The Ring and Tom Bombadil. So is the Ring Really Such a Big Deal?

The Fellowship of the Ring (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 126-131

I am sure that I am among many readers of The Lord of the Rings who on their first reading share the hobbits’ delight on realising that they could not travel onwards after staying the night at the house of Tom Bombadil but had to stay there one more day. Sometimes the weather calls us to journey onwards and we are delighted to do so. The poem by Patrick Kavanagh that I quoted last week, an autumn poem, ends joyously. “Son, let’s go off together in this delightful weather”. But sometimes the weather tells us that it is a day on which we should stay put and this is such a day for the hobbits.

Frodo begins the day full of energy, running to the window and looking out over Tom’s garden. It is a moment filled with poignancy as we think of the broken hobbit at the end of the story and long for his healing in the Undying Lands even while filled with sadness that this cannot come for him in the Shire. But now Frodo is alive and ready for another day in this wonderful place.

Tolkien’s description of this day spent here is deceptively simple, filled as it is with Tom’s doggerel, but we would do well not to fall into the trap of confusing simplicity with foolishness. Tom’s simplicity is the simplicity of the earth, wind, fire and water and all that grows or moves upon the earth. “He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles.”

In the house of Tom Bombadil from a diptych by Eiszmann

As the hobbits listen to him they begin to realise that the world about them has its own life and is far far more than an extension of their own. Tom may be Master but that is because he has dwelt among the creatures of the world for long, long years and because they and he have come to share one life together. Unlike them he is a shaper of the world but he is a gardener and in all humility he keeps his gardening and so his shaping also to a minimum. He grows enough to feed himself and Goldberry and the occasional passing guest and no more. Not for him the production and the marketing of surplus. He lives for sufficiency alone and a pleasure in what he has and not in what he might have.

Compare him with the one who made the treasure that Frodo now bears. If Tom is content with what he has got, Sauron is almost defined by his discontent. “Who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?” Tom says to Frodo in answer to the question, “Who are you?” Sauron would answer with the things that he has made, the power that he exercises and all that he desires. Bombadil laughingly speaks of his own lack of control over the weather and immediately readers of Tolkien’s great tale will think of Sauron’s attempts to do precisely that in order to win the great battle before Minas Tirith. And the Ring is his ultimate tool, the technology with which he will rule everything, reducing all to submission to his will.

If Tom Bombadil is about the enjoyment of things and creatures in themselves, content to have enough and no more, Sauron is about the gaining and exercising of power through technology and about never having enough. Not enough power and not enough of the things that power can give him. If Tom is ever hungry it is all part of the pleasure that he takes in the satisfaction of that hunger. Sauron by contrast is always hungry and never satisfied.

And so when Tom Bombadil asks Frodo for the Ring, showing thereby that he is indeed Master, he just plays with it as he might do with any tool.

“The Ring seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand. Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed.” Tom is much more Master of the Ring than Sauron could ever be, even placing it upon his little finger with no effect on him. Sauron by contrast gives his entire being into the tools that he makes, seeking thereby to extend that being but succeeding only in diminishing it. Tom is Master but Sauron is slave.

“Heed no Nightly Voices”. The Hobbits in the House of Tom Bombadil.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 123-126

The day that began in Crickhollow and has been lived in the Old Forest where the great journey came almost to a catastrophic end now draws to a close in the house of Tom Bombadil with hunger satisfied and songs poured joyously from hearts that have been warmed by a drink that seems only to be water and yet feels more like wine. This is a house that lies on a threshold between worlds. It is as safe and snug as any that a hobbit could ask for and yet it is presided over by one who embodies nature in its joy and wildness and one who possesses a queenly beauty in a state of complete simplicity.

"I will have love, have love 
From anything made of
And a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm 
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you."
Bombadil and Goldberry by Mareishon

So wrote the great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, in his poem, The Self Slaved, and Tom Bombadil could be the perfect embodiment of his vision of one, so freed from the slavery of the small self, that he can enjoy gaiety, charm, grace and wildness all in one moment or, should we say, all in one festive evening.

Frodo delights in the feast with his companions but he is always one who is trying to construct a narrative bigger than the present moment.

“Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?”

Was it just chance that brought you?

And Bombadil’s answer takes Frodo to a narrative so great that all the events that take place within it feel like chance, “if chance you call it.” Tom had been there to collect water-lilies for Goldberry from the very pool where he had first met her long ago. Perhaps the feast that the hobbits have shared with their hosts was intended first to be an anniversary celebration. And then Tom says,

For now I shall no longer 
go down deep again along the forest-water,
not while the year is old. Nor shall I be passing 
Old Man Willow's house this side of spring-time, 
not till the merry spring,  when the River-daughter 
dances down the withy-path to bathe in  the water. 

The rhythms of Tom’s life are the rhythms of the seasons and have always been so for he is Eldest. On the night of the feast it is the 26th of September in the year 3019 of the Third Age of the world. The pace of events in the world outside begins to hurry forward eventually reaching a terrifying climax on the 25th March just six months later in a battle before the Black Gate of Mordor and in a lonely struggle in the Cracks of Doom. Does any of this matter to Tom Bombadil? It would appear that it does not. In spring time he will make his journey down the river once more. Do we chastise him for his carelessness? If we do then it would seem to have as much point as it would if we were to become angry at the seasons themselves for not caring about what takes place within them.

Tom Bombadil lives his life at the pace of the passing seasons. Frodo recalled this when he recited the poem about Goldberry with which he greeted her.

O spring-time and summer-time, and spring again after! O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves’ laughter!

The beasts and birds, the trees and flowers, all live their lives in complete disregard for the great events of any time and Tom Bombadil and Goldberry live their lives in rhythm with them. Whether Frodo succeeds in his task or not Tom will go down the Withywindle with Goldberry in the spring time. Now they will make preparation for winter. If Frodo fails how many more springs and autumns will there be? The pace of events in the world outside and in the world in which Tom is Master will eventually meet and as Elrond will say, “If all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then night will come”.

But not tonight. On this night only the hobbits’ fears can enter the house. They are safe and need not heed any nightly noises.

Heed no nightly noises

Who is Tom Bombadil? Is There an Answer to the Mystery?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.121-123

As the four hobbits step over the threshold into the house of Tom Bombadil they meet Goldberry for the first time and begin to bow low, “feeling strangely surprised and awkward, like folk that, knocking at a cottage door to beg for a drink of water, have been answered by a fair young elf-queen clad in living flowers”.

Nothing about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry seems quite to fit into any way that the hobbits have learned to see the world and as the hobbits are our eyes upon Middle-earth so we too are invited into their surprise and awkwardness. Bombadil is rustic, an expression of pure simplicity. Goldberry is queenly and yet entirely at home in a cottage that is similar to Crickhollow and familiar to the hobbits.

A king and queen living in a simple cottage

Frodo is moved to give a gracious speech in which we learn that the story of Goldberry is not unknown to him or, perhaps, to his fellows either. But a woman who until now has only lived in song and imagination has just entered his living breathing world. Next week we will think a little more about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry but this week we will ask the question that Frodo asks of Goldberry.

“Who is Tom Bombadil?”

“He is,” said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.

He is as you have seen him

Frodo looked at her questioningly. “He is, as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look. “He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.”

There are some readers of The Lord of the Rings who have seen Tom Bombadil as the I AM of the Hebrew scriptures in reference to Goldberry’s answer. While this is a charming thought in many ways it is also rather worrying! Tom’s absent mindedness might lead to a forgetting of the cosmos with catastrophic consequences. As Gandalf says of Bombadil at the Council of Elrond, “If he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is answer enough.”

No, Tom Bombadil is quite simply himself. In response to my recent post Ho, Tom Bombadil! The Hobbits Meet a Strange Wonder in The Old Forest, some readers commented that he is one who is innocent and without sin. I resisted this thought at first until I read this passage about Bombadil from one of Tolkien’s letters.

“If you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless”.

Tom Bombadil is such a person. He has renounced ego and possession. Perhaps neither of these things ever had any meaning for him. Thomas Merton wrote of Adam before the fall that “he walked the earth… as one who had no master under God. He could be conscious of his own autonomy, under God, as the priest and king of all that God had made. Knowing no rebellion in the simplicity and order of his own being, he was also obeyed by all creatures. His mind had a perfect knowledge of himself and of the world around him and his will acted in perfect accordance with his vision of truth.”

These words of Merton’s could almost be a description of Tom Bombadil. He is simply himself. Indeed the answer is far too simple for some readers of Tolkien’s story who require greater complexity because that is the world that they live in. Simplicity is far too much for them. For them, mastery is related first and foremost to what Tolkien termed “the means of power”, the possibility of having mastery through the renunciation of those means is almost intolerable. They have given everything in order to achieve power and possession and the emptiness that they have achieved has been so hard won that they have to believe that their own illusion is real.

So is there an answer to Frodo’s question? Yes, there is but it may be too simple to grasp. Tom Bombadil is simply himself.

Master of Wood, Water and Hill

“A Golden Light was All About Them”. Arriving at the House of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.118-120

I have always found that the trials and tribulations of a day’s travel, however difficult, however wearying, are forgotten swiftly if the day ends well. Even, on one occasion, arriving at a police station in a small Zambian town at 3 o’clock on a bitterly cold morning in pitch blackness and being permitted to sit on a chair next to a charcoal brazier felt like an arrival in a place of safety, welcome and comfort.

The arrival of the hobbits at the house of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry is in some ways like my memories but it far surpasses them in its wonder. As they arrive at the house and its open door they hear a voice singing, “as young and as ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills”. It is Goldberry, the River Daughter.

And then, words that read like a benediction which end the chapter.

“And with that song the hobbits stood upon the threshold, and a golden light was all about them.”

The House of Tom Bombadil by Joe Gilronan

I think that we need to remind ourselves what a day the weary travellers have had; beginning before dawn at Crickhollow and the first wary steps into the Old Forest, then the terrifying encounter with Old Man Willow and then the bewildering yet wonderful rescue by Tom Bombadil. That would be enough by itself but there is a strangely unsettling passage before the chapter reaches its beautiful resolution. If we were to use a musical analogy we might describe it as a coda, the Italian word for a tail. A coda is a concluding section of a piece of music that either extends or re-elaborates themes heard earlier in the piece.

This coda is the brief passage that describes the journey that the hobbits take along the path by the Withywindle in the direction that Bombadil has outlined to them. So strange and unsettling is this passage that some readers have described a feeling of doubt when reading it for the first time. Can the hobbits really trust Tom Bombadil? Are they being lured into a trap? Far from the fears of the day being at an end they seem to return with renewed intensity.

“It became difficult to follow the path, and they were very tired. Their legs seemed leaden. Strange furtive noises ran among the bushes and reeds on either side of them; and if they looked up to the pale sky, they caught sight of queer gnarled and knobbly faces that gloomed dark against the twilight, and leered down at them from the high bank and the edges of the wood. They began to feel that all this country was unreal, and that they were stumbling through an ominous dream that led to no awakening.”

A darkening forest

Should we try to reassure the hobbits by telling them that far worse terrors lie ahead for them or shall we let them be? Perhaps it is just as well that all that has happened to them in this day has been easily solved and that the fears of this last part of the journey all lie in their imaginations. The hobbits are learning one step at a time so that when real dangers come and there is no one to rescue them they will stand bravely, ready to go to their deaths if need be.

But “today’s trouble is enough for today” as the gospels put it and so we will leave them in peace even though they do not know it is peace. The golden light flowing from the door of the house to which they wearily stumble still awaits them. And when they have been fed and are sitting at their ease they will not be thinking of the fears of the last part of the journey, the strange coda to a fearful piece of music that they had hoped had been resolved completely when Tom Bombadil had first appeared. But now, at last it is resolved and they are safe from all that can harm them. The glad water in the hills has reached down into the terrors of the night and has completely transformed them.

Another vision of the House of Bombadil and Goldberry

I have done my best to find the names of the artists who have produced the artwork displayed in this week’s post. I hope they will forgive me where I have not found the name. I am more than happy to include it where I am informed. Do look at the many imaginings of the House of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in your search engine. It is well worth doing.

Ho, Tom Bombadil! The Hobbits Meet a Strange Wonder in The Old Forest.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 116-118

I love all the times in The Lord of the Rings when someone enters the story mysteriously, wonderfully and decisively. Think of Gildor Inglorien and his companions appearing on the woodland path upon which Frodo, Sam and Pippin have just encountered the Black Rider or think of the moment when Merry and Pippin, fleeing from their orc captors and a deadly battle are swept up into the arms of Treebeard. Without warning, we like they are caught up into a world so wonderful that we want to give it the name, magical. The same is true at this moment when “suddenly, hopping and dancing along the path, there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band.”

Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest

It is Tom Bombadil and in moments the terrifying experience with the malevolent Old Man Willow is at an end and the hobbits are free.

Now, those who only know The Lord of the Rings through the fine films made by Peter Jackson will know little or nothing about Tom. He is a secret shared only by the initiates who have read Tolkien’s books and we clasp this secret close to our bosoms and share it only with other initiates. It marks us out from those “lesser” mortals who have not shared what we know. Now we hear that a small screen version of the story is in preparation and might Tom Bombadil make an appearance?

Now, I do not wish to comment on whether this might be good news or not. I enjoyed the films that Peter Jackson made of The Lord of the Rings with all their flaws. I disagreed with some of the ways in which certain characters were portrayed but I felt that the films were largely true to what Tolkien had given to us in his great work.

Now Bombadil might be given to us through the mind and imagination of a writer other than Tolkien and just as with the movies millions of people may meet him for the first time through that medium. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I happen to think that it is neither. It is an inevitable consequence of writing a great story that it will be passed on by other means and by other hands. It has always happened and every time that it does it brings new people to an experience that has been loved by those who have enjoyed the story in its original form. It also allows people who have known the story and the character of Tom Bombadil to compare their understanding of him with the character that is brought to them by this new means. They may or may not like this new character. For myself I rather expect that he will fall short of the Bombadil that exists in my imagination but I will not resent the experience that others will have by encountering him for the first time on the small screen. I will nurse my own hope that they will go on to pick up the books and meet him through Tolkien’s imagination and his masterful character drawing.

For the hobbits who meet him on the path along the Withywindle on that autumn afternoon the experience is overwhelming. This is partly because of the terror that they have just been through and which Bombadil has brought to an end so suddenly and so completely. And it is because of the utter strangeness of the creature that has done this. Tom Bombadil brings an overwhelming gladness with him that is unique within this story and which I find difficulty in being able to recall from any other character in literature that I know. Is the character of Jesus as portrayed in St St John’s gospel like this? You know that bit in the gospel when he prays for his disciples that his joy may be in them and that their joy may be full. Is this the kind of joy that we see in Tom Bombadil? I do not have answers for certain but for those of you who love this character as I do I hope that you will enjoy the next few weeks in which we explore him together and please do use the ability to leave a comment so that we can talk together.

Old Man Willow. O Hobbits, Take Care Where You Sleep!

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (HarperCollins 1991) pp 108-116

The hobbits have to make their way through the Old Forest in order to rejoin the East-West road through Eriador. Their intention is to throw the Black Riders off their scent and so to arrive safely in Bree. There, or at least so they hope, they will meet up with Gandalf and so journey on to Rivendell together.

Well, that is their intention anyway, but first they have to get through a forest that clearly regards them with dislike or worse. “They all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity”.

The Old Forest by Alan Lee

The Old Forest was all that was left in Eriador of the great primeval forest of the Elder Days. When Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard in the forest of Fangorn later in the story he tells them that “there was all one wood once upon a time from here [Fangorn] to the Mountains of Lune”.

“I do not doubt,”says Treebeard, “that there is some shadow of the Great Darkness lying there still away north”, and it is the Darkness, the time of the dominion of Morgoth, in the First Age of the World, of whom Sauron was merely a lieutenant that led even a part of the natural world to fall under its dominion.

We should not blame the hobbits too much for their unwariness. Life until now has taught them so little of the dangers of the world. But they should not have fallen asleep with their backs to the trunk of Old Man Willow, the heart of the hostility of the Forest. Falling asleep in the wild can either be an opening into wonder or danger. I read just the other day of an explorer of the wild who fell asleep on a warm summer day in the woods and awoke to find a female Roe Deer gazing at him just a few inches from his face. Their encounter lasted only a few seconds before the deer ran off into the undergrowth but it left him with a sense of peace and wonder that stays with him to this day. I once climbed down with a companion into a gorge a little below the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river. This was in the days before it was possible to navigate the gorges in inflatable craft and so we had this place to ourselves. At the bottom of the gorge he wandered off to look around and I fell asleep in the stifling heat of the afternoon with my back to a rock. I awoke to find myself surrounded by a troop of baboons who were eyeing me with great curiosity. I stayed quite still and looked back at them. What would have happened next I do not know for my companion returned, startled the troop and they ran away. Like the explorer and the deer my brief connection with wild things has never left me.

To be awoken by a gentle deer is one thing. It is a little more uncertain to be awoken by a troop of baboons and I sometimes wonder what was going to happen next if my companion had not returned. But Old Man Willow wishes nothing but harm for the hobbits. He tries to drown Frodo in the Withywindle river and to entrap Merry and Pippin within himself. Only Sam seems to be alert to his malice. The first time in The Lord of the Rings in which he is ahead of the others. But the great adventure seems to be at an end on the very first day beyond the borders of the Shire until a song of utter carefree joy alerts Frodo and Sam to the rescue that is about to come to them.

So do take care where you fall asleep. You may avoid danger that way. But there again you may avoid wonder too. To be open to wonder it seems that you have to be open to danger as well. At least that is what the hobbits discover. They fall into danger but wonder is bounding down the path towards them.

Wonder bounds down the path towards the hobbits

Forests are Strange Things. The Hobbits Enter the Old Forest.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 107-09

Anyone who has anything to do with forests for any length of time soon comes to know that they have an identity that is very much their own. In his introduction to the wonderful book, The Hidden Lives of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, the Australian palaeontologist, Tim Flannery, writes of Wohlleben, “His deep understanding of the lives of trees, reached through decades of careful observation and study, reveals a world so astonishing that if you read his book, I believe that forests will become magical places for you, too.”

The magic of the forest (A painting by Alan Lee)

And the essence of this “magic” is the ability of trees to communicate with each other so that they can give aid to one another against any potential threats. They even continue to feed the stumps of trees that have long fallen or been cut down knowing that these stumps still have their part to play in nurturing the future of the forest. I recently came across the stump of a tree that had been cut down and through a neat round hole in its centre a healthy young sapling was climbing vigorously upwards towards the sky.

I have been walking my dog in woodland near my home in north Worcestershire, in our own Crickhollow, close by the farm where Tolkien’s aunt and grandfather lived and where he often stayed as a child, I discovered, to my pleasure, that I can have the woods to myself because most people are nervous about entering them. You really don’t know what you will find within them. So most people stick to the paths that run alongside the woods. A bit like Fredegar Bolger really.

I find that the best time of the day to walk in them is the early morning. I have the particular pleasure of greeting the sunrise in the spring and autumn. In the summer the woods are already fully awake. In the winter I enter their mysterious darkness. I have got to know the paths and so I feel confident in making my way through them, even when I cannot see more than a yard or so ahead of me.

The Forest by Night

At least that is how I like to reassure myself as I step off the wide pathway and into silent darkness of the wood. Except the wood never stays the same. The weight of a snowfall in winter or a hig storm will almost certainly bring down tree branches, sometimes hefty boughs or even whole trees. One path that used to take me down to a secret place at the joining of two streams is now completely blocked by the fall of an ancient hollow oak. There is a gap beneath it that my dog can pass through but I have to clamber over it. It is worth the effort but I still remember my dismay when I first encountered this obstruction.

There have been many obstructions in the years in which I have come to know the woods. Some have required the making of new paths. First, the trampling down of the undergrowth. There are far too many nettles in the late spring and summer in this modern nutrient saturated environment. You might think that the surfeit of nitrates would be a good thing but wild flowers prefer a plainer diet and, sadly, nettles thrive on them. So the first stage in the making of a path is always a discomforting affair as I get my legs covered in stings that go through my trousers. The second stage is the removal of branches that lie across my way. And then the third is to walk the path again and again and again until the earth beneath my feet is gradually forced together and, for a time at least, the life beneath is not able to make its way through to the world above.

A Forest Path by Grrroch

So yes, the Old Forest is a strange affair, but only because it is not like “the woods and fields and little rivers” of the Shire or my own county of Worcestershire where everything takes time to happen. In the Old Forest the speech of the trees and the endless changes that take place in every wood all happen much more quickly. And the Forest has little love for hobbits. Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin really will have to be rescued before the day is out.

The Story of Meriadoc Brandybuck. Or The Necessity of Getting Out of Your Depth.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 107,108

There are few things more annoying than when someone for whom you don’t have very much respect gets something absolutely right. I don’t know how much respect the other hobbits have for Fredegar Bolger (or Fatty to his friends) although I do note that little attempt is made to persuade Fatty to come with them when he tells the other hobbits that he will not come into the Old Forest with them.

Fatty’s main contribution to the discussion about how the hobbits are to leave Buckland without attracting the attention of the Black Riders is to warn them of the dangers of the Forest. By contrast, Merry is both confident and competent. He has been into the Forest before. He speaks about the path that he intends to take. He gives a lesson on the history of the Forest or at least the history that hobbits have been a part of. He has ponies ready for the journey and all the supplies have been prepared. He has anticipated Frodo’s insistence that he must leave the Shire immediately. He has been making preparations for just this moment all through the summer. And with a little help from Pippin he has even composed a song that is suitable for the occasion drawing upon his knowledge of hobbit history. “It was made on the model of the dwarf-song that started Bilbo on his adventure long ago, and went to the same tune”.

Merry takes charge at Crickhollow

One day Merry will make a fine Master of Buckland but on this day everything will go completely wrong and Fatty will be proved completely right.

“I only hope that you will not need rescuing before the day is out.”

Merry and his companions will need rescuing before the day is out. In fact if rescue had not been at hand the quest would have ended in disaster almost before it had begun. And things do not really get much better for Merry from that point onwards. He will lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe and will need to be rescued many times.

Rescued from the barrow wight by Tom Bombadil. Rescued from the Black Rider in the streets of Bree by Nob of all people and rescued from starvation in the Forest of Fangorn by Treebeard. Eventually he will complain bitterly of being no more than an item of baggage in the story and perhaps his lowest point will be when Théoden of Rohan will announce to him that he is to be left behind when the Riders go to war outside the gates of Minas Tirith. He has been of some value as a kind of entertainment for the king on the journey from the sack of Isengard to the gathering at Dunharrow but he will be of no value at all in the serious business of war. And even when he does go, thanks to the intervention of another character who has been left behind, he finds himself being addressed by a soldier who has just stumbled over him as “Master Bag”. It is the one name they know him by, the name that speaks of his humiliation.

Merry’s journey is in many ways a miserable one and yet he neither falls into bitterness nor despair. Two qualities will sustain him throughout and these are his cheerfulness, by which I mean that he has the ability, no matter how great the humiliation, to be ‘cheered up’ to find cheer as soon as he is able, in the house of Tom Bombadil, in the dwelling of Treebeard and in the wreckage of Isengard amidst the spoils of battle. A moment of pleasure is always able to put all suffering out of his mind. And the other is what Gandalf calls, “his gentle loyalty”. There may be many times in which Merry is unhappy but at no time is his self-pity of more importance to him than the welfare of his friends.

Merry cheers up at the house of Tom Bombadil

And so the time will come when he will play a central role in one of the great deeds of his Age in Middle-earth. And he will be there because of his gentle loyalty. When he sees Éowyn standing hopelessly before the Lord of the Nazgûl on the Pelennor Fields it will be pity that fills his heart and, Tolkien tells us, “suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided.”

“She should not die alone”. Ted Nasmith’s evocation of the fight with the Lord of the Nazgûl.

Frodo Longs to See the Sea. The Dream at Crickhollow.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 105-106

Frodo has made up his mind. He will leave the Shire the very next morning as early as possible and he will go through the Old Forest. All is ready thanks to Merry, the great organiser, and so the hobbits make their way to bed after tidying up, of course.

And there Frodo dreams. At first he dreams of a forest with creatures snuffling at its roots. Frodo is sure that they are looking for him and that they will find him.

Frodo is sure that they will find him

And then Tolkien writes that Frodo “heard a noise in the distance” and that he thought at first that it was the wind in the trees of the forest. But then, in that way in dreams in which you know that you know something, without knowing why or how, Frodo realises that the sound that he can hear is that of the sea. Actually, Tolkien does not spell, sea, as I have done in its generic form as not being the land. He speaks of the Sea. The Sea. The great Sea that parts Middle-earth from the Undying Lands. The Sea over which the Elves may pass in order to reach those lands but which is a way that is denied to mortals.

We learn that this is not the first time that Frodo has heard this sound in his dreams, that it is a recurring and troubled theme within them. And so we are brought within his inner life. Dreams will play an important part in The Lord of the Rings. As in our own experience they will always leave us with as many questions as answers. Tolkien had too much insight into the mystery of the human psyche to write write one of those all too popular books on “the interpretation of dreams” in which particular objects or images within a dream are assigned particular meanings. Such an understanding of dreams would either make Frodo in some sense, omniscient, or it would give that quality to us, the reader. As it is, both Frodo and us as well have to stumble through life in the dark, walking by faith and not by sight.

“Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge.”

Ted Nasmith’s evocation of The Sea

So Frodo is taken in his dream from a vision of a forest and creatures snuffling about just as he had heard the Black Rider sniffing for him. Everything in this part of the dream takes him downwards and this is the journey that he must now take. Even in his dream this feels a hopeless affair. The creatures will find him. But then Tolkien uses the word, Suddenly, and we look upwards with him to a tall white tower, alone on a high ridge. We are taken from the journey that he must take to the journey that he longs to take, even though he does not know what that journey is.

“A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea.”

The great Tolkien scholar, Verlyn Flieger, comments on this passage in her book, Splintered Light. She speaks of an “implied desire to climb up and look outward to the immense unknown.” And then she speaks of a “very real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is.” Or to use the great insight of Augustine of Hippo, to keep on searching restlessly until we find our rest in the ultimate, or in God.

Significantly, Tolkien does not give us our last glimpse of Frodo at the end of the story as he does to his companions as they gaze outwards to the last glimpse of the light of the phial of Galadriel as the ship dips over the horizon. He takes us onwards with Frodo until journeys end as Frodo “beholds white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise”. Frodo must take the journey into danger and darkness but his heart longs for something else and one day he will find it.

I am grateful to the blog written by Jonathan McIntosh, The Flame Imperishable, for many of the insights in this week’s post and for the quote from Verlyn Flieger. You can find it at https://jonathansmcintosh.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/frodos-dream-tower/

“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.