[Sorry for the lag for this final post of our magnificent Read-Along for The Hobbit. In Melpomene’s absence, I’m filling in to offer my thoughts on the end to Tolkien’s fairy story.]
The Last Stage
Sing we now softly, and dreams let us weave him!
Wind him in slumber and there let us leave him!
The wanderer sleepeth. Now soft be his pillow!
Lullaby! Lullaby! Alder and Willow!
Sigh no more Pine, till the wind of the morn!
Fall Moon! Dark be the land!
Hush! Hush! Oak, Ash, and Thorn!
Hushed be all water, till dawn is at hand!
So sing the elves in Rivendell, to remind us that even in a world with hardship and grief, death, and gloomy victory, even these shall pass, and dreams may be sweet again, and pillows soft, and water sweet and gentle, and dawn bright and strong.
“Merry is May-time!” said Bilbo, as the rain beat into his face. “But our back is to legends and we are coming home. I suppose this is a first taste of it.”
“There is a long road yet,” said Gandalf.
“But it is the last road,” said Bilbo.
Endings can be difficult things, but few authors can manage a truly comfortable, spot-on, well-earned happy one as well as the Professor. By the end of the previous chapter, all the major conflicts have been resolved, peace has been restored, victory has been celebrated, tragedies have been mourned, and one may wonder what there is left to say. Tolkien could have easily paraphrased a few paragraphs from this chapter and worked them into Chapter 18, and we probably wouldn’t have felt we were missing anything. But Tolkien knew that there were still things yet worth experiencing. Stories are not all conflict and the resolution of conflict, though those are generally the key parts. Just as songs sometimes benefit from a brief reprise of the opening verse at the end, perhaps in a different key, so do stories sometimes need to wind down a bit after the climax has passed, to catch their breath and return to walking speed before they stop for good.
What a simple pleasure it is to join Bilbo and Gandalf on their way back to Hobbiton! While the previous chapter mentions in passing that Bilbo suffered many hardships and adventures on his way home, Chapter 19 picks up as he enters the peaceful lands around Rivendell, and from there onward the road is gentle and the country kind. We catch snatches of their conversation as they walk, and it is the relaxed banter of friends between whom dialogue is welcome, but not necessary, for them to enjoy each others’ company.
This was much as it had been before, except that the company was smaller, and more silent; and also this time there were no trolls.
They pass the places of their old adventures: the trolls, the buried treasure, the border of the Wild. These are quieter now, and just different enough that the events of last year feel much older. Such is often the feeling when we visit again places that once were very important to us. My old high school is a bustling, overfilled place, but when I go to visit it feels quieter to me, because so few of the teachers and staff that I knew have remained. There is noise about, but none of it is meant for me. And if there are trolls there still, they are not the ones I knew.
My favorite part of this chapter is Balin’s surprise visit to Bag End, some years after their adventure. We are all too familiar—in real life as well as in stories—with good-byes that are accompanied by promises to visit, to write, to stay in touch, that are not fulfilled. Yet Tolkien is too wise to let that be the case here. Most of these promises are not kept, but some are, and these are precious, my friends, so very precious. Balin’s visit is not couched under the guise of a new adventure or any ulterior motive. It is simply a visit by an old friend. Well, two old friends, since Gandalf accompanies Balin. The old wizard slips away to secret places often enough, but he always comes back to where he is welcome, and to where he is needed.
And so this Read-Along is at its end, and I hardly know how to express my gratitude to you all for sharing it with me. Your reflections have been wonderful, joyous, thoughtful, serious, funny, melancholy, and giddy, often all at once. My mind and my heart have grown because of you all.
Grant me this small boon, that you read again the final image of The Hobbit: three old friends reminiscing, laughing, enjoying their pasts, their present, and their hopes for their futures. May the Lord bless us all with many such times!