A Tolkien Virgin: The Return of the King - Book VI - Chapter 7 - The Journey Continues
I'll say it's odd for the story to go on so long. I know Frodo needs to get back to the Shire before the story will come to a close, but in the Hobbit there was a summary--and Bilbo had various other adventures--and a brief conclusion with him returning to the Shire in the nick of time. Here, after the climax there're chapters left to go. It's not bad, of course, it's just odd.
This chapter starts on a down note. We can see that Frodo's going to need Arwen's gift--that gem that she said will comfort him when he's troubled by past memories. I've never read anything truer in fiction than what Frodo says at the beginning of this chapter: "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 and the Hobbits pass the Ford of Bruinen and Weathertop and come at long last to a locked gate at Bree. From the start we can tell that things aren't right in Bree and then they get to the Prancing Pony. The food and beer haven't changed. In fact, despite the differences on the surface not much has changed in Bree. Butterbur, himself, is primary evidence to this. He goes about explaining what's gone wrong, the same old Butterbur.
His news about Bill Ferny and Outsiders comes as no surprise. What is surprising is that news of such magnitude in the east and south--the armies of Sauron and their unlikely defeat, a king in Gondor, etc--hadn't reached Bree. Truly it will take time for the Shadow to be cleared from every corner of Middle Earth, but I would have thought that someone in Bree would've at least had some news by this time. It just goes to show how far they are from every other part of the world--mentally more than physically.
I hadn't pictured the hobbits and Gandalf riding along "armed folk, with swords and helmets and shields and all." But at mention of it, it's a good reminder of how the've changed on their journey.
Barliman's reaction to Gandalf's news that there is a king and how he'll make the roads safe and clear out the evil things from the wood was a bit disappointing. It was a very real reaction of a small town simple-minded man living in the middle of nowhere. Xenophobia is understandable given the recent trouble in Bree, but it's still disappointing.
That Bill the pony was still alive and made it all the way back to Bree wasn't exactly unexpected--regardless it being unlikely--but it was worth a smile. The scene in the Common Room the following night was also worth a smile. Especially when someone calls for a song and it get's all quiet. That's so very Bree.
Sam says, "I ought to have hurried back quicker," and all I could do is agree. It seemed they stayed too long at every point along the way home. Knowing that things aren't right in the Shire just drives that point home further.
One thing toward the end there gave me pause: Gandalf's comment, "You must settle [the Shire's] affairs yourselves, that is what you have been trained for." I don't really like that because it makes it seem like whatever came before was "merely" training for what was to come. I can't imagine Tolkien intended to slight anything that came before in their experiences, and maybe it's just me, but I think he could have worded it a bit better.
Gandalf goes off to have a chat with Tom Bombadil. I like Gandalf's analogy of Tom as a moss-gatherer and himself as a rolling stone whose rolling days are ended. I can imagine Tom isn't too concerned about what has gone on in the last year because he's aware of Illuvata's plan unveiled at the beginning of time. It's a change of perspective and a reminder to me that all of Frodo's journey the ring, their eventual success was all pre-ordained by Illuvata before time (according to the Valaquenta in the Silmarillion). I know how pointless an argument about Tom Bombadil is. Maybe he's just an anomaly that doesn't fit into Tolkien's well-arranged hierarchy of beings, but I like him and, like Frodo, would like to have a chat with him. Actually, Frodo should have plenty of time to go talk to Tom Bombadil once he gets things worked out in the Shire.
One last thing. Being so close to the Old Forest, I'm reminded of the Barrow Downs. Not all of the baddies in Middle-earth are tied to Sauron. Life, the good and the bad (the evil in the Barrow Downs, for example), goes on without him.
The chapter closes meaningfully with just the four hobbits that started out together (minus one conspirator, Fatty Bolger). Yet another great quote out of this chapter is that closing paragraph, "'It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.' 'Not to me,' said Frodo. 'To me it feels more like falling asleep again.'" I understand how Merry and Frodo both feel.
till next time, keep thinking,
Note: We will be publishing the final 2 Tolkien Virgin articles over the next two weeks. Thanks for all your patience, everyone!