“The Insupportable Weight of Middle-earth”

One of Tolkien’s most felicitous inspirations is to have most of the epic action presented neither directly about nor from the point of view of heroes, but through the eyes of “little people” who have no expectations of starring roles for themselves. Because the action takes place on more than one arena, we need more than one witness — hence, both Pippin and Merry, who have been sucked from a softer, more benign world into the realm of epic warfare. The resulting narrative can sometimes resemble an account of adult activity given by small children: all the grown-ups seem very busy and unsmiling, and it is hard to understand what is going on and why they do what they do. The disadvantage of this kind of narrative is that rhe great warriors can seem as remote and one-dimensional as adults seem to children, but among the many advantages are, first, that the author is absolved from presenting a complex, mysterious figure like Aragorn from Aragorn’s point of view, and second, that the heroes and enemies will all appear radiantly magnified by being seen through a lens of childlike amazement. 

   The tone is set at the very beginning of The Return of the King:

Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf’s cloak. He wondered if he was awake or still sleeping, still in the swift-moving dream in which he had been wrapped so long since the great ride began. (Ch.1, p.15)

The perspective is that of a child being carried by a grownup, and waking up in an unfamiliar world where everyone else is bigger and everything is happening too quickly. Within two sentences the physical wrapping of Gandalf’s cloak has turned into the psychic wrapping of a “swift-moving dream” — but he is “rapt” as well as “wrapped,” transported and enthralled. Pippin’s characteristic mode in the chapters that follow is simple, excited wonder:

Even as Pippin gazed in wonder the walls passed from looming grey to white, blushing faintly in the dawn; and suddenly the sun climbed over the eastern shadow and sent forth a shaft that smote the face of the City. Then Pippin cried aloud, for the Tower of Ecthelion, standing high within the topmost walls’ shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, tall and fair and shapely, and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals; and white banners broke and fluttered from the battlements in the morning breeze’ and high and far he heard a clear ringing as of silver trumpets. (p.23)

Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window. (24)

He is a cheerful extrovert and generally a good, curious observer, but notice how in the second passage there is a double point of view: that of Pippin as he wanders, notices, and conjectures; and that of someone who has heard the footsteps and voices ringing throughout Minas Tirith. It is possible to see this second point of view as “cheating”: Pippin, because of his ignorance, is a clear and trustworthy narrative eye, but Tolkien is worried that such an innocent point of view will not get what lies beneath the surface and therefore supplements it with a secondary voice to make sure that we don’t miss the crucial point — namely, that Minas Tirith is a dying city. 

   His concern about Pippin’s superficiality as a narrator is justified. A little later, we have a telling incident in which Theoden asks Pippin to lighten everyone’s mood by singing songs from the Shire, arguing in the face of the hobbit’s evident reluctance that it is for the sake of the possibility of jollity that they are fighting:  

‘Yes,’ said Pippin. ‘Well, yes, well enough for my own people. But we have no songs fit for great halls and evil times, lord. We seldom sing of anything more terrible than wind or rain. And most of my songs are about things that make us laugh; or about food and drink, of course.’

‘And why should such songs be unfit for my halls, or for such hours as these? We who have lived long under the Shadow may surely listen to echoes from a land untroubled by it? Then we may feel that our vigil was not fruitless, though it may have been thankless.’

Pippin’s heart sank. He did not relish the idea of singing any song of the Shire to the Lord of Minas Tirith, certainly not the comic ones that he knew best; they were too, well, rustic for such an occasion. He was however spared the ordeal for the present. He was not commanded to sing. Denethor turned to Gandalf, asking questions about the Rohirrim and their policies, and the position of Éomer, the king’s nephew. Pippin marvelled at the amount that the Lord seemed to know about a people that lived far away, though it must, he thought, be many years since Denethor himself had ridden abroad. (79-80)

Pippin only feels a puzzling reluctance but does not pause to inquire into it: could it be that he is refusing to expose something dear to his heart before the eyes and ears of a king whom he is actually growing to fear and dislike? — that there is something about Denethor, and everything he stands for, that goes against song and laughter, two essential elements of a good life? — that there is something evil about the king to whom he has pledged allegiance? It takes just one sentence to pass from Pippin’s unease to his usual reaction: Pippin marvelled at the amount that the Lord seemed to know about a people that lived far away, though it must, he thought, be many years since Denethor himself had ridden abroad. The airy swiftness of the transition is key to understanding Pippin’s blithe resilience: it is his shallowness that protects him from trauma, but it causes Denethor to underestimate him and therefore allows him to be the main agent in the saving of Faramir. 

   Merry is almost the opposite of Pippin. Coming across throughout the books as the most perceptive and quick-minded of the hobbits, he is more introverted than Pippin, and somewhat more wistful, even despondent. He tends to perceive not only the outward features of his surroundings, but also the emotional overtones:

Merry looked out in wonder upon this strange country, of which he had heard many tales upon their long road. It was a skyless world, in which his eye; through dim gulfs of shadowy air, saw only ever-mounting slopes, great walls of stone behind great walls, and frowning precipices wreathed with mist. He sat for a moment half dreaming, listening to the noise of water, the whisper of dark trees, the crack of stone, and the vast waiting silence that brooded behind all sound. He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire. (Ch.3, p.64)

It is remarkable how these particular mountains make him feel the weight of the entire world — not just its magnitude, but its seriousness, its labor, and its suffering. He has the sensibility of a poet, and his somewhat dreamy nature makes him less observant than Pippin of his immediate surroundings — which is why Tolkien feels the need to supply a secondary point of view and point out what Merry isn’t aware of:

He was very tired, for though they had ridden slowly, they had ridden with very little rest. Hour after hour for nearly three weary days he had jogged up and down, over passes, and through long dales, and across many streams. Sometimes where the way was broader he had ridden at the king’s side, not noticing that many of the Riders smiled to see the two together: the hobbit on his little shaggy grey pony, and the Lord of Rohan on his great white horse. Then he had talked to Théoden, telling him about his home and the doings of the Shire-folk, or listening in turn to tales of the Mark and its mighty men of old. But most of the time, especially on this last day, Merry had ridden by himself just behind the king, saying nothing, and trying to understand the slow sonorous speech of Rohan that he heard the men behind him using. It was a language in which there seemed to be many words that he knew, though spoken more richly and strongly than in the Shire, yet he could not piece the words together. At times some Rider would lift up his clear voice in stirring song, and Merry felt his heart leap, though he did not know what it was about.

All the same he had been lonely, and never more so than now at the day’s end. He wondered where in all this strange world Pippin had got to; and what would become of Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli. Then suddenly like a cold touch on his heart he thought of Frodo and Sam. ‘I am forgetting them!’ he said to himself reproachfully. ‘And yet they are more important than all the rest of us. And I came to help them; but now they must be hundreds of miles away, if they are still alive.’ He shivered. (64-65)

In this instance the secondary eye is quite effective: a single mention of Merry’s failure to notice how he is seen by others makes us realize just how self-absorbed and inward-turning he is. Less exuberantly “present” than Pippin, he questions more within himself, and is poignantly aware of his own ignorance about the fates of absent friends. Even when he observes features of landscape or architecture, there is always a surprising melancholy shading to his vision:

Merry wondered how many Riders there were. He could not guess their number in the gathering gloom, but it looked to him like a great army, many thousands strong. While he was peering from side to side the king’s party came up under the looming cliff on the eastern side of the valley; and there suddenly the path began to climb, and Merry looked up in amazement. He was on a road the like of which he had never seen before, a great work of men’s hands in years beyond the reach of song. Upwards it wound, coiling like a snake, boring its way across the sheer slope of rock. Steep as a stair, it looped backwards and forwards as it climbed. Up it horses could walk, and wains could be slowly hauled; but no enemy could come that way, except out of the air, if it was defended from above. At each turn of the road there were great standing stones that had been carved in the likeness of men, huge and clumsy-limbed, squatting cross-legged with their stumpy arms folded on fat bellies. Some in the wearing of the years had lost all features save the dark holes of their eyes that still stared sadly at the passers-by. The Riders hardly glanced at them. The Púkel-men they called them, and heeded them little: no power or terror was left in them; but Merry gazed at them with wonder and a feeling almost of pity, as they loomed up mournfully in the dusk. (67)

Who but Merry would have picked up on the pitifulness of the Púkel-men — that they are little heeded, unremarked, final vestiges of a perished civilization that are now not much more than decorative rocks, and that if they were conscious would envy the passers-by for their life and motion? The most beautiful thing about this description is the word almost: what Merry feels is not exactly pity but almost pity, because he knows they are rocks, and because the pitifulness of a forgotten civilization is qualified by the wonder that so much devotion should have gone into the working of this structure. He has the heart of a poet, but he is no Romantic sentimentalist. 

   His sensitivity gives him an instant rapport with Eowyn, who would not have had any affinity with Pippin:

But when they had come almost to the end of the line one looked up glancing keenly at the hobbit. A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death. (76)

Not only does Merry notice the affect of a passing facial expression, but it moves him. As with the mountains and the Púkel-men, here is no distance betwwen Merry’s eyes and his heart: what he sees moves him immediately and deeply. It is not surprising then that the battle of the Pelennor fields would end up breaking one so sensitive, plunging him into a permanent nightmare from which an awakening would be impossible by any natural means:

So Théoden and Éowyn came to the City of Gondor, and all who saw them bared their heads and bowed; and they passed through the ash and fume of the burned circle, and went on and up along the streets of stone. To Merry the ascent seemed agelong, a meaningless journey in a hateful dream, going on and on to some dim ending that memory cannot seize.

Slowly the lights of the torches in front of him flickered and went out, and he was walking in a darkness; and he thought: ‘This is a tunnel leading to a tomb; there we shall stay forever.’ But suddenly into his dream there fell a living voice.

‘Well, Merry! Thank goodness I have found you!’

He looked up and the mist before his eyes cleared a little. There was Pippin! They were face to face in a narrow lane, and but for themselves it was empty. He rubbed his eyes.

‘Where is the king?’ he said. ‘And Éowyn?’ Then he stumbled and sat down on a doorstep and began to weep again. (134)

He has witnessed the death of his king and the apparent death of Eowyn, and has seen from close up “the Nazgul lord like a shadow of despair,” the sworn enemy of all nobility and brightness. Merry’s wound is not physical; an essential part of him died with Theoden and Eowyn, and the remaining part no longer has any interest in life and light. Pippin’s finding of him is one of the most beautiful moments in the book, for it is really only Pippin, in his kind and sparkling cheerfulness, who can soothe Merry in his darkness: 

‘I’d better wait here,’ thought Pippin. So he let Merry sink gently down on to the pavement in a patch of sunlight, and then he sat down beside him, laying Merry’s head in his lap. He felt his body and limbs gently, and took his friend’s hands in his own. The right hand felt icy to the touch. (135)

The intertwining of the two old friends is a powerful image: needing each other to be  complete, they are two polar halves of one being, not always comprehending each other but always at ease when they have found each other. Tolkien’s creation of two such characters as different filters for the epic action is a stroke of genius: the glum decay of Gondor is appropriately filtered through the perky Pippin, while Rohan’s ecstatic warriorhood and Eowyn’s sad yearning can be met and sounded by Merry’s soulful intelligence. 

   In the end, the two hobbits return to earth in a practical conversation about food and tobacco. Pippin — ever mercurial in his moods, able to shift from heroic to comic in a heartbeat — acknowledges his lack of epic stamina:

‘Come on now! Longbottom Leaf it is. Fill up while I run and see about some food. And then let’s be easy for a bit. Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can’t live long on the heights.’

It takes Merry, however, to deepen this into a simple but profound self-reflection: 

‘No,’ said Merry. ‘I can’t. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little. But I don’t know why I am talking like this. Where is that leaf? And get my pipe out of my pack, if it isn’t broken.’  (146-47)

Hobbits will be hobbits, but the depth of their roots in hobbithood means that they can never be knights of Gondor or Rohan but they can recognize and admire this other way of being — and know that it is out there somewhere. Because they are settled in their natures as hobbits, there is no regret for not being something else. When we know who we are, we do not struggle with ourselves because we are not different — just as a cat will not want to be a dog. But knowing and accepting our own nature is also the gateway to sincere admiration of another nature, which we are not necessarily able to become. Merry, in his big heart and ever penetrating intelligence, is capable of seeing both the transcendent allure of warriorhood and also its bottomless mystery. So are we all when our hearts become intelligent about the difficult Other whom we love. G.K.Chesterton expressed it like this in another context: “It will generally be found, I think, that the more a man really appreciates and admires the soul of another people the less he will attempt to imitate it; he will be conscious that there is something in it too deep and too unmanageable to imitate.”


One thought on ““The Insupportable Weight of Middle-earth”

  1. Krishnan,

    I am still wondering what is the ‘unsupportable weight’ of Middles Earth!

    I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was in my late teens (pre-University). You are absolutely right if we take as an analogy the keel as supporting the weight of a ship , then the ‘weight’ in gold of The Lord of the Rings is found in these little people of the Hobbits – Frodo Baggins and his companions. The ‘weight’ in gold comes through seeing the epic adventure through their eyes (of metaphorically – ‘little people’). Without these Hobbit intrepid travellers as the main sojourners, we would have been left with an ubiquitous mundane adult adventure thriller, but instead we got (and continue to be, on later readings) enthralled (through and by the Hobbits) and got an eternal childhood fantasy and fairy tale. This success of a similar ‘childhood’ genre is replicated in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

    As Maurice Chevalier sang – ‘Thank God for little girls (children)’.


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