This is usually where I stop when I do “light” reading of The Lord of the Rings. As I mentioned in the post for Chapter 3: “Three is Company”, the beginning of Fellowship is my favourite part of the story (followed closely by the rest of it) and “Many Meetings” is an effective epilogue for the first leg of the journey. Frodo is alive (hooray!), reunited with Gandalf, and his wish to see Bilbo again is granted.
But “Many Meetings” does double duty as both an ending to Book 1 and the beginning of Book 2. The hobbits are safe for now surrounded by the mountains and the wise but they can’t stay in Rivendell forever; Sauron will come for the Ring. Yet the hobbits believe their adventure is over! Frodo and his friends have already faced the greatest dangers and wonders of their lives so far and Rivendell, it seems, is their reward.
Hospitality as Preparation
As far as Frodo is concerned his task is over. He has delivered the Ring to safest place in Middle-earth and only just survived the ordeal. With nearly half a book in hand, readers know Elrond’s house is only a way-station along the length of the quest, but for the hobbits it is their refuge and their reward—for now.
Rivendell is called “the last homely house” and for the hobbits it’s also a wonder; never have they been guests in such a house. Sam describes it as “a big house” and “very peculiar.” He tells Frodo there is “always a bit more to discover, and no knowing what you’ll find around a corner”, echoing Tolkien’s own preoccupation with the wonder of discovery. The elves themselves are described by Sam “like kings, terrible and splendid” but also “merry as children.” There is no contradiction in Rivendell; the wise sing songs, feasts are necessary, and merrymaking is serious business. Whenever I read about Tolkien’s elves I can’t help but think that our obsession with utility and production is the particular disease of mortals.
When the hobbits are “summoned to the hall by the ringing of many bells” for a feast, Frodo feels small and out of place among his great, and beautiful hosts “but that feeling quickly passed.” This is the particular power of hospitality: it both lifts up and lowers, everyone sits level at the table. Sam, who asks to wait on Frodo, has his request refused in order to bestow a greater honour on him. Sam the servant is served in the house of Elrond.
This hospitality is just a taste; a good thing to be enjoyed and offered whenever possible because of the inhospitable condition of the world. After the feast (which involved as much talking as eating), Frodo is joyfully reunited with Bilbo during the post-supper songs, though a shadow falls on their meeting. Bilbo recognizes the power of the Ring and its weight; he offers an apology and a prophecy to Frodo:
“’I understand now,’ he said. ‘Put it away! I am sorry: sorry you have come in for this burden: sorry about everything. Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.’”
Frodo doesn’t know it yet but his role in the story has only just begun, and his rest in Rivendell is not his reward; it is making him ready. The abundance and comfort (and welcome) of Rivendell allows Frodo to glimpse the beatific beauty of the elves and this glimpse offers him the opportunity and space to draw deeply from his own nature:
“They spoke no more of the small news of the Shire far away, nor of the dark shadows and perils that encompassed them, but of the fair things they had seen in the world together, of the Elves, of the stars, of trees, and the gentle fall of the bright year in the woods.”
In an unrestful world, simple acts of hospitality offer a temporary reprieve from the demands of living; guests and hosts alike are revitalized around the table. The serious business of merrymaking is preparation for the dangerous business of stepping out the front door.
Book 2, Chapter 2: The Council of Elrond is famous for being 50 pages of exposition and a lesson in what not to do when writing a novel. Like most things people hate about The Lord of the Rings, I actually love this chapter, and I’ll do my best to explain why. I get it—it’s very long, nothing actually happens, and it’s mostly reported speech—just stick with me.