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.”

Philosophy in the Pub. The World According to Ted Sandyman and to Sam Gamgee.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 42-44

Please click Play in order to listen to my reading of this post.

It is not necessary to have travelled far in order to have an imagination that extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own lived experience but it is necessary to wish to have done so. On an April evening after a rainy day Sam Gamgee and Ted Sandyman sit opposite one another by the fire of The Green Dragon in Bywater and the regulars of the pub gather about them. They expect a debate between the two hobbits and they are not disappointed.

Ted and Sam

By the rules of bar room debate Ted Sandyman is more skilled at the art and if a quicker wit were to guarantee success in life then he would have been the happier of the two. There is little doubt that the assembled company consider that Ted is the winner and certainly Ted, himself, thinks so, but Sam will end his days honoured by all and Ted…?

We never find out what happened to Ted after Saruman’s gang is driven out of the Shire. The last time that we hear of him is when the victorious hobbits, fresh from the Battle of Bywater, are marching upon Saruman’s headquarters in Bagshot Row. Ted still regards himself as Sam’s superior even then. “You was always soft,” he sneers at Sam and even when he sees the hobbit host he still believes that his horn will summon a force of men sufficient to put down the uprising.

scouring_of_the_shire_by_discogangsta

Of course the men would never come so what happened to Ted after that? There are two possibilities. The first and the most hopeful is that after a lifetime of small-minded mean spiritedness Ted comes to realise what a fool he has been and that he realises too that to think of oneself as a fool is not the worst fate that can befall a person. Indeed it can open the door to happiness. Ted could lay down the burden of what he considers to be his dignity, something that he has always regarded as more important than happiness, seek to make amends for the harm that he has done to others, and to put his mill to use in the service of the Shire at a difficult time. If he were to do that he would almost certainly find that his fellow hobbits would be quick to forgive and he would live out his days as a useful and contented member of his community.

That is one possibility. The other would be that he would retreat into his last remaining possession, his resentment, and nourish it as if it had the ability to feed him. He would hate Merry and Pippin as entitled members of the old gentry of the Shire, a class from which he has always felt himself to be excluded, and he would hate Sam even more because he would see Sam as having achieved the thing that he had always desired himself but now could not have. If he chose the latter pathway would he be able to remain in his mill, serving a community who knew what he had done as an enthusiastic collaborator and whose contentment he would always hate? Or would he, like Bill Ferny, have withdrawn to the edges of things to eke out a miserable existence through small, mean and nasty acts.

I will allow my readers to decide this for themselves. For myself, just as Frodo did with Lotho Pimple even after he saw the destruction of his own home, I will hope for Ted Sandyman. Frodo continued to hope for Lotho, not because he had scaled some moral height, but because of his own sense of failure in not being able to cast the Ring into the Fire. Frodo does not feel alien from his cousin. They have both fallen. Perhaps Sam will not feel alien from his old sparring partner from The Green Dragon. 

But on this April evening after the rain all of this lies in a future beyond events that will change all of their lives. Sam, the hobbit with a ‘soft’ head, will follow his longing to see wonders and he will go with Frodo through terrible hardship unto great glory. While Ted will never see beyond the next successful deal and the next one and the next one until he falls with Lotho Pimple, the hobbit he has most admired, the one who could have written a book about making successful deals.

Ted_sandyman

There Will Be Fireworks at the Party. Gandalf Returns to the Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 24,25

Hobbits may devote a lot of energy to keeping mystery out of their lives but if it comes in a package that can be controlled and is predictable then they might even welcome it. The key to this kind of mystery is that if it comes it will not be too disturbing and that it will go away again leaving everything unchanged.

So it is with Bilbo Baggins’s ‘long expected party’A party is a welcome distraction to the sameness of life and no-one will turn down the opportunity to receive presents. The hobbits will even put up with the arrival in Hobbiton of outlandish folk as long as they all go away again when all is done.

The most exciting visitor of all is Gandalf and when Tolkien first introduces him to the story it is through the eyes of hobbits.

“A cart came in through Bywater from the direction of the Brandywine Bridge in broad daylight. An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.”

This description places Gandalf within a tradition of magical old men that inhabit the stories of both hobbits and us too. The hobbits know him through his fireworks. Not through their experience of them but through stories of long ago, the stories of a legendary figure in Shire history, the Old Took, who lived longer than any other hobbit and at whose birthday celebrations a magnificent firework display once took place.

It was Gandalf the Wizard who brought fireworks to the Shire then and he has brought them back again after a gap of a hundred years.

200px-Darrell_Sweet_-_The_Arrival_of_Gandalf

Darell Sweet The Arrival of Gandalf

Later in the story Sam Gamgee will say these words in honour of Gandalf’s fireworks.

“The finest rockets ever seen: they burst in stars of blue and green, or after thunder golden showers came falling like a rain of flowers.”

As we have already seen when we are first introduced to Sam he is able to take an experience like the enjoyment of fireworks and travel through it to a deeper mystery. Most of his fellow hobbits treat the fireworks like we might a fairground or theme park ride whose danger and mystery is acceptable because it is limited. You are frightened but you know that you will get home again alive.

The point about Gandalf is that in his true business there is a very good chance that you will not get home alive. He is one of the Istari, one of seven Maiar who were sent by the Valar, the divine governors of Arda, of the world, to oppose Sauron, the Dark Lord, who seeks mastery of Middle-earth. And if anyone makes the mistake of underestimating the old man in a pointy hat who makes marvellous fireworks then it is surely enough to remind them that Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar, both belong to the same order of being within Arda.

gandalf_vs_balrog_by_danielpillaart-dajzr14

Gandalf vs Balrog by Daniel Pillaart

The hobbits do underestimate him. If they really knew what he was they would be terrified and they would flee from him. But why does Gandalf present himself in this way? Saruman, who Gandalf calls the leader of his order, certainly does not understand this. He notes that Gandalf enjoys smoking the pipeweed of the Shire and seems to enjoy the company of hobbits and he thinks of both of these as laughable.

Saruman is only capable of thinking of others either as useful to his own ambitions or as useless. At this point in the story hobbits are useless to him. Gandalf is different. He takes pleasure in hobbits for their own sake. He loves the delight and wonder that his fireworks produce, loves the moments when grown hobbits allow child-likeness into their hearts again. And he delights in hobbits’ simple pleasure in good food, good beer, good smoking and good company so when he arrives in the Shire for a time he is able to lay down his many burdens. He is just the funny old man who does marvellous tricks and magnificent firework displays. And that is enough.

Gandalf comes to the Shire in search of simple pleasure and so when in this simple place he is given the way to overthrow the Dark Lord it is a complete surprise but perhaps it is only those who know how to take joy in people and things for their own sake who are capable of receiving gifts that can change the world.

Dear friends, I intend to add the audio file for this week as soon as possible but my technical assistant, my daughter, Bethan Winter, is down in London at the moment and I need her advice! I am sure that after a week or two of practice this will all be second nature to me!

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.