A Journey into the Wild Pursued by Enemies. The Hobbits and Strider Set Out From Bree to Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.169-80

Up until this point of the journey the hobbits have been more or less “looked after”. Even though almost from the beginning their steps have been dogged by the pursuit of the deadliest of enemies in the shape of the Nazgûl of Mordor they have been able to find protection from such mighty allies as the company of High Elves led by Gildor Inglorien or Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs. And as well as the hospitality they enjoyed in the house of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry they have been well fed and watered in the farmhouse of the Maggots and the Prancing Pony in Bree.

But now the nature of the journey makes a sudden change with the attack upon the Prancing Pony in the night. The hobbits lose their ponies and set off with a poor half-starved creature belonging to Bill Ferny, the biggest villain in the Breeland, who is certainly in league with the Black Riders and who makes as much money as he can from their misfortune.

When I say, misfortune, I mean the fact that, from their perspective, that what they thought was going to be a road journey by sturdy pony from Bree to Rivendell, has become a hard march, a yomp as soldiers call it, across hard terrain, carrying heavy loads, with no shelter. Their only pony has to carry as much food as it can take for a fortnight’s journey and the hobbits have to take the rest upon their backs. Only Strider is not much discomfited by this. For him a yomp from place to place is normal life and he has but one extra burden to carry and that is the care of four companions about whose capacity to deal with hardship he has many doubts. Butterbur has already voiced these aloud through his remark that the hobbits are acting as if they are on holiday but even with these doubts in mind Strider has already made up his mind.

Strider Leads the Hobbits through the Wild

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.”

The journey really begins with the crossing of the Midgewater Marshes. Tolkien never liked boggy country. I was about to say that nobody does but at one time a whole way of life was developed by people living in the fenland of eastern England or the Somerset Levels. Those who know their English history will treasure the year 877 when all that remained of free England was the Isle of Athelney hidden deep in the Somerset Levels when Alfred the Great hid there from Danish invaders. Some call this place the birthplace of England, a place so remote that the Danes could not reach it with sufficient forces to capture the king. Others will remember the last defence of Hereward the Wake against the all conquering armies of William of Normandy on the isle of Ely in the Cambridgeshire fens two centuries later when he too used the natural defence of the bog against his enemies. But a bog makes good defence because it is hard to cross by foot. I remember once having to cross one late in the day. I was grateful for the sturdy stick that I had with me. Every step that I took required a careful use of the stick to find ground firm enough to take my weight and I would often use it to swing across from tussock to tussock hoping that I would not miss my footing and find my boots and then my legs disappearing into the ooze. Recently I learned that in the trenches of the First World War British soldiers feared the mud more even than shells exploding about them and that many of them drowned in that mud.

The Isle of Athelney in 877

Tolkien knew the mud of the Western Front at first hand and hated it. Is it a coincidence that two of the great journeys of The Lord of the Rings begin with a journey across marshland, the journey from Bree to Rivendell and later the journey of Frodo and Sam from the Emyn Muil to Mordor. For Tolkien nothing would better express the hardships that lay ahead. For the hobbits even the companionship of the greatest traveller of his age cannot protect them from the hardships that they must now endure.

The Midgewater Marshes looking towards Weathertop by Anna Kulisz

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?

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.

The Shire is Stranger than Frodo Thinks. The Hobbits Encounter with the Nazgûl and with Elves.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 73-80

There is a phrase that shows just how disorientating it is when something happens in your backyard that is entirely unexpected. Frodo has just encountered one of the Nazgûl for the very first time. He has no idea that what he can see, just a few yards away, is one of the most terrifying things that he could ever meet unless he stood before the Dark Lord himself. He begins to have an overwhelming desire to put on the Ring, convinced that he would be safe if he did so. “And I am still in the Shire,” he thinks.

I am still in the Shire

Still in the Shire. Still in a place in which every blade of grass, every tree and rise and fall of the road speaks of familiarity and of predictability. The unexpected has no place in the Shire. Of all places in Middle-earth this is the one where the outlandish is where it should be; in the lands outside and beyond the borders. You would have thought that Frodo Baggins, of all hobbits, would have known that this was not true. The stories and actions of Bilbo, his friendship with Gandalf, and his own dealings with the world outside should have taught him that the world is not safe and predictable. As the poet, Louis Macneice put it (in a poem entitled, Snow, written in my parents in law’s house in Birmingham, England), “world is suddener than we fancy it”.

But that, of course, is the problem, even for Frodo. We fancy the world to be in a sense, on time. Not too late or we will make a complaint to the management. Nor too soon neither. Every event that departs from this ‘law’ we regard as abnormal. Except the abnormal keeps on happening. But this event is so abnormal that perhaps we could forgive Frodo. I think that the Powers do forgive him. He is not yet ready for this encounter and so Something prevents him from putting on the Ring, his life is saved, the Ring is not returned to its Maker and the world is not yet subjected to darkness.

World is suddener than we fancy it

And Something brings him into contact with another power at work in the world, a power that even the Nazgûl are not quite ready to match themselves against. Not just yet, anyway. When the hobbits encounter the Nazgûl for the second time Frodo wants to put on the Ring once more but “this time it was stronger than before. So strong that before he realised what he was doing, his hand was groping in his pocket”. The Ring has only one desire and that is to return to its Master and Frodo is no match for it.

But “world is suddener… world is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural” and in its glorious plurality a large company of High Elves just happens to be on the same stretch of road in the Shire as the hobbits, the Nazgûl and the Ring, at precisely that moment and, once more, Frodo and the world is saved.

Is this a writer’s tendency to allow a coincidence to occur in order to solve a problem with the plot? Or is it how this writer understands the world? I think that the latter is the case. Tolkien’s enchanted world, suddener, crazier, more of than we think, incorrigibly plural, is one in which powers are at work of which we are not usually aware. We might use the word, Providence, to describe these powers. You will remember how when Gandalf said that Bilbo was meant to have the Ring he spoke of “something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker”. Tolkien was always reticent when it came to his Christian faith and his imaginative work, especially in The Lord of the Rings. He chose to know no more than the main characters in his story, who were the hobbits, except by implication. They must learn about the powers at work in the world just as we do. But the world is suddener, and in it there are High Elves, the eldest of the children of Ilúvatar, who see its suddenness, its craziness and plurality with perfect clarity. And they take the hobbits under their protection.

World is crazier and more of it than we think