One of my kind readers suggested my first version of “The Elves” read like a bad Christian sermon. So I rewrote it, hopefully to feel less like a sermon one wishes to escape.
“So it went on, until his forties were running out, and his fiftieth birthday was drawing dear: fifty was a number that he felt was somehow significant (or ominous); it was at any rate at that age that adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo. Frodo began to feel restless, and the old paths seemed too well-trodden. He looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond its borders” (42).
Frodo must leave the Shire. He is not evicted as much as drawn out, pulled toward that white space beyond the edge of the map. This force is a combination of age and history. The Shire was once a place of valor. It is now a place where the Hobbits, an economical people who are themselves of little use, were mighty. Frodo must follow Bilbo on this path that leads toward who-knows-where.
He is led on such a path, and it is this sense of being led that guides the next few chapters I read. It would be the wrong question to ask if Frodo wants to leave the Shire. It is also not quite right to say that he is forced to leave. Rather he is drawn, compelled, called, led. The religious language of vocation is close here, but don’t fall for it. When religious people, especially young people, are taught about calling or “God’s plan for their lives”, they are often told of Great Things for God, of making an Impact, of Changing the World. The idea is that there is something you must join yourself to, something important. You joining God’s mission will grant you a measure of importance, too, even if this is the quiet part not said out loud.
This is not what Frodo’s “calling”, if you can call it that, is like. Rather Frodo is simply drawn out. He leaves not because he must go but more because he cannot stay, his home having become haunted by the danger that he may be able to prevent. So he leaves, quietly and without fanfare, to take part in something he is not quite sure of, to achieve an end that he cannot know.
It is not doing Great Things or being Part of Something or his own self-importance that makes Frodo leave. But there are hauntings. In the shire, as I wrote last week, there is a pre-history that haunts the margins of the Shire’s comfort. This pre-history emerges in these chapters with the appearance of the Elves, who themselves are older than the Hobbits, and who remember the battles that were fought in the Shire. The Elves played a heroic part in the pre-history of the Shire. They once overthrew Sauron; “That is a chapter of ancient history which it might be good to recall; for there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain” (51).
The Elves seem to stand in both for memory of the past, and for the haunted future adventure that the Hobbits are about to undertake.
It is the appearance of these Elves that gives an early indication of what is to come. Tolkien writes,
“Elves, who seldom walked in the Shire, could now be seen passing westward through the woods in the evening, passing and not returning; but they were leaving Middle-earth and were no longer concerned with its troubles” (42). The Elves, it seems, used to also live comfortably in the Shire. But they are “moving West” (44).
Sam has a particular fascination with the Elves; “He believed he had once seen an Elf in the woods, and still hoped to see more one day. Of all the legends that he had heard in his early years such fragments of tales and half-remembered stores about the Elves as the hobbits knew, had always moved him most deeply” (44).
Bilbo and then Sam and Frodo follow the Elves out of the Shire. Their leaving is orchestrated so that it is quiet and secretive. They do not say a proper good-bye. Gloom descends. We don’t know what there is to be afraid of, or if there is anything yet to fear, but there is certainly danger ahead.
I wrote last week about the Hobbit’s interest in economy and utility, even as there was not much use for a Hobbit. The Elves are the opposite of the Hobbits in nearly every way. They are elegant and purposeful where the Hobbits are stout and clumsy. They have “starlight glimmering on their hair and in their eyes. They bore no lights, yet as they walked a shimmer, like the light of the moon above the rims of the hills before it rises, seemed to fall about their feet” (78). Their hair is on their heads and not on their feet. They still speak their ancient language and remember their valor. What the Hobbits are only haunted by, the Elves remember and retell.
The Elves provide a dinner for the journeying hobbits, a meal they describe as a simple supper but which they Hobbits find better than their birthday-feasts.
The Elves portend both a different past and a different future, haunted by valor and danger and possibility.
There are no good reasons to believe in God. What I mean is not that belief is illogical, or indefensible, or impossible. I simply mean that reasons do not themselves lead to belief, and the reasons that claim to are terrible. Belief in God is vested just in God. Reasons do not sure up a monarchy.
I do not believe in God for reasons, but because I feel from time to time led outside of myself. I have a romantic side, a deep longing for the good and right to prevail. But any lover of romance knows that any good love bears violence underneath. There is a molten core beneath love that is more to be feared than to be loved, that will fight for what it possesses. You know it by its relenting more than its pursuit.
There are thousands of words written and piss poor sermons given about how God is Nice and Likes you Well enough so wipe off your face, son, and get on with being Good. As far as I can tell God gives little indication of being nice. The thing we are given as God’s chief revelation is God himself who battles with demons and rages with priests and refuses to spare even himself in a contest of wills that ends with a roar. Niceness is for mediocre baked goods, for Brits giving feedback on oral exams. God is much less kind, much more fierce. This fire lingers at the margins of each mediocre life. It is the prophetic instinct that we have silenced so in our day, preferring instead only a dim memory, populating our sanctuaries with instruments we have forgotten how to use.
Sam and Frodo have lived their lives at the edge of what is real and what is false- their history papered over by a story of civilization and pleasantries- but the Elves are there at the margins, and the Elves remember. Their quiet presence provides guidance and provision for the Hobbits as they journey in the dark toward an end they cannot know.
God is not the Elves or like the Elves- use this as a youth group sermon and I will hunt you down. But there are realities that we do not entertain because we are satisfying ourselves with good food and good drink and too many regifted birthday trinkets; and they are right there, not far from our comforts. You might catch a glimpse of one. Seeing an Elf is no special accommodation itself; except for this- there is another world. God is not kind and it matters little if he likes you, but do not be fooled- there is a fire that resides at the core of the human soul and if you stuff it long enough with food and drink and false memories of battles you did not fight, you will become obsessed with utility and also of little use. If the Elves are moving West, you should follow them.