The Pity of Bilbo.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 55-59

The story of Gollum that Gandalf tells comes to a great climax in two separate passages in which Gandalf speaks of Pity. The first comes after Frodo’s desperate cry, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

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And Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.”

The second climax comes as Frodo cries out, “He deserves death”.

And Gandalf replies, “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least.”

Readers of The Lord of the Rings know that Gandalf’s words are prophetic. The fate of all the Free Peoples is indeed ruled by Bilbo’s Pity because it is Gollum who takes the Ring to the Fire in which it had been forged when, in the violence of his attack upon Frodo and his uncontrollable excitement in regaining possession of the Ring, he overbalances and so falls into the Cracks of Doom. And Frodo is delivered from the overwhelming power of the Ring that has overthrown his mind at last by that same Pity. If it had not been for Bilbo under the Misty Mountains and then Frodo himself when he captures Gollum beneath the Emyn Muil there can have been no triumph.

And yet… after Gandalf has told the tale of Déagol’s murder and Gollum’s dreadful deeds in Mirkwood (did he really sneak through windows to steal and eat small children?) and how he had betrayed the existence of the One Ring and the name of Baggins and the Shire to the Dark Lord himself so that the search was now on for its whereabouts, how can we blame Frodo for what he says?

And when he says that Gollum “deserves death” surely he is right. He deserves death for the crimes he has already committed and also to prevent the appalling consequence of the Ring falling into the hands of the Dark Lord.

Yet when Gandalf responds to Frodo’s cry he is not persuaded in the slightest. He ends his argument with the appeal to Pity which is appropriate in one who sat in the school of the Lady Nienna, the Lady of Pity, of Mercy and of Mourning, the one who taught the importance of lamentation, of tears, in the life of Arda. It is Pity that eventually leads to the destruction of the Ring and the downfall of Sauron but Pity cannot guarantee any outcome. What Gandalf appeals to before he speaks of Pity is something quite remarkable.

Lady Nienna

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

The remarkable thing that Gandalf appeals to is the ability to take away and to give life. It is a great sadness that we are all capable of taking away life and so we give much thought to this power. Who has the right? Under what circumstances can this right, if right it is, be exercised? And so we think about murder, manslaughter,judicial execution and warfare, just or otherwise. Much of our judicial attention is given to preventing death or to punishing those who cause it illegally.

But what about the giving of life? This ability plays such an important role in Tolkien’s work. And it is made clear from the beginning that this right belongs only to God, to Eru, the One, Illuvatar. Morgoth seeks to create life, but fails, and at the last is able only to mar the creation in mockery of Illuvatar so forming the twisted shapes of the orcs and trolls and other fell creatures. And Aule does give life to the dwarves but has to make them sleep until the permissive word is given by the source of all life.

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So, Gandalf argues, if you do not have the right to give life what right do you have to take it? Both the giving and taking of life is a denial of Providence the hand of grace that orders all our affairs whether we are small or great. And in many ways the whole of The Lord of the Rings is an extended meditation upon Providence, upon those who are willing to trust it and those who try to resist it.

Bilbo and Frodo Were “Meant” to Have the Ring. The Hand of Providence in The Lord of the Rings.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 53-57

Frodo is disgusted by the story of how Sméagol had murdered his closest friend, Déagol, and taken the Ring and so began the journey from being a hobbit to becoming the “loathsome creature” that Bilbo had encountered deep beneath the Misty Mountains many years before. Gandalf tries to engage Frodo’s sympathy for a fellow creature but at this point in the story he has little success. Frodo even finds it difficult to believe that Gollum might have been a hobbit like him.

We cannot really blame Frodo for his reaction to Gollum and in a further reflection that will be published soon we will think about how we learn to pity another. Frodo has to go some distance yet down the road of experience in order to learn pity and it is not only experience itself that teaches. Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar and so belong to the same order of angelic being with the same long experience of time and all its sorrow and joy. And yet while Gandalf has learnt Pity Sauron has entirely rejected it. Among the Valar, the Divinities of Tolkien’s legendarium, Gandalf sought out the Lady Nienna as his teacher while Sauron sought out Melkor who became Morgoth. Consequently Gandalf never achieved the power that Sauron did but he did learn Pity and Patience which were to prove to be so much more important.

Lady Nienna

Gandalf as Olorin and The Lady Nienna

One of the most important things that Gandalf learnt through his long practice both of Pity and of Patience was the ability to discern the significance of small things. Whereas Sauron could think only in terms of the exercise of his own will and whatever might aid or frustrate it Gandalf could see the exercise of another hand in history to which he must pay close attention and that this hand is as likely to work through small things as through great.

When he speaks of the Ring being found “by the most unlikely person imaginable” Gandalf is speaking of the work of this hand.

“Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring  and not by its maker.”

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Gandalf is capable of discerning that “something else at work” in the astonishing moment of chance in which Bilbo places his hand upon the Ring because of his long practice of paying the closest attention to things. And when we speak of things we are not speaking of those things that are generally regarded as important but of small things. Things like hobbits.

Gandalf expects to see the hand of Providence at work in such things. Sauron does not look for the hand of Providence at all. The direct intervention of the Valar at the end of the First Age and that of Eru, the One, when Ar-Pharazôn of Númenor attacks the Undying Lands, takes him entirely by surprise. But that he might fall because of hobbits is a possibility that could never have entered even his darkest thoughts. You require certain powers of imagination in order to see Providence at work and Sauron not only has no imagination but he despises it. It is necessary to have imagination in order to people the world with hobbits and dwarves and ents. Sauron, like his master, Morgoth, before him, can only think in terms of slaves and of usefulness.

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At The Entmoot by Stephen Hickman

Oh, the limitations of the practically minded! Those whose careful cost-benefit analyses can only be constructed in terms of profitability. Those who are prepared to declare whole peoples useless and to construct realities in which the useless no longer exist. Those for whom trees have only value as a carbon based energy source. Those who can only look at land as potential real-estate. At the last they must fall before the playful, the imaginative and the foolish.

Gandalf is accused of being trivial in his love of pipe-weed, fireworks and hobbits and accused of madness in entrusting the Ring to a “witless halfling”. But he has seen something that others have not. That no-one can simply abandon the Ring (or cast it into the Fire for that matter) unless another hand is at work and he has discerned that hand at work in the hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

And that is an encouraging thought!

Gandalf Speaks of How Sméagol Took the Ring and So Became Gollum.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 51-53

Gandalf is answering a question that Frodo asked him fearfully and desperately.

“How on earth did it come to me?”

Gandalf Rejects the Ring

Frodo is speaking of the Ring of Power forged by Sauron so that he might become lord of all the earth. In a few short minutes Frodo has journeyed from being a hobbit enjoying a comfortable if rather a dull life to one at the very centre of the great events of his age. He has already protested against the apparent injustice of his fate. If Gandalf had invited him to be a part of an adventure he might have responded with more enthusiasm. To go on an adventure would have been a conscious and carefully considered choice, although when Bilbo made that choice it had to be done in haste before the possibility passed him by for ever. Frodo is given no choice. The Ring has come to him and its maker is searching for it.

And so Gandalf gives him a brief overview of the history of the Second and Third Ages, of the evil desire of Sauron and the brave resistance of Elendil of Gondor and Arnor and Gil-galad, the High King of the Elves. He speaks of how Isildur, son of Elendil, cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand but how he failed to destroy it, eventually losing it in an orc ambush in the Gladden Fields in which he lost his life. He tells Frodo how the Ring remained hidden for long years there until it was found by hobbit like creatures near their ancestral home.

Isildur-Takes-Ring

The Ring was found by Déagol, friend of Sméagol, a friend, that is, until the moment in which Sméagol murdered him because the Ring “looked so bright and beautiful”.  And so began Sméagol’s unhappy career as a creature of power and menace, a career in which he began as a hobbit and ended as Gollum, a name given to him in contempt by his fellows but one that eventually he took for himself, or at least for that expression of himself that was entirely under the power of the Ring.

In Peter Jackson’s films we are given the impression that Sméagol’s decision to murder his friend was because of the overwhelming and entirely malicious power of the Ring and it is true that the Ring plays a key role in the whole unhappy affair. But Tolkien would not allow so simple an explanation. Before the moment of the Ring’s discovery and the murder, Sméagol had a career. We learn that he “was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he into green mounds”. In other words he was a scientist.

smeagol before the ring

Now before all the scientists who are among my readers cry out in protest let me say that I do not believe that Tolkien was against the scientific method in and of itself. What he tried to get us to see is that knowledge can never take the place of wisdom. Poor Sméagol may have learnt all that there is about the roots and beginnings of things but he never learnt how to find love, or joy, or peace. He may have stolen a tool that could give him power but he had to trade happiness in order to gain it. As Gandalf was to say later to Saruman, those who break a thing in order to find out what it is leave the path of wisdom. Sméagol, like Saruman, was a breaker, a manipulator, and a fool!

Sméagol’s journey took him deeper into the roots of things, away from the warming sun, the gentle breeze and the kind company of friends and kinsfolk. He went down into the tunnels underneath the mountains, down into the dark. It is the inevitable end for one who chooses power over others in stead of the service of others. The dark may not be physical as it was in Sméagol’s case but it is utterly isolating. It is the reality that comes when someone turns inward, centreing only upon themself, turning away from others.

Gollum-Smeagol

But at last a moment of grace broke into Sméagol’s dark world in the form of a hobbit who was utterly lost. But would Sméagol recognise it when it came?

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Why Did Sauron Make the Ring? Gandalf in Frodo’s Study at Bag End.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 50,51

In 1949 Herbert Butterfield, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, published a series of lectures that he had given under the title of Christianity and History. I do not know if he had any contact with The Inklings. He was a Cambridge Professor and they were based in Oxford. But I rather think that Tolkien would have approved of Butterfield’s thoughts contained in this quotation from those lectures.

herbert-butterfield

“The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future- reaching out into the future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake.”

When I asked whether Butterfield and the Inklings could have known each other it was because it seemed to me that Butterfield could have been describing the action of Sauron in the forging of the Ring. That Sauron imagined himself, not only as king of the earth, but as the king. Sauron forged the Ring in order to achieve kingship, declaring his intent in the words that he inscribed upon it.

One Ring to rule them all.

Sauron is one who fears disorder; one for whom order is only certain when he is in absolute control. This means that all other powers, even and perhaps most especially Providence itself, must first be found and then bound in the darkness. And why the darkness? Because the light is not under his control and the light is able to penetrate even the most carefully constructed of his defences. The same goes for the unruly weather. The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

And Sauron fears those who are born of the Spirit, those who are truly free, who will not bow the knee to him; and so he labours endlessly to corrupt the free and to bind them to him for ever. It is the Ringwraiths, the Nazgûl, who are the most tragic of these people. They are those who traded their freedom in exchange for power and so as Gandalf expresses it heartbreakingly, they became “shadows under his great Shadow”. It is hard to imagine any image that could convey the sense of something or someone who has less substance than a shadow within a shadow. This is the end of all who seek power and control and who grow to fear freedom above everything else. Butterfield describes Sauron so well when he speaks of one who is farsighted in the wrong way, someone who seeks to eliminate all unpredictability and risk from the future. As Butterfield puts it, someone for whom “there must never be a single mistake”.

Compare such a spirit to the astonishing risk of putting your trust in hobbits! Perhaps this is a moment to consider how great a risk this is. Later in the story Denethor, the Lord of Gondor, will declare Gandalf’s trust in hobbits as madness and the hobbits themselves as witless. Gandalf does not argue with him or try to justify his trust. His choice is the worst that could possibly have been made. Except, that is, for every other choice.

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But the same quotation from Butterfield that opened this short reflection goes on to describe the choice that Gandalf does make and the one that Frodo accepts and makes his own.

“Each of us should rather do the good that is under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump.”

This is what Gandalf and Frodo speak of on that Spring morning in the Shire. Not some vast plan to solve all the problems of Middle-earth but the decision to take one course of action. And at this point the action is only to take the Ring out of the Shire because the Dark Lord now knows that the Ring is there. The first choice to do good is very limited in its scope because at this point Frodo and, even, Gandalf himself does not know what to do next. But it is enough. The lump of dough will be leavened beyond all imagining.

(Image Below, The Fall of Sauron by Caoronach http://caoranach.deviantart.com/art/Fall-of-Sauron-349619911)

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Things That Can Only Be Spoken of in Daylight. Gandalf Speaks of the Corrupting Power of the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 45-48

When Frodo and Gandalf begin to speak about the Ring it is as if every word emerges from a profound silence. Not just the silence of the night that has passed but the silence of long years whose shadow now lies over this comfortable hobbit hole in the heart of the Shire. At last Frodo speaks.

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Gandalf and Frodo in Bag End by Alan Lee

“Last night you began to tell me strange things about my ring, Gandalf… And then you stopped, because you said that such matters were best left until daylight.”

And so Gandalf begins to tell the story of what Frodo has always called, Bilbo’s Ring. And it is a story of power and of possession.

“A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later- later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last- sooner or later the dark power will devour him.”

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The One Ring by Badriel

What Gandalf has done here is to describe to Frodo both what it will mean to possess a Ring of Power and what it means to desire power over others. It was the 19th British historian, Lord Acton, who famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What Tolkien describes here is what happens when absolute power is achieved by means of a particular item and linked to a particular desire. The One Ring appears to convey two things. One is power over others. The other is power over death itself. Thus the one who possesses it will believe themselves to be entirely invulnerable both to the power of others and even to death. But what Tolkien shows is that the corruption that Acton spoke of in relation to power is not just the loss of a moral sense. Sauron had already made this bargain long before the forging of the Ring and did so without a backward glance. All that he desired was absolute power and his assumption was that everyone else desired this too. What he did not know was that in the forging of the Ring in order to achieve power he was giving his Self to the thing that he had made. He was able to appear, first to Celebrimbor and then later to Ar-Pharazôn of Númenor, in a fair guise. But he lost this capacity and throughout the Third Age he could only appear as a thing of terror. And when the Ring eventually goes into the Fire there is nothing left of him but a mist in the wind, malicious but utterly powerless.

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This is what it means to be corrupted. This is what all who desire power over others believe themselves to be exempt from. They believe that they have achieved a level of self-possession through the exercise of that power that will mean that they are the masters of their own destiny. But what we learn here is that the wielders of power, those who achieve it by means of a Ring of Power, fade. And what we also learn is that those who spend too much time with a Ring of Power are eventually corrupted by it. Even Bilbo was beginning to fall under its influence saying that it was “growing on his mind”, that “he was always worrying about it”, that he felt “thin and stretched”. Eventually even Bilbo would have fallen under the power of the Ring and surely with the Nazgûl hunting for it high and low and drawn to it because it has power over them they would have found Bilbo and found the Ring too. But might we say that a swift end at the point of a Nazgûl blade or even torture at the hands of the Dark Lord would be preferable to the terrible fate that would have befallen him through possession of the Ring? Perhaps when we pray that we might be delivered from evil it is more a prayer that we might not become evil ourselves than that we might suffer from the evil of another.

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

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

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

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

Ted and Sam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Divine Restlessness. Frodo Begins to Dream About the Wild Lands and the Mountains.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 40,41

Please Press Play to Listen to my Reading of this Post

 

None of us can control the stories that others tell about us although Bilbo may have tried to do so. If he had ever heard that he had become a part of Shire folklore as “Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold” we might be able to assume that he would have received the news with a certain amusement, and satisfaction too.

Frodo, on the other hand, never sought to be a part of the Bilbo Baggins “legend” but he finds himself a part of it anyway especially as his habit of giving a party in honour of Bilbo each year on the anniversary of his birth becomes widely known. All societies have a way of policing themselves by means of the informal court of public opinion. Most people do not wish to be thought strange and so will adjust their behaviour, for good or for ill, towards the norms and standards of their community. Until this point in their history hobbits have neither had, nor encouraged, a heroic culture in which certain individuals are permitted, for the sake of the greater good, to step beyond these norms. Smaug the dragon never threatened the welfare of the Shire and so Bilbo’s adventure was never thought worthy of much attention. Later Merry, Pippin and Sam will be granted a certain heroic status because of their leading part in driving out Saruman’s gang but the story of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom” which will be sung for generations in Gondor will never be given much regard in the Shire except among those to whom Sam will tell the story.

Frodo of the 9 Fingers

To the extent that Frodo desires the affection and esteem of others the lack of regard that he enjoys from his fellows will be a cause of unhappiness to him. Certainly Tolkien felt Frodo was tempted to “have returned as a ‘hero’, not content with being a mere instrument of good”.

But the desire to be a hero is not the only thing that can be said about Frodo. If it were so then he would almost certainly have fallen prey to the same temptation that would eventually beset Boromir. And it is during the seventeen years that lay between Bilbo’s departure and Gandalf’s return that a much more important aspect to his character was developed.

“Frodo himself… found that being his own master and the Mr Baggins of Bag End was rather pleasant. For some years he was quite happy and did not worry much about the future. But half unknown to himself the regret that he had not gone with Bilbo was steadily growing. He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.”

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Frodo himself resists this growing desire to leave the Shire at first but it will not leave him alone. And such is the way with the kind of dreams that Frodo has and the kind of restlessness that begins to grow within him. Gradually all that we have considered to be home begins to feel too confined and the spaces that open up beyond our home become increasingly attractive.

Eventually Frodo will follow this yearning and will leave the Shire. He will wander the world, see mountains and experience Elven lands and their, almost, timeless beauty. Beauty will take hold of him on more than one occasion and yet even the wonder of Cerin Amroth will not be for him the end of his journey and neither can his return to the Shire. Frodo’s restlessness or, might we say, his homesickness, can only grow with each step that he takes. Eventually it will take him out of Middle-earth altogether and into an experience of “pure Elvishness” as Tolkien put it in a letter to a Mrs Eileen Elgar.

Cerin Amroth

But even there, as Tolkien put it in the same letter, Frodo went through what he terms “a purgatory and a reward… a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness”. All purgatory, certainly as Tolkien understood it, is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The classic spiritual journey has three stages. Illumination, Purgation and Union. The journey that Frodo began in restlessness will end in the homecoming at last of pure union with Love beyond “the circles of the world”.

“Keep it Safe, and Keep it Secret!” On What Takes Place at Bag End after Bilbo Leaves The Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 35-40

Bilbo leaves the Shire after the party in search of a holiday but for Frodo, at least at first, life is anything but leisurely. This is all Bilbo’s fault, of course. The manner of his disappearance means that the conventional hobbits feel abused by him. Some are simply outraged; the Sackville-Bagginses try to regain possession of Bag End; while some of the younger ones cannot help but try to find out whether there is more to the stories of Bilbo’s fabulous wealth than mere rumour. All in all Frodo spends some time after the party more or less under siege in Bag End.

It is during the process of repelling invaders that Gandalf returns. At first Frodo and his friends try to repel him too, or at least to ignore him.

“Suddenly the wizard’s head appeared at the window.

‘If you don’t let me in, Frodo, I shall blow your door right down your hole and out through the hill,’ he said.”

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Gandalf wishes to speak about the Ring. At this point in the story he merely refers to the Ring as “It”. This is what needs to be kept secret and safe. It is clear that Gandalf already has his suspicions regarding Bilbo’s “magic” ring. He knows from his Ringlore that “magic” rings don’t just turn up from time to time. There was only one time during the Second Age in which Rings of Power were created and every single one of them had a connection to the Dark Lord. Seven Rings were created for Dwarf lords and Nine for Lords of Men. Three were forged by Elven Smiths but were never touched by Sauron although Celebrimbor of Eregion received guidance in their making from the Dark Lord in his fair guise of Annatar. And then there was the One Ring to rule them all.

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Even now Gandalf fears that Bilbo’s ring might indeed be the One Ring. So why does he not act upon his fear straight away? It will be nearly seventeen years before he returns to the Shire and confirms his fears. In that time Sauron will have almost completed all his preparations for war and at the end of it he will send out his most deadly servants, the Nazgûl, the keepers of the Nine Rings, in search of the One. During those years no great alliance of the free peoples of Middle-earth will be formed as took place at the end of the Second Age, an alliance strong enough to overthrow the Dark Lord. And the one alliance that has remained, that between Gondor and the Kingdom of Rohan, will be systematically weakened by the work of Saruman the traitor.

I have two thoughts regarding these years of relative inaction.

One is that Gandalf knows that he cannot afford to make any mistakes regarding the One Ring. It is much too big for that. If he were to gamble on the identity of Bilbo’s Ring and get it wrong the consequences would be catastrophic. He knows that at the end this is not a war that can be won through force of arms. Sauron can be delayed but this time he cannot be defeated. Gandalf knows that at the moment of the crisis of the Age everything will depend upon a madness, upon a gamble in which everything is wagered upon one slender possibility.

I exaggerate! To describe the possibility as slender is a nonsense. The wager will be made on an action that is as close to impossible as can be conceived. Gandalf knows this even now and so he needs to be sure.

The second is that at the moment when Gandalf leaves the Shire and the Ring he does not know what to do next. He knows enough not to try to take the Ring himself. He fears what it might do to him if it turns out to be the One. He knows that when the time comes everything will have to be risked upon one throw of the dice. But what this will mean in an actual plan of action he does not yet know. He needs time to think.

“Frodo saw him to the door. He gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Frodo thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he were carrying a great weight. The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.”

 

Bilbo Wants to go on a Holiday. But Frodo is Still in Love With The Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p 32

One of the deepest longings in all of our lives is to belong. The Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, wrote, “Your longing is often wiser than your conventional sense of appropriateness, safety and truth.” We might say then that the conventional (and who is more conventional than a hobbit?) is a kind of training in the dulling of one’s sense of longing and replacing it with what is regarded as appropriate, safe and true. Most hobbits receive this training with their mother’s milk and their father’s carefully garnered store of well worn proverbs. But not so Bilbo Baggins and his nephew and heir, Frodo. Of them O’Donohue might have written, “Your longing desires to take you towards the absolute realisation of all the possibilities that reside in the clay of your heart; it knows your eternal potential, and it will not rest until it is awakened.”

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Bilbo and Frodo will both undertake a pilgrimage through the events recorded within The Lord of the Rings that will end with a final voyage from The Grey Havens to the Undying Lands of the True West. In the twenty or so years that comprise the story Frodo in particular will journey through lands of wonder but then into hell itself before returning to the Shire and discovering that for him, at least, it is no longer home. It is my belief that in the West he finally achieves peace and healing but not his final homecoming. As Aragorn will one day say to Arwen, “We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.” In hope Aragorn glimpses the eternal of which O’Donohue speaks. I believe that both Bilbo and Frodo will come to see it and long for it too.

But not yet. Now at the point of the story when Bilbo is able to leave the Shire and the Ring behind him his imagination, rich though it is, has not yet opened to him his eternal home.

“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf- mountains; and then find somewhere where I can rest. In peace and quiet, without a lot of relatives prying around, and a string of confounded visitors hanging on the bell. I might find somewhere I can finish my book. I have thought of a nice ending for it: and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.”

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The Happy Ever After ending goes with us throughout our days. At this point in the story only Gandalf has some sense of what might have to be endured before it can be achieved and even he does not know the details of the story. But his hope that Bilbo might find his own Happy Ever After is heartfelt.

Bilbo’s longing will take him from the Shire but not so, at least as yet, will Frodo’s. Bilbo says of him:

“He would come with me, of course, if I asked him… But he does not really want to, yet. I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains; but he is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers.”

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This is the landscape of the English Midlands in which Tolkien himself grew up. There are hills but none are especially challenging, even for young or elderly legs. And any walk through its countryside will be through a patchwork of woods, fields and little rivers.

In the first of the pieces that I posted in this blog on The Fellowship of the Ring I quoted Patrick Kavanagh on learning to know and love your parish, the land in which you dwell.

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.”

As one whose early years were at first a succession of temporary homes in different farms, then student rooms, then a voyage to Africa I find that I cannot read Kavanagh’s words without them evoking a deep longing within me. I don’t think that the conventional was ever really an option for me but home was always my deepest longing. To have arrived in a lovely home and to be happily married has long been a source of profound gratitude in me but I know that it is not my final Happy Ever After. I am trying to get to the woods, the rivers and the fields in the way that Kavanagh speaks of but just as with Bilbo and Frodo I know that even the heartbreaking beauty of the earthly paradise of the Undying Lands could not satisfy my longing for a true home. That lies elsewhere “beyond the circles of the world”.

Bilbo Baggins Lets Go of The Ring. With a Little Help From a Friend.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 30-35

The One Ring has had a long and unhappy history since its forging in the Second Age of the Sun. Its purpose in its conceiving was to increase the power of its maker, Sauron, the Dark Lord.

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

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Rule has ever been its purpose so that all the work that has ever been done in freedom by Elves, Dwarves or Mortal Men should itself become the work of one being and enslaved forever to his will and purpose.

The Ring is a fearful thing and yet it has never quite accomplished that for which its maker purposed it. Even when it was in Sauron’s possession it never quite gave him the power he desired. He had to submit to the greater power of Númenor and, at the end of the Age, in battle against the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, had it taken from him by force by Isildur, son of Elendil. And although he grows in power once again towards the end of the Third Age the Ring, now the focus of an all-consuming desire, remains hidden from him.

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The Ring has had its own history throughout this time, betraying first Isildur to his death and then the unhappy Déagol too until it falls into the hands of a hobbit lost in the endless tunnels under the Misty Mountains. And in this moment of its history a theft takes place undoubtedly but no murder and so its history begins to change. At no point does the Ring ever change in nature but it is clear that another power is at work as well as its own entirely malevolent one.

I think we can say that Bilbo meant to give the Ring up and to leave it to Frodo. It is just that at the moment when he has to make a choice he finds that he is unable to do so.

“Into the envelope he slipped his golden ring, and its fine chain, and then sealed it, and addressed it to Frodo. At first he put it on the mantelpiece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck it in his pocket.”

Poor Bilbo! The Ring is so much stronger than he is and if it had not been for Gandalf’s intervention it would have taken complete possession of him and dragged him down into a living perdition. Indeed already it has begun to do its work. Bilbo speaks of feeling “all thin, sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread”. He speaks of an “eye looking at me” of not being able to rest without it in his pocket.

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Eventually Gandalf has to hint at his own power in order to make Bilbo give it up. This is no act of a bully seeking to force someone weaker than himself to give up freedom for servitude but rather the opposite. Gandalf uses his greater power to free Bilbo from himself or should we say to free Bilbo from his false self from the self that can never be at rest while in possession of the Ring? Or perhaps that he can never be at rest while the Ring seeks to gain possession of him?

The true Bilbo leaps into full view almost as soon as he makes the decision to let go of the Ring.

“It was a fine night and the black sky was dotted with stars. He looked up sniffing the air. `What fun! What fun to be off again, off on the road with dwarves. This is what I have really been longing for for years.`”

A good spiritual guide might tell Bilbo that the thing that he had thought that he had desired the most was in fact nothing more than an adhesion “on the wings to love and adventure,” as the poet Patrick Kavanagh puts it. But perhaps Gandalf is better than that for rather than telling Bilbo that this is what the One Ring has become to him he actually sets him free. Later in the story he will do the same for Théoden of Rohan.

But now let us watch with Gandalf as the 111 year old hobbit leaps over a low point in the hedge and heads off down the road to his own “love and adventure”.