“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.

 

 

Barliman Butterbur Speaks of his Troubles and Receives Some Comfort.

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.

Saruman Fails To Get The Joke!

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.

Peregrine Took’s Guide to Life

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.