The hobbits have their first taste of homecoming as they enter the Breeland, and it’s not quite what they expected (in more ways than one).
‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.
‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’
‘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. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
Gandalf did not answer.
Frodo’s the most scarred by his adventures, and he never really had deep roots in the Shire to begin with. Bilbo was the one who made it home for him, and he’s not there anymore – not to mention that he sold Bag End before he left. He never expected to return.
But when they reach Bree, it becomes abundantly clear that they’re not the only ones who’ve changed in the intervening year – the land itself has grown unfriendly.
‘Mr. Butterbur! Master!’ he shouted. ‘They’ve come back!’
‘Oh have they? I’ll learn them,’ came Butterbur’s voice, and out he came with a rush, and he had a club in his hand. But when he saw who they were he stopped short, and the black scowl on his face changed to wonder and delight.
‘Nob, you woolly-pated ninny!’ he cried. ‘Can’t you give old friends their names? You shouldn’t go scaring me like that, with times as they are. Well, well! and where have you come from? I never expected to see any of you folk again, and that’s a fact: going off into the Wild with that Strider, and all those Black Men about. But I’m right glad to see you, and none more than Gandalf.’
Butterbur lets us know that the events down south had repercussions up north, too – remember how the Dúnedain came down to help Aragorn? Well, it’s not like they’d been hanging around doing nothing up til then.
‘For there’s been worse than robbers about. Wolves were howling round the fences last winter. And there’s dark shapes in the woods, dreadful things that it makes the blood run cold to think of. It’s been very disturbing, if you understand me.’
‘I expect it has,’ said Gandalf. ‘Nearly all lands have been disturbed these days, very disturbed. But cheer up, Barliman! You have been on the edge of very great troubles, and I am only glad to hear that you have not been deeper in. But better times are coming.’
The most immediate danger, however, came from violent “foreigners” who evidently formed gangs of ruffians, threatening people, starting fights, and generally causing trouble and making Bree dangerous. Because of course it’s all the fault of the immigrants (plus a few local bad apples like Bill Ferny).
I do appreciate that there are consequences to leaving the North defenseless, but I wish Tolkien hadn’t felt the need to demonize immigrants (who are, as I mentioned before, war refugees). Sure, he mentions that “some” of them were peaceful and just wanted to escape violence, but again, most of them are characterized as troublemakers and ruffians, if not downright outlaws. And we never seem to meet any of these peaceful refugees…
Anyhow, it turns out that Butterbur does have one bit of good news for them.
‘Nob!’ he said to himself, slapping his forehead. ‘Now what does that remind me of?’
‘Not another letter you’ve forgotten, I hope, Mr. Butterbur?’ said Merry.
‘Now, now, Mr. Brandybuck, don’t go reminding me of that! But there, you’ve broken my thought. Now where was I? Nob, stables, ah! that was it. I’ve something that belongs to you. If you recollect Bill Ferny and the horsethieving: his pony as you bought, well, it’s here. Come back all of itself, it did. But where it had been to you know better than me.’
And of course Sam won’t rest until he’s greeted Bill and I think his happiness is complete.
They stay another day or so at the inn, partly to oblige Mr. Butterbur (since not only do the strange travellers pique the interest of the locals and convince many to visit the inn, but they’re confident and imposing enough to scare off the ruffians), and partly to announce the return of the King (as skeptical as the Breefolk are of “Strider” becoming king).
The Bree folk were all out to see them off, and were in merrier mood than they had been for a year; and those who had not seen the strangers in all their gear before gaped with wonder at them: at Gandalf with his white beard, and the light that seemed to gleam from him, as if his blue mantle was only a cloud over sunshine; and at the four hobbits like riders upon errantry out of almost forgotten tales. Even those who had laughed at all the talk of the King began to think there might be some truth in it.
‘Well, good luck on your road, and good luck to your homecoming!’ said Mr. Butterbur. ‘I should have warned you before that all’s not well in the Shire neither, if what we hear is true. Funny goings on, they say. But one thing drives out another, and I was full of my own troubles. But if I may be so bold, you’ve come back changed from your travels, and you look now like folk as can deal with troubles out of hand. I don’t doubt you’ll soon set all to rights.’
You remember how Elrond originally wanted to send Merry and Pippin back to the Shire to warn them of some danger? Looks like he may have been on to something…
‘I wonder what old Barliman was hinting at,’ said Frodo.
‘I can guess some of it,’ said Sam gloomily. ‘What I saw in the Mirror: trees cut down and all, and my old gaffer turned out of the Row. I ought to have hurried back quicker.’
‘And something’s wrong with the Southfarthing evidently,’ said Merry. ‘There’s a general shortage of pipe-weed.’
‘Whatever it is,’ said Pippin, ‘Lotho [Sackville-Baggins] will be at the bottom of it: you can be sure of that.’
‘Deep in, but not at the bottom,’ said Gandalf. ‘You have forgotten Saruman. He began to take an interest in the Shire before Morder did. […] I am with you at present, […] but soon I shall not be. 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. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’
He parts from them to have a nice long chat with Tom Bombadil (a chat such as only a wizard and an immortal being of capabilities known only to himself, if at all, could have). There’s no doubt that our Conspirators will be able to take care of things in the Shire, but the big question is what might be lost in the process (or what may already be gone forever). In that sense, their predicament is not unlike that of the Elves, just on a much smaller scale. In destroying a great evil, they exposed their home to a lesser (but still not inconsequential) evil, and now they need to deal with those consequences.
‘Well, here we are, just the four of us that started out together,’ said Merry. ‘We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.’
‘Not to me,’ said Frodo. ‘To me it feels more like falling asleep again.’
Next time: The Scouring of the Shire