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.

Frodo and Sam Rest For a While in The Woods of Ithilien

Frodo and Sam have been here before because the Field of Cormallen lies close to the refuge of Henneth Annûn. These are the woods that they came to on their journey, guided by Gollum, from the desolation that lay before the Black Gate of Mordor to the Crossroads, the Morgul Vale and then the great climb up to the Pass of Cirith Ungol. These are the woods in Ithilien, the desolate garden of Gondor that “kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness” even as they were ravaged by orcs and other foes of Gondor.

It is only a few short weeks since Frodo and Sam were last in these woods in the first days of March. Even then Spring was beginning and the life of the Earth was already breaking through the destructive grip of Mordor after the cold of Winter. “Fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing.” Now the Spring is advanced and in its full riotous glory of smells, sights and sounds. Even amidst the fearfulness of their last visit to Ithilien Frodo and Sam were refreshed by the gentle beauty of this place, now they linger there without fear “visiting again the places that they had passed before.” This time they know that there are no dangers hiding in a shadow or behind a rock or tree. The song of a bird can be heard clearly without the possibility of an iron clad footfall of an orc being listened for amidst its beauty. The “groves and thickets… of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay” can be gazed upon and their aromas drank in without fear that they may conceal an enemy who might do them hurt.

The last time that they were here Frodo and Sam were pressing forward, always aware that every moment’s delay in their journey to the mountain might lead to disaster for their friends and all that they loved. The curtain of water cascading down the rocks that concealed the refuge of Faramir and his Rangers might be gazed upon for a moment as the setting sun lit it with light and colour but always there was the sense as they paused in their journey that there was another step to be taken, another danger to be faced.

Tolkien’s story is filled with pauses in which the characters encounter beauty in a manner that takes hold of them, making them stop to take it in. The hidden valley of Rivendell, the woods of Lothlórien, the glittering caves of Aglarond and the refuge of Henneth Annûn in the woods of Ithilien are all such places. Each one calls them to turn aside for a moment from their task but they are not thereby distractions. A distraction is a pulling or dragging away of the mind from the needful thing. In The Lord of the Rings the encounter with beauty is not a distraction but a recollection. The essential is that which is good, true and beautiful and it is the essential that is threatened by the Dark Lord and yet so woven into the very fabric of reality that the Dark Lord cannot touch and destroy it. We recall Frodo’s cry of “They cannot conquer for ever!” at the flower-crowned head of the statue of the King of Gondor cast down by orcs and Sam’s vision of the star beyond the mirks of Mordor that is inaccessible to the reach of Sauron.

Already Frodo and Sam have known that there is “the dearest freshness deep down things” and so they can wander through Ithilien without fear and contemplate it in a way far beyond that which those who have not known the dark as they have done can do. This is the dawn that awaits those who watch through the dark of the night, the Springtime prepared for those who have endured through Winter.

Frodo Gets Ready for The Feast at the Field of Cormallen

The Day of Praisegiving at the Field of Cormallen comes to an end with a great feast and the reuniting of friends as Frodo and Sam, and Merry and Pippin, and Legolas and Gimli greet one another and delight in the joy of being alive after great tribulation.

It is in preparation for the feast that Gandalf adopts the role of squire to the knights of the West who are Frodo and Sam.

“Gandalf, as if he were their esquire, knelt and girt the sword-belts about them, and then arising he set circlets of silver upon their heads. And when they were arrayed they went to the great feast; and they sat at the king’s table”

At first, when Gandalf presents a sword to Frodo, Frodo refuses to wear it. “I do not wish for any sword,” he says. For Frodo the days of battle are at an end. He fought with all the strength that he could muster and he was bested at the last by a power too great for him. If it had not been for his enemy he would have failed at the last and all the struggle would have been in vain. It was Gollum who took the Ring to the Fire, albeit by accident as it were, and not the one appointed to bear the Ring.

In part Frodo’s refusal to carry a sword is a recognition of his own sense of failure. In another it is a desire on his part to have no more to do with war. Frodo has seen at first hand the horror of war, the malice and hatred that Sauron sought to unleash upon the earth, and he hates it.

But Gandalf knows that the feast is not for Frodo alone nor is the magnificent raiment with which he is arrayed. When a great gift is received with grace it is not just the one who receives who is honoured but the one who gives as well. The circlet of silver with which Frodo is crowned, the sword with which he is girt, the mithril coat and the Elven cloak in which he is arrayed, are all an act of doing honour to those who gather at the feast. Some are great knights of Gondor, or of the Dunedain, or of the guard of the King of Rohan. Others are simple farming folk in valleys of Gondor far from Minas Tirith or in the fields of the Westfold of Rohan and when Frodo is arrayed as a fellow warrior and sits to eat with them he does them honour. He declares that their deeds in the war, their hopeless march to the Black Gate, perhaps achieved by overcoming great fear, are all worthy of honour. He names them brothers by sitting among them. And it is not just the warriors who are gathered at the feast who are honoured thus but every village, every family from which they have come.

The Ring was not destroyed by warfare, indeed the war was not won by strength of arms. If the War of the Ring had been a matter of besting the enemy by arms and superior power then it would have been necessary to use the Ring. That would have been as great a catastrophe as Sauron’s victory would have been. But the battles at Helm’s Deep, at Pelargir, at the Pelennor Fields and finally before the Black Gate, were not thereby of no account in comparison to the deeds of the Ringbearer. Without their courage, without their willingness to lay down their lives there would have been no journey through Mordor to the Mountain. And so it is not to seek the praise of others that Frodo must wear a sword at the feast but to honour all who fought. As Shakespeare puts in the mouth of King Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

A Day of Praisegiving upon The Field of Cormallen

After Sam and Frodo have woken in a soft bed for the first time in many days, delighting in the sheer wonder of being alive, they are made ready to play the central part in a day of Praisegiving.

“‘What shall we wear?’ said Sam; for all he could see was the old tattered clothes that they had journeyed in, lying folded on the ground beside their beds.

‘The clothes that you wore on your way to Mordor,’ said Gandalf. ‘Even the orc clothes that you wore in the black land, Frodo, shall be preserved. No silks and linens, nor any armour or heraldry could be more honourable.'”

And so Frodo and Sam are brought before the host of the West and the Praisegiving begins. There are mighty shouts, “Long live the Halflings! Praise them with great praise!” The King leads his people in doing honour to the heroes by bowing the knee and leading Frodo and Sam to thrones set up beside his own. And a minstrel sings praise before the host and the heroes telling them of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom”, so making Sam’s joy complete. So great is the skill of the minstrel that the hearts of all who listen are “wounded with sweet words” and they overflow with a joy “like swords” until they pass “in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

This Day of Giving Praise is one that enables all who are gathered together on The Field of Cormallen to create a sacred space within their hearts to hold all that has happened to them as a treasure that in days to come they will be able to take out and gaze upon to make some sense of all that will happen to them in their lives. For they will know many more days of sorrow and of joy and will share those days with others too. But they have been to the very edge of darkness and have seen it gather about them, ready to devour them, and then the light has broken through to carry them to blessedness and they hardly know how they have got there or what the place is that they have reached.

Stories must be told and doubtless a story of the deeds of Frodo and Sam has been told to the army before they appear before them. Of course they know nothing of the journey through Mordor or the final events upon the Mountain. All that they know is that the Halflings who stand before them, clothed in orc rags, are their deliverers. Even the minstrel who tells the story with such skill does not know what we would call the facts. What he knows is a truth that is so real that even the hobbits, who lived the facts, recognise it as their own lived experience and recognise it too as something that transcends that experience. Both the praise that the host gives and the song of the minstrel rely upon formulae, of recognised forms of speech, but the overflow of their hearts is in no way diminished by this. Rather it is contained as a river channel contains a mighty flood enabling the water’s force to empower rather than destroy.

Once again we are taken back to Frodo’s experience in the halls of Elrond when Bilbo’s singing of the Tale of Eärendil and Frodo’s experience of the mighty river of the Music of the Ainur all became one thing for a moment.

It is this experience that all who gather upon the Field of Cormallen will be able to draw upon in years to come. The giving of praise, a king who kneels before hobbits of the Shire clothed in orc rags, and a tale sung by the greatest of minstrels that transported them briefly to a place of blessedness and then brought them back to the ground upon which they must stand and then leave to the feast and then to their duties.

And if they should choose each duty will be transfigured from this day on by the treasure that they carry within their hearts and even those who allow the treasure to be choked and buried by the cares of their lives may, in a moment of illumination, find the light that they once experienced upon The Field of Cormallen breaking through once more.

The image in this week’s blog post is by Tolman Cotton.

Sam Wakes Up in Bed at The Field of Cormallen

I have many favourite moments in The Lord of the Rings and two of the very best are when Frodo wakes up in bed in Rivendell after the flight to the Fords of Bruinen and this scene at The Field of Cormallen.

“When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.”

Tolkien mixes some beautiful images, springtime after winter, light after darkness, rich verdant plenty after a wasteland and my own particular favourite, waking up in a comfortable bed after a hard journey.

As a young man I spent six years as a teacher in a secondary school (high school) in Africa. I loved to travel and soon learned that every journey was in itself an adventure to a degree that in the West we have tried to eliminate. We have “more important” things to do with our time such as being on time for meetings and other apparently essential things than we have for adventure. Adventure, after all, is always an interruption to our plans. It is exciting to watch the adventures of others but, on the whole, most of us are hobbits and we find adventures to be “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things” that “make you late for dinner”.

My African experience was that dinner and a bed for the night when travelling was always a triumph and usually depended upon an act of kind hospitality on the part of someone else. What this certainly taught me was to value the gift of a comfortable bed. It was certainly better than the hard ground although I learned to sleep on that too.

But I think that my love for the scene of Sam waking up in bed links to an earlier and deeper experience and that is of the profound feeling of being safe, and everything being alright, that I felt from time to time in childhood. Childhood has many insecurities even in the happiest ones. Dark corners hide possible dangers while the fear of an encounter with a bigger boy with whom you have some unresolved matter can occupy the imagination for a long time. Waking up in bed feeling safe with the sun streaming through the curtains and the prospect of a day of delight ahead is a simple pleasure that is rarely surpassed through life and the likelihood is that the day of delight belongs to the holidays and those who know their C.S Lewis know what a joy the holiday is. He links it closely to the joy of heaven.

As always, Tolkien is a little more reticent about making such links openly than is Lewis. But surely heaven is, at least in part, that sense of waking up and knowing, knowing at the depths of one’s being, that everything is alright. As a serious grown-up I usually awake with the knowledge that there is work to do. But I remember the childhood experience and it has a ring of truth to it that makes all my adult awakenings seem pallid by comparison. I may catch glimpses of joy but that was the real thing.

This is Sam’s experience. It is one of “bewilderment and great joy”, of being “glad to wake”, and his great cry of joy, of praise, “is everything sad going to come untrue?”

This is truly one of those glimpses of “the world made new”. Gandalf’s response to Sam’s cry of praise is not to point out that there will be struggles ahead. We all know that there will be. Gandalf joins Sam’s hymn of praise to “the dearest freshness deep down things” by laughing and his laughter is a “sound like music, or like water in a parched land.”

Like Sam we sometimes catch glimpses of this reality although for for few, if for any, are they so hard won. My enjoyment of the triumph of finding a good meal and a bed for the night in my journeys in Africa point me to the deeper authenticity of Sam’s experience on the Field of Cormallen but for both of us the fulfilment of that joy lies ahead at the fulfilment of all things, the great conclusion of the Music of the Ainur.

Frodo Comes to the End of All Things on Mount Doom but Sam is Not So Sure.

“I am glad that you are here with me,” said Frodo. “Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

The Ring has gone to the Fire; the mighty tower of Barad-dûr has fallen into the dust; and the Dark Lord has passed forever into the shadow never to rise again. Amidst all of the ruin Frodo is content that his labours are at an end, his burden has gone and the night is falling. He has no wish to make some kind of escape. There is no future that he can see in which he might play some part. He has been wounded in the shoulder by the terrible knife of the Lord of the Nazgûl in the attack upon the camp below Weathertop; he has received a sting in the neck from Shelob in her lair; and his finger has been bitten clean off by Gollum in his desperate and final attempt to regain the Ring. Besides this he has been wearied beyond any strength that he might possess by the Ring that he has borne, mile after mile all the way from Bag End to the Cracks of Doom themselves.

And there is one thing further. At the very end of his journey he failed. He came to Orodruin with the purpose of casting the Ring into the Fire but when he came there he could not do the deed and claimed the Ring for himself. If it had not been for Gollum’s final attack Sauron would have regained it and all would have been lost. Frodo may be free from the Ring’s hold upon him, the Quest may be achieved, he may even be at peace in a certain way having forgiven Gollum but it is a peace that almost welcomes death. Death means that nothing further need be explained or even resolved.

Three times Frodo tells Sam that they have come to the end but Sam is not so sure.

“Yes I am with you, Master,” said Sam, laying Frodo’s wounded hand gently to his breast. “And you’re with me. And the journey’s finished. But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me somehow, if you understand.”

Sam has much to live for. His love for Frodo means that he will always do what he can for him, always seek, to the best of his understanding, his best good. And Sam has other longings too. He longs for life itself. You will recall that as they approached the mountain and their water had finally run out that Sam remembered “every brook or stream or fount that he had ever seen, under green willow-shades or twinkling in the sun… He felt the cool mud about his toes as he paddled in the Pool at Bywater with Jolly Cotton and Tom and Nibs, and their sister Rosie.” There is much that Sam would like to go home to, the gentle beauty of the Shire, good friends and Rosie Cotton. Sam would like to be married, to build a home and raise a family. Simple and good desires.

The twentieth century philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich, spoke about the need, in our age of anxiety about meaninglessness, to find a courage to be. In many ways Frodo is a modern man in search of meaning. His restlessness is growing even before he leaves the Shire and when the Ring goes to the Fire he sees no more purpose to his existence. Sam is, by contrast, a pre-modern man, rooted in a sense of place and a stable society and unafflicted by Frodo’s anxiety. Ultimately, and much to his disappointment, Sam will not be able to heal Frodo, but now amidst the ruin of Mordor, he will do what he can.

And so he gently but firmly leads Frodo away from the Cracks of Doom and down the road that they had taken in their ascent of the mountain until they reach a low ashen hill at the mountain’s foot that, for a brief moment, has become an island in the sea of ruin round about them. He cannot give up and it is his indomitable spirit as well as his love for Frodo that keeps them alive just long enough for Gandalf and Gwaihir to rescue them, performing a kindness for which all Tolkien’s readers have been grateful ever since he first brought us this wonderful story.