On reading Tolkien (finally)

The secret is out: it has taken me a very long time to pluck up the courage to read Tolkien. The idea of it has always seemed daunting. Last year I turned fifty, and in that year, I read The Hobbit. This evening as I write, I have just finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring. It is clear to all that I am no Tolkien expert. I admire very much those scholars who have engaged in depth with Tolkien’s work, and invested time and great care in its study. I hope they will forgive the simplicity of these thoughts of mine following. I share them here, in no particular order, with the hope of generating the kind of wholesome conversation and uplifting fellowship that can be had at times around great books. These kinds of encounters seem in keeping with all the good things we can come to know as readers of Tolkien’s wonderful stories.

1. Life is a journey: a journey of learning.

2. The story is great, like the journey itself, and great, too, is the mystery. I, for one, haven’t figured it all out.

3. There are many, many names. We all have one, and I have no head for them. But while our finite minds may not always be able to remember, our names are important. Each and every creature, person or animal, elf or dwarf, has been given a particular name, and each of us is unique. As Sam Gamgee put it ‘there’s Elves and there’s Elves. They’re all elvish enough, but they’re not all the same.’ Each one of our names is known to God and we are all of great worth to Him.

4. We make our way through all kinds of weather. There was even snow on my birthday.

5. There are different seasons, and I love the way Tolkien evokes the feeling of each of them. This, for example: ‘they felt about them the deep and thoughtful quiet of winter. It seemed to them that they did little but eat and drink and rest, and walk among the trees; and it was enough.’

6. There are troubles along the way: ‘…soon their way became steep and difficult. The twisting and climbing road had in many places almost disappeared, and was blocked with many fallen stones. The night grew deadly dark under great clouds. A bitter wind swirled among the rocks’.

7. Friendship lightens burdens. There is a gladness in journeying together. We are not all the same, but we can carry each other. ‘Have hope!’ said Boromir…’I am weary, but I still have some strength left, and Aragorn too. We will bear the little folk.’ We can’t make it on our own. We need each other and the integrity of friendship: ‘hope remains while all the Company is true’.

8. Experience yields wisdom. Gandalf had made many journeys and he looked back and remembered them. Because of this, and the lessons he had learned, he was able to lead the way. ‘It was well for the Company that they had such a guide’. Good prevailed when the travelling Company followed Gandalf as guide, but they risked danger when they pressed ahead in rashness. Like human leaders, Gandalf didn’t get it right all of the time. On one occasion, Gandalf behaved like Moses ‘Again Gandalf approached the wall…and struck the rock with his staff…Then he threw his staff on the ground, and sat down in silence.’ This approach did not work.

9. Tolkien loved trees and gardens. He didn’t want the trees to be cut down to make way for ugly, man-made development. ‘There’s some devilry at work in the Shire’, said Sam, when he saw such activity reflected in the Mirror of Galadriel. Like Tolkien, Sam was a ‘gardener and lover of trees’.

10. Sometimes we receive special gifts, and these are tokens of hope. The Lady Galadriel gave Sam Gamgee a wooden box marked with the letter G for Galadriel and Garden; a special gift. In it she had placed some earth from her orchard. This, sprinkled on Sam Gamgee’s own land, would make his garden bloom. It was a special token of hope. Sam was going home. To Frodo, the Lady gave a crystal phial: ‘a light…in dark places, when all other lights go out’.

11.Language is powerful. Words are powerful. The word ‘Friend’ opens doors. Tolkien not only cherished the words of his own language, but he was fascinated by other languages too. He even invented a new one. This meant that he could read (and write) lots of different stories. When the travellers in The Fellowship of the Ring reached Moria, it occurred to me that somewhere in the background there was Dante.

12. Tolkien was a song-writer. Songs rise from within and are of old. They form part of ancient lore and they minister to weary travellers. Some of us have been learning this. Telling old stories and singing old songs helps many friends on their way. There can always be singing: sometimes wistful; sometimes nostalgic; sometimes in blessing; sometimes in lament. There is joy hidden in every kind of music. At first, sorrow cannot be expressed in words, but as grief resides with us over time, it becomes more possible. Frodo and Sam reach a point in The Fellowship of the Ring when marking the memory of Gandalf in lyrical composition does become possible, and they compose, together, a hymn in his honour.

13. There is strength in feasting. And there is refreshment in even the lightest repast. For weary travellers, and for those just setting out, eating and drinking together brings cheer and encouragement. In Tolkien’s stories there is baking and feasting and the packing of picnics. Hospitality is of great worth; it provides vigour for the journey. There is nowhere like a warm and welcome home, with a fire burning brightly in the hearth, a table spread with good things, and rooms lit by candlelight.

14. The world is beautiful. There are glades of green grass dappled with light, silver woodlands, and towering mountains capped in snow. There are streams, and rivers, and pools. There are flowers and honey, bread and wine. There is music, and there is friendship, and there is love.

15. This beautiful world is scarred, everywhere, by war. This is harrowing, and Tolkien and his generation knew it all too well.

16. Evil brings forth grief. ‘They looked back. Dark yawned the archway of the Gates under the mountain-shadow. Faint and far beneath the earth rolled the drumbeats: doom. A thin black smoke trailed out. Nothing else was to be seen; the dale all around them was empty. Doom. Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long: some standing and silent, some cast upon the ground. Doom, doom’.

17. In spite of evil, suffering sharpens sight. In a closing scene of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo takes his place on an ancient chair called ‘The Seat of Seeing’. Poignantly, ‘Everywhere he looked he saw the signs of war’. In this story, conflict was all around, but it was also within, as Frodo discovered: ‘Two powers strove within him’. Yet suffering illuminates. When Frodo made his important choice, his eyes were uncovered, and with his friend Sam Gamgee he was filled with wonder at the beauty before him. Sam felt as if he was ‘inside a song’. Everything was fresh and poignant and alive, without any blot or blemish. But according to the Lady, seeing in the mirror of Galadriel was both good and perilous.

18. People get wounded. ‘Though [Frodo] had been healed in Rivendell of the knife stroke, that grim wound had not been without effect. His senses were sharper and more aware of things that could not be seen. One sign of change that he soon had noticed was that he could see more in the dark than any of his companions, save perhaps Gandalf’. Frodo was even wounded when he was wearing his hidden coat of finest mithril mail.

19. There is a balm. For wounding, there are hands of healing. Aragorn ‘bathed the hurts with water in which athelas was steeped. The pungent fragrance filled the dell, and all those who stooped over the steaming water felt refreshed and strengthened. Soon Frodo felt the pain leave him, and his breath grew easy: though he was still stiff and sore for many days.’

20 The journey must continue. Valiant reader, this is thought number twenty. There are at least two more books to go: it will soon be time to get back on the road!

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