the joke! Nor, of course, did Herod when the Magi asked him where the King of the Jews had been born. Perhaps we get closest to the truth of Christmas if we learn to see it as a cosmic joke. So much religion seems hung up with efforts to portray itself as mighty, as deserving of a place at the tables of the powerful. If the wonderful joke of the nativity were to manifest itself at such tables then the religious might well be discomfited as much as kings and princes. Before the modern era it was the custom for kings to have a joker nearby them to remind them of who they truly were. Where are the jokers of our own age? How many board rooms of our great corporations make sure they have a joker among them? Or might they fear that the joker might bring them crashing down to ruins?
If Saruman were to get the joke then he would be free from the prison that he has created for himself. And so too would we if, as Mary sang, we allow that which desires to be rich and dominating of the weak within our souls to be “sent empty away”. Our laughter would truly be that of the merry and so would our Christmas too.
There is a clue in the words that Pippin speaks that we considered last week to the way in which he will deal with the feeling of uselessness. “I wish I could get free!” he says to himself.
If we were to read a hobbits’ guide to Life, some kind of self-help manual or at least if we were to read a self-help manual as written by Peregrine Took we would find little reflection upon a search for meaning. It is not that Pippin is incapable of reflection and later in the story we will come across a particularly moving conversation that he and Merry have together about what they have learned upon their travels but on the whole Pippin is not given to much introspection or much forethought for that matter. Sometimes this will get him into trouble but at this moment it is a source of strength to him because he is able to give all of his attention to the matter at hand. How is he to get to free?
And from the moment that he moves from asking questions to which he has no answer to the moment when he and Merry step into the Forest of Fangorn, free from their Orc captors but with no idea of what to do next except that they know that they would rather face the Forest than the Orcs this is how Pippin will deal with every challenge that he has to face. He will not ask himself whether he has the capacity to escape from the orcs he will simply deal with one thing at a time. And as he does so his confidence in his capacity to face each challenge will grow.
At times when life seems to overwhelm us it might actually be Pippin who can help us through. He won’t be able to help us make sense of the bigger questions like, “why is this happening to me?” or “why does God allow suffering in the world?” If you were to ask him a question like that he would probably say something like, “You had better ask Gandalf or Elrond. I don’t think I could help you on that one. Let’s go and find something to eat!” Pippin does not spend too much time speculating. He gets on with the task that lies to hand and saves his energy for the next task and then the next one too. Key to being able to do this is staying cheerful and Merry and Pippin put a lot of effort into that task. When they make a joke and Ugluk tries to terrify them into silence by threatening them with the terror that lies ahead of them they pay little attention to him. They will deal with the terror when they get to it with as much courage as they can. They won’t waste what energy they have by being afraid of it now.
This reminds me of the spirituality of the boy who offers his lunch as an answer to the question “How are we to feed all these people?” in the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. He does not seem to be worried by the problem as the disciples are. He simply offers what he has. Pippin would approve! And at those times when we seem to be confronted by problems that are too big for us to solve then we might do the same: we might simply offer what we have.