Having arrived at the end of The Return of the King and the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings, just the appendices remain before I start some overviews in my #TalkingTolkien thread. But I’m not done with the main narrative yet, not by a long chalk! Nor have I finished with themes and motifs I’ve noted, not forgetting discussions of early published commentaries that steered me in my readings over several decades.
In this discussion I want to focus on the giving of gifts, a practice that epics and sagas featured as a means of forging bonds of friendship, sanctioning alliances and displaying largesse, a custom not limited, as now, largely to high days and holidays such as Christmas, birthdays and other anniversaries – and the occasional middle-class dinner party. (I shall omit any discussion of political bribes now because consideration of that odious practice will only lead me astray into intemperate ranting… )
Tolkien, knowing that gift-giving (and gift exchange) was an important aspect not just of the literature he was familiar with but of the early societies he admired, naturally included plenty of examples in his own legendarium, some instances of which I want to examine here.
When – in the Old English poem that now bears his name – Beowulf defeats the monster assailant Grendel, Hrothgar “the son of Healfdene gave Beowulf a golden standard to reward his victory—a decorated battle-banner—a helmet and mail-shirt: many saw the glorious, costly sword borne before the warrior” (Donaldson XV; Tuso 1975:18). Beowulf is also given “eight horses with golden bridles,” one of which had a saddle “shining with hand-ornaments, adorned with jewels” — here I’m reminded of Shadowfax being claimed by Gandalf as a gift, somewhat to Théoden’s dismay.)
A little later Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, offers Beowulf “two arm-bangles, | a mail-shirt and rings, and the most resplendent | torque of gold I every heard tell of | anywhere on earth or under heaven” (Heaney 1999:40). This twisted gold necklace is compared to Brisingamen, the torc or “neck-chain” of the goddess Freyja which some accounts say was stolen by Loki but is here claimed by the Beowulf poet to have been taken from Eormanric the Goth.
It may surprise us moderns to discover that Beowulf subsequently gives many of these items to his overlord, Hygelac. These examples from Beowulf typify much early medieval thinking regarding gift-giving and gift exchange; as Reuben Dendinger tells us:
‘the good king, who deserves a place in heaven, “takes no delight | In mere gold.” That is to say, he does not [hoard] wealth, but gives it away generously, because what he wants are things more important than wealth: honor, prestige, kinship, and loyalty. He is not buying these things, he is earning them.’Dendinger, 2014
The Lord of the Rings
The scholar in Tolkien naturally included gift-giving in The Lord of the Rings, though as we will see there is less emphasis on gift exchange. The reasons for gifting sometimes echo those that motivated the nobility in much Anglo-Saxon literature – honour, prestige, kinship, loyalty – but often go beyond these, involving unstinting generosity, pity, and love. I will offer some examples which particularly struck me, all but one involving largesse, the generous or liberal bestowal of presents from someone with power to one who has less or, indeed, no power at all.
Bag End. Before Bilbo sets off for Rivendell (Book One, Chapter I) he leaves the ring, reluctantly, on the mantelpiece: “it goes to Frodo with all the rest” because Frodo is his heir, an example of a gift given because of kinship. Ironically, of course, Bilbo’s acquisition of the magic ring came about by chance, though Gollum saw it as thievery, and he himself (as Sméagol) had resorted to murder to possess it. In the second chapter Frodo, now in fear of its significance, offers it to Gandalf: “Will you not take the Ring?” but the now alarmed wizard refuses to be tempted. Fear is not a good reason to part with a gift, especially one such as the Ring which is – figuratively – a poisoned chalice. As with many presents in the saga, not only is the object vested with power of some kind but it will have a crucial part to play in the story.
Rivendell. In chapter III of Book Two Bilbo gives Frodo his short sword Sting and a dwarf-mail mithril coat, again on the basis of kinship. Sting has the power to indicate the presence of malice, while the mail-coat will, as Bilbo predicts, “turn even the knives of the Black Riders” or a cave-troll. Bilbo has no sense of possessiveness for these two objects, unlike that he still retains for the Ring.
Lothlórien. In chapter VII Frodo offers the Ring to Galadriel: “I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it,” but like Gandalf she refuses, saying, “I pass the test.” In the next chapter, along with the elvish waybread and cloaks, specific gifts are given to the Company of the Ring “in memory of Lothlórien.” A sheath for the reforged sword of the heir of Isildur is presented to Aragorn, plus Elessar, the Elfstone; a belt of gold goes to Boromir, to Merry and Pippin silver belts; and to Legolas a bow and quiver of arrows. Sam was given a small box with enchanted earth from Lórien for his garden; three strands of Galadriel’s own hair went to Gimli; finally, a small crystal phial of starlight is presented to Frodo, to be a “light in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
Here then are treasures given from unstinting generosity which happen to reflect the donor’s honour and prestige, but with no expectation of reward. Several of them will of course reappear, as though fortuitously, in the course of the saga.
Many Partings is the title of chapter VI of Book Six, and offers us a few more instances of gifting. Queen Arwen at Minas Tirith offers Frodo a white star-like gem on a silver chain as a balm for his troubled memories. Then at Edoras Éowyn gives Merry an ancient heirloom, a small but cunningly wrought silver horn: ‘”He that blows it at need shall set fear in the hearts of his enemies and joy in the hearts of his friends, and they shall hear him and come to him.” Then Merry took the horn, for it could not be refused…’ And of course it will prove useful back in the Shire to call up hobbit resistance to Sharkey and his bully boys.
Dunland. On the return journey to Rivendell and the Shire the dwindling Company passes by a beggar, who proves to be Saruman. Merry has pity on the spiteful wizard when Saruman sneeringly asks for a fill of pipeweed, and offers him a pouchful. But the ungrateful beggar curses him, “Long may your land be short of leaf!” and refuses to return the emptied pouch to the hobbit. Here is one last example of gift-giving for which gratitude is not returned, the consequences of course ultimately proving fatal for Saruman.
Most of the instances I have given have involved largesse, the virtue associated with munificence which results in the bestowing of precious things to those less favoured. Providing the largesse is received with gratitude evil does not rebound on the receiver of the gift, but often proves of advantage in a tight spot if not merely a comfort; however, what Gollum calls his “birthday present” is of course no such thing and ultimately provides his literal downfall, for ill-gotten gains are in no wise true gifts. This of course conforms with one of the Laws of Middle-earth codified by Rendel Helms: Intention structures result.
In The Lord of the Rings those with nobleness of either blood or character, or both, are seen to deserve the honour and prestige that comes with giving; and whether or not the recipients are kin (and often they are not) or have shown loyalty (conscious or not) the presents they receive with due gratitude and humility frequently become, in common parlance, “the gifts that keep on giving”. Oddly enough, this is also the case with The Lord of the Rings itself, giving the reader more each time they revisit it.
Or so I find.
Reuben Dendinger. 2014. ‘Gift Economy in Beowulf.’ Reading Medieval Nature.
https://readingmedievalnature.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/gift-economy-in-beowulf/ (accessed 3/06/2022)
E Talbot Donaldson, translator. 1966. Beowulf, in Tuso 1975.
Seamus Heaney, translator. 1999. Beowulf. Faber and Faber.
Rendel Helms. 1974. Tolkien’s World. Panther Books, 1976.
J R R Tolkien. 1954-5. The Lord of the Rings. HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.
Joseph F Tuso, editor. 1975. Beowulf: the Donaldson translation, backgrounds and sources, criticism. Norton Critical Edition: W W Norton & Company.
Another post in my Talking Tolkien thread