“There is a fire in the hall, and food for hungry guests.” The Hobbits Experience the Unexpected Hospitality of the Elves

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner Books 2002) pp. 114-122

It doesn’t take long for Frodo, Sam, and Pippin to encounter trouble after they depart Hobbiton on their way to Bree to meet Gandalf. There is talk of mysterious folk about in the Shire, and it appears they are in hot pursuit of the Hobbits. A particularly close encounter with these mysterious Black Riders is thwarted by a chance encounter with some very unlikely friendly faces.

“These are High Elves!”, says Frodo, as the Hobbits finally glimpse those whose singing voices had frightened off the Black Rider who had been stalking them. “Few of that fairest folk are ever seen in the Shire. Not many now remain in Middle-earth, east of the Great Sea. This is indeed a strange chance!” Frodo continues.

This encounter is a strange chance indeed, but discovering Elves in the Shire is actually not an altogether unlikely prospect, and the reason for the Elves’ presence in this situation is not mere coincidence. This is something that could be discussed at length in another post all to itself, but most of the Elves are in the midst of departing Middle-earth and returning to the western lands across the sea. Again, it’s a long story for another time, but this particular company of Elves, as Gildor explains to Frodo, is tarrying in these lands a while before they depart into the West.

As one could imagine, the Hobbits, coming directly off of a harrowing close call with the Black Rider, seem a bit shell-shocked to suddenly be in the safe company of these glorious beings that they have never seen before. Tolkien describes Sam’s expression as “half of fear and half of astonished joy”, and Pippin later recalls the experience, saying that he recalls little of the food or drink (which is really saying something, coming from a Hobbit) because his mind was “filled with the light upon the Elf-faces, and the sound of voices so various and so beautiful that he felt he was in a waking dream.” The lavish hospitality of the Elves toward the Hobbits renders these reactions quite unsurprising. “There is a fire in the hall, and food for hungry guests.” I hope I may always be as hospitable as the Elves when I encounter those desperate for refuge, food, and shelter.

Frodo’s experience during this meeting is quite different from the others given his position as Ring-bearer and the subject of this quest that the Hobbits are on. Though Gildor, the leader of this company of Elves, does not know of the Ring or of the purpose of the Hobbits’ flight, is observant enough to ascertain that these Black Riders that are roaming the Shire are in pursuit of Frodo and company for some reason, though he does not press Frodo as to why. Frodo and Gildor have a lengthy conversation through the night, and I cannot express to you, readers, how much I love this exchange between Frodo and Gildor. I would so much love to see this interchange portrayed in film by actors, but I know that this meeting with the Elves involves so much backstory that would not have made much sense and would have taken too much time too include in the Peter Jackson film.

Frodo expresses his confusion to Gildor about why these mysterious riders are pursuing him. “I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire”, Frodo laments. “But it is not your own Shire,” Gildor tells him. “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 forever fence it out.”

There are at least two reasons why I can scarcely read this passage without tears welling in my eyes. (There may be others but I haven’t quite figured out how to express them yet). First, and I don’t mean to put too fine a point on this as I speak solely from my personal worldview, I live in a place that tends to prefer to fence itself in from the rest of the world, or perhaps more accurately prefers to fence the rest of the world out. This saddens me, because while there is danger that may be invited through an open door, there is also great camaraderie and mutual benefit in collaboration. Frodo and company encountered both the Black Rider and the Elves in the same place at the same time, and were it not for the presence of the Elves they may well have been overcome by the Rider. Second, Gildor’s words remind me of how inconsequential the problems of one people in one place at one time are in the scope of all of time. People existed long before us, and they will exist long after us, and the issues of the day will be eventually be a long-forgotten memory. I certainly don’t say this to diminish the hardships that individual people in individual time periods face, but to acknowledge that there were people long before us and there will be people long after us, and our petty grievances and paranoias will eventually be forgotten in time. There is some comfort to be found in putting things into the perspective of millions of years.

Readers, as always, I cannot express how grateful I am that any of you would take the time to read about my experience with these stories. If any of you feel that anyone else you know may be interested in what I write on this blog, I welcome you to share this blog with them. I always look forward to discussing Tolkien with anyone who would like to do so.



“I need a change, or something.” Bilbo Decides to Leave the Shire and Leave the Ring to Frodo

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner Books 2002) pp. 100-123

Sixty years prior to the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins departed on a life-changing journey with the Dwarves of Erebor, led by Thorin Oakenshield. It is important to note that Bilbo had no interest in going on this journey and the whole experience was fairly thrust upon him, though it was ultimately his decision to go. As it is for many after their first truly transformative life experience, Bilbo, after the end of his journey “there and back again” to and from Erebor, long yearned for another adventure, and this is where we find him at the start of The Lord of the Rings.

The thrill of seeing the world outside his home was a craving that grew in Bilbo’s bones for the rest of his life. In one of my very favorite descriptions of what it feels like to have a yearning for something in your breast that eventually wears on your spirit, Bilbo tells Gandalf, “I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!… Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.” If ever there were a characterization of this profound restlessness that I could both see and feel in my heart as I write this after leaving my 9-5 desk job, it is this one. The reason it was important to note that Bilbo had no initial interest in an adventure sixty years ago is because of how typical that is for Hobbits

Hobbits, for as much as they enjoy a good time, prefer their fun to be in short and contained doses, never pushing their sensibilities beyond what is common and comfortable. Most are uncomfortable with the presence of the likes of Gandalf, some calling him “a nuisance and a disturber of the peace”. So, unsurprisingly, when Bilbo ventured off with Gandalf the first time, Bilbo came to have a similar reputation. Bilbo’s party is a good example of how Bilbo’s fondness for fun and adventure has gone beyond what is typical for a Hobbit.

Bilbo’s “little joke” when he announces his departure from the Shire by bidding all of his relatives and party guests farewell before slipping on his Ring and disappearing before there eyes, never to be seen by any of them again, is certainly a “disturber of the peace” moment that the rest of the Shire-folk are quite put off by. Tolkien writes, “It was generally agreed that the joke was in very bad taste, and more food and drink were needed to cure the guests of shock and annoyance.” Food and drink, of course, being the kind of fun and excitement they prefer – controlled, quantifiable fun.

After his disappearance from the party, Bilbo returns to his main objective: leaving the Ring to Frodo and departing for Rivendell. I’ve spoken with several people and read and heard numerous more discussing Bilbo’s relationship to the Ring and his irritable behavior when the time came to part with it, and quite a few of them believe that Bilbo’s hostility toward Gandalf due to the Ring’s control over him is a result of a lack of a certain purity of heart, a purity that makes Frodo the more suitable Ring-bearer which is why it has to go to him. I’m not personally a fan of this “purity of heart” point of view, firstly because I would argue that Bilbo is as pure of heart as any character in Middle-earth, and secondly because I don’t believe that purity of heart is the criteria for one to be able to bear the Ring of Power without using it for evil. If this were true, characters like Gandalf or Aragorn would have been just as suited to bearing the Ring as Frodo. And let us not forget two things: first – that Frodo, pure as he is, will eventually succumb to the power of the One Ring, and second – that Bilbo is the one and only Ring-bearer in the history of the Ring to part with it willingly.

The reason that I believe Frodo to be the one chosen to bear the Ring is not because of the purity of his heart, but because he has an openness to step out into the unknown world but no desire for any power or personal glory. Sam, Merry, Pippin – they have no desire for power or personal glory either, but also have no desire to see the world beyond the comfort and safety of home. Gandalf, Aragorn – they are pure of heart and willing to go wherever the journey may take them, but I believe both have a desire for power, even if only to wield it to counter the forces of evil in Middle-earth. This leaves Frodo – open to being called away from the comfort of home into the unknown, but with no desire for any personal power or glory.

Frodo’s willingness to be swept away into the unknown sends him on a journey that will take him through countless trials and dangers, many of which will leave him with permanent and irreparable scars and hurts that he will carry for the rest of his life. He will also meet people who teach him priceless and valuable things, and will share in the unbreakable bonds of friendship with a fellowship of companions that he would have never known in the Shire. And most importantly, he will change the course of history and be pivotal in defeating an evil that would have consumed the world in darkness.


Tolkien’s Unconventional Hook: An Examination of the Beginning of The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner Books 2002) pp. 96-119

Beginning a story in the middle of the action is a common and effective solution to a problem that many writers face: hooking the reader. As many readers and writers know, if a reader isn’t hooked within their first few minutes of a read, they are far less likely to continue reading and eventually finish the story. Dropping the reader into the action is a clever way to grab their interest. In medias res is the literary term for this – translated from Latin as “into the midst of things”. It is perhaps curious, then, that Tolkien didn’t exactly do this when he began The Lord of the Rings, one of the most classic, beloved works of literature of the 20th century, if not of all time.

If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the book, you will know that the story begins in medias res, detailing the origin of the One Ring and the struggle against Sauron by The Last Alliance of Elves and Men at the Siege of Barad-dûr during the Second Age, but this is not the case in the book. The Lord of the Rings begins far more modestly, in the most unassuming of ways: the planning of Bilbo Baggins’ one hundred and eleventh birthday.

So why is it important to acknowledge Tolkien’s decision to begin this epic tale of great battles, monsters, wizards, and magic on such a modest foot (there is probably a Proudfeet joke there somewhere, but I’m not funny enough to cash in)? In a way, Tolkien asked a great deal of his readers with the way he began the book. The party planning in Hobbiton goes on for what many readers consider to be a laborious length of reading time, and this opinion isn’t entirely unfair, even to great lovers of the book. I think it is imperative that we recognize the great importance that Tolkien placed on our understanding of Hobbits.

I really believe that Tolkien was keenly aware of scope when he penned this story (I’ll go into further detail on this in future posts), and understanding the scope of the War of the Ring requires us, as readers, to be intimately aware of the nature of Hobbits – these most unlikely of creatures to carry the fate of Middle-Earth on their backs. Personally, I have had life experiences in which I was thrust into the midst of things – in medias res – and I have had life experiences that started with me feeling like Ham Gamgee when he said, “Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you”. Both types of experiences have been memorable and transformative, but if I think about it I feel, in those endeavors with humbler beginnings, a more profound sense of ownership over their narrative, because I was just a peace-loving Hobbit, “still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers”, who set out on a quest much bigger than myself and got swept away.

In summary, I encourage you, readers, whether delving into The Lord of the Rings for the first time or revisiting the story again, to take your time to acquire an intimacy with and a fondness for the Hobbits that Tolkien clearly wanted so desperately for us to care deeply for. Take part in the good food and drink, attend Bilbo’s birthday, revel in Gandalf’s fireworks – then at journey’s end you may find that you look back with tremendous affection on that birthday party and the comforts of home.