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”?

Aquinas’s Shepherd Angels

Now that my book on Tolkien’s Thomistic metaphysics is published, it’s of course time for me to start noticing all the things I (inevitably) failed to include. In this discussion, for example, of the power of Aquinas’s angels over the physical world, one of the passages that might be added is the following objection and Aquinas’s response to the role of the angels in bringing the animals before Adam to name (ST I, Q. 96, art. 1):

Objection 1: It would seem that in the state of innocence Adam had no mastership over the animals. For Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. ix, 14) that the animals were brought to Adam, under the direction of the angels, to receive their names from him. But the angels need not have intervened thus, if man himself were master over the animals. Therefore in the state of innocence man had no mastership of the animals.

Reply Obj. 1: A higher power can do many things that an inferior power cannot do to those which are subject to them. Now an angel is naturally higher than man. Therefore certain things in regard to animals could be done by angels, which could not be done by man; for instance, the rapid gathering together of all the animals.

To the angels’ many other powers, accordingly, Aquinas adds this: an (unexamined and unexplained) capacity to gather animals together in a short amount of time. Aquinas may not, unlike Tolkien, have sub-creative angels, but he does allow for shepherd ones.

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.