“Just a Nuisance: a Passenger, a Piece of Luggage.” Pippin is a Prisoner of The Orcs and Wonders What Good He Has Been.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.578-583

With the brief appearance of the mysterious old man and the loss of the horses under the eaves of Fangorn Forest the narrative switches away from Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to the plight of Merry and Pippin. They are prisoners of the orcs and are being taken to Isengard and to Saruman whose intelligence is that a Halfling bears the One Ring but which one it is he does not know. The Orc band comprises three distinct groups who are there for three very different reasons. While the Isengarders are there to carry out Saruman’s orders there is also a company from Moria who are there to kill in revenge for their losses in the battle against the Fellowship before the escape across the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and also a company from Mordor who want to take the hobbits there.

Inger Idelfelt depicts Merry and Pippin as prisoners of the Orcs.

Pippin tries to recall all that has happened. How he and Merry had run off in panic to seek out Frodo; how they had been attacked by orcs but rescued at first by Boromir; but how the orcs had attacked again, firing arrows at Boromir, and how darkness had fallen.

And then Pippin starts to feel rather sorry for himself.

“I wish Gandalf had never persuaded Elrond to let us come,” he thought. “What good have I been? Just a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage. And now I have been stolen and I am just a piece of luggage for the Orcs. I hope that Strider or someone will come and claim us! But ought I to hope for it? Won’t that throw out all the plans? I wish I could get free!”

And so begins a trope that will run through the story until just before the Battle of the Pelennor Fields of the young hobbits likening themselves to baggage being carried by others and being of no more use than that. It is a trope that reaches its climax when Elfhelm, a Marshal of the Riders of Rohan trips over Merry in the dark. “Pack yourself up, Master Bag!” he instructs Merry before going off to other tasks.

While we might ponder with a certain wry amusement the existence of a left luggage service in the Shire which might lead Pippin to liken himself to an item of lost property waiting to be claimed by its owner, we do recognise, perhaps with sympathy, the feeling that Pippin describes. At this point of the story neither he nor Merry have any idea what they are going to contribute to the successful outcome of the quest. The rousing of the Ents to overthrow Isengard; the slaying of the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Witch-king of Angmar; the rescue of Faramir from the funeral pyre of Denethor, and the raising of the hobbit rebellion against Saruman’s control over the Shire, all these still lie ahead of them. At this moment Pippin feels that he has contributed nothing. We might even speculate about whether he ever ponders the moment when he dropped a stone into the well in the guard chamber in Moria, an action that leads to the awakening of the Balrog and the fall of Gandalf. We might speculate but we do not know because Tolkien never tells us whether he thinks about this or not.

Matthew Stewart depicts Boromir’s attempt to save the young hobbits.

What we do know is that Pippin ends his speech of self pity by declaring, “I wish I could get free!” And with this we see Pippin’s essential character. He is not much given to reflection. He does not see what use too much thought is to him. What matters is what lies immediately before him. Sometimes his lack of reflection gets him into trouble. The question about the depth of a well in Moria, his curiosity about what a glass globe hurled by Wormtongue at Gandalf might possibly be. And sometimes it will lead him to acts of courage such as his determination to save Faramir. He will never think much about the outcome of this or that action and now he will put aside reflection and self-pity (actually there is rarely much self-anything at all about Pippin) and give himself to the task at hand. How can he and Merry escape from their captors?

A naughty boy at the well in Moria. There is still some growing up to be done.

“There Are Some Things That it is Better to Begin Than to Refuse, Even Though the End May be Dark.” Aragorn Ponders The Fate of The Young Hobbits.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 571-573

With some misgivings expressed by his company, Eomer gives three horses to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. Or I should say that he gives two, because Gimli refuses the offer, feeling no more at ease on the back of a horse than Sam Gamgee felt in the Elven boats of Lothlórien. Aragorn is asked to promise that he will return the horses to Meduseld, the golden hall of the King of Rohan and this he promises to do. After that the three hunters follow the orc trail until they come to the eaves of Fangorn Forest.

There they find the scene of the battle a great burning of the orc host, the burial mound for the fifteen members of Eomer’s company, but no sign of the hobbits. Eomer has told them that only orcs were burned but Gimli is sure that the hobbits must have been among them.

The hunters search for the hobbits amidst the orcs.

“It will be hard news for Frodo, if he lives to hear it; and hard to for the old hobbit who waits in Rivendell. Elrond was against their coming.”

“But Gandalf was not,” said Legolas.

“But Gandalf chose to come himself, and he was the first to be lost,” answered Gimli. “His foresight failed him.”

Gimli bases his judgement regarding the wisdom of a choice upon one thing only; whether the choice leads to a successful outcome. Gandalf fell in Moria at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in the battle against the Balrog. Gimli fears that Merry and Pippin have fallen in the battle under the eaves of Fangorn Forest. Gandalf chose to accompany the Fellowship on its mission to destroy the Ring. Gandalf persuaded Elrond to allow the young hobbits to be a part of their company and it seems that they too are lost. Gimli is clear that Gandalf’s wisdom failed him as did his foresight.

Merry and Pippin were determined to join the Fellowship.

To be fair to Gimli, Merry and Pippin feel the same way about the wisdom of their desire to go with Frodo and Sam. At least they feel that way while they are prisoners of the orcs. “I wish Gandalf had never persuaded Elrond to let us come,” says Merry. And who can blame him for feeling that way while he is trussed up like a piece of baggage and carried by his orc captors.

But Aragorn thinks differently. He too tried to persuade Gandalf not to go to Moria because he had a foreboding that something would befall Gandalf there. We are not told what he thought about Merry and Pippin going with the Company. His first impression of them, based upon his encounter with the hobbits at the Prancing Pony in Bree, had not been encouraging. But his respect for them grows on the journey to Rivendell as he realises that they are made of sterner stuff than he first thought. But he recognises that there are reasons for choices that outweigh any considerations the success or otherwise of the venture. Friendship is one of them. Merry and Pippin simply could not abandon Frodo and Sam just as Gimli could not abandon Legolas, just as they could not abandon the young hobbits.

The other reason is Aragorn’s own choice to go with the Fellowship. He must fulfil his destiny as the heir of Eärendil, as the heir of Isildur. Either he will succeed, thus becoming King of Gondor and of Arnor and winning the hand of Arwen, or he will fall in the attempt and be the last of his line. He can refuse the attempt but to do so will be to refuse hope both for himself and for the free peoples of Middle-earth. Like Denethor later he would have to accept that “the West has failed”. He does not know whether he will succeed or not. Indeed after the fall of Gandalf he has very little hope that he will. But he must go on, perhaps with failure the only outcome.

“The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or others… There are things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.”

The Counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety

“You Have Conquered. Few Have Gained Such a Victory. Be at Peace!” Is Aragorn Just Being Kind to Boromir as He Dies?

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.537-540

In Tolkien’s telling of the tale the whole of Boromir’s last fight takes place off stage and we are taken with Aragorn upon his pointless climb after Frodo up Amon Hen and then his equally pointless descent of the hill when he hears the horn of Boromir and realises that both Boromir and, probably, the hobbits are in need. At last he draws his bright sword, and crying out, Elendil! Elendil! he crashes through the trees.

But it is all too late. Aragorn finds Boromir “sitting with his back to a great tree” as if he was resting. His body is pierced by many orc arrows, his sword is broken near the hilt and his horn is cloven in two by his side.

Inger Edelfelt’s poignant depiction of the death of Boromir.

Boromir’s final words are both a report on how the hobbits have been taken by orcs and an admission of guilt.

“I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.”

Anke Eissmann depicts the terrible moment in which Boromir comes to try to take the Ring.

Aragorn’s response is one of great, and gentle, kindness.

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!”

And Boromir smiles; and then he dies.

Is Aragorn simply being kind to a dying man? One might begin to try to answer this question by saying that such kindness is never a simple matter. When we are with someone as they reach the moment in which they will cross the river, never to return, it is a deeply solemn affair. We are aware that a fellow human being is entering into a mystery about which we know almost nothing. If we are people of faith then we will have received from our traditions some sense of what awaits them and rightly we will seek to comfort the one who is dying with the confidence of that tradition but we all know that faith does not mean seeing. We may even receive some comfort from the dying. A good friend of my wife told me that when her mother was dying she began to speak with joy to the people who were waiting to greet her and our friend was, indeed, greatly comforted by this. But for all the comforts death remains a mystery.

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end.”

But Aragorn’s words to Boromir are more than a matter of comfort, important though that is. They are a matter of truth. Boromir did conquer. Although he did try to take the Ring from Frodo, almost immediately after Frodo’s escape he became aware of what he had done and returned with bitter regret to the place where the rest of the Company were. He met Aragorn’s distress and anger without any attempt at self justification and upon Aragorn’s command to go after Merry and Pippin and to watch over them he did so without question and then gave his life in their defence when they were attacked and taken by the Uruk Hai of Isengard. One might think that for the heir of the Steward of Gondor, one of the mightiest lords of Middle-earth, to give his life for hobbits, perhaps the least significant of its peoples, was a wasted gift, but doubtless Boromir remembered his words to Frodo, of his curse upon all halflings, and wished with all his heart to undo them, to pay a price for what he had sought to do.

Boromir’s deed in laying down his life for the hobbits was a victory over his desire, at all costs, to achieve greatness, to be the hero of Middle-earth and the Third Age. In itself this was a conquest. But it also achieved much in the task of the Fellowship. In taking Merry and Pippin the orcs believed that they had accomplished their mission to seize the halflings and so Frodo and Sam were able to make good their escape and to continue their journey to Mordor. Surely the fact that a great warrior was defending the hobbits convinced Uglûk and the Isengarders that they had done what they had been ordered to do. There was no need to hunt and kill anyone else. They could return to base. The lives of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli were probably saved by this mistake. And surely there is something in Aragorn’s declaration that Minas Tirith would not fall that is linked to Boromir’s conquest. Just as the pity of Bilbo, when he did not begin his keeping of the Ring with the murder of Gollum, was to rule the fate of Middle-earth, might we not say that Boromir’s conquest over the corrupting power of the Ring in his own heart, expressed in his sacrifice for the hobbits and his truth telling to Aragorn, also rules the fate of his people?

I love this depiction of Boromir’s last moments. The picture is entitled ‘The Horn of Boromir’ by Matthew Stewart. Note the contrast between the fear on the faces of Merry and Pippin, the violence of the orcs, and the achievement of an inner peace shown upon the face of Boromir. He has conquered indeed.

Many thanks to Overly Devoted Archivist for letting me know about the source of the artwork. To find Matthew Stewart’s work please go to the comment below and click on the link there.

“Fool of a Took!” Gandalf and Pippin at The Well in The Guardroom in Moria.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 303-306

The weary travellers have come to a place in which three choices lie before them. Not that it is the Company that will make the choice. Every one of them has given this task to Gandalf. He is the guide through the vast mines of Khazad-dûm. But at this point Gandalf is unsure about which way to go and too weary to make a decision. There is a guardroom nearby and they decide to rest within it.

At the centre of the room there is a well that is completely unprotected and Pippin is strangely drawn towards it. Is it Aragorn’s words of warning that have this effect? “One of you might have fallen in and still be wondering when you were going to hit the bottom.” How deep is the well? Pippin needs to know and so he drops a stone into it. It is many seconds before the stone plunges into water in the depths below and when it does it makes a sound that reverberates around the cavernous walls of the well.

It is necessary now for engineers to suspend their disbelief. We have reflected on other occasions about the weaving of history and mythology within The Lord of the Rings and it is clear now that we have entered the realms of mythology, that which never happened but is always true. While we cannot conceive a well so deep that to raise a bucket of water by hand would be a task that would take a very long time indeed we can and do conceive abysmal depths in “the dark places of the earth”. We both fear such places within our own psyche and, as with Pippin, are strangely drawn towards them.

Perhaps we are both afraid of and drawn towards what might lie there. “Tap-tom, tom-tap, tap-tap, tom”

“That was the sound of a hammer, or I have never heard one,” says Gimli. Has something been awoken by Pippin’s “foolish stone” that should have been left undisturbed? Should we ever awaken that which lies deep within us?

“Fool of a Took!”

“Fool of a Took!” Gandalf growls at Pippin. “This is a serious journey, not a hobbit walking-party. Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be no further nuisance. Now be quiet!” And poor Pippin is given the first watch, “as a reward”.

Some readers may recall a gruff old teacher from their childhood experience of school. One who they respected but also feared, if only for the angry rebuke that they might occasionally receive. The relationship between Gandalf and Pippin seems very much like that of master and pupil. Pippin is not one of those brilliant pupils such as is Aragorn or Faramir or Frodo. Each of these come to understand the mind of their master to such a degree that he is able to entrust any task to them and know that they will carry it out, not just because they have become capable of doing so but also because they carry the meaning of that task in their hearts even as he does. There is a sense in which Aragorn, Faramir and Frodo become sons to Gandalf and in the case of Faramir in particular this becomes a source of resentment, one of many, in Denethor, Faramir’s biological father.

“All wizards should keep a hobbit or two in their care”.

Pippin is a different kind of pupil. In his saving of the life of Faramir he displays that he understands the heart of his master. But Pippin does something else that I am not sure that any of Gandalf’s other pupils do. He awakens affection in the heart of the gruff old wizard. This is not because of his aptitude or ability but because of his childlike nature. Later in the story after Pippin’s misadventure with the Stone of Orthanc Gandalf takes Pippin with him to Minas Tirith, to keep him from any further mischief, but also, I think, because at this crucial moment in Gandalf’s long life, he needs Pippin. Pippin brings a comfort to Gandalf that no-one else can. “All wizards should have a hobbit or two in their care, to teach them the meaning of the word.” Even now in the fearful dark of Moria, with the terrible abyss of the well close by, Gandalf soon relieves Pippin of his lonely duty, speaks kindly to him and sends him off to get some sleep. The guide is watching over all his charges and we can all rest. For a little while at least.

The guide is watching over his charges. Matt Stewart imagines Gandalf smoking in Moria.

“A Foresight is On Me”. How Gandalf Chooses.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 267-269

I have learned over the years in which I have written this blog that I have readers who know their Tolkien very well, often much better than I do, and so I am sure that there will be readers who will instantly know that the quotation that heads this week’s post is not from The Lord of the Rings. It is in fact from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales. It comes from a chapter in which Frodo describes a conversation with Gandalf that takes place in Minas Tirith after the Ring has gone to the fire and Sauron has fallen. In that conversation Gandalf speaks of how he came to be convinced that Bilbo should be a part of the company that would make the journey to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield.

JEF Murray imagines Gandalf’s first encounter with Bilbo the child, seeing him high in the branches of a tree.

I write about it here because we are thinking about the choosing of Frodo’s companions in the Quest of the Ring. We have already seen that the company is chosen, as much for its symbolic quality as for its effectiveness. Nine walkers will oppose nine riders. Nine of the free peoples of the earth will oppose the slaves of the Dark Lord. And as we journey through the unfolding of the story we find that it is the hobbits who will play central roles in it. The journey of Frodo and Sam to Mordor and the Mountain and the journey of Merry and Pippin, carried as prisoners of the orcs, to the borders of Fangorn Forest and the meeting with Treebeard are these central actions and none of the rest of the company go with them on these journeys. They will have other parts to play.

Gandalf’s support for Pippin is described as “unexpected”. When Pippin announced his intention to go with Frodo because there needed to “be someone with intelligence in the party”, Gandalf’s response was that Pippin would certainly not be chosen on that basis. But Gandalf is greatly drawn towards Pippin. Indeed I rather think that Gandalf liked Pippin to be nearby and found his simple honesty and friendliness to be a comfort. Was it because he needed such comfort that Gandalf liked to go to the Shire? In his account of how he came to choose Bilbo to go with the Dwarves to Erebor he speaks of how he had been going to the Shire “for a short rest” after a twenty year absence. “I thought that if I put [my dark thoughts] out of my mind for a while I might perhaps find some way of dealing with these troubles”.

And Gandalf meets Merry and Pippin while at play at Bilbo’s party.

Gandalf’s “dark thoughts” were about the reappearing of Sauron in Dol Guldur, about the ever present danger to the north of Middle-earth that was posed by Smaug the dragon in his occupation of the Lonely Mountain, about the fragility of the free peoples and about the opposition of Saruman to any direct action against Sauron. Gandalf’s thoughts are like a hammer striking against a hard surface with the intention of making it give way before the force of its blows. He knows that his thinking will not bring about a solution by itself. It will only keep bringing him back to that which is insoluble and so he heads for the Shire and a rest from his anxiety. The Shire folk have taught him how to play. It is there that he makes fireworks and it is there that he enjoys wholesome food, good beer and pipeweed. And it is on his way there, just outside Bree, that he encounters Thorin Oakenshield who is also beset with his own dark thoughts.

Alan Lee’s beautiful imagining of the “chance” meeting of Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield

Is it because he is in search of rest that Gandalf is open to something entirely unexpected? Is it his proximity to the Shire and to hobbits that makes the participation of Bilbo a possibility for the expedition to Erebor? In Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity it is the empty space between the spokes of a wheel that give the wheel its usefulness just as much as do the spokes themselves. So it is the empty space that the Shire is for Gandalf in his endless labours that gives him the idea of Bilbo. And when the idea comes it does so with such force that he describes it as a foresight. Not that he knows what is to come but he knows that he has to listen to his inner voice and that Thorin has to listen to it too when he declares it aloud. Perhaps it is in knowing the power of Gandalf’s inner voice that Elrond too gives way to him about Merry and Pippin despite his own misgivings.

“There Must Be Someone of Intelligence in The Party”. On the Choosing of The Heroes Who Will Help Frodo to Take The Ring to The Fire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.264-267

Elrond honoured Frodo’s offer of himself to take the Ring to the Fire by speaking of the heroes of the past. “If you take it freely,” he says, “I will say that your choice is right; and though the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself, were assembled together, your seat should be among them.”

Alan Lee depicts Túrin Turambar, one of the children of Húrin

When The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954 little was known of these names except for Beren because of the story that Strider told to the hobbits in the camp below Weathertop on the night on which the Nazgûl attacked and wounded Frodo. The Silmarillion was not published until after Tolkien’s death and in the years since our knowledge of them all has grown thanks to the work of Christopher Tolkien. But if all we knew of them was the list that Elrond gives us, that phrase, “mighty elf friends” would be sufficient to evoke our deepest respect and even a little awe.

The four “mighty elf-friends of old” that Elrond names are figures of the First Age of Arda. They were the mortal Children of Ilúvatar who, upon entering Beleriand, chose to side with the Elves against Morgoth. Deeply flawed though they were, it was their implacable denial of despair in the face of the seemingly inevitable victory of darkness that shines out again and again through the long defeat of that age. Typical of this spirit we read of Húrin at the terrible battle of Nirnaeth Arnoediad.

“Last of all Húrin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Húrin cried: “Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!”

Jenny Dolfen imagines Húrin at Nirnaeth Arnoediad

It is of heroes like this to which Elrond likens Frodo, not because of his martial ferocity but because of his quiet courage in the face of an impossible task. When he and Sam and Bilbo meet with Merry and Pippin, Frodo describes his mission as “a hopeless journey”. There is no point at which he regards it as anything less than hopeless and yet he never thinks of turning back, of resting in Rivendell, “a long while, perhaps for good”.

Frodo is a hero to stand with the Elf-friends of old because of the choice that he makes but what of Sam, Merry and Pippin? At first glance we might think that Tolkien uses them as some kind of comic relief and Pippin’s words about “someone with intelligence in the party” and Gandalf’s response to what Pippin says seem to show that this is indeed their purpose in the story. But at all times Tolkien wants us to see that the bonds of fellowship that bind the hobbits together have a power that cannot be measured through force of arms or even their intelligence. Later when Elrond chooses the party that will accompany Frodo, Sam and the Ring, he is minded to choose someone like Glorfindel, a mighty elf-lord, but Gandalf disagrees.

“I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom”

It is not that Gandalf has given way to sentimentality at this vital moment in the story but that he is true to his own charism, the grace that he has been given and which he has long nurtured. His teacher, the Lady Nienna, taught him to see with pity, not with blame and to warm the hearts of free peoples everywhere. He knows the power of a warmed heart especially when the world has grown cold and time and again, I suspect without really knowing why, his heart was drawn to the Shire and the simple hospitality of its people. His pleasure in good, simple food, good beer and a pipe to follow dinner meant that his own heart was warmed when he made these visits and if the only fruit of them was rest and the enjoyment of fireworks then this would have been sufficient for him but it was to these simple folk to whom the Ring was entrusted. Folk who live in the “merrier world” in which “food and cheer and song” are valued above hoarded gold.

The friendship of hobbits

“We Are Your Friends, Frodo.” A Conspiracy Unmasked.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 96-105

If Frodo has a fault, and I will allow my readers to decide whether or not it really is a fault, it is that he has a sense of himself that he, and he alone, must shoulder the burden of this quest. In my imagination I picture him sitting alone by the fire in his study in Bag End, sucking on the stem of his pipe, and seeing himself walking alone in the wild towards a far horizon as the light fades about him. And already he is nursing a feeling of desolate loneliness but he is also beginning to enjoy a feeling of greatness that, if anything, grows with the loneliness. The lonely hero is a figure much loved in the mythology of Europe and, as my North American readers will confirm, travelled across the Atlantic to the vast empty spaces of that continent. Indeed, it was as if this kind of hero was just waiting for those vast spaces in order to be reborn there.

Frodo bears his burden alone

Of course, the reason that I can picture Frodo almost starting to enjoy this sense of having “a high and lonely destiny” is that I have been drawn to the temptation of wanting to be this kind of hero myself. And I also think that I have evidence within The Lord of the Rings to support my case. You will remember how, in the Council of Elrond, Frodo heroically chooses the task of taking the Ring to Orodruin in Mordor and how, straight away, Sam cries out, “But you won’t send him off alone surely, Master?” And you will remember how, after Boromir tries to seize the Ring, Frodo announces to himself, “I will go alone. At once.”

Thankfully, Frodo always fails in his attempts to “go alone”. Even without Sam’s intervention at the Council Elrond swiftly decides that Frodo cannot go alone and creates The Fellowship of the Ring, the nine walkers who will oppose the nine riders, the Nazgûl. And it is Sam, the confounded nuisance, who prevents him from going alone to Mordor after the breaking of the Fellowship. But now, at the very beginning of the journey, it is Frodo’s friends who keep him from trying to go alone.

Of course they have no idea what lies ahead of them but then, as Gandalf remarks to Elrond later on, “neither does Frodo”. Indeed, he emphasises, “Nor do any of us see clearly. ” We are all spared the burden of knowing what lies ahead for us. We are neither robbed of the surprise of joy nor of knowing what pain or sorrow lies before us. Joy cannot be joy unless it comes to us by surprise and who would wish to rob their days of what contentment that can be enjoyed by knowing the sufferings of the future?

What Merry and Pippin and Sam have to offer is not their foreknowledge but their friendship. Frodo makes a blustery speech about not being able to trust anyone once he realises that his secret has been long known. Merry answers him magnificently. “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin- to the bitter end… But you cannot trust us to face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” And it is friendship that will prevail against all the power of the Enemy and not might nor even wisdom.

Ted Nasmith “Bathing at Crickhollow”

Friendship will take Merry into combat against the very foes that pursue them when he decides not to allow Éowyn to fight the Lord of the Nazgûl alone and it is through friendship and not might that he enables Éowyn to prevail against him. And it is friendship that takes Pippin to the high place in Minas Tirith where Denethor would take the life of his own son so that he need not die alone in his despair. It is through friendship, not might, that Pippin saves the life of Faramir. And it is through friendship that Sam brings Frodo step by intolerable step through the deserts of Mordor to Mount Doom before he carries him up the slopes of the mountain. It is not good to be alone. We were made for friendship, for belonging.

That’s What Friends Are For. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin Gather For the Last Time By the Great Sea.

It is just over three years since the Four Travellers sat together with Fredegar Bolger at Crickhollow and the “conspiracy” was revealed that led to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leaving the Shire together on the great adventure of the Age. Only three years but in that time the whole world has changed and so have they. Now they stand together for the last time by the shores of the Great Sea as Frodo prepares to board ship for the West and the Undying Lands. Sam is there because Frodo wants him to be there. Merry and Pippin are there because Gandalf in his wisdom and in his kindness knows that it would be almost unbearably hard for Sam to return alone from the Grey Havens back to Hobbiton and Bag End.

“‘You tried to give us the slip once before and failed, Frodo'” says Pippin amidst his laughter and his tears. “‘This time you have nearly succeded, but you have failed again. It was not Sam, though, that gave you away this time, but Gandalf himself!'”

Pippin can be forgiven for only remembering one occasion when Frodo tried to slip away alone from his friends. On the second he and Merry were the prisoners of the Uruk-hai of Isengard when Frodo tried to cross the River alone in order to make the journey to Mordor. Frodo had always had a sense that he could not take his friends with him on a journey that would lead almost certainly to failure and death. Perhaps, too, his sense of responsibility for others fitted neatly into his solitary temperament. Frodo was raised as an only child and after Bilbo’s departure for Rivendell he lived alone often preferring his own company on long walks alone. It is not inevitable that those who are solitaries are also lonely but what solitaries have to learn is that friends are necessary, that we cannot live without them.

It was the great German theologian and anti-Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who taught: “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone”. The kind of solitariness to which Bonhoeffer and, I suspect, Frodo, was drawn, was inhabited by books and a rich interior conversation that never became dull. The danger of such a life is that in such a conversation the solitary is never in danger of being challenged. It was the Inklings that turned Tolkien’s own rich interior conversation into The Lord of the Rings. Without the others who listened, criticised and encouraged, that richest of imaginations would have remained a private possession and we would all be the poorer for it. Bonhoeffer discovered the power of community in a gathering of young theologians in the 1930s hidden briefly away from the Nazi tainted official training establishments for Lutheran pastors. He was its director but he found friendship there that was to sustain him later when he was an enforced solitary in the Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. Frodo would never have reached the Cracks of Doom without his friends and most especially without Sam.

My hope is that, in company with Bilbo, Frodo came to learn true community during his gentle purgatory in the Undying Lands. Of course the True Self will enjoy a natural rhythm of aloneness and community both of which will nourish one another. Bonhoeffer, with equal wisdom also taught, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.” It is those who are at peace with themselves who will be able to give most to their communities. Those who are not peace will always be taking from them and rarely giving.

It is good that Gandalf recognises that there are times when it is hard to be alone and that he sends a message to Merry and Pippin to come to the Grey Havens as quickly as possible. And it would have been unkind for Merry and Pippin not to have been allowed to make their own farewells. But let us forgive Frodo. At this point in his life he is so burdened still that he does not always think of the needs of others. And let us remember too that he has been wounded so deeply in laying down his life for others. He will be healed at last of the hurt in the Undying Lands and Sam, Merry and Pippin will have “great comfort” in one another “on the long grey road” back to the Shire.

“I am Wounded; it will Never Really Heal”. Frodo Begins to Fade Away From the Shire.

After Sam and Rosie Cotton are married they move into together with Frodo in Bag End. It is a good arrangement for all. Sam and Rosie have a fine home in which to raise a family together. Frodo has kind and loving friends to watch over him. Sam is close enough to the Gaffer to keep an eye on him. But not too close.

It is the beginning of a golden age in the history of the Shire. Restoration work is underway everywhere and everything returns to how it was but perhaps it is even more beautiful than it was before the troubles. Tolkien gives us a vision, perhaps, of how England might have been restored after the destruction of the Second World War. One thinks of the beautiful medieval city of Coventry that was badly bombed during the war and its ancient cathedral almost completely destroyed. It is a grim joke told by the people of that city that the Luftwaffe only began the destruction of the city. It was completed by the city authorities. It is as if Lotho Pimple and Ted Sandyman had seized control of the country after the war for long enough until they had changed it for ever.

Not so the Shire. The Shire is seized, not by brutalist architects, but by a spirit of merriment. And the spirit is manifested above all in Merry and Pippin. “The two young Travellers cut a great dash in the Shire with their songs and their tales and their finery, and their wonderful parties. ‘Lordly’ folk called them, meaning nothing but good; for it warmed all hearts to see them go riding by with their mail-shirts so bright and their shields so splendid, laughing and singing songs of far away.”

Merry and Pippin bring something new to the Shire in a way that even hobbits, that most conservative of peoples, could receive. They give the Shire back to itself but more itself than ever it was before. And there is one other who does this work also and that is Sam the Gardener who will eventually take the name of Gardener for his family.

Sadly there is one who cannot share this joy, delight and glory and that is Frodo. It is not that Frodo becomes angry or embittered, withdrawing into a windowless inner darkness. It is just that Frodo has been hurt and cannot wholly be healed in Middle-earth.

Sam is away in March in the Year of Plenty on his duties as forester to the Shire. All his attention and his energy is given to looking forward. So he misses March 13th, the day one year before when Frodo lay helpless, poisoned by Shelob, a prisoner of the orcs in Cirith Ungol, and the Ring was gone. On that day Frodo had not known that Sam had taken the Ring in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of the orcs but what Frodo relives a year later is not a sense of misery at the failure of the mission but an utter emptiness because the Ring has gone. It is the same emptiness that Gollum felt when Bilbo took the Ring and which was to fuel his obsessive search thereafter. The Ring has a hold over Frodo from which he can never wholly escape.

This is an experience that the Shire cannot share. The story of the Ring and its utterly malevolent maker is something that it has never shared. Even when the Ring was in the Shire it remained hidden and it was only revealed for the briefest of moments in the uncanny goings on at Bilbo’s farewell party. And when the War of the Ring came to the Shire it was through Saruman and his brigand ban, already defeated though able to do some small mischief before being caught. The Shire never shared Frodo’s heroic sacrifice of himself and so it cannot understand it. As Frodo himself says: “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.”

Frodo is the wounded healer, the prophet without honour in his own country. Merry, Pippin and Sam are all closer to the Shire and are able to bring the great story of deliverence to their people in such a way that they can receive it and learn to be grateful for it. For Frodo healing must come somewhere else.

 

What Happens When Hobbits Fall Prey to Greed and Self-importance. (The Scouring of the Shire)

The Scouring of the Shire is one of the saddest chapters in The Lord of the Rings. We expected Mordor to be as desolate as it turned out to be and, step by step, we followed Frodo and Sam to the Cracks of Doom longing to be free of it. But then the impossible happened and the Ring went to the Fire. Sauron fell into nothingness and his realm crumbled, Frodo and Sam awoke in a soft bed in the woodlands of Ithilien and Sam cried out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

But the spirit of Mordor was never something forced upon the world by one evil being. Sauron fed upon the selfishness, the meanness and the fearfulness of others to become the mighty lord of darkness. And he had many imitators not least Saruman of Isengard and Lotho Sackville-Baggins of the Shire. For those critics who have accused Tolkien of moral banality, of writing a simplistic “good guys versus bad guys” story, one need only read this chapter of the story to know that this criticism is arrant nonsense.

The Shire was never an earthly paradise with no knowledge of good and evil. It was never a realm of pure innocence. It was always a land inhabited by a people subject to the same passions and the same temptations as we are. But Tolkien gave us a land in which a people live securely because of the protection of the Rangers of the North and in which no one lives either in poverty or great wealth. There are two great families in the Shire, the Tooks and the Brandybucks, but although both enjoy great comfort it is a comfort shared with the community at large. Brandybuck Hall and the Great Smials of Tuckborough are more like communal villages than private residences.

But once there are those who regard the acquiring of private wealth well beyond that of their neighbours as a goal worth pursuing, a seed of meanness is sown in the Shire that will not be easily dug out. So it is with Lotho Sackville-Baggins as we will consider next week in more detail. Suffice to say at this point that it is this seed that infects the Shire and its fruits that the four companions encounter when they return from their adventures.

Some readers might wish to remind me of the avariciousness of the dwarves and their love for gold or that of Thranduil of the woodland realm or the Master of Esgaroth. To which I would answer that they are right! If it had not been for the lust for revenge of the goblins of the Misty Mountains all Gandalf’s efforts to unite the free peoples of the North against the growing threat in Dol Guldur might have ended in disaster. Tolkien’s characters are morally complex and are all subject to spiritual conflict, even the greatest of them. Perhaps especially the greatest. Only those such as the orcs who have long ago given up the inner struggle are morally simple.

The Hobbits of the Shire are far from morally  simple and when enough are encouraged to feed upon their sense of self-importance such as the Shirrifs or upon their fearfulness of the big world outside as with the easily cowed general populace then it becomes possible for a few people to take control of the whole country. I have often thought that it is only because Britain was never invaded during the Second World War that it is possible to make simplistic generalisations about “British Values”. If the Nazis had taken control there would have been plenty of British people in sympathy with their philosophy, plenty who would have collaborated simply out of self-interest and many who would have done so out of fear. Much of that which we would like to proclaim as innate goodness or decency is more the product of historical good fortune.

We should, all of us, especially those of us who live in some comfort, be grateful for our good fortune. But I do not want to be overly pessimistic about ourselves even as I wish to avoid over optimism. As we shall see there is a goodness and a courage lying deep down within the hobbits that is only waiting to be reawoken. And it dwells in us too.