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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

200px-Darrell_Sweet_-_The_Arrival_of_Gandalf

Darell Sweet The Arrival of Gandalf

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

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

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

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

gandalf_vs_balrog_by_danielpillaart-dajzr14

Gandalf vs Balrog by Daniel Pillaart

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

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

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

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

Sam Gamgee Remembers a Gift to Heal the Hurts of the World.

As always, Saruman underestimated the capacity of those that he made his foes to undo the harm that he sought to do to them, and he greatly underestimated the power of good in the world. In many ways the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings is a celebration of  that goodness. And the goodness is given graciously and abundantly.

I ended last week’s reflection on the death of Saruman lamenting one who, in Wordsworth’s words, “laid waste his powers”, meaning Saruman, and then hinted at one who, in his labours to restore the Shire discovered power that had lain hidden deep within him. Of course I am speaking of Sam Gamgee.

It is typical of Sam that he gets down to work straight away to remove all traces of Saruman’s malign influence upon the Shire and to begin to restore it “as it ought to be”. Sam finds many willing helpers. Perhaps some hobbits might have been ashamed of their failure to stand up against the invaders and wished to make amends. There might even have been some among the more willing collaborators who might wish to do so also. Let us hope so. Tolkien does not tell us.

But it isn’t until Sam begins to ponder the destruction of the trees and how it might only be his great-grandchildren who might see the Shire as he once knew it to be that he remembers the gift that Galadriel gave him in Lothlórien. It is a box of plain grey wood with no decoration save a single silver G rune set upon it.

“If you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you. Though you should find all barren and laid waste, there will be few gardens in Middle-earth that will bloom like your garden, if you sprinkle this earth there.”

When Sam at last remembers Galadriel’s gift it is typical of him at this stage in his life that he is more afraid of making wrong use of it than he is confident in his power to use it well. It is Frodo who rightly encourages him saying, “Use all the wits and knowledge you have of your own, Sam… and then use your gift to help your work to help your work and better it.”

It is a fundamental principle of faith and of life that grace perfects nature and so it is with Sam here. It is not that Sam had to start the work in order that the grace given in Galadriel’s gift could build upon it. It is that the person that Sam has always been in potential is now revealed in the grace given to him through the gift.

Galadriel saw Sam’s greatness in his vocation as a gardener. That he was one who could turn a wasteland into a place of abundance. Her gift allowed Sam to discover that in himself. Perhaps Gandalf caught a glimpse of that greatness when he caught Sam by the hair and dragged him through the open window into the sitting room at Bag End. Gandalf may have spoken of punishment in sending Sam with Frodo but the punishment would have been Frodo’s if Sam had been a fool. Gandalf sees enough of what Sam will become to choose him for the great adventure.

Frodo’s challenge to Sam’s wits and knowledge proves sufficient. Sam travels the Shire doing his work. He plants saplings everywhere and places a grain of Galadriel’s gift by each one. He plants the little silver nut that the box contained in the party field at Hobbiton. And then he stands at the Three-Farthing Stone and casts what remains of the earth into the air “with his blessing”.

The result is wonderful and the year 1420 is a “marvellous” year. Even the children are extraordinarily beautiful, the beer becomes a thing of legend and the silver nut proves to be a mallorn, a wonder of the world. Sam’s faithful journey with Frodo, even after seeing the vision of destruction in Galadriel’s Mirror, is rewarded. Perhaps it is his father, the old curmudgeon, the Gaffer, who puts it best. “It’s an ill wind as blows nobody any good… And All’s well as ends Better!”

Sam discovers a greatness and a power within himself, perfected by grace, that  Saruman squandered. Saruman’s soul became the very wasteland that he took pleasure in making. But goodness is the stronger as Sam reveals in his labours.

 

The artwork this week is by Edward Beard Jnr

 

What Happens When Hobbits Fall Prey to Greed and Self-importance. (The Scouring of the Shire)

The Scouring of the Shire is one of the saddest chapters in The Lord of the Rings. We expected Mordor to be as desolate as it turned out to be and, step by step, we followed Frodo and Sam to the Cracks of Doom longing to be free of it. But then the impossible happened and the Ring went to the Fire. Sauron fell into nothingness and his realm crumbled, Frodo and Sam awoke in a soft bed in the woodlands of Ithilien and Sam cried out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

But the spirit of Mordor was never something forced upon the world by one evil being. Sauron fed upon the selfishness, the meanness and the fearfulness of others to become the mighty lord of darkness. And he had many imitators not least Saruman of Isengard and Lotho Sackville-Baggins of the Shire. For those critics who have accused Tolkien of moral banality, of writing a simplistic “good guys versus bad guys” story, one need only read this chapter of the story to know that this criticism is arrant nonsense.

The Shire was never an earthly paradise with no knowledge of good and evil. It was never a realm of pure innocence. It was always a land inhabited by a people subject to the same passions and the same temptations as we are. But Tolkien gave us a land in which a people live securely because of the protection of the Rangers of the North and in which no one lives either in poverty or great wealth. There are two great families in the Shire, the Tooks and the Brandybucks, but although both enjoy great comfort it is a comfort shared with the community at large. Brandybuck Hall and the Great Smials of Tuckborough are more like communal villages than private residences.

But once there are those who regard the acquiring of private wealth well beyond that of their neighbours as a goal worth pursuing, a seed of meanness is sown in the Shire that will not be easily dug out. So it is with Lotho Sackville-Baggins as we will consider next week in more detail. Suffice to say at this point that it is this seed that infects the Shire and its fruits that the four companions encounter when they return from their adventures.

Some readers might wish to remind me of the avariciousness of the dwarves and their love for gold or that of Thranduil of the woodland realm or the Master of Esgaroth. To which I would answer that they are right! If it had not been for the lust for revenge of the goblins of the Misty Mountains all Gandalf’s efforts to unite the free peoples of the North against the growing threat in Dol Guldur might have ended in disaster. Tolkien’s characters are morally complex and are all subject to spiritual conflict, even the greatest of them. Perhaps especially the greatest. Only those such as the orcs who have long ago given up the inner struggle are morally simple.

The Hobbits of the Shire are far from morally  simple and when enough are encouraged to feed upon their sense of self-importance such as the Shirrifs or upon their fearfulness of the big world outside as with the easily cowed general populace then it becomes possible for a few people to take control of the whole country. I have often thought that it is only because Britain was never invaded during the Second World War that it is possible to make simplistic generalisations about “British Values”. If the Nazis had taken control there would have been plenty of British people in sympathy with their philosophy, plenty who would have collaborated simply out of self-interest and many who would have done so out of fear. Much of that which we would like to proclaim as innate goodness or decency is more the product of historical good fortune.

We should, all of us, especially those of us who live in some comfort, be grateful for our good fortune. But I do not want to be overly pessimistic about ourselves even as I wish to avoid over optimism. As we shall see there is a goodness and a courage lying deep down within the hobbits that is only waiting to be reawoken. And it dwells in us too.

 

 

As The Hobbits Are About to Return to The Shire Gandalf tells them, “That is what you have been trained for”.

On first thoughts it seems a strange thing for Gandalf to say.

“That is what you have been trained for.”

After all, as we thought about last week in the piece on the talk with Barliman Butterbur, the hobbits have just passed through the great events of the age and they have played a decisive role in them. Surely if there had been a need for training it would have been before they left the Shire in the first place and yet there was none. Frodo and his companions set out as if they were friends on a walking holiday. If it had not been for Tom Bombadil they would not even have reached Bree. If it had not been for Aragorn they would not have reached Rivendell. If being rescued by others is what we call training then in the early stage of this journey they had plenty of it. What they had little or nothing of was experience of getting themselves out of their own troubles. That did not really come until after the breaking of the Fellowship at Parth Galen.

After that Merry and Pippin were prisoners of the Uruk-hai of Isengard and they had to make their own escape using the confusion of battle as their cover. Frodo and Sam found their own way out of the Emyn Muil and then they captured Gollum and made him their guide.

We do not need to rehearse all the events that followed but we can agree that when Gandalf said to them, “You will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear for any of you,” he is not trying to flatter them. Not that Gandalf has ever been given to flattery!

The hobbits are among the great. Their deeds bear witness to this. But they do not know that they are. They still see Aragorn, Faramir, Éowyn, Éomer and, of course, Gandalf, as great, but not themselves. Despite all that they have accomplished when Merry hears that Saruman may be behind the strange goings on in the Shire of which they have heard rumours he declares that he is glad that Gandalf is with them to sort everything out.

Perhaps what we see here is the common behaviour of young people who, having had their first taste of serious responsibility, return home and want their parents to take charge again. If that is so then Gandalf does what good parents should do. He tells them that it is time for them to be true adults now and to sort out their own problems. And then he says something that is even a little shocking. He tells them that he is done with being a parent.

“My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so.”

Gandalf is off for a long talk with Tom Bombadil. The hobbits will have to sort out their own problems. Later on Saruman will draw attention to this supposed irresponsibility on Gandalf’s part. “When his tools have done their task he drops them,” he says.

But Gandalf is entirely correct. The hobbits have been trained to sort out the problems of their own country. They have endured great suffering and they have done great deeds. The challenges posed by the power grab that Lotho Sackville-Baggins makes after Frodo and his companions leave the Shire and the destruction wreaked by Saruman and his band of robbers are easily dealt with. They learn how strong and how wise they are. They have increased while Saruman has been diminished.

But these are events that we will turn to in coming weeks. Now we are with Frodo and his companions as Gandalf races away upon Shadowfax and they have that strange feeling that no one is going to come to solve all their problems, that they will have to do it themselves. But soon they will recall who they are and what they have done. It will not be long before they have put all to rights.

 

The King and The Healing of Merry

And so last but not least Aragorn comes to the bed in which Merry lies. Pippin sits anxiously beside his friend, fearing that he might die but Aragorn speaks words of reassurance.

“Do not be afraid… I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.”

And so Aragorn reaches past all the anxiety, self-doubt and fear that has beset Merry on a journey that has been almost too much for his conscious self and he reaches within to what Merry truly is, one that is both strong and gay. We saw both with Faramir and Éowyn that when Aragorn crushes the leaves of athelas and sprinkles them onto the bowl of steaming water that the fragrance that rises to fill the room speaks of the true self and calls it forth from the dark tomb created by the Black Breath; and so it is with Merry.

“When the fragrance of athelas stole through the room, like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees, suddenly Merry awoke, and he said:

‘I am hungry. What is the time?'”

If Faramir’s true self lies in the realm of his deepest yearning, a realm beyond the borders of Middle-earth, and even beyond Valinor, and if Éowyn’s lies in the pure Northernness that is evoked in the tapestry of her ancestor, Eorl the Young, and in the memory of the origins of her people, then for Merry it is a self that is entirely at one with his land and his people.

A few minutes later, when the great ones have gone to attend to other matters, Merry and Pippin sit down to attend to the ritual of preparing a pipe for smoking. And as they do so they briefly ponder what they have experienced and the great ones that they have met along the way. Aragorn had said that Merry would learn wisdom from what he had experienced and now Merry displays this wisdom as he reflects a moment.

“It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.”

If only this wisdom were more widely understood, practiced and taught. To learn how to love, to truly love and to cherish that which we know does not close the door to what Merry calls the things that are “deeper and higher”. In fact it opens the way to them. The great Irish peasant poet, Patrick Kavanagh, wrote:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

Perhaps Merry is not yet able to say these words but one day, perhaps when his youthful energy is somewhat abated and he begins to sit a little longer beside the junction of streams in a woody meadow and looks at them and then looks at them some more, then he will be able to speak these words for himself. He may even be able to link them to “poetic experience” to “the dearest freshness deep down things” as Hopkins puts it. He has already begun to do so now pondering the greatness of Aragorn and Gandalf and in the days of uncertainty that lie ahead in his enforced rest in the Houses of Healing the deepening of his wisdom will continue.

An Agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard

Treebeard has learnt sympathy during the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth. On learning from Gandalf that Saruman has refused to leave Orthanc he says:

“So Saruman would not leave?… I did not think he would. His heart is as rotten as a black Huorn’s. Still, if I were overcome and all my trees destroyed, I would not come while I had one dark hole left to hide in.”

“No,” said Gandalf. “But you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things.”

For Saruman had indeed dreamed and plotted to cover the world and to rule over it. Many have commented that it was the creeping spread of industrial Birmingham in the English Midlands into the Worcestershire countryside where Tolkien grew up that inspired much of the story of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien grew up in the village of Hall Green. I know this now as a suburb of Birmingham that lies well within the modern city boundary a few miles to the north of my own home. I can well see how he would have seen this encroachment as an invasion.

My own home lies still within the Worcestershire countryside. As I write this on a frosty February morning I can detect the first signs of approaching Spring about me. Soon I will see swans, ducks, moorhens and coots marking out their territories in the waters around my home and soon after I will see them raising their young once more. I have made the acquaintance of an angler who sits patiently by the waters through the warmer months of the year. I say acquaintance for like most anglers he is a marsh wiggle by nature and keeps himself to himself but he is ready to share his wisdom as long as I don’t disturb him from more important matters. The best time to talk is at the end of the day when he is about to make his way home. He has taught me where the kingfishers will make their nest and, for me, most exciting of all, where he has seen an otter and her cub, something not seen near here for many a year. And he knows the difference between the native otter and the pernicious foreign mink so I believe in his sighting. One day…one day… I hope to see an otter near my home myself.

I think that Tolkien would have loved the country near my home. Indeed he probably knew it himself. And yet if I walk towards the small town near where I live it is not long before I reach a major highway that cuts through the heart of the county. I have written before about my early morning walks through woodland with my dog in the autumn and winter darkness. What I have not mentioned is the noise of traffic from the highway. The dark of the woodland is real thanks both to the trees themselves and to a high embankment that lies between them and the road but so too is the noise.

I have developed a form of prayer for my daily walks with my dog and more and more I feel that the place in which I pray is a part and a vital part of the prayer. It is not some simplistic expression of “all that is green and living is good and all that is asphalt is bad”. I am too much implicated by own participation in the modern world to be able to do that without being justly called a hypocrite. But it is right that my prayer should happen at this point of tension in the woodland by the highway in which I do not know how much I am an agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard. Last year a group of folk planted the land between the woodland and the highway with hundreds of young saplings. That was a fine deed. Perhaps by supporting it I can offer something to Treebeard and to the Worcestershire man who created that character and in whose Shire I still live.