Having escaped from the menace of the Black Riders, at least for a time, we can now pause to take our breath, reflect and enjoy, along with the characters, the peculiar and particular joys of the Last Homely House.
Memory runs deep in the Homely House, and it is a fixture of temporal and spatial stability in a world that seems to remain in constant flux. While the outside world continues to hurtle toward destruction, somehow this place, one of the last vestiges of the vaunted and hallowed Elder Days, manages to survive despite everything. It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else except Lothlorien several chapters later, that the hobbits begin to gain a firmer grasp of the larger world that encloses their tiny little Shire. Time here, as in so many of the Elven places in Middle-earth, is not bound by the forward thrust of chronos so evident in the world outside (i.e., the emerging world of Men).
This chapter also contains one of the most philosophically compelling passages, made all the more so in that it is touched on so briefly. As Gandalf gazes at Frodo, he muses that there is something slightly transparent about the hobbit, but also reflects that he may become as a glass full of pure water for one who has eyes to see. Verlyn Flieger has a compelling discussion of this in her book Splintered Light, and to that already nuanced discussion I would only add that it presages Frodo’s gradual divorcement from the pleasures of the humble Middle-earth. And I don’t think I would be going to too far to also suggest that this moment also highlights Frodo’s status as a prefiguring of Christ (though not, I would emphasize, an allegory for Christ).
There are, of course, some lighter moments in this chapter, and there is a certain almost nostalgic pleasure in learning of the happenings among the Dwarves who formed party that set off to Erebor so very long ago. It’s hard not to chuckle a bit at the thought of Bombur being carted to table by four stout young Dwarves. Yet even here there is a troubling note of impending darkness, as even Erebor has begun to feel the menace of Mordor and the outstretched hand of Sauron.
And then there is Bilbo’s song. Again, I’m quite familiar with the temptation to skip over the poem, for to a first-time reader it can be quite a slog, especially if you don’t have the knowledge of The Silmarillion upon which it so thoroughly draws. Coming into it with that knowledge, one marvels anew at the sheer vastness of Tolkien’s genius, as well as the ornate nature of the beauty that he created. The fact that it was, in terms of the diegesis, composed by the “humble” hobbit Bilbo Baggins adds another layer.
As with so much of The Lord of the Rings, sadness is never far from the surface of this chapter. We are left in no doubt that Rivendell has become something of an island, besieged on all sides by those would bring the world under its own domination. Just as importantly, we know that the peace and serenity here cannot last, and that the Company will have to eventually have to depart. While we do not yet know that they will all be journeying forward together, there is enough to suggest that, whether they go forward, backward, or simply stay in place, there is no escaping the great evil that threatens the entirety of their world.
Join me next time as I discuss one of my favourite chapters (yes, I know I say that about each one), “The Council of Elrond.”