The Food Train

(Wild berries picked by my son)

Tolkien doesn’t really write about kids much in his books. There’s only one child in all of Middle-earth who actually has any dialogue (and the answer to this little bit of Tolkien-trivia is at the bottom of this blog post). But that doesn’t mean that Tolkien didn’t like kids. The Hobbits are, in a way, the manifestation of children in Middle-earth. They’re childlike without being childish, if you know what I mean. Bilbo was the first stay-at-home dad in literature, after all, teaching Frodo (and Sam) how to read, write and even speak a foreign language–Elvish!

Tolkien loved his own kids. He wrote them warm and loving letters throughout his life. They were his original audience, starting with his The Father Christmas Letters and all the way through The Lord of the Rings. During World War II, when Tolkien’s eldest son Christopher was away at war, he wrote to him saying that it was difficult to work without  ”my amanuensis and critic near at hand” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #59). And one of the most interesting relationships in the history of literature is Tolkien’s lifelong friendship with Rayner Unwin (the lad responsible for vetting The Hobbit for his publisher father, and then the man who finally got The Lord of the Rings in print).

At the end of The Return of the King, after Sam has sprinkled Galadriel’s magical soil all over the Hobbiton, the Shire-folk experience one of the most “marvellous” summers ever.

“The fruit was so plentiful that the young hobbits very nearly bathed in strawberries and cream; and later they sat on the lawns under the plum-trees and ate, until they had made piles of stones like small pyramids or the heaped skulls of a conqueror, and then they moved on. And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass.”

The above passage is one of my favorites in all of Tolkien’s works. All of the terrible sacrifices that Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin made on their quest to destroy the Ring were rewarded with this scene of happy, healthy children. And the final moment in The Lord of the Rings, if you will recall, is Sam putting his little daughter on his lap. It’s a beautiful symbol of peace and contentment.

This summer has been “marvellous” for us in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve had the perfect mixture of sun and rain, and my kids have been able to gorge on berries every day just like those kids in the Shire. (And the grass, alas, must be mowed much more than I would like.) These long happy days, where nobody is sick with a cold, are a blessing and a gift.

The other day our friends gave birth to healthy twins. They already have two young children in the house, and not a single relative in town. So my wife and some friends put together a “meal train.” They have divided up days of the week to make hearty meals for this family that suddenly doubled in size. Right now my wife is cooking a gigantic dinner of her delicious homemade macaroni and cheese. And I pulled some fat red beets from our garden and boiled them up for our friends’ beet-loving kids.

If you’ve ever had kids you know that the first days after your child (or children!) are born are utterly and insanely exhausting. Making food is the last thing that you want to think about, but eating well is one of the most important things to do, especially if you have other hungry kids in the house.

What my wife and her friends are doing with the meal train is exactly how I imagine the inhabitants of the Shire helping out with newborns. Can’t you just imagine everyone on Bagshot Row pitching in and feeding Rosie and Sam after the birth of their first child, Elanor, as well as their next dozen kids!

It’s hard on parents in this modern age, when families are spread out thousands of miles around the country (or even the world), for people to raise kids. It’s important to create strong friendships, especially with other parents, otherwise you can really feel isolated.

And hungry.

(Trivia answer: The only child character in Tolkien’s Middle-earth books to have dialogue is Bergil, son of Beregond of Gondor. He is ten at the time of the War of the Ring.)

 

 

What Would Bilbo Do?

Let’s face it. At the start of The Hobbit Bilbo Baggins is a twerp. He’s one of those inveterate (and annoying) bachelors obsessed with his own daily routine. Get up, brush copious foot hair, shine the big brass knob in center of door until it gleams like gold, have tea and pipe on the porch, avoid all contact with mysterious strangers (e.g. door-to-door button salesmen or vagabond Wizards).

He has become his own inner child.

Gandalf, however, senses great things in Bilbo. “There is a seed of courage,” Tolkien wrote about the Hobbits, “hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid Hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow.” The Wizard thinks Bilbo’s seed of courage is ready to sprout, and that’s why he browbeats him into joining Thorin & Co. on their quest to the Lonely Mountain.

Perhaps it is Gandalf’s goading that finally lures Bilbo off on the adventure. Or maybe it’s the rousing Dwarven song that bewitches the poor Hobbit (“We must away ere break of day/To seek the pale enchanted gold.”) Whatever the case, it’s a whingeing, frightened little fellow who dashes away from Bag End, forgetting even to bring his “pocket-handkerchiefs.”

For the first part of the journey to the Lonely Mountain Bilbo is a terrible companion. He’s constantly complaining about their trials. “My stomach feels like an empty sack,” he whimpers to Thorin. And not only that—he’s missing blackberry picking back home! (Bilbo “Berries” Baggins isn’t exactly the toughest burglar to send into the den of a homicidal dragon.)

Bilbo’s “seed of courage” grows throughout the tale, from facing the horde of spiders in Mirkwood (and single-handedly saving all the Dwarves), to freeing his captive companions from the Elven-king’s dungeons, to sneaking into the very heart of Smaug’s lair and facing the monster, albeit wearing a ring of invisibility.

But the most courageous act Bilbo commits in the entire story is not what most people would consider to be an act of valor. It is, in fact, an act of pacifism. When Bilbo sees that his Dwarf friends bewitched by the “pale enchanted gold” he realizes the entire adventure has been mere folly. He doesn’t want riches, anymore. All he desires is the taste of pure water from one of Beorn’s wooden bowls. He just wants to get back home to his snug little hole.

And when he understands that the Dwarves—led by the pigheaded and treasure-possessed Thorin—are going to take on an entire army of Men and Elves (and thereby almost certainly get slaughtered), Bilbo’s true “seed of courage” finally bursts fully to life. He takes the jewel called the Arkenstone—the one thing from Smaug’s hoard that Thorin prizes above all others—and brings it to Thranduil. He presents the jewel to the Elven-king as a peace offering, knowing full well that Thorin will probably kill him for the act. Bilbo willingly gives up his share in the treasure (the equivalent of billions of dollars!) to stop a war. How many people in our world have been tempted by wealth to do the exact opposite?

The enraged Thorin very nearly does commit Hobbit-murder. The Dwarf comes perilously close to throwing Bilbo off a high wall before Gandalf steps in and saves him. In the end, upon his deathbed, Thorin begs Bilbo for his forgiveness. He tells Bilbo, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

Bilbo returns to the Shire with more than enough wealth to last him a lifetime. And he spends the rest of his days in peace, adopting his young cousin Frodo (whom he fondly refers to as his nephew). Bilbo is the first stay-at-home single dad in the history of literature! The cheerful, kind and generous master of Bag End is a much-changed person from the callow Hobbit who started out the tale.

He’s become, for lack of a better word, a man.

Your Own Personal Gollum

Is there somebody in your life who drives you insane? Who sucks the air out of a room when they enter it? A psychic-vampire who brings a black murky cloud into your world?

That’s your Own Personal Gollum (OPG).

Gollum wasn’t always such a heinous wretch. Once upon a time he was a happy-go-lucky Hobbity sort of person who had at least one friend (whom he ended up murdering on a riverbank, sadly) and who loved playing riddle games. Gollum even fondly remembers having a grandmother! Someone like that couldn’t be completely evil, right?

But poor Gollum was corrupted by the Ring, and this constant craving hollowed out his soul. He’s a husk of the Hobbit he used to be. He’s like a meth addict craving another hit, and he will do anything to satisfy that terrible emptiness.

Gollum makes Sam’s and Frodo’s life a living hell. He’s manipulative, hateful and bad company on a very long road trip. (Can you imagine driving across America with Gollum in the backseat? You’d want to toss him into a cornfield somewhere around the middle of Kansas.)

Gollum is so awful he pushes even the kindhearted mild-mannered Sam to violence. And Frodo, who recognizes a kindred spirit tainted by the Ring of Doom, is both repulsed and drawn to Gollum as he tries in vain to redeem him, calling him by his old Hobbit name of Sméagol.

Your Own Personal Gollum might not be as horrible as Tolkien’s Gollum. Your OPG could be an annoying classmate, or someone you work with who’s constantly grating on your nerves, or even a relative who makes you cringe every time you see them. (Many people have told me their OPG is their mother-in-law!) You probably won’t have to make a trek with this person to the fires of Mount Doom, but sometimes it might feel that way. Because people who are obsessed with their own problems, like most OPGs seem to be, want everyone else to feel their pain.

So how do we deal with somebody who makes us this miserable? We can’t tie an Elven rope around their necks, give them a good yank and call them “stinker” like Sam does. That just lowers ourselves to their level (and it’s also illegal in most states). Frodo’s sympathy and kindness is admirable, but in the end Gollum ends up biting off his finger. Do you want your OPG to bite off your finger? Even metaphorically? Because I sure don’t.

A year before The Lord of the Rings begins (according to Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales) Aragorn captured Gollum and led him nine hundred miles to the Elven-king’s home in Mirkwood. The journey lasted fifty days, making Aragorn the unofficial winner of the “I spent the most time with nasty old Gollum” award. I can just imagine how the stoical Ranger would have dealt with his OPG: He would have tuned out the vile Gollum’s whining—utterly ignoring him—and strode onward with a fixed look of determination in his steely eyes until he’d reached his destination and delivered Gollum to the Elves. Then he would have turned around and walked away without giving Gollum a second glance.

It’s Gandalf’s advice to Frodo that’s most meaningful when dealing with your OPG, however. Months before Frodo sets out on the quest to destroy the Ring, Gandalf tells the Hobbit that the only way of dealing with Gollum is to pity him. It’s Frodo’s pity that keeps him from killing Gollum when he has the chance, and this mercy is what ultimately saves Frodo from his own failure to destroy the Ring. He learns about compassion the hard way.

In the end we really don’t have any way of controlling the relationship with our OPG. We can control, however, the way we react to them: With pity and self-control. And if those tactics don’t work, sometimes we simply need to give up and go our separate ways.

The Wisdom of the Shire Tells Us…“Have pity on the self-centered Gollum in your life, for they are sad creatures; but do not allow them to pull you onto their dark path.”

Sam Gamgee’s Happy Place

“Where there’s life, there’s hope.” –The Gaffer Gamgee

I went for a barefoot walk in the garden this morning. I felt very Hobbit-like. Nobody was up yet at 6:00 AM except for my neighbor, Mark, out watering his garden and hissing at the deer. (Even though we live in town the deer creep down from the hills and try to eat our veggies.)

There’s something so peaceful and beautiful about a little backyard garden on a summer’s morning, with the birds chirping gently, almost sleepily. I pulled some peas off the vine and nibbled on them while I inspected everything in the quiet. The taste of sugar snaps are far sweeter than the horrible breakfast cereal I used to gorge on when I was a boy. These peas, that my son planted from seeds, are now seven feet tall and bursting with fruit. The kids go out every day and pluck them off the vines. It’s such a great way to get young ones to eat vegetables.

My Purple Cherokee tomatoes are looking good despite the heinously cold spring and early summer we’ve been having. These heirloom tomatoes are almost as good as Brandywines, but seem to tolerate the Pacific Northwest cold a little better. The rest of the country has been having record heat waves, but here it’s been record cold. The weather reminds me of a trip my wife and I took to England fifteen years ago where it didn’t get above sixty-eight degrees for the entire month of July.

The strawberries I planted in wine barrels are starting to put out little white flowers. The broccoli is getting big and will be ready to eat soon. The lettuce bed is so thick with lettuces we can hardly eat it fast enough. It’s all heirloom: speckled Flashy Trout’s Back lettuce and Grandpa Admire’s, and something so deep purple in color it looks like the color of Spanish Garnacha wine. I’ve let some of these plants go to seed, and they tower over the others like lettuce skyscrapers with their intricate and fantastical seed heads about to flower.

I sit down and look around for a little bit. Onions, basil, cucumbers, zucchini. They all look healthy. I can’t wait to eat them! I think about Sam Gamgee and how, when he and Frodo are in Mordor, the son of the Old Gaffer imagines himself back in the gardens at Bag End. Even when he’s asleep he dreams he’s putting in a good hard day’s work in his own little vegetable beds. It’s his happy place. And when you sit in your own small garden on a summer morning like this you can understand why.It doesn’t really take that much effort to make a little backyard garden. All you need is some dirt and some seeds. Stuff wants to grow.

Lord of the Rings trivia: When Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton got married, they changed their last name to “Gardner” and started a long line of Hobbit children (thirteen of them!) to make the Shire grow with life.