Reading Middle-earth – Chapter 5: A Conspiracy Unmasked
Frodo and his companions reach Crickhollow, the first refuge of the journey upon crossing the Brandywine river, though it was never intended to be a refuge. Instead it was supposed to be the starting point of the real journey, and the culmination of Frodo’s deception. He meant to slip out of the Shire quietly, but things didn’t unfold according to Frodo’s plan—or Gandalf’s for that matter.
But first, a bath!
First off, after reading this chapter it’s clear to me showers and hot water tanks have dulled the pleasures of a hot bath. Even with my under-appreciation of hot water, I would love to have a friend like Merry race home ahead of me after a long hike to steam up a bath and fry up some bacon and mushrooms. Friends, if you’re reading this, I’m available to be bathed an fed!
“‘A bath!’ cried Pippin. ‘O blessed Meriadoc!’”
No doubt I’ll just have to comfort myself with singing bath songs in the shower.
Friendship: A Manifesto
If relationships within The Lord of the Rings are a beautiful picture of friendship in action, then Chapter 5 is a manifesto for the kind of friendship revealed in later, darker pages.
The conspiracy unmasked in Chapter 5 is the audacity of friendship. Merry, Pippin, and Sam have been spying on Frodo, making their own preparations, and offering the false impression of being totally ignorant of Frodo’s plans. Why? Because they love him. The unmasking of this benevolent conspiracy reminds me how flat modern virtues can be. It’s easier to consider friendship as more a matter of convenience than as a good and beautiful form of love that places certain, informal demands on those in the relationship. Merry’s gradual reveal of the depth of the conspiracy after dinner is an inspiring picture of being invested in someone else’s life: no romance, no duty or obligation, just a faithful, invested presence.
Frodo’s mixture of annoyance and relief upon learning all of this is very true to life. It’s also a welcome reminder of the troublesome discomforts experienced when we’re reminded that we’re not merely individuals. The standard argument would seem to be this: Frodo has a right to his privacy and his friends have violated it.
“‘But I must go,’ said Frodo. ‘It cannot be helped, dear friends. It is wretched for us all, but it is no use your trying to keep me. […] Please help me and do not hinder me!”
Up to this point, Frodo believes his friends mean to stop him from leaving, and so he is surprised by the true goal of their conspiracy. Friendship says “you must go—and therefore we must, too.” But Frodo still isn’t having it; deeply moved as he is, he tries his best to deter them, reminding them he is “flying from deadly peril into deadly peril.”
But they know all about the perils of the Ring, at least as far their knowledge of old, evil tales goes, and will not be denied their friend.
“‘You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin—to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours—closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. […] We are horribly afraid—but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.’”
Sometimes we choose our friends, true, but our friends can also choose us, even against our wishes. It’s a feeling that makes Frodo want to dance for joy, “if the danger were not so dark,” and that’s exactly why he needs his friends.
The Inquisitiveness of Friends
The picture of friendship offered here is rich and full. Who wouldn’t want this kind of friendship in their life? Unfortunately I have to acknowledge that I don’t regularly offer this radically invested friendship.
I fear I may not allow for much inquisitiveness towards my friends because of assumptions I hold about individualism and privacy. I assume, wrongly I think, that people don’t want to be bothered; that they’re tired and just want to watch Netflix and be left alone. I assume this in others because it’s usually what I think I want, but it’s not, not really.
Many of us could probably do with more friendly intrusions, or even invasions. I know I could. After all, we allow devices completely uninvested in our good to invade our time and attention already. Imagine instead if the next knock on your door wasn’t an Amazon delivery, but the first revelation of some benevolent conspiracy? I think that sounds pretty nice, which means I probably ought to show up unannounced somewhere—there’s no better way to give a friend permission to do the same!
Next up is a journey into my favourite haunted woods — Chapter 6: The Old Forest.