The Beauty of Tolkien’s Quest

by Mark T. Mitchell on June 2, 2011 · 29 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Region & Place,Writers & Poets

Samwise-Gamgee

Kearneysville, WV. Two nights ago I finished reading The Lord of the Rings aloud to my boys. This wasn’t the first time. Several years ago I read it aloud to my oldest son, who has since then read it himself. This time my two youngest had the privilege of joining the fellowship on its epic journey through Middle Earth.

I must admit, I came to Tolkien late. When she was pregnant with our third son, my wife picked up The Fellowship of the Ring and subsequently devoured all three books in a couple of weeks. I was a little mystified. Fantasy? Not really my cup of tea. She insisted we see the Peter Jackson films when they came out thereby forcing me to violate a long-standing rule of the house: you can’t watch the movie until you have read the book.

To be fair, I knew this was an important book and fully intended to read it to my children. I only regret now that my own imagination was not touched by Tolkien’s hand during my formative years, for the world he creates is magnificent. It is different enough from our world that we know we are in a strange place, yet at the same time, it is all recognizable: the contest between good and evil, friendship, the struggle against long odds, leaving home, sacrifice, betrayal, death. And perhaps most of all, beauty, for if it is nothing else (and it is a far bit more) The Lord of the Rings is a work of sheer beauty.

All of this was brought home to me two nights ago as we read the final two chapters. The penultimate chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire,” is a crucial part of the story, unfortunately not included in Jackson’s films. The four hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin return to the Shire only to find that it has not remained untouched by evil. Saruman, the wizard of Isengard, formerly Saruman the White, was enticed by the Dark Lord Sauron and allied himself with the forces of Mordor. Sauruman’s power was broken by Gandalf, yet he was not completely destroyed. Out of pure spite, Sauruman made his way to the Shire and, with the aid of his henchmen, imposed a sort of martial law upon the simple shire folk. He confiscated their surplus crops, restricted travel and, most egregious of all, forbade drinking beer and smoking pipe weed.

As the four returning hobbits ride through the Shire, they are appalled by what they see. Homes destroyed. New, ugly buildings crowding out the pleasant vistas. Trees cut down, not for building or even for firewood, but merely for spite and left to rot on the way. It is only when viewing the devastation brought on by a malicious will that the hobbits come to grasp clearly something that had until then only been an unformed sentiment:

The travelers trotted on, and as the sun began to sink towards the White Downs far away on the western horizon they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock. This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world.

More than majestic Rivendell. More than the magical land of Lothlórien. More than the glistening white-walled city of Minas Tirith. The Shire was their place. Ultimately, the quest to destroy the ring of power had saved all of Middle Earth, yet it was the Shire that was foremost in their hearts. With courage and skills acquired during their long sojourn in foreign lands, these four hobbits rid the Shire of the vile pestilence and set things to right.

The quest has worked a change in each of the hobbits. Merry and Pippin, having drunk deep draughts of the Ent-water, have grown noticeably taller, and their exuberant spirits, if anything, have grown even more exuberant. They delight in riding through the Shire, dressed in their hobbit-sized armor, singing songs of both adventure and merriment. Frodo never fully recovers from his wound or from bearing the burden of the ring. He is sober, given to illness, and at times the memory of his ordeal settles upon him like a dark shadow. Indeed, Frodo’s sacrifice saved the Shire, yet not for him. He is not long for Middle Earth.

If the Shire is at the heart of the book. Sam is at the heart of the Shire. And the journey to Mordor and back again has produced a striking change in Samwise Gamgee, the simple hobbit who finally lives up to his name and shows himself not only courageous and loyal but wise as well. Who could have anticipated such a turn? But in Tolkien’s hand, the development of Sam is not surprising at all, for we the readers have lived with him over the course of long months on the road, and we’ve come to see the stern stuff he is made of.

Sam, having completed the quest, is not at a loss for what comes next. Frodo invites Sam to join him at Bag End and share in all he has, yet he hesitates. Frodo inquires:

Well, what is it?

It’s Rosie, Rose Cotton, said Sam. It seems she didn’t like my going abroad at all, poor lass; but as I hadn’t spoken, she couldn’t say so. And I didn’t speak, because I had a job to do first. But now I have spoken, and she says: ‘Well, you’ve wasted a year, so why wait longer?’ ‘Wasted?’ I says. ‘I wouldn’t call it that.’ Still I see what she means.

Samwise Gamgee, in some ways the hero of the book, settles down into domestic life. He becomes mayor, has many children, and becomes a respected and respectable elder of the community. Yet, before those many good years fall on Sam, his friend Frodo is taken away. Sam and Frodo journey with the elves to the Gray Havens where the elves, along with a privileged few others, leave Middle Earth for the “white shores” and “far green country” of another land, a land from which they will never return.

During the return journey from the Gray Havens, Sam is comforted for a time by Merry and Pippin.

At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was a yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

Tolkien understands the deepest of our longings and makes us understand them better than before: To have a home. To be expected. To be welcomed from the night into the warn circle of firelight. To be loved and to love. To hold an innocent child and to see the promise of a future in that smiling face.

My boys learned to be patient when, at various times during the book, their father’s voice quavered and he was forced to pause in the reading. They looked curiously at his tears and wondered. My youngest asked, “Daddy, why are you crying?” I found the words of Gandelf helpful: “Not all tears are evil.” Son, I’m crying because this story is beautiful.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Peter T. June 2, 2011 at 7:44 am

As a life-long fan of the books, I was disappointed to see the Scouring of the Shire omitted from the films. After the last one came out on video, I didn’t watch them again until about a year ago. This time, a possible reason for the omission occurred to me. Our war is not like Tolkien’s war. It happens “somewhere else” and only touches our lives if we happen to know someone who fought. So, instead of Tolkien’s hobbits coming back from their WWII to war-torn England, in our 21st c. version they return to a world that has gone on as normal, oblivious to the destruction they’ve seen with their own eyes. Instead of helping to rebuild, they struggle internally with the contradiction of these two worlds.

avatar G. Koefoed June 2, 2011 at 8:14 am

Well said. Tolkien really understood some things.

avatar Jon Cook June 2, 2011 at 8:45 am

Nice. Last time I read it I found myself tearing up between two strangers on a transatlantic flight…

avatar Shane Ayers June 2, 2011 at 10:03 am

Glad to see you enjoyed Tolkien, Dr. Mitchell. In addition to his famous Lord of the Rings, I recommend his short story Leaf by Niggle which also deals with beauty, death, and the final journey home.

avatar RockLibertyWarrior June 2, 2011 at 10:25 am

I felt the same way when I first read it as a teenager, I haven’t read it in a while. I remember those were the years I moved from my small home town in Northern California to Los Angeles, reading “Lord of the Rings” made me yearn for old Mt. Shasta, it too brought tears to my eyes because the Shire reminded me of what I had left behind. Those passages above made me well up. Great article and I do need to read this again.

avatar Josh Bishop June 2, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Fantastic article. I came late to Lord of the Rings, too (at least the books), and I very much regret it.

Out of curiosity, how old were your boys when you began reading it to them?

avatar David June 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm

We always speak of the wonder of Tolkien and his unique place in English literature, but does this exceptional community have other recommendations? I need of some excellent fiction.

Excellent article.

avatar Mark T. Mitchell June 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm

@ Josh Bishop:
My oldest son was eight when I first read Lord of the Rings to him. He then said he wanted to see the films. I told him he could watch them when he read it himself. I assumed he wouldn’t do that until he was 13 or 14. Well, he promptly sat down and read the book. So I let him watch the films. My two youngest are 8 and 10. They assumed the same deal applied to them, so they both began reading the book to themselves even though we were also reading it aloud. One of them is already done and the other is nearing the end. But I did begin reading it to the younger two a couple of years ago. It scared one of them in particular, so we put it aside.

avatar Rob G June 2, 2011 at 7:52 pm

“I need some excellent fiction.”

There are lots of excellent classics to recommend, but as far as contemporary fiction goes I’d mention without hesitation the works of Mark Helprin, esp. the collection of stories called “The Pacific” and the novella “A Dove of the East.” His masterpiece, however, at least so far, is the magnificent novel “A Soldier of the Great War,” which is one of my favorite novels of the last 50 years.

Helprin writes beautifully and has a brilliant imagination; he can be exciting, hilarious and moving by turns (he’s like Dickens that way) but perhaps his greatest strength is his deep and profound moral sense (also like Dickens.)

avatar Jim N. June 3, 2011 at 6:34 am

As to excellent fiction, I would recommend Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Based loosely on his childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, the book centers on a young man and the summer he realizes that he is alive. You remember that experience, when you have pretty much reacted to life and the world around you without giving much thought about your existence; then, suddenly, it hits you, and you have a taste of your life being bracketed between birth and death, and everything kind of takes on a different, deeper hum than it did before. Anyway, its a wonderful book with lots of wisdom, very moving, and one I return to every couple of years–during the summer, of course. As a side note, there is one portion of it that I read about 11.00 p.m. one evening that had me on the edge of chair as effectively as anything Stephen King has ever written.

avatar Rob G June 3, 2011 at 7:31 am

Agreed on Dandelion Wine, Jim, which I read last September as a result of a piece here by Bill Kauffman. Enthralling!

avatar Bart June 3, 2011 at 11:41 am

Could we say that the pastoral justifies the heroic?

avatar Rob June 3, 2011 at 12:24 pm

This was a wonderful piece. Thanks.

avatar ddenton June 3, 2011 at 3:48 pm

I believe that Peter Kreeft has made the point somewhere that Peter Jackson said he did not film the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ section of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy because it would have presented too many production or technological difficulties. Kreeft felt that it was not production difficulties that kept this section out of the “Rings” but that the ‘Scouring’ goes against the current Hollywood/liberal world view. Granting an inevitable cultural/historical ethos, nevertheless, “The Lord of the Rings” is timeless, just as all masterful literature is; human nature is the same throughout time, and this work is not limited to or “read” as part of specific period of our history – it is us.

avatar RockLibertyWarrior June 6, 2011 at 4:50 am

I have to add that “Dandelion Wine” is superb, Ray Bradbury deals with the theme of place alot throughout many of his stories. Even the “Martian Chronicles” deal with it, Ray never forgot his small town roots even when living in LA, he did a semi sequel to Wine I haven’t read yet, other books worth checking out “Lake Wobegon Days” and “Lake Wobegon Summer 1956″ both by Garrison Keillor, while the town is fictional it is based on childhood memories of his hometown, pretty poignant and hilarious reads.

avatar JS123 June 6, 2011 at 12:24 pm

It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I changed from being a liberal to being a conservative (paleo) once I realized that conservatism was far closer to Tolkien’s vision than current liberalism. The elves in particular are a kind of arch-conservatives who yearned to prevent the passing of time and so created the Elvish rings for this end. But as a result they are now locked in their realms trying to keep the rest of the world and its changes at bay as they fight “the long defeat” which is ultimately a battle with time. They serve as a warning to conservatives of what not to become.

avatar Andrew June 6, 2011 at 9:05 pm

David,

I’d recommend Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis and The Light Princess by George MacDonald.

avatar Mark Conder June 8, 2011 at 10:30 pm

@JS123
The predominant environmental conservationism expressed in LOTR is completely contrary to current (American) conservativism. I’m curious to how you reconciled that aspect in your decision to “convert” from liberal to conservative.

avatar JS123 June 9, 2011 at 11:51 am

That’s why I said I became a paleo-conservative, not corporatist neocon. I would say that most central to Tokien’s political views, at least as illustrated in the Shire, is that power should be decentralized and minimized. The Ring itself is a symbol of the use of centralized power and how power corrupts. Modern Liberals are in favor of concentrated and centralized political power in the State; the Republican neo-cons are in favor of concentrating economic power in the corporation. I say neither, which is the Porcher brand of paleo-conservatism. There is also the nauseating desire for modern liberals to dissolve cultural distinctiveness in favor of universal deracinated cosmopolitanism which does against everything Tolkien believed. Finally, there is a complete disrespect for the wisdom of historical experience among liberals who subscribe to a kind of abstract Kantian a priori ethics which also goes against Tolkien’s view of how the lessons of history and place inform values. Finally, there is the insane post-modern/post-structural strain of modern liberalism which believes everything is “socially constructed” by power relations. My beliefs in realism, especially realism about human nature, could not stomach it. My original attraction for liberalism was primarily for my passion for environmental concerns, but the rest of liberalism became so overwhelmingly oppressive to me that I could no longer stand it.

avatar ddenton June 10, 2011 at 3:53 pm

JS123 – You’ve hit the nail on the head. Are you familiar with Alisdair MacIntyre’s “Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry?” He takes the intuition you’ve expressed here and fills it out and clinches it chapter, verse, and footnotes. MacIntyre can be almost distracting in the depth and span of his scholarship. Pope Leo XIII is shown to have been little short of miraculous in his understanding of what was “on the way” and astounding in his prescription. For me, Tolkein, Chesterton, Waugh, Belloc and E. Waugh are Leo’s literary heirs and expositors. Good string here.

avatar MarkC June 10, 2011 at 11:42 pm

@JS123. Very thorough reply – with a lot to digest. I still think it may be undesirable to compare the “modern” liberalism – which I tentatively regard your characterization as a theoretical extrapolation rather than a current reality – with paleo-conservatism, rather than a more logical choice of modern vs. modern or paleo vs. paleo. In the latter respect, Tolkien’s hobbitt society reflects many of the liberal virtues of the 19th/early 20th century.

avatar JS123 June 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm

One last thing, as regards environmentalism:
Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
In that hour of trial it was his love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

I feel that much of current environmentalism would use the Ring to achieve environmental ends, and command people to live environmentally pure lives through the power of state enforcement.

avatar Jeff Taylor June 11, 2011 at 11:34 pm

Thank you, Mark. LOTR is wonderful.

David, I recommend the novels of Francois Mauriac, translated into English from the French. Mauriac wrote from a Christian (specifically, Catholic) perspective and was a master of psychological insight. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952. Mauriac’s non-fiction is also great.

avatar Alan June 15, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Thank you, Dr. Mitchell. This piece touched me, as these longings have been strongly resonating in my soul recently.

avatar Carrol Williams June 16, 2011 at 10:29 am

I enjoyed reading everyones take on Tolkien. Amazing how life plays out. Now again in this confusing time Help comes form insight in many form if we just look and read and listen.
I am a C.S. Lewis reader also have read . Tolkin.s Silmarillion is also special to me. Thanks
From a Ranchers wife. :-))

avatar Nathan June 18, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Dr. Mitchell (and everyone else on this thread), I was hoping you could help me with some book recommendations. The past two summers I have resolved to read at least one classic book to my boys, who are just a tad younger than yours. Last summer we read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” They reveled in its brisk pace and richness of meaning. This summer I was considering reading something a bit more stark and realistic like “The Call of the Wild” but also am awfully tempted to tackle “The Hobbit.” Now, having read your wonderful post here, I am wondering if I should just start in with “The Lord of the Rings” instead. What is your sense for the order by which these two works by Tolkien should be approached? Would reading “The Hobbit” be a good introduction to “The Lord of the Rings”? Or should I go straight to the good stuff and begin with “the rings”?

avatar Mark T. Mitchell June 18, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Nathan,
“The Hobbit” is easier than “The Lord of the Rings.” It is also a good introduction to some of the characters in LotR. Savor it all. And savor the hours reading with your kids.

Mark

avatar Nathan June 18, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Dr. Mitchell, thanks so much. I think I will start with “The Hobbit.” Your enthusiasm is contagious.

avatar Carl Eric Scott June 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm

For me, a great part of the power of the book is the images, which turn out to be very connected to its geography. It’s like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Plato’s Republic in that way…long afterwards one recalls the geography-connected images, and like Tolkien’s use of language, the geography seems to contains echoes of other Western mythical material.

Maps encourage dreams of conquest, dreams of looking Denethor-like down on world events and knowing everything that’s afoot. But Tolkien’s geography, intends, I think, to somehow run counter to that.

And the move underneath the Misty Mountains from seems in both the Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring to have particular significance…it’s the part of both books that seems most memorable.

Or perhaps I just have a thing about caves.

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