On Pilgrimage in Northumberland With Frodo Baggins and Friends.

With the assistance of The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991)

“Looking in a mirror he was startled to see a much thinner reflection of himself than he remembered: it looked remarkably like the young nephew of Bilbo who used to go tramping with his uncle in the Shire; but the eyes looked out at him thoughtfully.”

That’s Me On The Trail!

I feel confident that you will recognise those words from the beautiful chapter entitled Many Meetings from The Fellowship of the Ring as Frodo prepares to leave the room in Rivendell in which he has lain close to death, or worse, for many days. I read them again with a rueful smile as I look back over eight days in which I have been walking the St Oswald’s Way with my wife, Laura, in Northumberland, England, a journey of 100 miles from St Oswald’s church at Heavenfield by Hadrian’s Wall to Holy Island in the north of the county. I say, rueful, because I have lost no weight at all in these last days. It is one thing to walk in the wild, pursued by Black Riders, making supplies last in the knowledge that they cannot replenished until journey’s end. My experience, by contrast, was as if I had stayed every night in The Prancing Pony in Bree with Barliman Butterbur refilling my plate or glass whenever I requested it, or as in one memorable place, as if I had stumbled across the house of Tom Bombadil, or as in this case, of the wonderful Anne Armitage, who might easily have bade us welcome with the words:

Hey! Come derry doll! Hop along, my hearties!
Hobbits! Ponies all! We are fond of parties.
Now let the fun begin! Let us sing together. 

Our way headed north from the ancient Roman wall, the northern most border of their empire, to Anne’s lovely house along a quiet country lane. This we had prearranged using the modern means of booking apps. We had tried to find accommodation each night that would be as close as possible to our route and Anne’s house was just a few hundred yards off the path. Our second night’s stay with her was unexpected. The small hotel that we had booked had closed. No wonder they did not return any of our attempts to communicate with them. We could find no alternatives locally and Anne rescued us, coming to pick us up and cooking us a lavish dinner that she served with delight.

St Oswald’s Church, Heavenfield at the start of the St Oswald’s Way
St Mary’s church on Holy Island at its ending

“‘I can carry enough for two,’ said Sam defiantly.”

Sam Gamgee Carries His Pack

We had decided that proper pilgrims ought to carry their own packs and not to use the services of one of those firms who will transfer your luggage between your pre-booked stopping places. I don’t know if this is necessarily the best idea and, doubtless, as I grow older I will either have to make use of services such as these or to take shorter walks. One thing is determined over necessity when you carry your own pack and that is that you can only take what you can carry yourself. I have no doubt that Sam Gamgee is capable of carrying enough for two, at least for a short time, but even what we thought had been careful packing proved to be indisciplined. Wash bags that contained too much will require more attention. After all, every hotel and bed and breakfast establishment will offer you shampoo and body wash. What is absolutely clear is that the reduction of weight is an absolute principle for long distance walking, whether it is the weight of your pack or your body. Next time I go a wandering I intend to carry less in both respects!

“Strider sat silent for a while, looking at the hobbits, as if he was weighing up their strength and courage.”

I wonder what he would see in me. I rather fear that he would find me lacking in both respects. But I hope that he would decide that I had taken Tom Bombadil’s advice to “keep up your merry hearts”. I do feel that complaint robs you of the energy that you need for other things. Things like enjoyment of the beautiful English countryside. How mean spirited it would have been to walked among such loveliness and to have complained of tired limbs instead of taking delight in it. And if I could lay the beer at The Sun Hotel in Warkworth “under an enchantment of surpassing excellence for seven years” then I would gladly do so although I rather think that they do not require my help in that regard!

Over moorland at the high point of the St Oswald’s Way

And now on this first day home again I will take a day’s rest, my first since the start of the trail, looking back with gratitude to the places of hospitality that I enjoyed and the beauty that I walked through each day. But not before I give you a link to Anne Armitage and her Hadrian’s Therapy Spa. And if you ever stay there please give her my warmest greetings. And many thanks, Anne, for the wonderful barbecue that you cooked us when we returned to pick up our car from you at the end of the walk.

https://www.hadriantherapyspa.co.uk/

“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

Frodo is Cheered by Old Trolls. With a Little Help from a Song by Sam Gamgee.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 197-203

In attempting to keep away from the great East-West Road that runs from Rivendell to the Grey Havens, fearing that it will be upon the road that the Nazgûl will be lying in wait, Strider has taken the hobbits a little too far to the north. It is at this point that Tolkien’s maps of Middle-earth that he drew for The Lord of the Rings give us little guidance about the exact route of their journey. Although it is clear from Tolkien’s wonderfully evocative description that the travellers have to negotiate some difficult terrain with steep climbs and descents the map shows us none of this and we are left to our imaginations to trace their path. Indeed for a long time there is no path. They have to find their way through what is literally a trackless waste until Pippin stumbles upon one.

We remember the paths created by Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, respectfully even tenderly weaving in and out among the trees following the line of the Withywindle. This path in the wild is a brutal affair “made by strong arms and heavy feet. Here and there old trees had been cut or broken down, and large rocks cloven or heaved aside to make a way. “

Eventually we learn that the heavy lifting machinery is, in fact, three trolls, the very three who years before had captured the thirteen dwarves of the expedition to the Lonely Mountain that had been Bilbo’s great adventure; and the reason why they are now effigies seated on the ground in a clearing in the Trollshaws is that Gandalf had tricked them into continuing an argument about how to cook their prey until the rising sun had turned them into stone.

Ted Nasmith’s evocation of the tale of Bilbo and the Trolls from The Hobbit

Throughout this stage of the journey Frodo has been drifting in and out of a shadowy world. We will not find out until later in Rivendell that a tiny sliver of the Morgul blade that had pierced his shoulder has been working its way inwards towards his heart, slowly but inexorably drawing him into the world of shadows in which his attackers dwell, but the progress of this deadly invader does not seem to be an even one and moments like this seem to stay its malevolent influence, for a time at least.

The person whose wholesome influence has this effect upon Frodo is Sam. I wonder if in this scene Tolkien was recalling the way in which soldiers in the trenches of the First World War would try to cheer each other up with songs like the one that Sam sings here in the shadow of the frozen trolls. Probably some of them were pretty bawdy but some would, as with Sam’s simple ditty, have simply made their hearers smile. And Frodo does smile. In the trenches such songs would have kept at bay a slow freezing of the heart for men, lice infested and surrounded by death. Here Sam’s song slows the progress of the splinter towards Frodo’s heart. Frodo jokingly declares that Sam might “end up by becoming a wizard-or a warrior” and wizards and warriors will both play a vital part in this story.

Alan Lee depicts the travellers amongst the stone trolls in the Trollshaws

But so too will jesters. That is the word that Frodo uses, somewhat dismissively we have to acknowledge, to describe Sam at this point of the story. Frodo does not yet know that the part that this jester is going to play in getting him and the Ring to the Cracks of Doom is going to be absolutely vital. Sam will prove to be a warrior, although never one by choice, especially in his heroic battle with Shelob in her lair and in his storming of the Tower of Cirith Ungol but it is his simple refusal to abandon his cheerful spirit that will play the kind of role that only someone who is learning to see through the eyes of a child will ever come to value. Those who study to achieve a cultured sophistication will never have that vision. Frodo might have been tempted to be such a sophisticate but his terrible suffering in the course of his Ringbearing journey will teach him that it is not cleverness that sustains us in our darkest days but pure and simple goodness.

Ted Nasmith’s tender imagining of Sam singing to cheer his companions

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost. Gandalf’s Letter Commends Aragorn to the Hobbits.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 160-168

It is Gandalf’s letter that he had left with Barliman Butterbur that eventually convinced the hobbits to trust the strange man who goes by the name of Strider. Of course, when I say, trust, it must be said that Sam Gamgee did not really trust him. Sam has grown up in a small world,”in a little circle of light,” as Tolkien put it in his essay on Beowulf, The Monsters and The Critics, from which “men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”

Not that Sam expects his journey to end in defeat. Sam Gamgee is a happy ever after kind of a man who expects things, even the darkest things, to end well. Much will ride upon this quality in the events that lie ahead. But Sam has grown up in a little circle of light and regards the world outside as dark and hostile. He does not know how to distinguish between the offspring of the dark and the kings and champions; not yet at any rate. But the strange man who now stands before the hobbits knows this world very well indeed. Speaking of the Black Riders who are pursuing the hobbits he says:

“They will come upon you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help.”

They will come upon you in the wild

This man knows about about the offspring of the dark. “They are terrible!” He has wandered the wild and dark places of the earth for many years having been sent out from the circle of light that is Rivendell by Elrond, its lord, who has been as a father to him. I have written about him and his story in greater detail in other places in this blog over the years and if you click on the tag, Aragorn, at the end of this post, you will be able to read these if you so wish but as this is the first time in The Lord of the Rings in which we meet this king and champion it would be good to say a few things about him.

This is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, chieftain of the Rangers of the North, the last of the line of Isildur, son of Elendil, the hero who cut the Ring from the finger of Sauron with the shards of Narsil his father’s sword. Aragorn still carries those shards, “the blade that was broken”, the symbol of his diminished house. And Elrond sent him out from the circle of light to “that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark” when he was a young man in order that he might undergo an apprenticeship that will lead to this crownless one becoming king.

Sustained by Love

In this apprenticeship he serves in the armies of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, and of Thengel, King of Rohan and he befriends Gandalf, aiding him in his long struggle against the dark. Through all these long years he is sustained by hope, hope that his wandering will not end in defeat but in the renewing , not just of the blade that was broken but of his people. And he is sustained by love, for he loves Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond, who returned his love, but he cannot win her hand in marriage except as king of both Gondor and of Arnor, the first to sit upon both thrones since the great founder of his house, Elendil and he cannot achieve his longings unless the Dark Lord, Sauron, is finally and utterly defeated. So it is that he meets a hobbit who does “want looking after and no mistake”, who might be “on a holiday” and not at the heart of the greatest events of his age and he has to base all his longing upon this encounter and because of his friendship with Gandalf he chooses to do so. “If by life or death I can save you, I will.”

I began these thoughts with a quotation from Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf. In it Tolkien describes an heroic but ultimately hopeless world. Despite their courage the heroes, “even the kings and champions” are finally defeated in their struggle against the dark. Aragorn has no idea whether or not his story will end in defeat. He has to place his trust, all the longings of his life in this slenderest of threads. Is this a story of hope fulfilled or of defeat and darkness? Will Aragorn’s wanderings end in a homecoming or will he be lost in the wilderness?

“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.

Frodo Finds Sanctuary With Farmer Maggot

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 86-95

Tolkien grew up first of all in the village of Hall Green in the county of Warwickshire and then in the city of Birmingham, raised by priests of the Birmingham Oratory founded in the 19th century by John Henry Newman. He never loved the city although he had a deep respect for the priests who became as fathers to him. Even in his time the city was coming ever closer to Hall Green and today it is a suburb of the city and it is hard to remember that it was ever seperate from it. But he always kept a close connection to the country through his mother’s family who farmed in a village in North Worcestershire just a few miles from where I now live.

The farmhouses hereabouts are sturdy affairs and as most of the smaller farms have become economically unviable in recent years so they have become much sought after dwellings for people who have made their money elsewhere. But there are still plenty of families who have farmed the land here since the young Tolkien would visit his aunt and grandfather and I rather think that he would still recognise the same kind of people that he would have met then, with their slow speech delivered with care who became the models for his hobbits.

A Worcestershire Farmhouse

People like Farmer Maggot. We never learn his first name and I doubt whether he or Mrs Maggot would use first names to each other unless something needed to be said that was very serious. He would identify most with his family name, one that he would bear proudly, linked as it was with the land that he and his ancestors had farmed and the house that they had built. As Tom Bombadil was to say of him later on, “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones and both his eyes are open.”

Farmer and Mrs Maggot

I have lived here for a few years now and as a parish priest I have a position in these villages that has been a part of their life for many centuries. I have discovered that the older families are willing to give me a chance and just as Farmer Maggot and his wife welcome Frodo and his companions into their home without hesitation, that is, of course, after they realise who they are, so I too know that I can count upon a respectful welcome even if I show up unannounced. And I know that once I am made welcome people like the Maggots will be fiercely loyal to me thereafter. It is a loyalty that I am determined to treasure and never abuse.

It is the kind of loyalty that is willing to take great risks. Maggot has no idea how deadly the creatures are who are looking for Frodo beyond his brief encounter with the one who rode up to his door that day but even if he did he would still never betray a guest that he had welcomed to his table. And he would certainly never betray the eldest son of one of the most respected families in the Shire, that is Mister Peregrin Took. Such bonds of mutual respect and, often, kinship too, are not to be lightly put aside or done so even under great duress.

Workers in the fields on an English farm in the early 20th century

Sadly, even in the Shire, things were changing and within less than a year of Frodo’s brief stay in Farmer Maggot’s house there will be plenty of hobbits who will cheer on the coup d’etat engineered by Lotho Sackville Baggins, that sour faced hobbit, who drank his parents’ resentment in at being excluded from Bag End with his mother’s milk. They too will be hungry for the status from which they feel themselves to have been excluded. They will feel entitled to share in the privilege that they believe families like the Tooks, the Brandybucks and even the Maggots enjoy.

But now on this September evening Maggot will go to his bed with a feeling of satisfaction because of the way in which he has helped a neighbour while Frodo, Pippin, Sam, and Meriadoc Brandybuck too (who they have met along the way), make a grateful way to the cottage at Crickhollow after the adventures of the day.

Sam Gamgee has Something to Do Before the End. Frodo and Sam decide to leave the Shire as soon as possible.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 84-86

Frodo awakens in a strangely scented bed of fern and grass in a bower created within a living tree. The Elves have gone and so Frodo emerges from a night spent in the Elder Days to hear Pippin’s usual chatter. It is a beautiful morning in the Shire but Gildor Inglorien’s words have gone home to his heart.

“I think that you should now go at once, without delay; and if Gandalf does not come before you set out, then I also advise this: do not go alone.”

Frodo and the High Elves in Woodhall by Alan Lee

Frodo now understands that the Shire is no longer safe and that he must leave it. He had perhaps hoped that he might rest in Crickhollow in Buckland for a while but he knows now that this is not possible. But what of Gildor’s second piece of advice? Who, if anyone, should he take him with him?

“You still mean to come with me?” he asks Sam. And Sam’s reply is sure and firm.

“Don’t you leave him! they said to me. Leave him! I said. I never mean to. I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon, and if any of those Black Riders try to stop him they’ll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with.”

So far, so much the kind of bluster that a young man might summon up to make himself a little braver and Frodo is inclined merely to acknowledge it. But then Sam says something that makes Frodo really take notice.

Frodo has asked Sam whether he still likes Elves now that he has had a closer view of them. It is the kind of question that a teacher might ask of a a pupil of which they are fond but it is not asked with much expectation of great wisdom. Then Sam replies:

“They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak…It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I had expected- so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.”

Elves in the Woody End, by Ted Nasmith

We never learn what Sam had expected to see when he first met Elves and so we need to use our imaginations. Perhaps the picture that Sam had carried in his heart was one formed by his childhood experience of listening to Bilbo’s stories. He felt special in that he had been chosen to hear them and not any other young hobbit. He had been able to walk into a home in which there dwelt a figure of legend, a hobbit, fabulously wealthy, or so it was believed, who had journeyed to the Land of Fairie away from the cabbages and potatoes that seemed to form the limits of his father’s experience and imagination. And as he began to enter his adulthood he still carried this child’s experience within his heart, perhaps holding it even more dearly because he had had to defend it against the likes of Ted Sandyman.

But now he has seen Elves and even more, he has seen the Eldar, High Elves who have dwelt in Valinor, the Undying Lands, and who have communed with the Valar, the angelic beings who govern the earth for Ilúvatar, the One. Sam now knows that the Elves do not need to be defended by him. He realises that his opinion and the opinion of people like Ted Sandyman is of utter irrelevance to the beings that he has just met.

But this does not diminish him in any way. Indeed, if anything, it makes his soul grow larger. A large soul has not been merely inflated. A large soul is not focused upon itself but upon something greater than itself and so Sam replies to Frodo’s question as to whether he still needs to leave the Shire now that he has seen Elves.

“Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want- I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.”

Sam has made great steps towards a greatness that few ever begin to attain to.

“I Name You Elf Friend”. The Hobbits Meet and Stay With a Company of High Elves

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 77-83

The chance encounter, if chance it was as Gildor Inglorion observes, probably saves the hobbits from the Black Rider, the Nazgûl, most deadly of the servants of the Dark Lord. When Gildor and his company realise what it was from which they had inadvertently rescued Frodo and his companions they decide to take them under their protection and so the hobbits spend the night in a place of wonder.

The hobbits with Gildor by Alan Lee

In last week’s post we saw how Frodo begins to learn about the strangeness of a world that he had thought familiar. Gildor corrects Frodo when he speaks of “our own Shire”. “The wide world is all about you;” he says, “you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”

And the inability of hobbits and of ourselves too to fence the world out is a reason for thankfulness. It may be that enemies can enter the Shire but so too can friends, and in the case of the High Elves they are such friends as bring blessing beyond conceiving. For the hobbits that night in Woody End this blessing contains protection of course, but also for Sam it is the beginning of the fulfillment of a life long yearning. He has always wanted to see Elves and now they stand before him. The expression on his face, we are told, is one “half of fear and half of astonished joy”. And as for Pippin the whole thing is perhaps too much for him now. He is soon fast asleep but it begins an education that will make him a mighty hero.

And this is so for Frodo too. Gildor names him Elf Friend and this is not a title lightly given. Elrond of Rivendell will later say this of him at the Council that “though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador, and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself were assembled together, your seat should be among them.” The elves gave this title for those heroes who made common cause with them in the age long struggle against the dark. Elrond names some of them whose stories are told in The Silmarillion and other places but he could also have named his own father, Eàrendil, and Elendil, high king of Gondor and Arnor and Aragorn too.

Beren and Lúthien by Alan Lee

And why is Frodo named among them? He is not a mighty warrior, doing great deeds in battle. He will never sweep all his enemies from the field in a glorious charge of knights. It is not for this reason that Elrond names him among the company of heroes. No, the reason why Frodo is so named is because of the deed that he offers to do and the price that he is prepared to pay in order to do it. Gildor rightly judges that Frodo does not yet know the full scale of this but one might say that this was true of Beren before he set out to win a silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth. But like Beren Frodo has made the great choice. He will accomplish the task that he chooses to do and is in turn chosen for or he will be overthrown or even die in the attempt.

And the task is truly great as well. He will seek to destroy the Ring which, if it were to fall into the hands of the Dark Lord, would lead to the final victory of darkness over Middle-earth. Day by day he will conquer his fear. Day by day he will fight the growing desire of the Ring to return to its maker, a desire that will make the carrying of this burden intolerable. Eventually he will be cast down by the Ring but this will not happen until another undreamt of means will be provided to accomplish the Ring’s destruction.

It is for this reason that Elrond will confirm that he is truly an Elf-friend. Gildor knows far less than Elrond but even without the knowledge that Elrond has he perceives the greatness of the story in which he was been called upon to play a part and the greatness of the person who he has taken under his protection as well.

“The Road Goes Ever On and On”. Frodo, Sam and Pippin Begin a Journey that will change the World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 69-73

Those who know and love The Lord of the Rings know that Tolkien does not exactly hurry to get his story started. This ought to be a problem. Most story tellers know that unless you have gained your readers’ attention within minutes you will have lost them for ever. And yet in the best selling work of fiction of the last hundred years its author simply does not seem to care. What we are treated to as the world-changing epic journey begins is the anachronistic tale of two gentlemen and their servant setting out for a walking holiday.

Two Edwardian Gentlemen Out for a Stroll

Even the more unsettling matters, Gandalf’s failure to make the rendezvous or the encounter between Gaffer Gamgee and the Nazgûl are not permitted to spoil the general sense of well being. At this point in the story the worst thing that can happen is a soreness of the shoulder caused by the rubbing of the straps on a backpack. Happy the man or woman whose problems in life are limited to things such as this.

There is only one thing that disturbs this sense of wellbeing and that is Frodo’s melancholy. If we were to take our Edwardian imagery just a little further then we might liken Frodo’s mood to that which was retrospectively applied to the beautiful summer of 1914. Each memory of that summer was to be marked for ever after by sadness. Those who survived the war would remember the ones who had been lost with whom they had shared that day. And so Frodo looks back at the lights of Hobbiton and of Bywater twinkling in the dark and wonders if he will ever see them again.

An inn in the Cotswolds by night

Pippin has no more concern than to make his journey to Buckland as comfortable as possible and so in the middle of the day on the first full day of walking he declares to his companions that although the road might go on for ever he cannot, at least without a rest. Frodo takes up Pippin’s reference to the road and begins to recite.

The Road goes ever on and on 
   Down from the door where it began. 
Now far ahead the Road has gone, 
   And I must follow if I can, 
Pursuing it with weary feet, 
   Until it joins some larger way, 
Where many paths and errands meet. 
   And whither then? I cannot say. 

It is not the stepping into the Road that is daunting. Even the great journeys come to an end eventually as Bilbo once pointed out. “Do you realise that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, might take you to the Lonely Mountain?” And as you picture the mountain in your imagination its very loneliness calls you to follow the path. This call is to adventure and it makes your heart grow larger. But the “wither then?”, that sense that the Road may never end, that there might never be a homecoming, never a place to rest your head at the last, that is a different matter altogether. And that too is a possibility when you step out of your door and onto the Road.

Tolkien’s use of capital letters in a noun like this is always significant. This road is not a lane that takes you to a welcoming inn or the road to the home of a good friend. It is the Road. It is life itself and you do not know its final end. No wonder most people choose not to entertain such imaginings. They are much too big and most of us, maybe all of us, are much too small. A Gandalf, calling us to adventure, must cross our paths if we are to embark on such journeys. And when he does so the longing must be greater than the fear; at least until the journey is well underway.

The Road goes ever on and on

Samwise Gamgee Introduces Himself

The arrival of Samwise Gamgee into the story is not designed to earn our respect and admiration. That will not come until much later. Gandalf becomes aware that Sam has long since stopped any pretence of working in the garden outside the window by which he and Frodo have been talking and then:

“With a dart he sprang to the sill, and thrust a long arm out and downwards. There was a squawk, and up came Sam Gamgee’s curly head hauled by one ear.”

Actually I am sorry to say that it took me a long time before I was willing to give Sam any respect at all. When, at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo attempted to continue the journey to Mordor alone, the fifteen year old version of myself was delighted that at last he was free of the ludicrous Sam. I was furious when Sam came splashing through the water in search of Frodo. And when Frodo hauled him out of the river into the boat and greeted him with the words, “Of all the confounded nuisances you are the worst, Sam!” I fear that I agreed with him. I was only able to think of Sam as some kind of encumbrance and certainly not as the one without whom the task could never have been accomplished, without whom Frodo would not have got very far.

You see, I am back to the journey of discovery that I wrote about last week. Back to the place where Tolkien was himself when he described himself as “immensely amused by hobbits as such, and can contemplate them eating and making their fatuous jokes indefinitely.”

Oh dear, fatuous jokes. At first this was all that Tolkien expected of hobbits. Clearly, Frodo became an exception to this low expectation, and a remarkable exception at that. But as for the rest of the race of hobbits little more was to be expected of them except an enjoyment of food and drink and a rather dull sense of humour. And at this point in the story I doubt if any more was to be expected of Sam.

And yet he had to go with Frodo. And surely the reason why he had to go was because of the Elves. By this we do not mean that the Elves wanted Sam to go. They had no more knowledge of Sam than of any other hobbit, except Bilbo of course. It is not their knowledge of Sam but it was Sam’s longing to see them.

“I heard a deal that I didn’t rightly understand, about an enemy, and rings, and Mr. Bilbo, sir, and dragons, and a fiery mountain, and- and Elves, sir. I listened because I couldn’t help myself, if you know what I mean. Lor bless me, sir, but I do love tales of that sort. And I believe them too, whatever Ted may say. Elves, sir! I would dearly love to see them. Couldn’t you take me to see Elves, sir, when you go?”

Elves in the Woody End, by Ted Nasmith

Sam has to go on the journey because of his longing. The language that he uses to express it is clumsy, naive and childlike but Gandalf can recognise genuine longing when he meets it. “Whatever Ted may say,” says Sam. Sam and Ted are total opposites to one another. Ted Sandyman, the young miller, longs for nothing more than making a profit and on spending it in The Green Dragon in Bywater. Sam longs for that which appears far beyond him, even outside his grasp. And he will find it. For those whose hearts are shaped by Yearning can never be satisfied until they find what they seek and they will find it. As St Augustine prayed,

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”