Jul 4, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 22: Three is Company

'You ought to go quietly, and you ought to go soon,' said Gandalf.

Now that Frodo has made up his mind to leave the Shire, there are arrangements to make. He agrees with Gandalf that he'll leave that fall, after his fiftieth birthday, for Rivendell; retracing Bilbo's route, but leaving in secret if he can, so as to attract less attention. So far, no-one but Sam and Gandalf know his plans; therefore, there's a considerable public outcry when the news breaks that Frodo is selling Bag End, and what's more, to the Sackville-Bagginses! He announces he's moving to more modest premises in his native Buckland, which sets off all kinds of speculation as to whether the jools have finally run out, or if this is all a nefarious plot by Gandalf. The purported plotter himself leaves in June, though, promising to be back by Frodo's farewell party at the latest.

Summer turns to autumn, preparations are made, but there's no sign of Gandalf. Eventually September rolls around, and Frodo celebrates his birthday with his friends, but without a wizard. He's deeply concerned, but there's nothing he can do, especially since Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and her son Lotho are coming over to take possession of Bag End. Frodo's last things are carted off to his new house in Crickhollow by Merry and "Fatty" Bolger, and he hangs around until nightfall, waiting for Gandalf to show up. There's no sign of the wizard, but while he waits, Frodo does happen to overhear an unpleasant voice questioning a clearly frightened Gaffer Gamgee as to Frodo's whereabouts. The Gaffer tells the inquirer that Frodo's gone off to Buckland that morning and sends him off.

Feeling vaguely relieved that the strange visitor left, Frodo makes his way back to Bag End, and he, Sam and Pippin take their leave. They intend to walk to Frodo's new digs in Crickhollow, camping along the way, and the first stretch of the journey is a starlit walk across Hobbiton. The sparse description of their trip is quite lovely, and they end up camping out in a patch of fir-trees. There's even a momentary relapse into the fairy-tale narration of the Hobbit: a fox comes across the three sleeping hobbits and wonders what on earth brought them there, but the narrator tells us he never found out.

The hobbits spend the next day heading east along the Woodhall road, which will eventually take them to Stock and the Brandywine ferry, and thence Buckland. In the afternoon, Sam hears a horse or pony coming up behind them on the road. Despite optimistically suggesting it might be Gandalf, Frodo is almost overwhelmed by a desire to hide from the rider, and suggests they get off the road. The three of them quickly conceal themselves nearby, with Frodo staying slightly closer to the road to see who it is.

It's no Gandalf. Instead, coming down the road is a black horse, being ridden by a figure swathed in a black hooded cloak. It stops near Frodo and makes noises as if it were sniffing for him. Frodo is terrified of the rider, and feels a powerful compulsion to put on the Ring. He's actually in the process of rationalizing away Gandalf's express prohibition when the rider abruptly sits up and moves on.

A shaken Frodo returns to his companions and tells them what he saw. For his part, Sam confirms that a rider of the same description was the stranger the Gaffer talked to earlier, who was asking for Frodo. They keep going, but decide to stay off the road in case more Black Riders show up. They pass the crossroads where the road continues straight for Woodhall, and take the downhill left that leads to Stock, stopping for supper inside a hollow oak. As dusk is falling, they keep walking into the night and sing a hobbit walking-song.

When it's already dark, they again hear a horse coming and hide at the side of the road. It's another Black Rider, this time dismounted; like the previous one, it starts sniffing, and actually starts crawling toward a petrified Frodo, who is struggling to not put on the Ring. At the last moment, Frodo is saved by the sound of a company of elves coming toward them, laughing and singing. The Black Rider retreats, getting back on its horse and vanishing into the darkness.

The hobbits come closer to the road to watch the elves pass by. Frodo identifies them as High-elves when they sing about Elbereth, and as they've nearly passed the hobbits, the last of the elves spots them and recognizes Frodo. He introduces himself as Gildor Inglorion, of the house of Finrod. The elves are surprised by the sight of three hobbits in the woods at night, but the mood quickly darkens when Pippin asks them about the Black Riders. Gildor decides that they'll take the hobbits with them for the night. When Frodo thanks him in high-elven, Gildor laughs and names him Elf-friend.

The elves lead the hobbits on a long march through the woods, to a clearing on a hillside offering a spectacular view of the stars above. There the elves set up a meal, which they maintain is nothing special, but Frodo pronounces "good enough for a birthday-party". Once they've eaten, Sam and Pippin go to sleep, while Frodo and Gildor have a long conversation. Frodo reveals that Gandalf was supposed to show up but didn't, and Gildor shares his anxiety. Gildor guesses that Frodo is leaving the Shire and is uncertain of the future, even though Frodo won't reveal why he's going. In turn, Gildor doesn't want to answer Frodo's questions about the Black Riders, merely telling him that they're servants of the Enemy. Gildor somewhat reluctantly advises Frodo to keep going, and to not go alone. Eventually Frodo, too, falls asleep.


There's been a dichotomy in the book so far between the Shire as an idyllic, English rural paradise and as a close-minded, almost xenophobic, shut-in place where dreamers like Frodo don't belong. Of course, it's not quite that simple, because Frodo is, after all, also a solidly middle-class gentlehobbit like Bilbo was before him. Here he is talking to Gildor and coming off like a hobbit Pub Landlord:

"I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire. Can't a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?"

"But it is not your own Shire," said Gildor. "Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out."

Broken Shire, indeed. But it's worth paying attention to Gildor's rejoinder, as it sums up the beginning of the book so well: the rural utopia where no-one ever has any real problems is a mirage, created by stubbornly pretending that the outside world doesn't exist. Because of the Ring, Frodo realizes that this aggressive know-nothingism isn't an answer. All of Ted Sandyman's acerbic barroom wit won't stop Sauron. The poignant nostalgia that Frodo feels for the Shire in this chapter isn't simply because he's physically leaving; it's also a nostalgia for a simpler time, when he could believe that the outside world could be fenced out, restricted to some exotic furnishings and interesting stories. For Frodo, that simpler Shire is now gone.

Reading this snippet of conversation between Frodo and Gildor today, it's impossible to be affected by how contemporarily relevant Gildor's comment is. I'm writing this in a Finland and a European Union hell-bent on fencing the world out forever, driven exactly by the kind of cynical, aggressive provincialism that is the darker side of the Shire. To me, there is no reading by which Tolkien's direct rejection of this small-mindedness can be interpreted as fascist. It seems to be exactly the opposite.


Frodo has several near brushes with the Black Riders in this chapter. The very night they leave Bag End, one comes up looking for him, and only the Gaffer being misinformed turns it away; had the Gaffer known they were still there, or had the rider shown up a day earlier, it'd likely have been shown right to Frodo's door. They also have two very close encounters on the Woodhall road, the latter one much more dangerous and only interrupted by the fortuitious arrival of Gildor's elves. At this point in the story, we don't yet know what the Black Riders are, but later on it will become obvious that these were very close shaves with certain death or worse. On the face of it, Frodo got very lucky several times.

This brings us into touch with another baffling aspect of Christian theology. Dogmatically, the Christian god is supposed to be omnipotent, i.e. capable of doing anything he likes, and also fundamentally completely good. The problem with this is obvious: if god is able and willing to stop evil, then why doesn't he do so? Even a casual acquaintance with the world we live in will clearly demonstrate that god is not, in fact, reaching down from the clouds to prevent evil. The experience of everyday life, let alone history, seem to decisively disprove some of the central tenets of Christianity.

To get around this massive flaw in their belief system, Christians through the ages have come up with a variety of excuses. There are two main variants. One will maintain that god does, in fact, intervene in the world and guide it, and that everything does, in fact, turn out for the best. This is obviously a massively privileged viewpoint that can only be held by people largely isolated from any real hardship. Voltaire lampooned it mercilessly in Candide. The more popular kind, which dominates modern apologetics, is to set up a convoluted chain of reasoning that maintains that god is simultaneously omnipotent, but restricted in his dealings with the created world. This is logically senseless, but that never stopped a theologian.

Both lines of apologetic thought end up maintaining that god intervenes in subtle ways to guide events to a good outcome. This is the concept of providence, which Tolkien certainly believed in. It creates an apologetically satisfying situation where believers can confidently maintain that when something lucky happens, god was looking out for them, but cheerfully shrug their shoulders at the most horrific evil, because you know, just because god is omnipotent doesn't mean he can do anything. Also, he's still super pissed that a lady ate some fruit once.

This is what Gildor has to say about his chance meeting with Frodo:

The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose. In this meeting there may be more than chance; but the purpose is not clear to me, and I fear to say too much.

This will be a constant refrain in the story: something seems to happen by luck, and someone questions if it was luck at all, without quite directly suggesting providence, but making it pretty clear. Here's an unusually direct attribution by Gandalf, discussing how Bilbo happened to find the Ring:

Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.

Didactic italics in the original. That's pretty much as close as Tolkien comes to outright saying that god, Eru in Middle-earth, is stacking the deck in favor of our heroes. So in Tolkien's theology, whenever something improbable but lucky happens, it's fair to say that we're meant to interpret it as providence. You might think that if god is willing to directly intervene in the events of the world, he might have done a bit more than turn aside a few Black Riders and save everyone a whole lot of trouble, but these are dangerous theological questions, and as a good Christian Tolkien didn't ask them.

Luckily, we're not told that Eru actually is omnipotent, so if we're not interested in reading the Lord of the Rings as a Christian work, we can simply accept that maybe the way god works in Middle-earth is through these little nudges, and that's all he can do. Or that they really are just blind luck. To me, again, the strength of Tolkien's stories as opposed to, for instance, the Narnia books, is that we can reject his religious framework entirely and they still make sense. In this case, in fact, much more sense.


An impatient reader, constantly skipping ahead to dialogue or action, won't make much of this chapter: sure, there is an unnerving scene with a Black Rider and a conversation of some import with Gildor, but mostly it's hobbits walking around in a forest. On a closer reading, though, this is pretty good stuff. I'm still a big fan of Tolkien's descriptive writing, especially of the way he writes the landscape. The Shire is compellingly beautiful in an understated way, and when seen through Frodo's eyes the bittersweet nostalgia is tangible. There are the lovely little touches like the fox and the hollow oak. This chapter succesfully takes us through a variety of moods: the nervous anxiety of waiting for Gandalf is powerful, as is the way the simple delight of walking through the idealized countryside of the Shire starts to turn into fear as the Black Riders arrive on the scene. Finally, the arrival of the elves lifts the scope of the story to starlight, Elbereth and the wider Tolkien mythos, and gives Frodo a moment of reflection with Gildor. Thematically, this all takes us further away from the initial image of the Shire as a paradise, as we follow Frodo's gradual alienation from his homeland.

Next time: shrooms.

1 comment:

Michael Halila said...

I wrote this before the Brexit vote, not having realized how very relevant aggressive provincialism and fencing the world out would become.