Enchanting the Elves: Tolkien’s Gospel Inversion of Faërie

(The following is an essay I wrote for Roman Roads’ Digressio Magazine a couple of years ago, and which can be found here.)

In his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien defines fairy stories as being not about fairies so much as they are about the land of Faërie, that is, the “perilous realm” (which may or may not be inhabited by actual fairies) into which men will sometimes wander and where they find danger, adventure, and above all enchantment. In his epilogue to his essay, however, Tolkien turns the tables somewhat to imply that, if the role of Faërie and of fairy stories is to enchant and in that sense “redeem” those who venture into them, there is another sense in which both Faërie and fairy stories are themselves in need of being saved. Thus, he explains how in the Gospel tales of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, God has not only turned human history and reality into a fairy story, but just as interestingly, he has also made our fairy stories in particular and our sub-creations in general to be something entirely and eminently real. Apart from such fulfillment, Tolkien leads us to believe, our fairy stories, however beautiful and enchanting they may be in their own right, would ultimately differ little from mere “Dreams,” stories, that is, in which (like fairy stories) “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked,” but which in the end “cheat deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” In the Christian evangelium, accordingly, the realm of Faërie itself gets treated to its own enchanting eucatastrophe, a fact that better enables it to enchant us in our turn.

In this essay, I want to look at three examples of how this theme of the “Gospel inversion” of fairy stories—the way, that is, the Gospel turns the tables and subjects Faërie to its own kind of fairy story—shows up within Tolkien’s own master fairy story, The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, I will show how in what might be distinguished as the three “mini-fairy stories” within The Fellowship of the Ring—Frodo’s encounter with Gildor and his Elves in the Shire, Frodo’s experience at Rivendell, and finally Frodo’s experience at Lothlórien—in each case Tolkien begins by presenting us with a classic case of Faërie enchantment, only to then “invert” the stock formula by using hobbits (in some ways a personification of Gospel weakness and lowliness) to “enchant” their elvish enchanters.

Before seeing how these three episodes meet Tolkien’s qualifications for a true fairy story (and how they then go on to invert them), we need to first delineate what some of these distinctive elements are. In his essay Tolkien describes “the realm of fairy-story” as “wide and deep and high” and a place about which “it is dangerous for [man] to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.” As for the inhabitants of this land, the fairies or “elves,” he describes them as “put[ting] on a pride and beauty that we would fain wear ourselves,” and their magic as that of a “power to play on the desires of [man’s] body and his heart.” Part of our desire for Faërie and for fairies, ironically, stems from their indifference towards us: “elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.” As Tolkien characterizes Faërie, in sum, it is a land where the fairies or elves—proud, noble, and beautiful—are entirely at home, and we are the tolerated strangers, guests and beneficiaries of their hospitality, however long it should last.

To turn, then, to The Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most complete and self-contained fairy story in the whole book is chapter three of The Fellowship of the Ring, titled “Three’s Company” (the chapter could almost be read on its own as a stand-alone fairy story). The chapter opens with Frodo needing to take a “journey” but to an as-yet unknown destination. When Gandalf tells him to head towards Rivendell, Frodo’s “heart was moved suddenly with a desire to see the house of Elrond Halfelven, and breathe the air of that deep valley where many of the Fair Folk still dwelt in peace.” Frodo’s home of Bag End, by comparison, is described as “seem[ing] sad and gloomy and dishevelled. Frodo wandered round the familiar rooms, and saw the light of the sunset fade on the walls, and shadows creep out of the corners.” Frodo, in short, is in need of enchantment, and that’s exactly what he gets when the travelers encounter Elves in the Shire forest. When the hobbits are about to be discovered by a Black Rider, an eucatastrophe occurs when the Elves arrive and scare the latter off with their singing. From their song, which is about their own, longed-for but irretrievable past, Frodo is able to identify them as “High Elves” and the “fairest folk,” few of whom still remain in Middle-earth, making their meeting here a “strange chance.” The starlight glimmers on their hair and in their eyes, and though they “bore no lights,” they seemed to radiant their own light like the moon. When the Elves at last notice the hobbits, however, they “laugh,” address Frodo by name and indicate a familiarity with his traveling habits. When Frodo asks if they might travel together, the Elves inform him that they have “no need of other company,” that besides the hobbits don’t even know where the Elves are going, and jest with him that, what is more, “hobbits are so dull.” Nevertheless, Gildor, their leader, tells Frodo that although “it is not our custom,” nevertheless “for this time we will take you on our road, and you shall lodge with us tonight, if you will.” As the hobbits travel with the Elves, Sam wandered “as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy.” After arriving at their destination, the village of Woodhall, the Elves at first “seemed to take no further notice of the hobbits,” but then prove quite hospitable, delighting the hobbits with food and festivity. When Frodo refers to their surroundings as “our Shire,” Gildor instructs him that “it is not your own Shire,” for “[o]thers dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more.” The following day, the hobbits awake to find themselves deserted by the Elves, yet fed and fortified to continue their journey to Rivendell.

As the above summary is meant to illustrate, the chapter “Three is Company” represents a rather precise illustration of many of the features of the ideal fairy story that Tolkien discusses in his essay and which I highlighted earlier. But now comes the Gospel twist, which is that while the chapter gives us an excellent, even stock example of “men” stumbling into and being enchanted within the realm of Faërie, Tolkien also turns the tables to some extent to have the high and mighty Elves also receive a form of “enchantment” by the simple and lowly hobbits. Although the first example of Elvish laughter is at the hobbits’ expense, the second time the Elves laugh is now at their own expense, when Frodo addresses them formally but politely in their own language: “‘Be careful, friends!’ cried Gildor laughing. ‘Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue. Bilbo was a good master. Hail, Elf-friend!’ he said, bowing to Frodo. ‘Come now with your friends and join our company!’” Later, Frodo makes Gildor laugh once more when Frodo playfully and proverbially “defamiliarizes” for Gildor the Elves’ own habit of giving overly-qualified counsel: “‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo: ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’ ‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor.” And toward the end of their conversation, when Gildor repeats the commonplace that “Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance of purpose,” he indicates that his puzzling encounter with Frodo has nevertheless altered his perspective at least as much if not more than he has altered Frodo’s: “In this meeting there may be more than chance; but the purpose is not clear to me, and I fear to say too much.” As Gildor dimly senses but does not yet fully realize, it is the small and seemingly helpless and hapless Frodo and his fellow hobbits that, in their quest to destroy the Ring, will turn out to be the eucatastrophic deliverance of the very realm of Faërie itself. In his last words to Frodo, finally, Gildor gives expression to the reverse enchantment that has taken place when he returns Frodo’s earlier benediction: “I name you Elf-friend; and may the stars shine upon the end of your road! Seldom have we had such delight in strangers, and it is fair to hear words of the Ancient Speech from the lips of other wanderers in the world.” They’ve gone from being “dull hobbits” who don’t know where the Elves are even heading to those who actually “delight” the Elves and treat them to a fresh “recovery” of the beauty of their own tongue.

Space forbids us from making a comparable study of The Fellowship of the Ring’s two other fairy-stories-in-miniature, yet a brief word needs to be said about them here. At Rivendell, in the chapter “Many Meetings,” Frodo is once more treated to a fairy story enchantment by the Elves, yet in the following chapter, “The Council of Elrond,” it is the hobbit, Tolkien’s personification of the Pauline principle of God using seemingly “foolish” and “weak” things to confound the “strength of “wisdom” of men, who emerges as the key to unlocking all. Here it is Elrond who expresses the principle of Gospel inversion when, in a reversal of Thucydides’s famous dictum of pagan wisdom that “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must,” he declares instead in much more Christian fashion that the quest of the Ring “may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” And in Lothlórien, finally, while the Fellowship receives rest and enchantment in the halls of the fairy-queen herself, the Lady Galadriel, these roles also find themselves reversed when it is Galadriel who becomes the beneficiary of the “courtesy” of the hobbit Frodo (and later, even by the dwarf Gimli).

In conclusion, what each of these cases represents, as has been suggested, is a display of Tolkien’s own mastery of the fairy tale genre as he analyses it in his essay, namely as stories of a sublime land of not merely physical but also emotional and even aesthetic peril, a place where man is a guest and may find his own love for the natural world rekindled by a people at once mysterious, proud, noble, and beautiful. At the same time, and has also been said, in each of these episodes we witness another dimension to Tolkien, a uniquely Christian dimension, in which he makes his own fairy stories undergo their own kind of eucatastrophe, by giving the high and noble Elves themselves an opportunity for enchantment, only now by the mundane and familiar hobbits. In doing so, I submit, Tolkien captures something of his own, peculiar and paradoxical view, expressed in the epilogue to his essay, that in the Gospel fairy stories themselves are re-enchanted through the simultaneous nobility and humility of that consummate Elf-hobbit, the God-man Jesus Christ.


Aragorn on Leadership

Aragorn to Gandalf after the later asks who will follow him into Moria:

‘I will,’ said Aragorn heavily. ‘You followed my lead almost to disaster in the snow, and have said no word of blame. I will follow your lead now–if this last warning does not move you. It is not of the Ring, nor of us others that I am thinking now, but of you, Gandalf. And I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!’

Return of the Kings at the Prancing Pony

I posted a few days ago on the hints Tolkien gives us along the way of the existence of the hobbit “Conspiracy” long before it is “unmasked” in ch. 5 of book 1 of the Fellowship. In a similar fashion, before the reader even meets Strider at the Prancing Pony, Tolkien has already given some clues as to his identity. When Frodo first notices Strider, what he sees is “a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, [who] was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk…. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face.” It’s not clear whether we are supposed to suspect, or at least wonder, whether this man is himself a Black Rider, but there doesn’t seem to be anything to rule it out as a possibility, except that Frodo is able to see the “gleam of his eyes.” Perhaps Tolkien wants us to wonder whether he is a Black Rider while simultaneously giving us the evidence–whether we recognize it as such or not–for why he can’t be. At the very least, it would be reasonable for the (attentive) reader to wonder if this mysterious figure is at all connected with the “dark figure” who, when the hobbits turn their backs from speaking to the Bree gatekeeper, “climbed quickly in over the gated and melted into the shadows of the village street.” For as it turns out, this figure, whom we are led to wonder if it is a Black Rider, is in fact Strider.

When Frodo asks Butterbur who the man is, however, he tells him that he “don’t rightly know,” but that “He is one of the wandering folk–Rangers we call them.” Butterbur goes on to say describe Strider in the following words:

He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again. He was in and out pretty often last spring; but I haven’t seen him about lately. What his right name is I’ve never heard: but he’s known round here as Strider. Goes about at a great pace on his long shanks; though he don’t tell nobody what cause he has to hurry.

What Butterbur says here of Strider, however, is merely a particular instance and illustration of the reader has already learned about Rangers at the beginning of the chapter. As Tolkien writes there:

In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin. They were taller and darker than the Men of Bree and were believed to have strange powers of sight and hearing, and to understand the languages of beasts and birds. They roamed at will southwards, and eastwards even as far as the Misty Mountains; but they were now few and rarely seen. When they appeared they brought news from afar, and told strange forgotten tales which were eagerly listened to; but the Bree-folk did not make friends of them.

Strider, then, is simply one of these “Rangers,” a “mysterious,” dwindling and wandering folk who are “taller and darker” than other men, had “strange powers of sight and hearing and are able to commune with animals. What is important to note, however, is that the Rangers are only introduced after–immediately after, mind you–a discussion of the ancient kings of Númenor. The Men of Bree, we are told, counted themselves the “descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world. Few had survived the turmoils of the Elder Days: but when the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Bree-men still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass.” What this passage says is that the Men of Bree who were there when Númenórean kings first returned from over the sea are still there now, whereas the memory of the kings themselves has become forgotten. What the passage carefully does not say is that the Númenórean kings themselves were no longer there, for of course, the reality is that, while they may be forgotten, they are not gone.

As I say, it is immediately on the heels of this discussion that the narration turns to the Rangers. “In those days no other Men has settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin.” The reason the Bree-folk knew nothing of their origins, it turns, is one that we have already been told: these are the descendants of the Númenóreans from over the sea whose memory has now “faded into the grass.” And this is who Strider is.

Thus, long before the reader gets to the third part of The Lord of the Rings and its theme of the “return of the king,” he is introduced to those ancients kings who long ago “returned” to Middle-earth over the Great Sea to find men living in Bree, kings whose identity has since become forgotten, but not, as it turns out, because they are no longer present. And it is the descendent and heir to these kings who has made yet another “return” to Bree and whom we meet with Frodo “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony.”


Immigration Policy in Bree-Land

I’ve written before on the relative libertarianism of the Bree-landers. In another passage in the chapter “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony,” we get a sense of their ambivalent views on the prospect of a large number of immigrants to their area:

The Men and Dwarves were mostly talking of distant events and telling news of a kind that was becoming only too familiar. There was trouble away in the South, and it seemed that the Men who had come up the Greenway were on the move, looking for lands where they could find some peace. The Bree-folk were sympathetic, but plainly not very ready to take a large number of strangers into their little land. One of the travellers, a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future. ‘If room isn’t found for them, they’ll find it for themselves. They’ve a right to live, same as other folk,’ he said loudly. The local inhabitants did not look pleased at the prospect.

Addendum: the pro-immigration squint-eyed fellow is, it should be noted, is Bill Ferny’s companion whom Strider suspects as a spy and whom Butterbur suspects of being a horse-thief.


The Hobbits’ not-very-Thomistic view of treasure-finding

I happen to be teaching classes on both The Lord of the Rings and Aquinas’s economic theory at the moment, so you’ll understand why this stuff is on my mind.

In my recent post on the hobbits’ not-so-positive attitude towards possessions, I noted the passage in which Frodo had a “tussle with young Sancho Proudfoot (old Odo Proudfoot’s grandson), who had begun an excavation in the larger pantry, where he thought there was an echo. The legend of Bilbo’s gold excited both curiosity and hope; for legendary gold (mysteriously obtained, if not positively ill-gotten) is, as every one knows, any one’s for the finding–unless the search is interrupted.”

Contrary to Tolkien’s narrator, however, it’s not quite true that “every one knows” that legendary gold is free for the finding and taking. According to Aquinas, for example,

With regard to treasure-trove a distinction must be made. For some there are that were never in anyone’s possession, for instance precious stones and jewels, found on the seashore, and such the finder is allowed to keep [*Dig. I, viii, De divis. rerum: Inst. II, i, De rerum divis.]. The same applies to treasure hidden underground long since and belonging to no man, except that according to civil law the finder is bound to give half to the owner of the land, if the treasure trove be in the land of another person [*Inst. II, i, 39: Cod. X, xv, De Thesauris]. Hence in the parable of the Gospel (Matt. 13:44) it is said of the finder of the treasure hidden in a field that he bought the field, as though he purposed thus to acquire the right of possessing the whole treasure. On the other Land the treasure-trove may be nearly in someone’s possession: and then if anyone take it with the intention, not of keeping it but of returning it to the owner who does not look upon such things as unappropriated, he is not guilty of theft. In like manner if the thing found appears to be unappropriated, and if the finder believes it to be so, although he keep it, he does not commit a theft [*Inst. II, i, 47]. In any other case the sin of theft is committed [*Dig. XLI, i, De acquirend. rerum dominio, 9: Inst. II, i, 48]: wherefore Augustine says in a homily (Serm. clxxviii; De Verb. Apost.): “If thou hast found a thing and not returned it, thou hast stolen it” (Dig. xiv, 5, can. Si quid invenisti). (ST II-II.66.5, ad 2)

So there you go: even if young Sancho had found some treasure hidden in Frodo’s larger pantry, according to Aquinas, it would not have been his “for the finding,” but theft (but then you already knew that, didn’t you?).

The Conspiracy All Along

While it is only in the chapter bearing the title that the “conspiracy” of Merry, Pippin, and Sam is at last “unmasked,” Tolkien gives his readers a number of clues as to the conspiracy’s existence along the way.

Frodo went tramping over the Shire with them; but more often he wandered by himself, and to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the the starlight. Merry and Pippin suspected that he visited the Elves at times, as Bilbo had done. (“The Shadow of the Past,” p. 51-2)

While at the time this may only have seemed an innocent conjecture on Merry and Pippin’s part as to whom Frodo has been visiting with in his “trampings” over the Shire, in light of the fear they later express that Frodo might “give them the slip,” we realize in hindsight that this speculation over Frodo’s encounters must have eventually had a deeper significance.

Another passage:

He [Frodo] looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond its borders. He took to wandering further afield and more often by himself; and Merry and his other friends watched him anxiously. Often he was seen waking and talking with the strange wayfarers that began at this time to appear in the Shire. (“The Shadow of the Past,” 52)

Here we see Merry is more than merely curious as to whom Frodo is visiting with, but is actually “anxious” over what Frodo might be up to in his travels.

Later, at the Prancing Pony, we see an unusually and cryptically pensive Sam:

Sam sat silent and said no more. He had a good deal to think about. For one thing, there was a lot to do up in the Bag End garden, and he would have a busy day tomorrow, if the weather cleared. The grass was growing fast. But Sam had more on his mind than gardening. After a while he sighed, and got up and went out. (“The Shadow of the Past,” p. 54)

And when he goes out, we’re told:

He walked home under the early stars through Hobbiton and up the Hill, whistling softly and thoughtfully. (“The Shadow of the Past,” p. 55)


The next day, we’re given a hint at what he might have been thinking about when he is caught “eavesdropping” on Gandalf’s and Frodo’s conversation:

‘I don’t,’ said Gandalf grimly. It is some time since I last heard the sound of your shears. How long have you been eavesdropping?’

‘Eavesdropping, sir? I don’t follow you, begging your pardon. There ain’t no eaves at Bag End, and that’s a fact.’

‘Don’t be a fool! What have you heard, and why did you listen?’ Gandalf’s eyes flashed and his brows stuck out like bristles. (“The Shadow of the Past,” 72-3)

When Frodo, Pippin, and Sam at last set out from Hobbiton and stay with the Elves at Woodhall, we read:

After a while Pippin fell fast asleep, and was lifted up and borne away to a bower under the trees; there he was laid upon a soft bed and slept the rest of the night away. Sam refused to leave his master. When Pippin had gone, he came and sat curled up at Frodo’s feet, where at last he nodded and closed his eyes. Frodo remained long awake, talking with Gildor. (“Three is Company,” 92)

We’re told that Pippin fell asleep, but only that Sam “nodded and closed his eyes.” Why? Turns out, of course, that Sam was not asleep. But he gets more deceptive still:

‘It is,’ said Frodo; ‘but I thought my going was a secret known only to Gandalf and my faithful Sam.’ He looked down at Sam, who was snoring gently. (“Three is Company,” 92)

Again, we’re told that Sam is snoring, but we’re not told that he is actually sleeping.

In the next chapter, we get the following internal monologue by Frodo, with a Sam who seems to be reading his mind:

‘No! I could not!’ he [Frodo] said to himself. ‘It is one thing to take my young friends walking over the Shire with me, until we are hungry and weary, and food and bed are sweet. To take them into exile, where hunger and weariness may have no cure, is quite another – even if they are willing to come. The inheritance is mine alone. I don’t think I ought even to take Sam.’ He looked at Sam Gamgee, and discovered that Sam was watching him. (“A Short Cut to Mushrooms,” p. 95)

When Frodo asks him what he thinks of the Elves now that he has seen them, Sam reveals a far greater understanding of the significance of their journey than Frodo allows himself to let on.

‘Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.’

Frodo’s response would seem to be deliberately evasive in its pretended ignorance:

‘I don’t altogether. But I understand that Gandalf chose me a good companion. I am content. We will go together.’ (“A Short Cut to Mushrooms,” p. 96-7)

Finally, at Crickhollow, when Frodo at last decides to reveal his plans to his friends, but before he has a chance to do so, we get a rather curious and unusual exchange between two characters in which Tolkien not only indicates what they have known all along, but in doing so, indicates a conspiracy that he has been faintly hinting at to us all along:

“It’s coming out in a minute,” whispered Pippin to Merry. Merry nodded. (“A Conspiracy Unmasked,” p. 113)

Recovery at Crickhollow

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien identifies the second of the four primary functions of the fairy story genre as that of “Recovery.” He writes:

we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses— and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.

Immediately following this, Tolkien gives the example of Chestertonian Fantasy in particular, or “Mooreeffoc.” Mooreeffoc itself, he says, is a “fantastic word,” for it is one that

could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.

One of the ways, accordingly that this act of Recovery is principally achieved is through what Tolkien identifies as the first function of fairy stories, namely “Fantasy,” or “that quality of strangeness and wonder” by which the reader is able to be surprised and even startled by old things cast in new and unfamiliar lights.

To come now to Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, in the scene of his arrival at his home in Crickhollow for the first time, Frodo is treated to his own moment of “Recovery” when he is allowed to see his possessions in an entirely new environment.

‘Well, what do you think of it?’ asked Merry coming up the passage. ‘We have done our best in a short time to make it look like home. After all Fatty and I only got here with the last cart-load yesterday.’

Frodo looked round. It did look like home. Many of his own favourite things – or Bilbo’s things (they reminded him sharply of him in their new selling) – were arranged as nearly as possible as they had been at Bag End. It was a pleasant, comfortable, welcoming place; and he found himself wishing that he was really coming here to settle down in quiet retirement. It seemed unfair to have put his friends to all this trouble; and he wondered again how he was going to break the news to them that he must leave them so soon, indeed at once. Yet that would have to be done that very night, before they all went to bed.

‘It’s delightful!’ he said with an effort. ‘I hardly feel that I have moved at all.’


Farmer Maggot’s Naming

One of the remarkable features of Tolkien’s sub-created world is its incredible diversity, a diversity that works in large part on account of the equally profound sense of a pervading unity behind the surface diversity. Tolkien doesn’t just give us things that are different, but things that feel like they somehow belong to each other in their difference.

This certainly isn’t the best or most representative example of this sort of thing, only the most recent illustration of it. Reading through “A Short Cut to Mushrooms,” I found myself wondering about Farmer Maggot’s choice of names for his dogs: Grip, Fang, and Wolf. Why these names? Who knows, but there is at least a possible relation between them. Grip, of course, is an action; fang is the instrument by which a certain kind of actor or agent, a wolf, performs the action of gripping. So, Grip, Fang, and Wolf–action, instrument, and agent. Just one example of Tolkien’s sub-creative achievement of unity amidst diversity.

Sam Gamgee on the “Elvish Effect”

Following their encounter with the Elves in the woods of the Shire, Sam Gamgee is the one who gives one of The Lord of the Ring’s more precise statements of the moral and prudential influence of the Elves–the “Elvish effect”–on those who come into contact with Faërie. When Frodo asks Sam whether he “like[s] them still, now you have had a closer view,” Sam answers:

‘They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak,’ answered Sam slowly. ‘It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected – so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.’

Frodo looked at Sam rather startled, half expecting to see some outward sign of the odd change that seemed to have come over him. It did not sound like the voice of the old Sam Gamgee that he thought he knew. But it looked like the old Sam Gamgee sitting there, except that his face was unusually thoughtful.

‘Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now – now that your wish to see them has come true already?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.’

As I’m fond of pointing out, for Tolkien, the effect that the Elves have on men (or hobbits, the manikins) within a fairy story is a dramatized form of the effect that fairy stories themselves are to have on the men who read them. If so, then when Sam is describing the effect the Elves have had on him, Tolkien may be seen to give us some indication of the proper effect The Lord of the Rings is to have, or at least is intended to have, on its readers. When we read it, do we “feel differently,” and “see ahead, in a kind of way,” being reminded that we are “tak[ing] a very long road,” sometimes “into darkness,” but that we “can’t turn back.” Do we see that we “have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead,” not behind, and that we must “see it through,… if you understand me”?

Hobbitus Economicus

I think there is a tendency in many readers–myself included–to over-idealize the charming life and culture of the hobbits of the Shire. In this post from a while back, however, in which I contrast the socio-economic order of the Shire with that of Bree, I posed this question:

what role (if any) the apparent failure of her hobbits to achieve the Bree-lander’s delicate balance–a synthesis between spirited independence and a cooperative symbiosis of heterogeneous groups–may have played in the Shire’s eventual vulnerability, first, to the capitalist aggrandizement of Lotho Baggins, followed in turn and replaced by the socialist tyrannies of Saruman-cum-Sharkey.

Whatever the relevance of or answer to that question may be, in my latest reading of The Fellowship I’m struck by just how questionable some of the hobbits actually are in their economic orientation. Although the hobbits have made a practice of gift giving, as I’ve commented before, it is actually Bilbo who, among hobbits, is particularly distinguished by his generosity. At the Party we are told that, although he gave gifts to everyone, some individuals were so greedy that they shamelessly “went out again by a back way and came in again by the gate,” presumably to see if they could acquire yet another gift. And though he wasn’t a Shire hobbit himself, it’s hard not to see Smeagol’s ancient act of slaying his friend and relative Deagol over what he desired as a birthday gift as the hobbit’s own original sin and Cain-and-Abel narratives, in which all subsequent hobbits are, after a fashion, implicated. (If a hobbit could kill another hobbit over a present, then anyone can.) Back to the Shire, however, we read that “Frodo had a very trying time that afternoon,” for

A false rumour that the whole household was being distributed free spread like wildfire; and before long the place was packed with people who had no business there, but could not be kept out. Labels got torn off and mixed, and quarrels broke out. Some people tried to do swaps and deals in the hall; and others tried to make off with minor items not addressed to them, or with anything that seemed unwanted or unwatched. The road to the gate was blocked with barrows and handcarts.

Embarrassingly, the day after Bilbo’s generous feast, the road to Bag End looks like the aisles of Walmart only a couple of hours after the family Thanksgiving meal. The Sackeville-Baggins are, of course, the worst of the lot, being “rather offensive. They began by offering him [Frodo] bad bargain-prices (as between friends) for various valuable and unlabelled things. When Frodo replied that only the things specially directed by Bilbo were being given away, they said the whole affair was very fishy.” When they demand to see and are shown Bilbo’s will, they don’t even try to conceal their covetousness, contempt, and ingratitude: ” ‘Foiled again!’ he [Otho] said to his wife. ‘And after waiting sixty years. Spoons? Fiddlesticks!'” As for Lobelia, Frodo finds her “investigating nooks and corners and tapping the floors,” and he finds she has gone so far as to steal “several small (but rather valuable) articles that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella.” And these are the people who are Bilbo’s next of kin! The dragon-sickness, however, seems to have infected even some of the younger hobbits, as Frodo and Merry are forced to “evict three young hobbits (two Boffins and a Bolger) who were knocking holes in the walls of one of the cellars” and things even get physical when Frodo “also had a tussle with young Sancho Proudfoot (old Odo Proudfoot’s grandson), who had begun an excavation in the larger pantry, where he thought there was an echo. The legend of Bilbo’s gold excited both curiosity and hope; for legendary gold (mysteriously obtained, if not positively ill-gotten) is, as every one knows, any one’s for the finding–unless the search is interrupted.”

In sum, then, for all its virtues and charm, clearly not everything is alright with the hobbits so far as their desire for material possessions is concerned. Even before Saruman got there, accordingly, we see that the Shire was due for a “scouring.”

Bilbo Baggins, the Fairy of Hobbiton

            The Fellowship of the Ring begins as a fairy story, yet the first “fairy,” so to speak, that we actually meet with is, paradoxically, a hobbit. The Hobbit itself was a story of a very ordinary little man, Bilbo Baggins, going on an adventure into the perilous realm of Faërie where he became “enchanted.” What we see in the opening pages of The Lord of the Rings is that this same Bilbo has now returned to his home in the ordinary world of the Shire and has now himself become in the popular imagination the resident representative of the realm of Faërie, a source of mystery, rumor, legend, and enchantment for the rest of his fellow hobbits. He is described as unusually, even “unnaturally” ancient (eleventy-one years old!), and yet “unchanged. He is “very rich and very peculiar” and his hobbit hole is introduced as a veritable treasure mountain in its own right. Yet he is generous, even if a bit “odd,” though he has many “devoted admirers,” especially among the poor and the innocent youth. He “had no close friends,” however, indicating an Elf-like aloofness. For most of first part of the opening chapter, moreover, we see Bilbo, not as he is in himself or in his own words, but entirely through the mediation and testimony of others. Even when the third-person omniscient narrator describes Bilbo, he largely does so by telling us what other hobbits think of him. He enjoys “(apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.” “ ‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said.” As was just noted, we are told who his admirers were, and we get the testimony of one in particular in his gardener, the Gaffer Gamgee: “A very nice well-spoken gentlehobbit is Mr. Biblo, as I’ve always said.” As with the Elves, those who come in contact with Bilbo become enlightened and elevated themselves, as the Gaffer reports that it was Bilbo who taught Sam how to read, “meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will of it.” In teaching Sam how to read, of course, he also taught him stories about the Elves. To the minds of other hobbits, Bilbo is no ordinary hobbit, as his home, Bag End, is described by Ted Sandyman as “a queer place, and its folk are queerer.” The Gaffer gives a different, though not contradictory testimony when he says that “they do things proper at Bag End” and that “everyone’s going to be invited to the party, and there’s going to be presents, mark you, presents for all.” In Tolkien’s stories, encounters with the Elves often involves tremendous feasts and gifts. Food and gifts are also a part of hobbit culture, and yet Bilbo’s own party and gifts are anticipated to be something extraordinary even by their own extraordinary standards. As “the Day” draws near, the mytique surrounding Bilbo becomes even more heightened as he grows even more aloof or distant. An “odd-looking wagong laden with odd-looking packages” appears in Hobbiton, headed for the Bage End, and “driven by outlandish folk, singing strange songs: dwarves with long beards and deep hoods.” Bilbo may technically be a hobbit, but he keeps very unhobbitic company. Yet Bilbo’s most mysterious associate is Gandalf, “whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights,” but “his real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it.” By this time, however, Gandalf’s own fireworks had “now belonged to a legendary past. When he appears at Bag End, he and Bilbo “disappear” together inside, leaving the young hobbits outside, uninitiated into the mysteries and secrets being kept within. At this point there is a break in the passage, and the narrative perspective changes and we are treated, for the first time, to a perspective of Bilbo that is not mediated through others, as we hear him speak for the first time in his voice. What we immediately learn is that not all is as well with this hobbit after all, as he confesses to Gandalf that he is in desperate need of a “holiday.” Bilbo may be the effective “fairy” of Hobbiton, one capable of enchanting others, yet he is only a very provisional fairy, one who is in need of being re-enchanted himself.

Frodo’s Dream Tower

I’ve written before on the theological significance of the sea in Tolkien’s writings, and hence of the tower of Frodo’s dream at Crickhollow which he wanted to climb so that he might look out upon the sea (an image that also occurs in Tolkien’s allegory about the Beowulf poem from his essay). I always assumed that the tower of Frodo’s dream, if it were real, would have been located at or near the Grey Havens. I’ve only just noticed, however, that the tower was in fact real, and that Tolkien references (or presumably does so) in his Prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring.

the Elves of the High Kindred had not yet forsaken Middle-earth, and they dwelt still at that time at the Grey Havens away to the west, and in other places within reach of the Shire. Three Elf-towers of immemorial age were still to be seen on the Tower Hills beyond the western marches. They shone far off in the moonlight. The tallest was furthest away, standing alone upon a green mound. The Hobbits of the Westfarthing said that one could see the Sea from the top of that tower; but no Hobbit had ever been known to climb it. Indeed, few Hobbits had ever seen or sailed upon the Sea, and fewer still had ever returned to report it. Most Hobbits regarded even rivers and small boats with deep misgivings, and not many of them could swim. And as the days of the Shire lengthened they spoke less and less with the Elves, and grew afraid of them, and distrustful of those that had dealings with them; and the Sea became a word of fear among them, and a token of death, and they turned their faces away from the hills in the west. (Fellowship 16)

We’re not told exactly that this is the same tower as in Frodo’s dream–Frodo’s tower is white, but no mention is made of its color here, and while the Grey Havens tower is “alone on a green mound,” Frodo’s tower is “standing alone on a high ridge.” The fact, however, that it is singled out by Tolkien as the one from which the Hobbits believed they could see the sea, and yet “no Hobbit had ever been known to climb it,” would seem to be pretty conclusive that this is one and the same tower.

Frodo dreams of the tower even though he’s never seen it, but he’s surely heard about it. Elsewhere in Tolkien’s stories, however, when someone dreams of a place or an experience they have not personally encountered, it’s because they’ve inherited the experience from either an ancestor or possibly from the immediate environment itself–see, for example, Faramir’s dream of the tidal wave destroying Numenor and Merry’s inherited memory at the Barrow-Downs. (For more on inherited memory, see this resource and this.) Is it possible Frodo is having his own, inherited-memory experience in his dream of the tower and desire to see the sea?


Actualism of Story-Growing

This tale grew in the telling (5). So Tolkien opens the forward to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, a reminder that stories do not emerge, like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed and complete, but come into being for the first time in and through the very process by which they are told. What Tolkien says here about his own story, moreover, is equally true of, and bears an analogy to, the fictional beings of his stories as well. It wasn’t just that Tolkien’s tale grew in the telling, but the very concept, for example, of what a hobbit is was something that grew and developed as Tolkien told the story about him. We sometimes think of stories or fictional beings such as hobbits as having a Platonic form, whether in the mind of God or not, that the author or sub-creator simply “discovers.” But this is not how the fictions of our minds work. In more technical terms, stories are “actualistic”: they are no mere actualization of already existing potentialities or possibilities. Rather, it is the very act of telling a story that, paradoxically, creates the conditions and possibilities for what the story is able to be.

Aragorn vs. Saruman

Aragorn the Libertarian King: “[O]nly of your free will would I have you come, for you will find both toil and greater fear, and maybe worse.” And a little later: “for I go on a path appointed. But those who follow me do so of their free will; and if they wish now to remain and ride with the Rohirrim, they may do so. But I shall take the Paths of the Dead, alone, if needs be.” (“Passing of the Grey Company”)

Saruman, Keeper of the Common Good: “[O]ur time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.” (“Council of Elrond”)

Saruman’s philosophy of war

Saruman to Éomer: “To every man his part. Valour in arms is yours, and you win high honour thereby. Slay whom your lord names as enemies, and be content. Meddle not in policies which you do not understand.”  –“The Voice of Saruman,” Two Towers 

Christ’s Harrowing of Hell in “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”

Tom Bombadil’s rescue of the hobbits from the Barrow-wights contains a great image (and somewhat humorous interpretation) of a classic scene in Christian history and theology, Christ’s “harrowing of hell” of his saints (as well as of the future resurrection of the dead):

There was a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day. A low door-like opening appeared at the end of the chamber beyond Frodo’s feet; and there was Tom’s head (hat, feather, and all) framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him. The light fell upon the floor, and upon the faces of the three hobbits lying beside Frodo. They did not stir, but the sickly hue had left them. They looked now as if they were only very deeply asleep.

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!

Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,

Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!

Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!

Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,

Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

At these words there was a cry and part of the inner end of the chamber fell in with a crash. Then there was a long trailing shriek, fading away into an unguessable distance; and after that silence.

‘Come, friend Frodo!’ said Tom. ‘Let us get out on to clean grass! You must help me bear them.’

Gandalf’s Anarchism

“Indeed he [Sauron] is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind.” (The Two Towers, ch. 5, “The White Rider”)

Gríma as Mask, “Bogey”

In his commentary on Beowulf Tolkien gives the following meaning of the word gríma:

The gríma was a mask or vizor (partly) covering the face. That the helmets of this company [of Beowulf] had such gríman is assured, since Wulfgar at the door of Heorot says so: grímhelmas *334, heregríman *396; ‘your masked helms’ 271, 320. That these were or might be of fierce or horrifying shape, designed (like more primitive war-paint) to frighten off assailants (and so act as life-guards) is shown by the frequent use of gríma for a bogey, or terrifying apparition…. But the gríma or mask probably more or less represented a face, human or animal… (Beowulf 203-4)

Rohirrim and the Danes

I’ve been reading through Tolkien’s translation of and commentary on Beowulf. Here’s the first of some random notes and observations, for what they’re worth.

In “The King of the Golden Hall,” Theoden’s door-warden, Háma, says to Gandalf: “The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a proper for age… Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in.” The scene, as someone has doubtlessly recognized before, was lifted by Tolkien from Beowulf. When the eponymous hero arrives on the Danish shores and tells the coast guard that he has come to “give counsel to Hrothgar how he, wise and good, will overcome his enemy,” the guard replies: “A man of keen wit who takes good heed will discern the truth in both words and deeds: my ears assure me that here is a company of friendly mind toward the Lord of the Scyldings. Go ye forward bearing your weapons and your armour!” (ll. 225-36, Tolkien’s trans.). (Beowulf and company will later lay aside their weapons and armor before entering Hrothgar’s actual hall, and of whose door warden Tolkien says that “It was his duty to assess the merit of strangers at the door and to advise whether they should be admitted.”) In his commentary on this passage, Tolkien observes how “The exchange of what we should call ‘platitudes’, received opinions about the way things go in the world, was more honoured in heroic circles than in (say) modern academic ones,” and interprets this particular platitude by the coast guard to mean: “a man of discernment will naturally be able to recognize a liar when he meets him” (“Commentary,” p. 200-1). It is much the same sentiment that Tolkien had placed earlier in Eomer’s mouth in his encounter with the “three hunters.” As he had told Aragorn, “All that you say is strange… Yet you speak the truth, that is plain: the Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived…”

The Naming and Narrative of Treebeard and Yahweh

In a well-known passage, Treebeard explains to Merry and Pippin the Entish philosophy of naming:

For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.’ A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. ‘For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.

In other words, the name of a thing is its narrative: things are identified by their temporal eventfulness. According to Robert Jenson (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1: The Triune God), what is true of Treebeard is likewise true of the God of the Old and New Testaments.

God… is uniquely described by the narrative of the Exodus-event, and the one so described has a personal proper name, JHWH. The description and the name in their interplay determine Israel’s relationship to her God. Asked who God is, Israel’s answer is, “Whoever rescued us from Egypt.” Asked about her access to this God, Israel’s answer is, “We are permitted to call on him by name”… In [the Decalogue], the name and the narrative description are side by side, to make one identification: “I am JHWH your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.”…

To the question “Who is God?” the New Testament has one new descriptively identifying answer: “Whoever raised Jesus from the dead.” Identification by the Resurrection neither replaces nor is simply added to identification by the Exodus; the new identifying description verifies its paradigmatic predecessor…. Thus the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is simultaneously a very compressed telling of the total narrative by which Scripture identifies God and a personal name for the God so specified; in it, name and narrative description only appear together, as at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, but are identical.

In Treebeard’s terms, accordingly, Yahweh’s name is a “real name” first, because it “tells you the story of the thing” it names, and secondly, because like any other living thing, it is “growing all the time.”