In my series Talking Tolkien I’ve looked at several motifs that have occurred to me so far during my sixth read of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve discussed the place of allegory, Tolkien’s use of colour, morality in the trilogy, and the One Ring. I’ve also looked at the significance of locations, in particular crossing places and portals.
I now want to consider stopping places, those places where Frodo and his companions, and certain others, stay for a time during the course of The Fellowship of the Ring. In a there-and-back journey such as the hobbits undertake there will be many rests taken, in the open, in overnight camps or rough shelters, but temporary stops are not what I want to discuss; instead I shall compare and contrast the places designed for respite, rest and recuperation between Hobbiton and the Rauros Falls, where the fellowship breaks up.
These locations will by and large feature habitations, whether in buildings or in woodland settings. Some will prove extremely dangerous, and the travellers will often only survive by the skin of their teeth; but in the main the places of safety will be shown to be where several days may be spent and plans laid almost ignoring the urgency of the mission.
Let me list the principal places Frodo and Sam stayed in after they left Bag End at the autumnal equinox. In order they are a green sward in Woody End (a place of safety where they’re guarded by Elves after their encounter with the Black Rider); after a brief stop for sustenance at Maggot’s Farm the hobbits took the ferry across the Brandywine and stayed overnight at Frodo’s house Crickhollow the other side of Bucklebury; then after getting lost in the Old Forest the Hobbit quartet spent a couple of nights at Tom Bombadil’s House on the edge of the Barrow-downs.
A quick survey of these sites shows woodland can sometimes be associated with Elves (as it will be again with Lothlórien) but it’s not a given: Mirkwood in The Hobbit harboured Legolas’s people but also giant spiders and, for a time, the Necromancer Sauron, while the Old Forest will prove inimical to unwary wayfarers. On the other hand the walls of Crickhollow and the house of Tom Bombadil (‘Hill‘) may protect them from intruders, one a hobbit dwelling, and the other one of the Elder beings of Middle-earth:
Tom Bombadil is an ‘aborigine’ — he knew the land before men, before hobbits, before Barrow-wight, yes, before the necromancer — before the elves came to this quarter of the world.¹Tolkien & Tolkien, Chapter 6, ‘Tom Bombadil’.
After an unfortunate night in the barrow of a Barrow-wight, away from which they’re guided by Tom, ‘Mr Underhill’ and three other hobbits spend part of one night in The Prancing Pony at Bree (another ‘hill’). Here they’re again rescued and led away — this time by Aragorn — through Chetwood and on to Amon Sûl on Weathertop where the group are attacked by the Black Riders. Thence with little respite they traverse the countryside to avoid the Riders on the East Road, joining the thoroughfare only to cross the Last Bridge over the Hoarwell and the ford of Bruinen on the Loudwater, before they finally gain the safety of Rivendell and the House of Elrond, “the Last Homely House East of the Sea”.
What can we say in summary so far? In places associated with hobbits and men, such as Crickhollow, Maggot’s Farm, The Prancing Pony at Bree, and the ruins of Amon Sûl, safety cannot be guaranteed. However, where Elves are involved — whether in Woody End near Hobbiton, with Glorfindel on the stretch of the East Road leading to the Ford of Bruinen, and eventually at the House of Elrond — the travellers are less in danger. Above all, Tom Bombadil provides the safest haven of all being both a genius loci and “the Eldest”, unaffected by the power of the Ring.
After the race to escape the Black Riders which has taken them a month, the hobbits and Aragorn (now joined by the missing Gandalf) spend close to two months with the Elves at Rivendell. After the winter solstice the newly formed Fellowship — comprising nine individuals: four hobbits, two men, a dwarf, an elf and a wizard — set off on what will be a fraught journey to the other side of the Misty Mountains. When the weather on Caradhras defeats them they are forced to travel underground through the mines of Moria, when they lose Gandalf to the Balrog. It’s not till they reach Lothlórien that they can again rest in relative peace, this time for a month.
Stopping places in The Fellowship of the Ring thus form crucial stages in the journey Frodo takes with his fellow hobbits and associated companions. These rests act as breathing spaces, much as commas and full stops / periods do in sentences, and divide action-filled episodes much as pauses between movements do in a symphony. The Fellowship of the Ring therefore has a unity to it in which a company of travellers, though growing and diminishing by degrees, follow a single narrative thrust towards the Falls of Rauros.²
After this the fellowship breaks into three parts: up till now a single skein of story, The Lord of the Rings subsequently becomes a kind of interlace, similar to the ‘carpet’ pages in Celtic codices or carved knotwork patterns on certain Scandinavian memorials. Tolkien will now have to manage his rest points in a different way, but that is a topic to talk about at another time.³
To end with, it’s worth comparing and contrasting the three places where the hobbits felt most at peace, namely Tom Bombadil’s House, the House of Elrond in Rivendell and, in Lothlórien, Cerin Amroth and Caras Galadhon at Egladil.
What do they have in common? Mainly, they’re residences where — for now at least — those with stewardship of these places have the power to exclude the minions of the Enemy and, to a large extent, his personal malign influence. Tom Bombadil is unaffected by the One Ring, in fact is able to humorously hold and look through it with impunity, and furnishes the hobbits with a spell that can fend off the Barrow-wight; Elrond and the Elves of Rivendell can — for now — maintain a safe haven there, with Glorfindel even able to sweep the mounts of the Black Riders away in a flood down the Bruinen river. Finally, the Elves of Lothlórien are able to effectively deal with the army of orcs that have swept down from Moria in search of the Fellowship that has escaped the confines of the mines, leaving the fellowship free of worry from that quarter.
It’s not just the denizens of these places that provide protection, it’s the places themselves. Frodo’s dream, of an unrecognised Gandalf rescued from Orthanc, which takes place in Tom and Goldberry’s house, causes Frodo to wonder (Book I, chapter vii) “if he would ever again have the courage to leave the safety of these stone walls.” Safety of walls was also to be found in the Last Homely House (Book II, chapter i) where “merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.” And then, when at the summit of Cerin Amroth in Lothlórien (Book II, chapter vi) Frodo sees Caras Galadhon, “he longed suddenly to fly like a bird to rest in the green city.” When the company finally have to leave Lothlórien (chapter viii), a reluctant parting from the safety of the mallorn trees and the protections of Celeborn and Galadriel causes Frodo’s head to nod as he falls into an “uneasy” sleep.
In a letter Tolkien wrote that The Lord of the Rings
was written slowly and with great care for detail, & finally emerged as a Frameless Picture: a searchlight, as it were, on a brief episode in History, and on a small part of our Middle-earth, surrounded by the glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space.Letter 412, quoted in Langford 2005.⁴
Tolkien’s notion of a Frameless Picture and what Barry Langland terms “temporal extensions” in the narrative and beyond give these stopping places huge emotional significance. When Sam says of their sojourn in Lothlórien that “Anyone would think that time did not count in there,” Legolas corrects him: “Nay, time does not tarry ever, but change and growth is not in all things and places alike” (Book II, chapter ix).
Us mortals are also familiar with such time dilations (or, rather, temporal extensions) whereby episodes dominated by tension may be experienced differently from those alternating episodes set aside for respite, rest and recuperation. These real-life experiences may help us relate to the ultimate impact of Frodo’s stopping places on the reader.
- J R R Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow. The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part One. Unwin Paperbacks, 1990: 117-124.
- David M Miller, ‘Narrative Pattern in The Fellowship of the Ring‘, in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell. Ballantine Books, 1980: 103-115.
- Richard C West, ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘, in Lobdell (editor), op. cit.: 82-102.
- Barry Langford, ‘Time’, in Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien’s Classic, edited by Robert Eaglestone. Continuum, 2005: 30.
A post in my Talking Tolkien series