“These Are Not Holes. This is The Great Realm and City of The Dwarrowdelf.” Gimli Speaks of The Glory of Moria Of Old.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 306-310

After a night spent in silent thought at the door to the guardroom Gandalf announces to a rested company the way that he will lead them. “It is time we began to climb up again.”

He leads them along what was once an important road and they make good progress. Eventually they pass through an arched doorway “into a black and empty space.”

Gandalf raises his staff and light blazes forth from it for a brief moment illuminating “a vast roof far above their heads upheld by many mighty pillars hewn of stone”. They are in one of the great halls of Moria, the dwarf city of old. Sam Gamgee, who as a hobbit knows a thing or two about holes and living in them, is overwhelmed both by the hall’s sheer size and darkness.

Alan Lee’s depiction of the Halls of Moria

“There must have been a mighty crowd of dwarves here once upon a time… and everyone of them busier than badgers for five hundred years to make all this, and most in hard rock too! What did they do it all for? They didn’t live in these darksome holes surely?” Sam is comparing the work of the dwarves of Moria to the creation of a hobbit hole in The Shire and he is overwhelmed by awe and by horror. Then Gimli replies.

“These are not holes… This is the great realm and city of the Dwarrowdelf. And of old it was not darksome, but full of light and splendour, as is still remembered in our songs.”

Peter Jackson gives us a sense of the smallness of the Company amidst the “black and empty space” of Hall 21.

In Peter Jackson’s film version of this scene the light that blazes forth from Gandalf’s staff is allowed to shine a little longer than in the book but this allows us to gaze longer at the ancient glory of the city. The style of architecture chosen there is medieval gothic and we do not know, of course, if that is what the dwarves would actually have chosen or if that is what was in Tolkien’s imagination as he wrote this beautiful passage. But I did not mind this when I first saw this scene in the film, indeed I found myself deeply moved by the dignified grandeur of a beauty that is passing away. Like the architects of the Gothic revival of the nineteenth century, men like Pugin who created the British Houses of Parliament, I think that medieval gothic was one of the great human achievements, seeking as it did to express divine beauty, essential beauty, for the sake of the glory of God alone. A few years ago a game of Monopoly was created which was located in the city of Worcester here in England that lies just a few miles from my home. I remember being much amused by the fact that the city’s cathedral was the most valuable property on the board. Of course it is easily the most beautiful building in the city but as to its monetary value how does one calculate this? If it were not a cathedral whose purpose is the worship of God what would it be used for? Any other use would diminish its beauty in order to make it more use-ful in the utilitarian sense that dominates modern thought. It might become a museum but then would be merely a memory of that which we once had and knew but which we would have lost.

What is the real estate value of Worcester Cathedral or might we understand its true value in other terms?

My experience of being moved by Peter Jackson’s powerful evocation of this scene was tinged with sadness. Like Gimli I felt that I was looking on a glory that was passing away and could never return. Tolkien’s world is one in which the future is one in which two possibilities seem to lie ahead. One is Sauron’s future which is a descent into darkness. It is one in which Sam’s “darksome holes” becomes the only reality there is. The other is more ambiguous in its nature. One is expressed in the hope of Aragorn and the Return of the King. The other is expressed in the world that Lotho Pimple and Ted Sandyman briefly tried to create in The Shire, a world of business opportunities. And although this world is thwarted at The Battle of Bywater and by the death of Saruman and the other principal actors one cannot help but feel that it lurks in the shadows waiting its moment. And it is this world, the world of greed for gain, that brought about the fall of Moria, through lust for mithril. Frodo wears a mithril shirt that is worth more money than the entire value of The Shire.

“I Had to Choose, Mr. Frodo. I Had to Come With You.” Sam Gamgee at The Doors of Durin.”

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 300-301

The final chapter of The Two Towers is entitled The Choices of Master Samwise, that terrible moment when Sam is convinced that Shelob has killed Frodo and that he must go on alone for the sake of the world, to bear the Ring to the Fire and so complete the task that Frodo was given at the Council in Rivendell. The very title that Tolkien gives to Sam, Master Samwise, in that chapter head, is the most dignified that he can give. Tolkien’s Shire is very much like the rural England of his childhood with clear class distinctions and so Frodo Baggins is entitled Mister while his gardener is Master. One of the themes that runs through The Lord of the Rings is the way in which the relationship between Frodo and Sam, one that begins as Master and Servant, becomes a friendship based upon all that they have shared together.

Not that Sam ever quite realises this. Even as they make their last journey to The Grey Havens together Sam still addresses Frodo as Mister. This is not just an expression of the society of Tolkien’s early years and of the Shire that he creates but it also shows us where Sam feels most at home for there is never a moment in his life in which he bears any resentment concerning his place in this world. When Frodo leaves Sam becomes the Master of Bag End, his family name changes from Gamgee to Gardner and he becomes a gentleman and Mayor of the Shire.

Perhaps Frodo had to leave in order to create this space for Sam because until that moment Frodo is the very centre of Sam’s world and whereas Frodo was probably already living in another world by the time he he made that last journey Sam had work to do in Middle-earth and needed to be a man of authority in order to do it. And it is Frodo’s place in Sam’s world that forces Sam to make his choice at Durin’s Doors when Bill the pony runs away from the terrible creature that lives in the pool before them suddenly attacks Frodo. Until that moment Sam was seriously considering disobedience to Gandalf’s gentle but firm instruction that Bill should be left behind at the gates of Moria for Sam had come to love this creature with whom he has shared so much and for whom he has had a special care. Sam knows that once you have given care to another creature there is a sense in which that creature has a claim over you forever.

John Howe depicts Sam’s Choice at the Gates of Moria

Gandalf knows this which is why he is so gentle in the way he gives Sam the instruction but it is not Gandalf’s instruction that finally forces Sam to make a decision great though Sam’s respect for Gandalf is, it is Frodo’s plight. It is almost certain that the monster in the pool is drawn towards Frodo as the Ringbearer, not that it has been some instruction by Sauron, but that its very being draws it towards the Ring as all creatures of its kind are.

“Out from the water a long sinuous tentacle had crawled; it was pale-green and luminous and wet. Its fingered end had hold of Frodo’s foot, and was dragging him into the water. Sam on his knees was now slashing at it with a knife.”

Sam has to choose between Frodo and Bill and he chooses Frodo. But it is a choice that almost tears him in two, something that Tolkien expresses in the tears and curses that pour forth from Sam as he runs back from the fleeing pony as he hears the sound of Frodo’s distress. The tears are the breaking of Sam’s heart while the curses are his anger against a universe that has made him make such a choice. For Sam goodness and happiness lies in a world that has been given to him, a world of fruitful and happy service, and at the moment in which he hears Frodo’s cry that world falls apart. Sam has to choose and choosing is something that Sam has never wished to do. Sam did not really choose to go with Frodo. He expresses what he does as obedience to a command. Whether or not we agree with him is neither here nor there. This is how Sam sees it and this is what gives him his dignity and his place in the world. And at the moment when Sam chooses, when he has to choose, it is this that enables him to achieve the impossible.

It is through all that they share together that a deep friendship is formed.

“The Road That I Speak of Leads to The Mines of Moria”. Gandalf Counsels the Fellowship to Take a Dark and Secret Way Under the Mountains.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 287-290

The road over the mountains has failed and the weary travellers are forced to consider another way. Until this point neither Gandalf nor Aragorn have consulted the rest of the company about what way they should take but now it is necessary that they should do so. Merry and Pippin would give up if they could but Gandalf makes it clear that there can be no turning back for if they do this there will soon be nowhere to go. To his credit Boromir has said nothing up until now but now he counsels that they retrace the steps that he took in his journey from Minas Tirith to Rivendell, passing through the Gap of Rohan. Gandalf makes it clear that this is no longer a possibility, the treachery of Saruman has seen to that.

And then Gandalf tells them of the way that he thinks best. He will take them through the Mines of Moria.

Alan Lee depicts the Dark and Secret Way Through Moria

“Since our open attempt on the mountain-pass our plight has become more desperate, I fear. I see now little hope, if we do not vanish from sight for a while, and cover our trail. Therefore I advise that we should go neither over the mountains, nor round them, but under them. That is a road at any rate that the Enemy will least expect us to take.”

Gandalf’s proposal is greeted with little enthusiasm except from Gimli the dwarf for whom the name of Moria calls to mind the greatest of his people’s achievements and the name of Durin, the greatest of their kings. Boromir simply dismisses the idea while Aragorn warns Gandalf that if he enters Moria he may never get out again. Frodo trusts the counsel of Gandalf, little though he likes the sound of this “dark and secret way” as Gandalf puts it. At the last it is not strength of argument that wins the day but a sudden attack by Wargs, the wolves of Mordor. Suddenly the way through Moria is the only option.

The Attack by Wargs Simplifies the Decision

And so begins the first of the dark ways through which Tolkien takes the Fellowship. There are three such ways and each one of them is associated with death as well as darkness. Gandalf will fall into the abyss in Moria after the attack of the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, will take the Paths of the Dead into Gondor; while Frodo and Sam will pass through Shelob’s Lair but only, in Frodo’s case, as one who has taken a deadly bite.

The Heir of Isildur Commands The Dead

For each of the Company who must go these ways there is a sense in which they tread the kind of path that Dante takes in his Divine Comedy. Each must go their own personal way through hell, each tasting something of death, and in Gandalf’s case, literally so, before they can emerge through it to what lies beyond. But for none of them is there some simple journey into Paradise. For Gandalf what lies beyond his dark road is his greatest challenge as he pits himself against the might of Mordor as well as against the leader of his own order. For Aragorn and his companions the journey through the Paths of the Dead will bring them to the battle at the gates of Minas Tirith. While for Frodo and Sam the path through Shelob’s Lair merely takes them into Mordor and all that lies ahead. While it may be too simple a thing to call this a Purgatory and so take my allusion to Dante a little further there is no doubt that for each of Tolkien’s characters who pass through their own dark ways further tests lie ahead that are no less challenging than what they have already faced.

For each of them there is a sense in which they are strengthened by the tests that they have already faced. Gandalf becomes the White after facing death itself, while Aragorn takes upon himself his true identity as the Heir of Isildur, the one who has the authority to command the obedience of the King of the Dead. And if Frodo enters Mordor as if a dead man stumbling step by step to Mount Doom, Sam enters it as a mighty hero, able to take his master to the conclusion of their journey.

And Paradise, what of this for each of Tolkien’s heroes? Tolkien leaves the answer to this question in the hands of Ilúvatar. As Aragorn was to put it, “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them there is more than memory.”

“There Are Fell Voices on The Air”. Caradhras Defeats The Fellowship of the Ring and Makes Them Seek Another Path.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 279-286

Somehow the Company must find a way to cross The Misty Mountains in order to continue their journey towards Mordor. Aragorn knows the way the way over the mountains by the Redhorn Gate that will drop down to the Dimrill Dale and then on to the secret land of Lothlórien and he is anxious that they do not cross the mountains through Moria, a way that Gandalf describes as “dark and secret”.

Alan Lee’s imagining of the Redhorn Gate

I have only had limited experience of walking a trail through high mountains but two things stand out in my memory. One is that I was a small and insignificant thing and that the mountains were completely indifferent to me. They could not care whether I lived or died. I confess that I found this to be most unsettling. Most of my experience had been in the gentle, cradling landscape of southern England which, like the Shire is a land of “woods and fields and little rivers”. To be in mountains where snow is deadly was something new to me. Like Sam I always welcomed snow as a little boy as something that I could play in. “A pleasant event and a chance for fun.” When I awoke in the mountain hut in which I was staying to see snow on the ground round about me I did not think much of it but my German companions who had much more experience of snow in the mountains made an immediate decision to head down the mountain to the village in the valley below. Our expedition was at an end.I awoke in the shelter of a mountain hut but the Company had to make do with a cliff-wall. Sam doubtless expresses the feelings of his fellow hobbits when he declares, “If this is shelter, then one wall and no roof make a house.” He and his companions have to face an icy wind, driving snow and falling rocks but they sense that that there is something else. In the wind they hear “shrill cries, and wild howls of laughter” and the rocks that they can hear crashing down from above seem to have a malevolent purpose. It is Boromir who speaks this sense aloud.

“Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us.”

“There are fell voices on the air”. Ivan Cavini’s dramatic depiction of Caradhras.

Those who have grown up in a disenchanted clockwork world will dismiss Boromir as a superstitious man and to a certain extent they will be right. Boromir does regard the unfamiliar as being uncanny and dangerous, and he will show this most in his reaction to Lothlórien. But Aragorn, who as we will see, loves Lothlórien, also lives in an enchanted world.

“”I do call it the wind,” he says. “But that does not make what you say untrue. There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own. Some have been in this world longer than he.”

Passages like these in The Lord of the Rings briefly carry us back to a high romantic world in which the heroes are children of the gods as well as of human mothers. But as Tom Shippey notes in his The Road to Middle-earth Aragorn is not such a hero and Frodo is most certainly not either. Neither has a divine father as did Achilles or the Volsungs. The brief return to the high romantic world seemingly cannot be sustained. Aragorn’s, “I do call it the wind”, and Sam Gamgee’s unhappy complaint both bring us back to mere weather but Aragorn reminds us of an older world in speaking of things in the world that “have purposes of their own” among which is Cruel Caradhras.

The Lord of the Rings is at least in part an elegiac work that mourns the passing of an enchanted world. Can we hope for a re-enchantment? How many of us would welcome the return of mountains that do not love us or weather that wants to kill us? Like the Company we might choose a different way in which to cross the Misty Mountains.

“I’m Beginning to Think It’s Time We Got a Sight of That Fiery Mountain”. Sam Gamgee is Way Out of His Depth but It Does Not Matter.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 276-279

When we were first introduced to Sam Gamgee it was not an impressive affair. Gandalf had become aware that someone was listening to the discussion that he and Frodo had been having about the Ring and so he grabbed hold of Sam by his ear and hauled him up to the open window. But Sam’s story will end with honour. As the Mayor of the Shire, re-elected many times, he is held in high esteem by his fellows and he will be a member of the king’s council for the governing of his northern kingdom of Arnor. And like his king, who he will both love and serve through many years, at the ending of his life after the death of Rosie, his wife, he will quietly and contentedly lay everything down, but unlike Aragorn, not quite yet to die. He will make one last journey to the Grey Havens and take ship into the West in order to be reunited with Frodo and his life will end in peace and joy in Valinor.

Sam Gamgee has earth underneath his feet

To say the least Sam Gamgee goes on quite a journey and in its early stages it is one about which he has little understanding. “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak.” The Company have been on the road for about two weeks at this point and if we remember that the journey between Bree and Rivendell was only a little more than this and that no journey in the Shire was ever more than a couple of days at the most then Sam is already at the limits of his experience. As Tolkien puts it, “all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

Such a thing ought to matter. Surely for a mission of such magnitude Elrond should have chosen an elite team. And yet the only person chosen at the immediate conclusion of the Council, apart from Frodo as Ringbearer, is Sam. So why was Sam chosen?

It is a theme that runs quietly through The Lord of the Rings that depth is as important a quality as breadth and perhaps even more important. Such an insight runs counter to everything that modern education values. In order to call a person educated and therefore competent to deal with the challenges of the modern world we require that they achieve a considerable breadth of knowledge. The whole notion of a curriculum, the body of knowledge that shapes every place of education, presupposes that this is self-evident. And we might ask how much attention is given to helping young people achieve depth.

Tom Bombadil expresses this quality well in his description of Farmer Maggot. “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.” What Tom Bombadil describes in Maggot is one who lives in his body and is rooted in the earth. John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and teacher of wisdom, would describe such a person as one who lives in rhythm with their own clay, and O’Donohue was one who was able to distill the wisdom of the Irish farming stock from which he was raised. At a deep level John O’Donohue, Farmer Maggot, Tom Bombadil and Sam Gamgee would all understand each other.

And Farmer Maggot has earth beneath his feet as well

Of course, Sam will learn much upon his journey. His imagination will expand to encompass all that he will see and experience. He will take in Moria and Lothlórien and eventually Mordor itself. He will return to his homeland and free it from Saruman’s malicious control. The breadth of knowledge and experience that he will gain will help the Shire thrive in a new world and he will offer this breadth to the governing of Arnor.

But it will be Sam’s depth that Aragorn will value most even as it will be that depth that will sustain Frodo in his journey all the way to Orodruin, the Fiery Mountain that still lies far off at this point of the story. Sam Gamgee knows the good, the true and the beautiful, not in order to take possession of them but to love them for their own sake. And he knows them, not as abstractions, but as Frodo Baggins, as Merry, Pippin, Gandalf and Strider, he knows them as the Shire and he knows them as Hobbiton, the Party Field, and his “bit of garden” at Bag End. If only we could give the same kind of energy to teaching such depth but in order to do so we need to have it ourselves.

Sam Carries Frodo to The Fiery Mountain

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.