Gaffer Gamgee is Afraid of the Suddenness of the World but Sam is Learning to Love it.

Welcome to what is effectively a relaunch of my blog, Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings. I first began to write this in the autumn of 2012 and began to publish it on WordPress in October 2013. If this is your first visit then a very warm welcome. If you have been here before or you are a regular reader, welcome back!

The intention of the blog is to offer a weekly reflection on Tolkien’s great work in search of its wisdom. Tolkien was a central member of a group of writers and scholars, known as The Inklings, that used to meet in order to read and discuss their work with each other in Oxford in the mid 20th century. If you would like to know about them then I would warmly recommend a series of talks that you can find on YouTube given by Malcolm Guite. If you type in Malcolm Guite and Inklings when you visit YouTube you will find them easily. I just tried it and it works! The Inklings were regarded as highly unfashionable in their day by the literary establishment but I believe that they will prove to be one of the most important intellectual and literary influences, not just of their own time but of ours too. Tom Shippey’s fine book, J.R.R Tolkien, Writer of the Century, is a good read on this.

Just a note on this week’s blog and a personal connection. I refer to Louis MacNiece’s wonderful poem, Snow, in the post. When I first began to get to know my wife, Laura, back in the early 1990s, I noticed a framed copy of the poem in the hallway of her parents’ home in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England. The reason for this, so I learned, was because MacNiece had written this poem while a guest in the house some years before. It was in the time of a previous owner of the house but the summer house in which he wrote it remained very largely as it was at the time. We knew it mainly because at one time 21 of us used to sit down in it to eat on Christmas Day each year. A big fire used to roar in the fireplace. It was necessary on cold winter days. My mother in law, Bridget Pugh, used to teach English Literature at Birmingham University, and even in her later years also regularly taught a semester in Duluth, Minnesota. I am glad to say that she would teach a class on Tolkien.

Regular readers of the blog will notice two new things. One is that I include a page reference to my Harper Collins edition of The Lord of the Rings. That is to make it easier for readers who are reading the book to see what part of the story I am referring to. The other new thing is that I include an audio file of my reading of the post. This is at the encouragement of my wife who thinks people will like it. I would also like to thank my daughter, Bethan, who has helped me with the technical side of things. Please do let me know what you think of this in the comments section.

So,  introduction at an end, I invite you to read or listen or both and most importantly to enjoy another reading of The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Readers,

Barliman_Butterbur

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 21-24

To know and to love a plot of land is no shame and does not diminish or shrink the soul in or of itself. It was the great Irish poet of the mid-twentieth century, Patrick Kavanagh, who wrote of such knowledge and such love:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

The Gaffer, Master Hamfast Gamgee, of Number 3 Bagshot Row below Bag End in Hobbiton, the Shire, knows the gardens that he tends for Mr Bilbo Baggins. He knows every furrow and every corner, the right times to plant and the right times to harvest, but perhaps we might say that he has never fully experienced the gardens that he has spent a lifetime looking after.

To fully experience something is to look, not at, but through it. It is to have the vision that George Herbert speaks of when he writes:

“A man who looks on glass, on it may stay his eye; or if he pleaseth through it pass, and then the heaven espy.”

Or William Blake who speaks of seeing “A World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”.

This is the poetic experience that Kavanagh speaks of and that the Gaffer has never known or valued and which he fears in watching his son, Sam, grow up. He knows that the world is “suddener than we fancy it” as Louis MacNiece speaks of in his poem, Snow. He speaks of “mountains of gold” in foreign parts, the places to which Bilbo mythologically travelled long ago, but he seeks to protect himself from such experience by reserving it for the gentry, the business of his betters, as he puts it. This allows him to remain within the safety of cabbages and potatoes and to keep his distance from Elves and Dragons.

Poor Master Hamfast! What glory he will never see, even the glory right underneath his very nose. The very cabbages and potatoes that he regards as symbols of safety and security would, in the hands of an elven cook, become a heavenly banquet.

For the Gaffer’s son, Samwise, everything is laden with possibility although at this point in his life the possibility lies elsewhere. One day he will be gardener to the Shire and bring this possibility within the very boundaries that his father thinks to be safe and known. Sam is learning his poetic experience through the “stories of the old days” as the Gaffer puts it and he has learned to read and write. Already he begins to know that the mythic, the world of Elves and Dragons, lies within his grasp, but not here, not in Hobbiton or the Shire. He still believes that he must go elsewhere to experience it. The Gaffer believes this too. Perhaps because he too believes that the mythical cannot lie within his own garden he is afraid. He is afraid of foreign parts and he is afraid of losing Sam to such an experience.

I grew up in the English countryside on farms that my father ran for wealthy people. It was a world of cabbages and potatoes, or pigs and fields of wheat in our case, but beauty and joy kept breaking into my life. A walk with my father through a wood filled with bluebells and sensing the strangeness of the church to which we had gone together. Walking across a room and suddenly standing transfixed in joy as a piece of orchestral string music began to play on our television set. And listening to the wonderful Miss Maher reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to us in my village school as the dusk of an autumn afternoon began to descend and I walked with Lucy Pevensie for the first time through the wardrobe into Narnia. Like Sam my ability to see, to listen, to go beyond the surface of things to the heaven that lies beyond was being formed.

“I hope no harm will come of it,” says the Gaffer. But harm does come. Sam will be be taken into a world that is far too big for him, to dangers that no other hobbit has ever faced, but he will see wonders that no other hobbit has ever seen.

The two go together.

 

The King and The Healing of Merry

And so last but not least Aragorn comes to the bed in which Merry lies. Pippin sits anxiously beside his friend, fearing that he might die but Aragorn speaks words of reassurance.

“Do not be afraid… I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.”

And so Aragorn reaches past all the anxiety, self-doubt and fear that has beset Merry on a journey that has been almost too much for his conscious self and he reaches within to what Merry truly is, one that is both strong and gay. We saw both with Faramir and Éowyn that when Aragorn crushes the leaves of athelas and sprinkles them onto the bowl of steaming water that the fragrance that rises to fill the room speaks of the true self and calls it forth from the dark tomb created by the Black Breath; and so it is with Merry.

“When the fragrance of athelas stole through the room, like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees, suddenly Merry awoke, and he said:

‘I am hungry. What is the time?'”

If Faramir’s true self lies in the realm of his deepest yearning, a realm beyond the borders of Middle-earth, and even beyond Valinor, and if Éowyn’s lies in the pure Northernness that is evoked in the tapestry of her ancestor, Eorl the Young, and in the memory of the origins of her people, then for Merry it is a self that is entirely at one with his land and his people.

A few minutes later, when the great ones have gone to attend to other matters, Merry and Pippin sit down to attend to the ritual of preparing a pipe for smoking. And as they do so they briefly ponder what they have experienced and the great ones that they have met along the way. Aragorn had said that Merry would learn wisdom from what he had experienced and now Merry displays this wisdom as he reflects a moment.

“It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.”

If only this wisdom were more widely understood, practiced and taught. To learn how to love, to truly love and to cherish that which we know does not close the door to what Merry calls the things that are “deeper and higher”. In fact it opens the way to them. The great Irish peasant poet, Patrick Kavanagh, wrote:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

Perhaps Merry is not yet able to say these words but one day, perhaps when his youthful energy is somewhat abated and he begins to sit a little longer beside the junction of streams in a woody meadow and looks at them and then looks at them some more, then he will be able to speak these words for himself. He may even be able to link them to “poetic experience” to “the dearest freshness deep down things” as Hopkins puts it. He has already begun to do so now pondering the greatness of Aragorn and Gandalf and in the days of uncertainty that lie ahead in his enforced rest in the Houses of Healing the deepening of his wisdom will continue.

Ready to Risk Everything

Treebeard has lived for ages beyond the reckoning of almost every living creature, except perhaps Tom Bombadil. He has seen the rise and fall of many kingdoms, the glory of Gondolin and Nargothrond and the terrible might of Angband and its master, Morgoth. And he has weathered all this like a mighty oak delighting in the summer sun and standing fast against the storms of winter. To live through all that he has seen has required above all the ability to survive, to harvest whatever is given, to store when necessary, and to endure, always to endure. “I do not like worrying about the future,” he tells Merry and Pippin. For him it is enough to live each day as best he can, fulfilling the task given to him to be the shepherd of the trees.

But now he is prepared to risk all upon an attack on Saruman’s stronghold of Isengard, an attack that may well see the end of the Ents and their age long vigil. “It is likely enough that we are going to our doom,” he says, “the last march of the Ents.”

When the human enterprise is reduced, either to a desire to dominate others for the sake of our own aggrandisement, or in a bid to build fortresses about ourselves when domination no longer seems to be a possibility in order to preserve whatever we can hang onto then this enterprise has been given over to the mean and diminished spirit of Saruman. There is a right and proper desire to conserve what is good, true and beautiful, but as Gandalf says to Treebeard, “You have not plotted to cover the world with your trees and choke all other living things” as Saruman has done, choosing at the moment of the wreck of his ambition to hang onto the shreds of his desire rather than submit and so become a servant once more.

Perhaps, like Treebeard, we will rightly give much of our lives to the building and preservation of some goodness in the world, a home where children can be raised and guests welcomed. Such a life is a good life and worthy of respect. It is when our homes become mean places set in competition against the need of others, with doors and windows permanently barred and shuttered, that they diminish and we with them. And the same is so when we become incapable of risking what we have for the sake of a greater good. Patrick Kavanagh expresses this in his wonderful poem, “The Self Slaved” when he declares:

Me I will throw away.
Me sufficient for the day
The sticky self that clings
Adhesions on the wings
To love and adventure,
To go on the grand tour
A man must be free
From self-necessity

Kavanagh discovered this freedom after being successfully treated for cancer and sensing that he had been given his life back again.

In the poem he discerns a meanness of spirit from which he has been liberated. Now he can truly live life. He goes on to say:

I will have love, have love
From anything made of
And a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you.

Treebeard knows this spirit and in marching on Isengard he gives himself up to such a wild moment with joy. Happy the one who knows how to do this, whose life does not shrivel up in meanness and diminishment.