Leaving Rivendell, Gandalf and the hobbits go west. First passing the place where the Nazgul were drowned after nearly capturing Frodo: [A]
“When they came to the Ford of Bruinen, [Frodo] had halted, and seemed loth to ride into the stream; and they noted that for a while his eyes appeared not to see them or things about him. All that day he was silent. It was the sixth of October.
“‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.
“‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’
“‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.
“‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
“Gandalf did not answer.”
They go to Bree, and find that the evils they noticed when they departed after the Nazgul raid have worked themselves out in a small war:
“‘No one comes nigh Bree now from Outside,’ [Butterbur] said. ‘And the inside folks, they stay at home mostly and keep their doors barred. It all comes of those newcomers and gangrels that began coming up the Greenway last year, as you may remember; but more came later. Some were just poor bodies running away from trouble; but most were bad men, full o’ thievery and mischief. And there was trouble right here in Bree, bad trouble. Why, we had a real set-to, and there were some folk killed, killed dead! If you’ll believe me.’
“‘I will indeed,’ said Gandalf. ‘How many?’
“‘Three and two,’ said Butterbur, referring to the big folk and the little. ‘There was poor Mat Heathertoes, and Rowlie Appledore, and little Tom Pickthorn from over the Hill; and Willie Banks from up-away, and one of the Underhills from Staddle: all good fellows, and they’re missed. And Harry Goatleaf that used to be on the West-gate, and that Bill Ferny, they came in on the strangers’ side, and they’ve gone off with them; and it’s my belief they let them in. On the night of the fight, I mean. And that was after we showed them the gates and pushed them out: before the year’s end, that was; and the fight was early in the New Year, after the heavy snow we had.
They enemies are still around, but Butterbur does not think the travellers are in danger:
“‘But it’s no wonder they left you alone. They wouldn’t go for armed folk, with swords and helmets and shields and all. Make them think twice, that would. And I must say it put me aback a bit when I saw you.’
“Then the hobbits suddenly realized that people had looked at them with amazement not out of surprise at their return so much as in wonder at their gear. They themselves had become so used to warfare and to riding in well-arrayed companies that they had quite forgotten that the bright mail peeping from under their cloaks, and the helms of Gondor and the Mark, and the fair devices on their shields, would seem outlandish in their own country. And Gandalf, too, was now riding on his tall grey horse, all clad in white with a great mantle of blue and silver over all, and the long sword Glamdring at his side.
“Gandalf laughed. ‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘if they are afraid of just five of us, then we have met worse enemies on our travels. But at any rate they will give you peace at night while we stay.’
“‘How long will that be?’ said Butterbur. ‘I’ll not deny we should be glad to have you about for a bit. You see, we’re not used to such troubles; and the Rangers have all gone away, folk tell me. I don’t think we’ve rightly understood till now what they did for us. For there’s been worse than robbers about. Wolves were howling round the fences last winter. And there’s dark shapes in the woods, dreadful things that it makes the blood run cold to think of. It’s been very disturbing, if you understand me.’
“‘I expect it has,’ said Gandalf. ‘Nearly all lands have been disturbed these days, very disturbed. But cheer up, Barliman! You have been on the edge of very great troubles, and I am only glad to hear that you have not been deeper in.
I take this to mean that he had some idea there was trouble, but not in detail. And can reassure the people of Bree:
“But better times are coming. Maybe, better than any you remember. The Rangers have returned. We came back with them. And there is a king again, Barliman. He will soon be turning his mind this way.
“‘Then the Greenway will be opened again, and his messengers will come north, and there will be comings and goings, and the evil things will be driven out of the waste-lands. Indeed the waste in time will be waste no longer, and there will be people and fields where once there was wilderness.’
But as we have seen before, the ordinary people of all the various lands are suspicious of outsiders:
“Mr. Butterbur shook his head. ‘If there’s a few decent respectable folk on the roads, that won’t do no harm,’ he said. ‘But we don’t want no more rabble and ruffians. And we don’t want no outsiders at Bree, nor near Bree at all. We want to be let alone. I don’t want a whole crowd o’ strangers camping here and settling there and tearing up the wild country.’
“‘You will be let alone, Barliman,’ said Gandalf. ‘There is room enough for realms between Isen and Greyflood, or along the shore lands south of the Brandywine, without any one living within many days’ ride of Bree. And many folk used to dwell away north, a hundred miles or more from here, at the far end of the Greenway: on the North Downs or by Lake Evendim.’
“‘Up away by Deadmen’s Dike?’ said Butterbur, looking even more dubious. ‘That’s haunted land, they say. None but a robber would go there.’
“‘The Rangers go there,’ said Gandalf. ‘Deadmen’s Dike, you say. So it has been called for long years; but its right name, Barliman, is Fornost Erain, Norbury of the Kings. And the King will come there again one day; and then you’ll have some fair folk riding through.’
“‘Well, that sounds more hopeful, I’ll allow,’ said Butterbur. ‘And it will be good for business, no doubt. So long as he lets Bree alone.’
“‘He will,’ said Gandalf. ‘He knows it and loves it.’”
He is surprised but pleased to learn that the new King is the man he knew as Strider.
Two more loose ends. Bill the pony survived and has returned. And people remember the book about Bree that Frodo had said he was writing:
“Curiosity overcame all fears, and his house was crowded. For a while out of politeness the hobbits visited the Common Room in the evening and answered a good many questions. Bree memories being retentive, Frodo was asked many times if he had written his book.
“‘Not yet,’ he answered. ‘I am going home now to put my notes in order.’ He promised to deal with the amazing events at Bree, and so give a bit of interest to a book that appeared likely to treat mostly of the remote and less important affairs ‘away south’.”
But his magical disappearance is also not forgotten:
“Then one of the younger folk called for a song. But at that a hush fell, and he was frowned down, and the call was not repeated. Evidently there was no wish for any uncanny events in the Common Room again.”
They leave Bree behind them, but the news they have gathered further alarms them:
“‘I wonder what old Barliman was hinting at,’ said Frodo.
“‘I can guess some of it,’ said Sam gloomily. ‘What I saw in the Mirror: trees cut down and all, and my old gaffer turned out of the Row. I ought to have hurried back quicker.’
“‘And something’s wrong with the Southfarthing evidently,’ said Merry. ‘There’s a general shortage of pipe-weed.’
“‘Whatever it is,’ said Pippin, ‘Lotho will be at the bottom of it: you can be sure of that.’
“‘Deep in, but not at the bottom,’ said Gandalf. ‘You have forgotten Saruman. He began to take an interest in the Shire before Mordor did.’”
They look to him to help once again – but now are disappointed:
“‘Well, we’ve got you with us,’ said Merry, ‘so things will soon be cleared up.’
“‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.”
He has decided that his mission in Middle-Earth has basically ended, with just a little winding-up:
“I am turning aside soon. I am going to have a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have not had in all my time. He is a moss-gatherer, and I have been a stone doomed to rolling. But my rolling days are ending, and now we shall have much to say to one another.’…
“‘Quite untroubled and I should guess, not much interested in anything that we have done or seen, unless perhaps in our visits to the Ents. There may be a time later for you to go and see him. But if I were you, I should press on now for home, or you will not come to the Brandywine Bridge before the gates are locked.’”
This passage should dispose of the silly idea that Bombadil might be God, or Time.
Where he does fit in Tolkien’s mythology is left hazy here, but Tolkien’s unfinished writings suggest an answer. In Lost Tales, Chapter 4 we are told of a time when the world was dark but ‘Melko’ still in hiding:
“At that time did many strange spirits fare into the world, for there were pleasant places dark and quiet for them to dwell in. Some came from Mandos, aged spirits that journeyed from Iluvatar with him who are older than the world and very gloomy and secret, and some from the fortresses of the North where Melko then dwelt in the deep dungeons of Utumna. Full of evil and unwholesome were they; luring and restlessness and horror they brought, turning the dark into an ill and fearful thing, which it was not before But some few danced thither with gentle feet exuding evening scents, and these came from the gardens of Lorien.
“Still is the world full of these in the days of light, lingering alone in the shadowy hearts of primeval forests, calling secret things across a stary waste, and haunting caverns in the hills that few have found: – but the pinewoods are yet too full of these old unelfin and inhuman spirits for the quietude of Elder or of men.”
This is one of many passages from Tolkien that suggests to me that in Tolkien’s mythology there were many generations of the spirits that Tolkien later called Maia.
The version of The Silmarillion that Christopher Tolkien produced leaves it open. But Luthien and Shelob are each examples of the offspring of a spirit and a corporeal being. There is no clear reason why spirits might also wed each other and have offspring. Or breed outside of marriage, in the case of giant spiders.
I will be doing a talk on this in the planned Zoom Oxonmoot, suggesting that both Gandalf and Sauron were examples. And that Bombadil would be much older. Goldberry says that he ‘remembers the first raindrop’. She herself is much younger, perhaps daughter of another water-spirit.
Incidentally, a similar adaptation of the old idea of river-spirits is done with both humour and thrills in the Rivers of London series by Peter Grant. Very different from Tolkien, but I would recommend it.[B]
Back at the end of the Third Age, the hobbits are still not fully adjusted to what they will meet. Warning of locked gates confuse them:
“‘But there aren’t any gates,’ said Merry, ‘not on the Road; you know that quite well. There’s the Buckland Gate, of course; but they’ll let me through that at any time.’
“‘There weren’t any gates, you mean,’ said Gandalf. ‘I think you will find some now. And you might have more trouble even at the Buckland Gate than you think. But you’ll! manage all right. Good-bye dear friends! Not for the last time, not yet. Good-bye!’
“He turned Shadowfax off the Road, and the great horse leaped the green dike that here ran beside it; and then at a cry from Gandalf he was gone, racing towards the Barrow-downs like a wind from the North.”
His task always had been to urge ordinary people to oppose evil. Not to match power with power, which could be corrupting.
I did also wonder why Gandalf avoids a final meeting with Saruman. But his earlier attempts at mercy had been rejected. And if he suspects how it would end, he would surely prefer not to see it.
[A] Properly Nazgûl, I do not use accents or other diacritical marks. In the past, I have all too often seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.
As to why this flaw exists, see https://gwydionmadawc.com/030-human-dynamics/ascii-an-unhappy-legacy-for-computers/