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.

Frodo and the Challenge of Leaving Home

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 64-69

It was the difficulty of actually leaving Bag End for good that finally gave Frodo’s plans away. He meant to leave the Shire in secret, taking only Sam Gamgee with him and in order to do this he decided to sell Bag End to the Sackville Bagginses and to buy a small cottage in Buckland on the eastern border of the Shire. But his plan to leave in secret was rather spoilt by his habit through that last beautiful summer of taking long walks and then saying things like: “Shall I ever look down into that valley again, I wonder”.

Let us not be too harsh on Frodo. He has already made up his mind to give up everything in order to save the Shire, even his own life. This is not a holiday that he is going on, a diversion from the tedium of ordinary life. Imagine, if you will, a tour operator who tries to sell you a holiday in which there is a strong possibility that you and your loved ones will not return from it alive. Even the armed forces today must reassure the families of their recruits that they take the duty of care seriously. How different that is from a time of war in which the survival of the country is at stake.

And so we should not be too hard on Frodo.

Shall I ever look down into that valley again?

Our longing for home, for belonging, is the most powerful that we will ever know. It gathers together all of our longings for safety, for control and for affection. Every safe arrival at the end of the day, wherever we are in the world, is a little homecoming. When I was a young man, working in Africa, I used to travel in the holidays and often a bed to sleep in and food to eat felt like a small miracle, a pure gift. This experience, far from the temporary shelter of my simple house in the school in Zambia, and farther yet from England heightened my sense of what home was to me.

I grew up in a family that was constantly on the move. By the time I was eight years old we had already lived in seven different places. I developed early an attitude to friends based upon my complete expectation that our friendship would not last. When we moved yet again I would end things quite brutally, even on one occasion destroying a play castle that I had built in a farmyard with the boys who lived on the farm where my father worked.

In all that experience of seemingly endless change my parents were a fixed point, a place of solidity. As I grew up I had a sense somewhere within me of what home was. But what about Frodo? He first came to Bag End after the tragic death, by drowning, of his mother and father. Bilbo took him in and eventually adopted him. Bilbo is unfailingly kind but he can never be a mother to the child who comes to live with him and we are not aware of any strong feminine influence upon Frodo anywhere in the story. I am struck that nowhere in The Lord of the Rings does any woman ever develop any romantic feelings towards him as they do with Sam or Aragorn or Faramir. Goldberry and Galadriel both display a motherly tenderness towards Frodo as does Rosie Cotton at the end of the story but no one ever falls in love with him. If anything it is the countryside of The Shire that is the biggest feminine influence in Frodo’s life with its gentle hills, small woodlands and little streams. It is a domestic landscape as much of England is and certainly the countryside of the English Midlands where Tolkien, another motherless child, grew up. And it is this that Frodo has to leave. No wonder it is so difficult.

“He is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers“.
A view of Worcestershire, England

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.”

JohnODonohue

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.”

misty_mountains_by_tavenerscholar-d5opl3e

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.”

5045152_08527ee0

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”.