Discover more from In Particular
The End of Things
What haunts the Hobbits in the Shire at the beginning of the trilogy are two things. First, there is a very real threat of losing the simple beauty of the Shire. Mordor’s desire to dominate is everywhere present, and because the Ring is found in Bilbo’s possession, the danger to the Shire is imminent. The decision to destroy the ring is directly related to the threat it holds for the Shire.
But there is also a longing for something that is bigger than the Shire. This is the second haunting, populated by Elves and Tom Bombadil and trees generations old. The Elves often stand in for this reality that is deeper and older than the Shire. When they appear they are a reminder of the Hobbit’s prehistory. They are not a threat to the Hobbit but a steadying influence to remember the Shire’s place in the order of things. It is a good and a beautiful reality, the Shire, but it exists amidst a constellation of other goods that are graver and older and perhaps even grander than it.
Thanks for reading To the Shire! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I was initially puzzled by Frodo’s decision to leave the Shire- so puzzled, in fact, that I left this account for the very last day of the year. It seems that there is a sense of failure built into Sam and Frodo’s success. In destroying the ring and killing Saruman, they have protected the Shire from complete destruction. But they have not protected it from damage, and when they return to it they find it not as they left it. The great symbol of this destruction is the loss of the sylvan canopy of the Shire. The trees
were the worst loss and damage, for at Sharkey’s bidding they had been cut down recklessly far and wide over the Shire; and Sam grieved over this more than anything else. For one thing, this hurt would take long to heal, and only his great-grandchildren, he thought, would see the Shire as it ought to be (999).
Cutting down a tree takes only an instant, but rebuilding one takes generations. The Hobbits task themselves with this work of reforestation, aided by the gift of Galadriel whose dust works as a generous fertilizer for whichever plants it touches.
Amidst this hopeful work of husbandry and growth, Frodo has taken ill. He was touched and irretrievably changed by his journey, and though the work of Shire remains for him, he cannot return to it fully. Sam finds Frodo in frequent fits, ill of mind and body. “It is gone forever and now all is dark and empty”, he says, “I am wounded, it will never really heal”. “I am deeply hurt. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me”.
What is it that Frodo has been touched by? How has the mission changed him? Why is it that the success of the Hobbit’s odyssey feels to Frodo like failure? He had hoped for the return of all that he loved, but he received back another life entirely.
Heaven is synecdoche, theologian Ian McFarland remarks. By this he means that the hope for the life to come is the whole of the life that we now have in part. The whole is a life lived by grace alone, a grace that will be derived directly from God. We will see “face to face” what we now see in part. Frodo’s problem as best as I can understand it is that his synecdoche was backwards. The part to whole in his mind was a better, perfected, and protected Shire. But what he received back was a boat trip with Gandalf and the Elves to a world he had not yet known.
For the Christian, as McFarland notes, the “last things” are actually the “now things”, because the grace that sustains us in the life to come will be the same grace that sustains us eternally.The difference is that we know this grace only indirectly, and as it is experienced through our human dependence on physical laws and relationships with other creatures. This grace, and our indirect experience of it, is marked by ambiguity. Creatures who experience grace and the power for living indirectly possess a direct ability to foul things up. Finitude is the name we give to creatures who cannot grant life of their own but who can wage death almost completely. The ambiguity of creaturely life means that our experience of ourselves and one another is almost never one of pure success. Finite life is marked, all the way down, by longing and by failure.
Frodo’s success in destroying the Ring illuminates the degree to which the Hobbits also failed to protect the Shire from destruction. Frodo is marked by this failure and it haunts him. This, I think, is why he cannot remain there. The grief of what has been lost, or the knowledge of all else that exists, draws him to live with the Elves instead.
One thing I talk a lot about is what it means to think Christianly. To my shame, I do this without much precision much of the time. Some of this is because it seems to me self-evident what I mean, but it is not in fact self-evident, not at all.
It does seem that Frodo’s decision to leave the Shire has in it a deeply Christian instinct about how to evaluate failure- for the Shire’s decline is a failure of a certain kind. Frodo could not protect the effects of Mordor from reaching his beloved home. But in his total commitment to the task regardless of his success, Frodo identifies himself with the failure that marks all real Christian success.
There are two chief fictions of human life together, writes Rowan Williams- “that human identity is for humans to control”— either in successful human performances or in realizing the desires of the self. Both of these fictions resist the chiefly Christian markers of human life, namely that human life is marked by a belonging that is not chosen and a giftedness that cannot be seized. This Christian distinctive is rooted in Christ himself whose life is not marked by a performance of human identity or the achievement of personal desire. In fact, Christ’s own life is marked by a certain kind of failure. As Williams puts it:
The life of Jesus- insofar as it can be characterized in a few brief phrases- has to do with proclaiming and enacting a disturbing truth: that achievement in the terms of a religious ordering of things is not of itself decisive in forming the reaction of God to the human world, and that what is decisive is a commitment of trust in God’s compassion that shows itself in costly and painful letting go of the obsessions of the self- both the obsessive search for the perfectly satisfying performance and the obsessive search of the perfectly unconstrained experience.
Indeed, these two apparently antithetical urges are shown to have an uncomfortable amount in common: the unprincipled rich man, the unreflectively vindictive servant, the person who unquestionably indulges aggressive or lustful fantasy are close kin to the accumulator of religious merit. They have not learned to lose what they believe to be crucial to their identity, they work in different but recognizably related modes of acquisitiveness. To all such, the word of judgment is addressed: the person who faces and acknowledges inner contradiction, failure, the breakdown of performance and the emptiness of gratification, is the person who is capable of hearing and answering the invitation to loss and trust.
Frodo’s end brings such a reminder. Just as Denethor was but a steward and Sam must plant a tree whose fruit he will not eat, so Frodo had to live through the failure of his own misguided hope. His synechodche was backwards- the part he hoped to fully enjoy was the Shire, whose goods are far outweighed by the land of the Elves, on the far side of the sea. But Christ’s failure is a different synecdoche, one whose task to redeem Israel (Luke 24) issues itself in death. But the part of the synecdoche Christ in habits is a complete and total submission to a gospel that brings all enmity over law and lawlessness “to nothing"- "the silence of his dying is the only rhetoric for his gospel".
Christian eschatology, McFarland writes, should be de novissimis- the now which we know in part but long to see, one day, as whole. But we do indeed have such hope now. For this reason our work is not in mastery or completion but provisional work that may end in failure. What makes it Christian work is that we have our synecdoche rightly ordered, and that we understand we might indeed fail.
When we receive our work as finite and our identity as gifted, Rowan Williams writes, “This means being able to leave behind the fantasy of a decisively successful performance as a human being, or a human society: building into my projects and hopes a provisionality that acknowledges the possibility of defeat and thus the possibility of repentance”. Perhaps the pain that Frodo knew in his soul after the journey was that he had longed for fulfillment in the wrong things- for comfort and safety, when he was bound for the sea. May it be said of us, too, in our time- that we hung together, with a song in our heart, and longed not merely for home comforts but for a land that we knew only in part, that we loved the right things, and that we dared to fail. For only in provisional knowledge and our small labors can we think rightly, even Christianly, casting our work in the image of the God-man who “considered equality with God not something to be grasped but emptied himself, being made in the form of a servant”, perhaps even of a steward.
Thanks, as always, for reading. I will keep writing here in the New Year. I hope to hear from you, and hope you will continue to follow along.
Ian McFarland, “Eschatology” in The New Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine.
Rowan Williams, “Resurrection and Peace: More on New Testament Ethics” in On Christian Theology.