04 March 2018

'I sit beside the fire and think' -- Home, Hearth, Hobbits

For Tolkien Reading Day, 25 March 2018

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been; 
Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see. 
For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know. 
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

Ever since the first time I read 'I sit beside the fire and think' as a young boy, it's been my favorite. It has always spoken to me of home, just as I think it does to Bilbo, but it speaks in a more complex and poignant way than most other hobbit songs.

Of these, Pippin's 'Sing hey! for the bath at close of day' (FR 1.v.101) is probably the most purely hobbit-like. In a simple meter -- iambic tetrameter, which seems characteristic of hobbit poetry* -- it embraces the beauty and pleasures of water in its various forms, but emphasizes the special joy and even nobility of the hot bath 'that washes the weary mud away'.  Few things could conjure a more comforting image of home than Water Hot which so thoroughly redeems our weariness that we end up playfully splashing water with our feet, or even, as in Pippin's case, creating a fountain.

Similarly in Three Is Company the hobbits sing a song -- 'Upon the hearth the fire is red' -- which begins and ends by evoking hearth and home, roof and bed (FR 1.iii.77-78). Yet Bilbo wrote the words to this song, and his experiences gave him a deeper perspective. '[N]ot yet weary are our feet' tells us that we are not ready for home and bed. Adventure and discovery await us before then. We never know where we may find 'the hidden paths that run / Towards the Moon or to the Sun'. All that we may meet on our journey, however, will in the end fade before the lights of hearth and lamp that summon us home to bed and board.

Immediately after the end of this song, however, the approach of a Black Rider impresses the dangers of the journey upon them. After their last near encounter earlier in the day the hobbits had seen Bilbo's warning about the perils of stepping out the front door take on new meaning, as it must when Ringwraiths show up down the lane. Adventures are too often 'not a kind of holiday ... like Bilbo's' (FR 1.ii.62), nor, as events at Crickhollow will show, do front doors keep all perils out (FR 1.xi.176-77).

We may also discover a little noticed counterpoint to the hobbits' song in the hymn** to Elbereth sung by the elves whose arrival drives off the Black Rider. The longing for their home '[i]n a far land beyond the Sea', which lies at this song's heart, balances the exile of the elves against the security the hobbits (wrongly) feel is their due in their own Shire (FR 1.iii.83). Though the elves know where to find those 'hidden paths', they linger 'in this far land beneath the trees.' Their 'chance meeting' with Frodo, who regards his own journey as a flight into 'exile' for himself and his companions, brings face to face those whose age-long exile is nearly over with one who senses that his home will soon be forever lost to him, if indeed it has not already been lost.

If we take a further step back towards that home, we come to the first song that Frodo sings, Bilbo's 'The road goes ever on and on', which he recalls, not from conscious memory, but from some deeper place beyond all names. Yet, as many have remarked, Frodo's version differs in a single word from the one Bilbo recited as he left Bag End seventeen years earlier. Bilbo sets off on the road, 'pursuing it with eager feet'  (FR 1.i.35), but Frodo's feet are 'weary' from the start (FR 1.iii.73). Recall 'the weary mud' in Pippin's bath song, to be washed off at journey's end. Recall the 'not yet weary' feet of Bilbo's walking song. These songs better suit the 'eager' feet of Bilbo, who embraces both journey and journey's end: 'I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains' (FR 1.i.33). That Frodo has a different attitude towards his journey is part of the tragic situation in which he finds himself, for which the Ring is largely, though perhaps not solely, to blame. Like Merry, who 'loved the thought of [mountains] marching on the edge of stories brought from far away', Frodo may have 'longed to shut out [their] immensity in a quiet room by a fire' (RK 5.iii.x.791). If  so, that was not to be.

Bilbo's embrace of journey and journey's end alike is also visible in 'I sit beside the fire and think', yet this poem is also firmly tied to the idea of hearth and home by the repetition of the initial line to begin the third and fifth quatrains and the variation of it in the first line of the last. It is the song of someone whose days of adventure are over, but for whom memory and reflection on the time he spent journeying enrich the life he now lives by hearth and home. Nor need we think of this poem as applying only to Bilbo in his years in Rivendell, where he introduces us to the poem. We can also easily imagine it across the decades he spent in the Shire after his return, dawdling with his book, walking the countryside with Frodo and talking of adventure, 'learning' young Sam Gamgee his letters and telling him tales of the Elves. The walking song he composed the words to, the evolution and distillation of 'The road goes ever on' from the poem we first see at the end of The Hobbit, and his meditations on the 'dangerous business' of stepping out of one's home and into the road, all point to the close connection between 'there' and 'back again'. So, too, does his exchange with Sam and Frodo at Rivendell:
'Books ought to have good endings.[said Bilbo] How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?'  
'It will do well, if it ever comes to that,' said Frodo. 
'Ah!' said Sam. 'And where will they live? That's what I often wonder.' 
(FR 2.iii.273-74)
And Bilbo's last quatrain, especially its final words, is significant in that it comes after the bow to approaching death in 'a spring that I shall never see'. For tales goes on despite death.  With 'I listen for returning feet / and voices at the door' Bilbo also accepts that his part in the tale has already ended and that others will carry it on and bring the word of their journeys back to him. In just this way he awaits the return of Sam and Frodo. In this way, too, Sam and Frodo, who both finally expect not to survive their quest, imagine that their part in the great tale in which they have found themselves will come to an end for them, but that others will have their own parts to play later on. It is no accident that the book itself ends with Sam at home in his chair by the fire. 

At the last, that is what all the tales are about.



'I sit beside the fire and think' is not in iambic tetrameter, but in alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, which is more characteristic of Elvish poetry, and likely shows the influence of such poetry on Bilbo.

** If alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter distinguish Elvish poetry, one may rightly ask why the hymn to Elbereth is not in this meter, or in the single lines of heptameter which also occur (e.g., 'Nimrodel'). The answer lies in the fact that the song is mediated through the understanding of the hobbits -- as the text explicitly says at FR 1.iii.83: 
It was singing in the fair elven-tongue, of which Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood. This was the song as Frodo heard it...


All citations reference the single volume fiftieth anniversary edition of The Lord of the Rings, Houghton Mifflin (2004).

16 February 2018

And thus was Númenor avenged (RK 6.iii.947)

"Queen Tar-Miriel and the Great Wave" © Ted Nasmith

That Tolkien had a recurring dream of a great green wave rushing across the land, which informed his description of the drowning of Númenor, is well known (Letters nos. 131, 163, 180, 257, 276). Indeed the paragraph describing the last moments of Númenor is remarkable for its beauty and its sorrow.
In an hour unlooked for by Men this doom befell, on the nine and thirtieth day since the passing of the fleets. Then suddenly fire burst from the Meneltarma, and there came a mighty wind and a tumult of the earth, and the sky reeled, and the hills slid, and Númenor went down into the sea, with all its children and its wives and its maidens and its ladies proud; and all its gardens and its balls and its towers, its tombs and its riches, and its jewels and its webs and its things painted and carven, and its lore: they vanished for ever. And last of all the mounting wave, green and cold and plumed with foam, climbing over the land, took to its bosom Tar-Míriel the Queen, fairer than silver or ivory or pearls. Too late she strove to ascend the steep ways of the Meneltarma to the holy place; for the waters overtook her, and her cry was lost in the roaring of the wind.
(Silm. 279)

Tonight I once again reached the fall of Barad-dûr in The Return of the King and noticed, as if for the first time, a link between the two passages. Given the importance of the image of the wave to Tolkien, it seems hard to see it otherwise:

A brief vision he had of swirling cloud, and in the midst of it towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant: and then all passed. Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down upon the land. 
(RK 6.iii.947, italics mine)

Elsewhere I have noted that the Mouth of Sauron has (just) sneered at Aragorn by reminding him of Númenor 'the downfallen'.  It seems particularly apt then that we find the downfall of Sauron, who did so much to entice the Númenóreans to their destruction, quietly mocked in such similar terms. 



13 February 2018

'untouchable now by pity' -- Frodo on the slopes of Mt Doom (RK 6.iii.944)

Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice. 
(RK 6.iii.944)

The disturbing description of Frodo in this passage is fascinating. Frodo is now ‘a figure’, an 'it', not Frodo himself. He is ‘untouchable now by pity’, which given Gandalf’s emphasis on the crucial role of Pity (FR 1.ii.59), can only be a bad thing. That a commanding voice -- whose? -- speaks out of the fire blurs the distinction between Frodo and the Ring, the 'wheel of fire' which he has declared to be the only thing that he can see any more (RK 6.ii.919; iii.938). Indeed they now seem one, though whether it matters any longer whether Frodo has claimed the Ring or the Ring Frodo may be impossible to say.  What of “robed in white”? Gandalf is now robed in white, though Frodo doesn't know that. So was Saruman before he lost his way. Most importantly, perhaps, Galadriel wears white, while black is the color of Sauron and his servants. Is this the nearly fallen Frodo’s vision of himself that we are seeing? Like Galadriel’s projection of herself as a ruling queen? Yet she knew it would all end in despair.

In answer to these questions the text is silent. Yet it is Sam who takes up the Pity that the figure of Frodo has laid down (RK 6.iii.944).



24 January 2018

The Last Word on Adventure -- TT 3.viii.711

'I guess that you have been having adventures, which is not quite fair without me.' 
Merry Brandybuck, A Conspiracy Unmasked

One of the more marked differences between the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the initial attitude of the main characters towards the prospect of 'adventure.' Bilbo, as we recall, responded quite unfavorably when Gandalf tried to recruit him for one:  'We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,' (Hobbit 12).  By the time that Frodo has reached the age at which 'adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo' (FR 1.ii.43.), however, the tales of Bilbo's exploits have taught at least some of the younger hobbits connected to him to see things differently.  Merry (FR 1.iv.102, quoted above), Pippin (FR 1.iv.104), and Sam (FR 1.iv.99), all look gleefully forward to the adventure upon which they are embarking with Frodo, even is they also realize there must also be darkness and danger for it to be an adventure:
'Three cheers for Captain Frodo and company!’ they shouted; and they danced round him. Merry and Pippin began a song, which they had apparently got ready for the occasion.  
It was made on the model of the dwarf-song that started Bilbo on his adventure long ago, and went to the same tune....
(FR 1.iv.106)
Frodo, however, who would love to go on just such an adventure as Bilbo's, is gloomily aware that his journey is quite unlikely to be one (FR 1.ii.62; cf. 1.iii.77, and note the capital A): 
‘Of course, I have sometimes thought of going away, but I imagined that as a kind of holiday, a series of adventures like Bilbo’s or better, ending in peace. But this would mean exile, a flight from danger into danger, drawing it after me.

In fact Frodo fully expects his journey 'there' to have no 'back again' (FR 1.iii.66). Even so, neither he nor any of the others ever guessed that their adventures might involve fighting before Tom Bombadil handed them the swords from the barrow (FR 1.viii.146). Had Old Tom not rescued them, again, they would have all 'come to the end of [their] adventure' (FR 1.viii.140) then and there. All the hobbits then, including the more mature and sober Frodo, approach their journey with a certain naivete. 

In keeping with this it is no surprise to find that in The Lord of the Rings 'adventure' overwhelmingly records or reports the attitudes of the hobbits towards Bilbo's journey or their own. Of the twenty-eight instances of the word, only twice does a character who is not a hobbit use it. Glóin does so, but he is speaking to Frodo of his experiences on the road to Rivendell (FR 2.i.228). Gandalf alone employs it of the exploits of those who are not hobbits, when he says rather grimly of the Dúnedain: 'It may be that this War of the Ring will be their last adventure' (FR 2.i.221), an assessment haunted by the prospect of no 'back again'.

It is also no surprise that after the Company leaves Rivendell, by which time even Sam's 'desire for adventure was at its lowest ebb' (FR 2.iii.280), the word occurs only four more times. The first three are quite matter of fact, without the least air of Adventure. Once the Company are discussing their 'adventures' with each other as they seek to decide whether to go to Mordor or Minas Tirith (FR 2.x.402). Merry and Pippin then speak of their 'adventures' when Treebeard bids them to tell him their tale (TT 3.iv.471). Frodo, too, narrates the 'adventures' of the Company when he meets Faramir in Ithilien (TT 4.vi.677). The journey to Rivendell, the seemingly hopeless quest begun there, the shattering loss of Gandalf, Boromir's near fall and his self-sacrifice, have forced a shift in perspective on the hobbits. To sit at Bilbo's feet as children and with kindling eyes hear him speak of the brave deaths of Thorin and Fíli and Kíli is one thing; to watch their friends and comrades die -- even die heroically -- is quite another. Now they have not only have they known adventure, but the loss that too often comes with it, even before they have reached the most challenging parts of their journey. 

And it is precisely in the moment before Sam and Frodo plunge into the worst part of their adventure that the last use of word comes.
The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind.
(TT 4.viii.711, italics mine)
Their growth as characters is reflected in their evolving understanding of the very words they use. Step by step on their journey they leave behind both the conceptions they had, and the hobbits they were, when they began, which makes Sam's thoughts as he crosses the Brandywine for the first time seem almost prophetic: 
Sam was the only member of the party who had not been over the river before. He had a strange feeling as the slow gurgling stream slipped by: his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front. 
(FR 1.iv.99)
And, as is the way of prophecy, he had no idea how true it was.



03 January 2018

Etymology is Destiny, Saruman, Saruman

As many are aware, Tolkien derived the name 'Saruman' from Old English. The entry in Bosworth- Toller for searu starts with ambiguity (I.) and moves straight to the 'bad sense' (II.). The good sense (III.) comes in a distant and by comparison feeble third, all the examples of which are adverbial uses of the instrumental case. searwum, 'skillfully, ingeniously, with art'. Amid the wealth of marvelous, damning examples under sense II. we find right near the end of the section a quote from the Blickling Homilies (173.8) in which St. Peter tells St. Paul of Simon Magus and recounts

'Hwylce searwa se drý árefnde what artifices the sorcerer practised'

So while it is true to say that searu can be either negative or positive, the surviving evidence indicates that negative is the far more common meaning. When we also consider that the word is so frequently ambiguous that this uncertainty merits the first place in the dictionary entry, it seems a fitting source for the name of a wizard who, even as his 'wickedness' was 'laid bare' (TT 3.ix.567), had proclaimed himself no longer Saruman the White, but 'Saruman of Many Colours' (FR 2.ii.259):
'I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.'
Since Tolkien named him Saruman from his first appearance in his plot outlines (Treason 70, 72-73), his character and his fate were coeval with his name.