Dec 20 2010 3:42pm

LotR re-read: Return of the King VI.7, “Homeward Bound”

The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien We consider chapter VI.7 of The Return of the King, “Homeward Bound,” in this installment of the Lord of the Rings re-read. The usual spoilers for all things Tolkien and comments after the jump.

What Happens

The hobbits and Gandalf ride toward the Shire. Frodo is silent and uneasy on October 6th, the anniversary of his being wounded at Weathertop. He recovers quickly, though hurries past Weathertop when they come to it.

They arrive in Bree at the end of October, finding signs of past trouble and The Prancing Pony nearly empty. Butterbur tells them that Bill Ferny and Harry Goatleaf had taken up with strangers, likely letting them through the gates on the night of a fight that killed five members of the town, and that they are all now living as robbers in the woods. They tell Butterbur their news and, with difficulty, convey to him that Strider is now King. Sam is reunited with Bill the pony.

When they leave, Butterbur hints at trouble in the Shire. Gandalf leaves them near the Barrow-downs to have a long talk with Tom Bombadil, telling them that they need no help now. The four hobbits are left alone as at the start of their journey, as though waking from a dream (Merry) or falling back to sleep (Frodo).


I have little to say about this chapter, which is short and transitional. As I noted at the end of last post, we’re back at an inn, and indeed back at the last inn that they had been in. Like the rest of the inns all the way back in Book I (in each of the first three chapters), The Prancing Pony was and is a way to see what the rest of these societies, particularly the more typical inhabitants who don’t go off adventuring, think of recent events.

I’ve just gone and re-read Butterbur’s prior appearances. The principal difference I can see is that he’s more emphatic about insularity, about wanting Bree to be left alone, which is perfectly understandable considering that the majority of newcomers recently killed a bunch of residents and then took up banditry. I think we can presume, however, that the forthcoming new age will restore some balance to people’s attitudes about newcomers.

(We’re not actually told the reason for the fight that killed five people. I imagine the strangers in league with Goatleaf and Ferny wanted to take control of the town as a base of operations, as Bree seems more valuable that way than as a one-time source of loot. There’s also nothing further about the “dark shapes in the woods, dreadful things that it makes the blood run cold to think of”; this implies to me something less ordinary than wolves or Orcs, but what I’m not sure.)

I find it mildly amusing that Gandalf’s power of rekindling hearts is basically ineffective on Butterbur: all his talk of better times bounces right off Butterbur until Sam comes out with the plain statement that Strider is the new King. I don’t think it’s necessary to read this as showing the diminished power of Gandalf’s ring or his shift in role, merely that Butterbur is not the quickest to grasp new ideas or change course. (Though I don’t blame him for being confused about what “chief of the Rangers” implies, considering how long it took for the text to make that clear to readers, back in Fellowship.)

* * *

The opening of this chapter, and the very ending, continue to set up Frodo’s leaving for Valinor. Frodo experiences the first anniversary of one of his major wounds, his stabbing by the Nazgûl, and has this conversation with Gandalf:

‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.

‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’

I think his question indicates that he’s not seriously considering Arwen’s offer yet, because if he was, that would be the obvious answer. So he’s already, before even seeing the Shire, accepting that it may no longer be his home. But he hasn’t taken the next and much more difficult step of accepting that he has no home in Middle-earth now.

* * *

And we also have more setup for the Scouring. No new information, but even clearer signals about what roles the hobbits are going to play in dealing with it. Indeed, the Bree folk see them as “like riders upon errantry out of almost forgotten tales.” Which points up an interesting tension that the Scouring proper will be dealing with, the shiny bright pleasures of horns and swords and righteous butt-kicking, versus the grimy sadness of death and destruction and the fall of Saruman, all the things that can’t be fixed by errantry.

This is where Gandalf leaves them, to go back to the Shire alone as they came out of it—the last of the high-fantasy trappings that they mostly shed last chapter, except of course now they are themselves, in part, high-fantasy trappings. Gandalf says something very peculiar when he leaves them:

‘I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so.’

“Trained for”? That implies a purpose and intent behind their all coming on the journey that—well, it’s not inconsistent with the previously-stated reasons for their presence, but all the same, I find it really weird in a way that I find hard to articulate.

No Bombadil, not even a glimpse. I have a vague memory of someone, possibly Jo Walton, saying something to the effect of the tone having moved on too far, so that even a single “merry dol” would be too much, but I can’t seem to find it. At any rate, for all that I like extended catch-up endings, I am grateful that we don’t detour through Tom and Goldberry’s country and the Barrow-downs again. Waiting even longer for the Scouring would get on my nerves, tone issues aside (and I quite agree with Jo or whoever-it-was).

* * *

Finally, Bill the pony is back. Way back when, Gandalf directed him to “come in time to Elrond’s house, or wherever you wish to go.” He apparently preferred Bree to Rivendell, which is just another way he’s a good match for Sam.

Actual action next time, in the penultimate chapter.

« Return of the King VI.6 | Index

Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.

(still) Steve Morrison
1. (still) Steve Morrison
Rather strange, isn't it, that Bill the Pony would choose Bree over Rivendell, considering how he was treated when he lived there!
I vividly remember how Debbie Ridpath Ohi obsessed over Bill's fate during her read-through of LotR; it was one of the funnier aspects of the blog. (Incidentally, I've compiled a set of direct  links to the Wayback Machine archives of her posts; perhaps it would be a good thing to put them all in one place, somewhere?)
Birgit F
2. birgit
The German radio version ends where Gandalf leaves the hobbits to visit Tom.

They halted and Frodo looked south wistfully. "I should dearly like to see the old fellow again," he said. "I wonder how he is getting on?""As well as ever, you may be sure," said Gandalf. "Quite untroubled; and I should guess, not much interested in anything that we have done or seen, unless perhaps in our visit to the Ents.

(6/VII, Homeward Bound)
(copied from my comment on chapter I.7 )

Like Butterbur, Tom Bombadil shows that not everybody thinks the adventures of the heros were important. Butterbur doesn't care about a distant king until he realizes that he knows him personally and Tom is only interested in the Ents who are probably only a footnote in the official histories of Gondor.
(still) Steve Morrison
3. Dr. Thanatos
There are a lot of fun moments here, especially Butterbur's idea of what makes Strider a king .

Regarding "It's what you were trained for:"

I think this goes back to Gandalf's core mission, which was to rally the Free Peoples to stand up for themselves and fight evil whithout relying on the Valar to pull their fat out of the fire . The hobbitses are now grown and able to take care of themselves.

In addition, I read an essay once which I think has some weight to it that the Fellowship was a social experiment to see if the different races could get along and work together despite the estrangement that Sauron had fostered. Remember how Legolas and Gimli originally were bickering all the time about the old days and what was who's fault? Part of Gandalf's mission may have been to see if the peoples of Middle Earth had overcome their earlier distrust and antagonism and could cooperate and work together, thereby again showing that they didn't need a Higher Power to rescue them; they could work together and rescue themselves. No further need for wizards, Rings, palantir, and all the other "supernatural" forces that are all being removed from the playing field at this time.

Anyway, I think that's what the "you were trained for this task" business is about, and it makes sense in the structure of the classic fairy tale where the hero becomes self-sufficient at the end and doesn't need the Wise Old Man any more...
(still) Steve Morrison
4. pilgrimsoul
Deliberately trained or not the Hobbits have learned a thing or two.
I wanted so much for everything to come out happy and well, and here's where I began to see that for Frodo it wouldn't happen.
Tom Bombadil really belongs to an earlier age--like Gandalf now I guess.
jon meltzer
5. jmeltzer
At the end of this chapter, the copyeditor should have written in big red letters: "Who is Lotho?"

He emerges as a villain in the next chapter and he's appeared exactly once in the story up until now, as a non-speaking walkon.
Cait Glasson
6. CaitieCat
I've always really liked the Scouring, though I mourn for the changes it brings - the trees destroyed, and the hobbits, so long protected from the real world, finding it comes to them in a most unpleasant way. The bit where the lads rally the hobbitry to shoot down all the Shirriff's men was truly awesome, and I read it from time to time just for the sheer YAY! factor.

I remember thinking, when I read this chapter, that Frodo seemed much like my grandfather, a career infantryman who went through all of WWII - he was in France for the fall (evaced with the Highlanders from much further south than Dunquerque), then in North Africa with Monty, Sicily briefly, and then back to England to prepare for D-Day. Thankfully, he didn't go on the day itself, but followed up a couple of days after the invasion - then up through Belgium and Holland alongside the Canadians.

He wouldn't talk much about his war experience; he would share only the funny stories, and none of the ghastly ones. But he had that same haunted look, deep at the back of his eyes, that I imagine in Frodo's eyes here. He passed recently, having lived through all that and making it to 92 years old.

Anyway, that experience, my grandfather's (and I shouldn't ignore - all four of my grandparents served in uniform!), really brought home Frodo's uneasiness here.
Andrew Foss
7. alfoss1540
Regarding "Trained" - an interesting use of words. But Kate answered it also with comments about Bree. Gandalf let it be. Bree would change in the new Kingdom, if only because of more traffic and a renewed interest (new king's "hometown" and all).

But is Bree is sheltered and peculiar, The Shire is off the map. Bree is used to travelers. The Shire, while acknowledging passers through, really are unknown, except in passing stories. The King's new influence will have a profound change on the Shire, even before the Scouring. Aragorn would always want it protected and sheltered. But with the safety of the realm, protection (Rangerwise) will be less necessary. And travel will be more frequent. The Agrarian economy will have to change. Now that the Hobbits have "seen the world", they will be the vanguard of newness to come. Call it "training" or emersion therapy.

Interesting that Gandalf would so obviously point it out.
j p
8. sps49
I always did, and still do, roll my eyes at Frodo's wound anniversaries. Their effects, yes; but on a calendar schedule?

I don't feel that the Hobbits were deliberately "trained" for victory in the Shire; it's really just a fortuitous by-product of the XP they gained over the past year and some months. They are still themselves at the core (except maybe Frodo), just more capable.
Wesley Parish
9. Aladdin_Sane
“dark shapes in the woods, dreadful things that it makes the blood run cold to think of”

I've always thought they were orcs escaping from the defeats of Sauron's northern battles, clearing out of Gundabad, Moria, the goblin place in the high passes in The Hobbit, and other such places - because the places were known to the victors and they wanted somewhere else where they couldn't be tracked down and killed.

You must remember, Butterbur knows practically nothing about anyone else other than the Little Folk - he knows nothing about orcs, nothing about wargs, nothing about trolls, nothing whatever, except the little that gets passed down, twisted, and distorted through the stories and songs ... so a glimpse of a battle-scarred and armoured orc hiding in the woods, glaring hatefully at the meal he can't get because to dine on his "neighbour" out in the open invites reprisals - would make one's blood run cold.
(still) Steve Morrison
10. Dr. Thanatos
And don't forget barrow-wights, trolls, and various other upstanding citizens of the former Angmar...
David Levinson
11. DemetriosX
I'm sure essays and dissertaions have been written on Tolkien's use of these transitional chapters. The decompression that the hobbits have been undergoing is literarily necessary and effective and it fits well into a classic Hero's Journey. But this is the third chapter in a row with essentially no action. Even the first time I read LotR, I was starting to feel a need for the author to get on with it. These days, knowing what's coming that feeling is even greater.

Tolkien does use this chapter to tie up a few minor loose ends. Besides the fate of Bill, we also learn that Gandalf had left a letter for Frodo with Butterbur and it just sort of slipped his mind. So at least Gandalf wasn't completely out of touch back at the beginning. Really the only thing them getting the letter would have changed is the dramatic reveal of Strider, but Tolkien couldn't let Gandalf look so unprepared.

sps49 @8: The calendar thing is perhaps a bit contrived, but a lot of the story here has been calendar driven. From Bilbo's birthday to their long delays in Rivendell to getting Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom on the right date, the calendar has had a strong effect on the story thus far.
(still) Steve Morrison
12. Dr. Thanatos

We actually learned of the letter back in Book I when Butterbur remembered it and gave it to Frodo...
David Levinson
13. DemetriosX
Dr. Thanatos:

Was it back then? I could have sworn there was something in this chapter along those lines. Now that you mention it, though, yes it was in Book I. I must have conflated all of Butterbur getting flustered into one incident.
(still) Steve Morrison
14. pilgrimsoul
Not to worry Demetrios X @13. Merry asks Butterbur if there's another letter he's forgotten.

Being (ahem) a pilgrimsoul I rather like the chapters where they are just moving through the landscape. I love woodland walks--can do without orcs and stuff though.
(still) Steve Morrison
15. Dr. Thanatos

I dunno...sometimes orcs bursting into song can lighten the mood. You remember from South Pacific:

"Uruk Hai may call you, on the winds from the sea
Here we are, we're gonna kill you,
Come to me, come to me"
(still) Steve Morrison
16. Jerry Friedman
Lately I've been finding those dark shapes rather odd. They might be the same beings Aragorn referred to in "The Council of Elrond": "foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly". Well, this comes up in the present chapter in the context of his not being guarded, and they did make his blood run cold (=freeze his heart), but they didn't lay his little town in ruins.

So regardless of refugees from the Misty Mountains, there were deadly enemies a day's march from Bree. I don't think they're Barrow-wights, which don't seem capable of going to Bree and laying it waste. Likewise they're not willow trees. So what are they, and why were they never mentioned when the hobbits were traveling to and from Bree?

Are they connected with the "various dangers" that Aragorn says he and the hobbits will have to choose between after Weathertop? One danger is clearly that if they stay on the Road, they Nazgûl will find them, but the other dangers aren't so clear. I suspect this is just atmosphere and Tolkien had nothing concrete in mind, but I don't know.

On another subject, the winner for Conversation I'd Most Like to Be a Fly on the Wall For is the one between Gandalf and Bombadil. Maybe not here but in an appendix.
(still) Steve Morrison
17. a1ay
I read an essay once which I think has some weight to it that the Fellowship was a social experiment to see if the different races could get along and work together.

That makes sense. Because, by the time the Fleet of Worlds reaches Valinor, the puppeteers can expect to find humans and hobbits and dwarves there ahead of them, so they'll still need to know how they interact.

No, wait, dammit, muddling my mythologies again.
(still) Steve Morrison
18. Dr. Thanatos

If we think of the Valar and Iluvatar as still managing the world, then we might look at what they've learned in the past: that when Men, Elves, and Dwarves were put together, bad things happened The Last Days of Thingol," "Turin: The Manslaughter Indictments" "The Life and Loves of the Black Elf" and "Mim: Who Are These Guys and What Did They Do To My Hill"]. If one were to imagine Someone on high asking "are these people worth saving yet again?" the question might be whether, if put in stressful circumstances, members of the different Children could overcome their tendency to bicker and lay blame for what happened thousands of years ago Legolas and Gimli: The Early Years"] and form bonds of friendship and cooperation Legolas and Gimli: The Final Voyage"].

Or maybe not. Sometimes a story is just a story, but looking for deeper meaning is half the fun...

Speaking of which, I think the Fleet o' Worlds might think twice when they get to Valinor and find out who sold the Outsiders all their neat toys in the first place
Soon Lee
19. SoonLee
“Trained for”?

It evokes "The Shadow of the Past" chapter where Gandalf said that Frodo was "meant" to inherit the Ring, so it's making explicit that there's a larger plan to the events that unfolded. It makes me uncomfortable because of the implication that free will doesn't really exits.

Butterbur: he's the epitomy of an insular character who fears the unknown, so his nervous reactions are in character. It's also a nice contrast to the returning hobbits, who are now quite different to when they first left Hobbiton. "Grown" indeed.

Dr Thanatos @10: I was thinking that too.
(still) Steve Morrison
20. Dr. Thanatos

I don't think this invalidates free will. The Ring was put in a place where Bilbo could find it; what he did with it, including letting pity stay his hand was completely up to him. Fate/Iluvatar/the Arisians have set up circumstances but we still have choices to make that can save us or darn us .
Kate Nepveu
21. katenepveu
(still) Steve Morrison @ #1, I'd say tag them on Delicious but that site's future is uncertain. Maybe a Google Bookmarks list?

birgit @ #2, I can sort of see ending an adaptation there, but I still find it hard to get my head around, especially if they left the hints about trouble in the Shire in?

Dr. Thanatos @ #3, that's a very nice point about the cross-race cooperation embodied in the Fellowship.

pilgrimsoul @ #4, and yet Bombadil stays. Hmm.

jmeltzer @ #5, re: who is Lotho--I know, and calling him "Chief" and "Pimple" doesn't help either.

CaitieCat @ #6, thank you for sharing your story of your grandfather.

alfoss1540 @ #7, and yet aren't we told somewhere that the Shire gets protected status, no humans allowed without permission or maybe even with? I think it's in the Appendices. Which is not to say that your bigger point isn't true, what with the dangers of insularity--except compare the treatment of Ghan-buri-Ghan's people, hmmm, who are also granted full control over their borders, in recognition of their past service and vulnerability.

sps49 @ #8, I had thought that the effect was as much psychological as physical. I suppose magical can't be ruled out, either. And anniversaries make perfect sense in that light.

Aladdin_Sane @ #9, excellent point about Butterbur's limited knowledge of other species, thanks.

DemetriosX @ #11, yes, I would've liked things to move along a bit more here too.

Jerry Friedman @ #16, trolls maybe? Or maybe you're right, it was just atmosphere. (But I think that the protection of the Rangers would probably encompass the main road to Bree from the Shire.)

Soon Lee @ #19, for me it's more the implication that Gandalf was doing, or at least intended, the training, when I'd never had guessed such a thing and when we already had more than sufficient explanations for the hobbits' involvement. If that makes sense.
Bill Reamy
22. BillinHI
a1ay @ 17 & Dr. Thanatos @ 18: ROFL! Niven's Known Space is one of my all-time favorites (can't believe it's been 40 years since Ringworld was published!). LotR is one of only two major fantasies I've read (and re-read), the other being The Wheel of Time, and now I can't even remember how (or exactly when!) I got started with LotR.

As for the Fellowship and the training, I agree that it was an experiment to see if the various peoples of Middle Earth could stand on their own without divine/magical intervention to pull their chestnuts out of the fire.

And with that, I'll leave you with the Hawaiian holiday greeting: Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hauoli Makahiki Hou! (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year)
(still) Steve Morrison
23. EmmaPease
Aladdin_Sane @ #9 Butterbur is also familiar with Dwarves and is among the best informed about the outside world of anyone in Bree or the Shire (which isn't saying much).

I do wonder why there seems to have been no Dwarven traffic. I wouldn't expect any major traffic given the battle at Erebor probably stopped the regular trade, but, surely Erebor sent some messages to the Blue Mountains to explain what happened. And if they did why Butterbur didn't get some info out of them and what happened when they went through the Shire.
Wesley Parish
24. Aladdin_Sane
EmmaPease @23 - valid point. My guess is that the Dwarves generally weren't in the habit of talking to all and sundry, and didn't bother with innkeepers in general anyway.

Speaking (again) about the Rangers' protection of Bree and the Shire - I suppose we could look at the potted history of Arnor in the Appendixes, and consider that Bree has been by and large, spared the infestation of the Barrow-Wights, although it's within a day's-march of them. The Barrow-Wights are identified with Kingdom of Angmar, having infested the territory of one of Arnor's Princedoms, Cardolan, after Angmar crushed it decisively. This would put Bree in the territory of Arthedain, if I remember my Middle-Earth geography correctly.

I suppose one could make the argument that since the Rangers represented the remnants of the Dunedain of Arnor, their presence (in alliance with the Elven enclave of Rivendell) around Bree meant that the Barrow-Wights were confined to the territory that Angamr had conquered and that Arthedain had never reconquered before Angmar destroyed it, albeit indecisively.

And when Sauron arose again in (constrained) power, and the Rangers left to support their chief Aragorn and the southern kingdom of Gondor, the Barrow-Wights were somewhat freer to intrude into the lands around Bree ...

Just a thought ...
(still) Steve Morrison
25. pilgrimsoul
The Hobbits see a line of trees or bushes on their way back to the road after their visit to Bombadil in FOTR. Later JRRT said it marked the boarder of the kingdom. Arthedain, I think.
I wasn't around when the re read did FOTR or I would have said this then. Critics and literati seem to love Bombadil. I just find him annoying.
@Kate I guess Bombadil is staying around because he has his little patch of Middle Earth and a wife and all and because no ring ever had power over him. ??
(still) Steve Morrison
26. Jerry Friedman
Kate @ #21: Trolls seem like a possibility, though it seems odd that Butterbur calls them "dark"—how can people tell at night?—that he calls them "shapes" instead of "trolls" or "giants" or something, and that they stay in the woods instead of stealing crunchable cattle, if no worse. Also, though the hobbits have scary stories about the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs, we don't hear any about any place nearby where there are trolls. But we might not. If they are trolls, I think Tolkien was keeping them mysterious because the Cockney trolls of The Hobbit weren't all that scary.

Yes, it makes sense that the Rangers guard the East Road, but nobody especially worries about going off the Road.

Aladdin_Sane @ #24: That's an interesting point. I always assumed that the Barrow-wights were confined to the barrows and couldn't even walk around on the Barrow-downs, much less get to Bree. The text seems consistent with this, but I don't think there's anything explicit.

pilgrimsoul @ #25: I'd have thought critics and literati would have been the ones who disliked Bombadil the most. The only Tolkien criticism I've read in its entirety was Paul Kocher's book, and he certainly disliked Bombadil's habit of speaking in meter. (Edmund Wilson didn't mention Bombadil at all.)
Cait Glasson
27. CaitieCat
I generally skip the Bombadil bits, from just after the encounter with Old Man Willow to their naked dance on the barrows. I basically treat it like a TV advert: if it were passive entertainment to read a book, I'd be headed for the kitchen for a bit of nosh.

Thus, I'm very glad that Gandalf's post-Third-Age chat with Bombadil is an offstage affair.
Soon Lee
28. SoonLee
Emma Pease @23:

That reminds me of the bit in one of the Appendice where King Aragorn decrees that the Shire is off-limits: what then happens to the its use as a 'trade route'?
(still) Steve Morrison
29. Jerry Friedman
SoonLee @ #28: I've wondered that too. Will Arnor have to reroute the Road? Also, there's an interesting contrast: Aragorn says no non-Wose can enter the Druadan forest without the Woses' leave, but no man can enter the Shire at all. Is he paternalistically worried that the hobbits will let men in who shouldn't be allowed?

On training, I certainly read that line as "You were trained so you could scour the Shire." And to the extent that I thought about it, I thought one of Iluvatar's many purposes was for the hobbits to be ready to solve their problems themselves. However, maybe there's an alternate meaning: "You were trained to act for yourselves, which all of you then had to do during the war, and now you have to do it again."
(still) Steve Morrison
31. Anna_Wing
I'd think that the Shire would be off-limits to Men, but not to Dwarves or Elves, who were pretty much the only people who were using the Road through the Shire anyway. I can see the Shire getting a fair bit richer as the intermediary between the eventually no-longer-empty Eriador and the Elvish lands around the Havens. Especially the Brandybucks. And Bree as well, once the North Kingdom gets going again.
(still) Steve Morrison
32. pilgrimsoul
Have a wonderful December 25. JRRT was a Christian and even if you aren't you can celebrate the day the Fellowship set off on its quest.
(still) Steve Morrison
33. EmmaPease
@31 I could also see the Shire getting poorer. It is likely that as Elves leave the area of Ered Luin forever that men would settle in that area and build harbors (much faster to sail between Arnor and Gondor than travel by land). These men to the west of the Shire would have to build roads around the Shire (which they can't cross) to their kin to the east, north, and south of the Shire. In many cases the trade would follow these new roads and not the old road through the Shire. It might take a few generations, but, it would happen.
Brandy Thomas
34. Roese
#8 In regards to his wounds hurting on a calandar schedule...It makes me think of my mother who always gets a bit depressed on the anniverserys of her parents deaths. Or any number of other people in my family or my in-laws who get sad/moody/reflective on the dates of some major loss or memory in their lives.

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