The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.85
Back in May 2020, early on in our experience of the Coronavirus, as I began once more to write reflections on The Lord of the Rings after a pause of over a year as I got used to my duties as a parish priest in Worcestershire, I wrote about the moment when Frodo, Sam and Pippin prepare to leave the place above Woodhall in the Shire where they have enjoyed the hospitality of Gildor Inglorien and his wandering company of High Elves. If you would like to read that piece please click on the link below.
I want to go back to that moment in the story today in order to think, once more, about the conversation between Frodo and Sam that takes place there; and I want to think about it on Remembrance Sunday here in Great Britain, and here in the County of Worcestershire, Tolkien’s Shire. For the little village of Hall Green in which he spent his early years lies within the ancient county boundaries of Worcestershire, and his grandfather and aunt on his mother’s side of the family farmed in Dormston which is just 6 miles from where I am writing these thoughts. Tolkien’s hobbits are very much based upon the country folk that he got to know as he grew up and he said of himself that his personal tastes and habits were very much those of a hobbit. Worcestershire gave up Hall Green to the growing city of Birmingham some years ago, a development that Tolkien watched and very much regretted. Dormston is still a country village but folk who live hereabouts watch, with some anxiety, the gradual spread of the kind of housing development that Saruman was starting to create during the brief time in which he ran the Shire.
Remembrance Sunday takes place every year on the Sunday nearest to Armistice Day, November 11th, recalling the moment at 11 am on that day in 1918 on which the guns fell silent on the Western Front in France and Belgium and the terrible slaughter of the previous four years finally came to an end. In London, at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the King will lead a national act of Remembrance that is centred around a silence of two minutes and in villages and towns up and down the land there will be local acts of Remembrance taking place. I will lead one in the village of Ombersley and it will take about 5 minutes to read all the names of the fallen just from that village. It is about the nearest thing that this country has to a national day. There is no independence to celebrate as no conquest has taken place in nearly a thousand years and there is no overthrow of tyranny to celebrate, as in France, because we have largely been content (with all the usual grumbling) with our form of government for over 350 years now. I wonder sometimes what will be left of our national identity when the memory that this day seeks to keep alive finally begins to fade. But that would require another essay in order to ponder it.
It has been effectively shown that The Lord of the Rings is very much a personal response to Tolkien’s experience of the trenches of the Western Front. John Garth’s excellent study on the subject, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, very much established that as fact, as did the biopic, Tolkien, of 2019. Scholars, at least on this side of the Atlantic, still seem very reluctant to add Tolkien to the canon of war writers. I read an excellent study this year on another Worcestershire writer of the early 20th century, A.E Houseman, who never went to war himself but whose poetry was carried by thousands of British servicemen who did, that does not even mention Tolkien in its survey of war literature from this part of England. That Houseman played a vital part in the creation of English culture in the 20th century is undeniable. That Tolkien continues to do so today is surely equally so. In Blackwell’s bookshop, the largest and most important in Oxford, a whole section is devoted to Tolkien. No other writer comes even close to the the number of books on display either by or about him. The readers of Oxford do not need to be persuaded of his importance even if the university’s literary establishment may still regret it.
But let me come back in conclusion to Sam Gamgee. If one of the tasks of The Lord of the Rings is to re-enchant a world that has effectively lost touch with that which most truly nourishes its soul, then can we also say that the book also re-enchants warfare? Surely we must say that in one sense the slaughter that took place in the battlefields of Europe between 1914 and 1918 cannot be enchanted. And yet the deepest instinct of the British people is that the dead who will be remembered on this Remembrance Sunday cannot be so as if what they did was utterly useless and wasteful. Yes, the industrial nature of that conflict was simply appalling but each person whose name will be read out today was essentially beautiful. And Sam Gamgee speaks for them. He speaks for the country folk of England, of Worcestershire, who went cheerfully to war simply because they had been asked to do so.
“I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know that we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t go 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.”