Bilbo’s Magnificent Party

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-28

Readers of works of literature from the mid 20th century might notice that food seems to play a particularly important role in many stories of the time. Later in The Lord of the Rings a clue to this is given by Beregond of the Guard of the Tower in conversation with Pippin. Pippin is anxious to find something to eat after his uncomfortable interrogation by the Lord Denethor. Beregond regretfully informs a rather disappointed Pippin that he has already broken his fast as well as any in the city but adds “They say that men who go warring afield look ever for the next hope of food and drink”.

The Lord of the Rings was written largely through a time of food rationing. Hobbits, in particular, are creatures of feast and fast and have a particular enthusiasm therefore for feasting. The description of the food and drink at Bilbo’s party is full of delight and pleasure.

Last week’s reflection led to a lively conversation in the Comments Section on Gandalf’s relationship with the Shire. The debate centred on whether Gandalf acted in the way he did in the Shire as a strategy to win the hearts of the hobbits or whether it was all unplanned and entirely providential. I think that eventually it was agreed that Gandalf did consciously seek to warm the hearts of those among whom he travelled. It was this quality that first drew Círdan of The Grey Havens to him. Círdan gave the Ring, Narya, to Gandalf, saying “Take this ring, Master… for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”

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Gandalf walks the lonely roads of Middle-earth doing just this work so that when Sauron begins his great war to regain the One Ring and to achieve mastery he is opposed by all the free peoples despite his efforts to divide them. But I would add something more and that is that the hobbits touch and awaken something in Gandalf’s heart too. They teach him how to play. It would be hard to imagine Elrond of Rivendell or Dáin of Erebor or Denethor of Gondor playing in the way that Gandalf does. I could imagine Galadriel dancing among hobbit maidens but it would be a queenly dance.

Gandalf is not lordly when he is in the Shire. He is childlike in the way in which a grandfather is childlike. He has seen life and he has been marked by it. From the Lady Nienna he has learned pity. From hobbits he has learned pleasure. And he knows that deeper even than sorrow lies a joy that cannot cloy.

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“The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarrappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.”

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I would encourage readers to read that passage aloud and to savour each word and sound. Each name of a firework is meant to be musical but it is not the music of Elrond’s halls but the music of a country party with lots of laughter and a little mischief too. Peter Jackson captures this well in his films by introducing the characters of Merry and Pippin here. Their soot covered faces as they emerge from the smoke of the exploded rocket, one of Gandalf’s hands tightly gripping each of their curly heads, conveys this well.

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A serious life can be a playful life too. Rowan Williams describes his friend and colleague, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in this way, saying that Desmond Tutu loves being Desmond Tutu. The same man who risked his life in the struggle against apartheid and who wept openly as he listened to the many stories of suffering during the time that he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also knows how to enjoy a good party.

Near the end of The Lord of the Rings Gandalf announces to the four Travellers that he is going to visit Tom Bombadil for a good long talk. I suspect that a lot of that talk was full of laughter.

 

The Passing of the Three Elven Rings of Power.

At the point where the road northward from Isengard to Rivendell meets the way over the mountain pass to Lothlórien the company pauses on its journey for a whole week. This is the parting of the three keepers of the Elven Rings made by Celebrimbor of Eregion in the Second Age. Vilya, Nenya and Narya. Sauron had no part in their making and so they were not under the control power of the One Ring and yet their fate was inextricably linked to the Ruling Ring made by the same lore, the sharing of skill and of knowledge between Celebrimbor and Sauron when the Dark Lord’s intention was not yet known.

Or were there clues enough for the Wise to guess at what Sauron wished to do? Certainly Galadriel and Gil-galad refused his embassies but Celebrimbor received him. In Unfinished Tales Tolkien tells us that Celebrimbor “desired in his heart to rival the skill and fame of Fëanor”. The old Prayer Book of the Church of England counsels us against following “too much the devices and desires of our hearts”. This is wise advice and calls for rigorous self-examination. Celebrimbor was far too upright and honourable to betray his people and friends for the sake of his desire but his desire made him ready to do as Sauron wished and to give him aid in making the Rings of Power.

In this desire even Galadriel was not without blame. When it became clear at the moment when Sauron forged the One Ring in the Cracks of Doom at Orodruin in Mordor that he wished power only for himself she counselled Celebrimbor against destroying the lesser Rings; the Nine, the Seven and the Three. Already she possessed Nenya and by it she was able to create Lórinand that was to become Lothlórien, the most beautiful land in all Middle-earth. Her desire was for the beauty that she was creating and she did not wish to give up her Ring for destruction. As a consequence even though Sauron never found the Three Elven Rings he was able to capture the Nine in his war against Celebrimbor and to give them to mortal men so creating his most terrible servants, the Nazgûl. For a time the Seven, rings of power given to the Dwarf Lords, were free from his grasp, but eventually he held them too.

Celebrimbor’s desire, and Galadriel’s share in it, had led to the forging of the One Ring, to the creation of the Nazgûl and to the diminishing of the dwarves. Although the Elven Rings enabled Galadriel to create the beauty of Lothlórien, Elrond the beauty of the valley of Rivendell and Gandalf to stir up the hearts and wills of the free peoples of Middle-earth they were too much linked to the evil of the Ring of Power to survive its destruction.

Saruman spoke of this in his encounter with the Ring-bearers. “I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine.” As always Saruman’s knowledge was less complete than he believed and his wisdom almost entirely absent but one thing is true and that is that with the destruction of the Ring the power of the Three is at an end and with it much of the work that they achieved. Lothlórien and Rivendell must diminish. Much that is beautiful in the world must come to an end.

Would it have been better if the Ring had not gone to the Fire? The Wise had already been faced with this choice and rejected it. The Ruling Ring had such power to corrupt that it was impossible to keep safely and to use it would have been catastrophic. Never again would the path of withholding be followed. At last the Wise knew what they must do. The Ring must be destroyed and their life in Middle-earth must come to an end.

Saruman in his bitter envy thought of this as an accidental outcome of the destruction of the Ring. He could not imagine that his enemies were prepared to give up so much and to do it freely. And he most certainly did not anticipate the grace that will be shown to the Ring-bearers. After all it was a grace that he himself had long ago rejected.

Meeting Saruman on the Road and It’s Still All About Him

The great company begin their journey northward from Isengard to Rivendell after saying a last farewell to Aragorn and as they journey along the road they encounter two wretched figures. One is Wormtongue, once the master of Edoras but now “slouching and whining” and the other is Saruman. Once he was Saruman the White and great among the Wise of Middle-earth but now he is reduced to misery.

He is reduced to misery but undefeated. “All my hopes are ruined,” he declares, “but I would not share yours. If you have any.” He rejects Gandalf’s offer of aid. He will remain alone.

Even now Saruman would like to appear brave and noble just as he wished to appear thus before Gandalf when he tried to persuade him to join his alliance with Sauron when imprisoning him in Isengard. Then he said to Gandalf, “We must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see”. Of course Gandalf knew that when Saruman said “We” he really meant “I” and that is the whole point of this kind of speech. As Digory Kirke says of his Uncle Andrew in C.S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew when he tries to look grave and noble speaking of “high and lonely” destinies, “All it means is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”

That is all that Uncle Andrew meant and it is all that Saruman means.

And both of them actually are afraid of the loneliness that they boast of. They  have a pathetic desire for the admiration of others even of those for whom they appear to have nothing but contempt. While Gandalf was often truly lonely in the long years of struggle Saruman sought to surround himself with worshippers. Gandalf was the Grey Pilgrim, always dependent upon the hospitality of others but who learnt through his dependence a deep respect and love for all his hosts, even for hobbits! He always remained entirely present to the task that he was given by the Valar and was faithful to it even though few seemed to share his vision and his respect and love for hobbits was to prove crucial to the successful outcome of the whole enterprise although this was never his intention. Unintended consequences are not only or always unhappy ones.

Saruman, on the other hand, always needed walls about him and an endless supply of followers and admirers. His hatred of Galadriel was because he knew that she believed that Gandalf should lead the Council. His hatred of the Elves because Círdan of The Grey Havens gave Narya, one of the three Elven Rings, to Gandalf and not to him. He settled in Isengard, once a great fortress of the Númenorians of Middle-earth, and so became a ruler among other rulers, always dreaming of the day when he might become the ruler over all others, dreaming of the day when he might possess the Ruling Ring. And because he gave himself entirely to his desire he came to believe that all others wanted what he wanted and so were his competitors.

Now all that is left for him is degradation and yet he refuses to repent. As W.H Auden once wrote, “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die”. Auden could have written these words about Saruman. He does write them for all who share Saruman’s desire. Even now Gandalf offers mercy and help to Saruman but Saruman rejects it. Where Gandalf offers pity all that Saruman can see is the contempt that he has long nourished in his own heart.

At last he looks upon the hobbits who share Gandalf’s pity, Merry even offering Saruman his tobacco. All he can see is the fine clothes that are the fruit of their labours and suffering. All that he can feel is a hatred of their contentment and he is determined to do them some hurt if he can. To determine to do this is a way of refusing to change. It allows him to maintain some last shred of the illusion of greatness.