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.
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.
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.