Well, there are many of them, aren’t there?  First the missing Gandalf turns up abruptly by Frodo’s sick bed; then we meet Elrond and Arwen; then Gloin; then Bilbo; then Strider under a new name.  It is a chapter of discovering old friends and discovering new things about old friends.  It is a chapter that gives one the impression that something is afoot, and that the impending council is going to be an explosion of discoveries and strange tales.

All this takes place against the backdrop of my favourite place in all literature:  the Last Homely House east of the Sea.  I noticed during this re-reading how little Tolkien actually tells us about the appearance of this house.  Sometimes it seems more like a country manor with a garden, and sometimes more like a Gothic abbey or even an intricate medieval city.  Perhaps this ambiguity is intentional.  Tolkien indulges in very little description of Rivendell, but what he tells us is significant.  Rivendell retains the memory of good things from all the places of Middle Earth, and it reminds each person of what he loves best.  It is “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking.”  It has nooks and crannies and Elves of every stripe.  As Pseudo-Dionysius might have put it, Rivendell is variety in unity and unity in variety.

Along with the peaceful harmony of variety, Rivendell is a place of the peaceful harmony of different orders of beings.  By this I mean Elves (themselves possessing varying degrees of greatness), Men, Hobbits, and even Dwarves.  (Surprisingly, except for occasional references, the old feud between Dwarves and Elves seems to be dropped in the Last Homely House).  There is what might be called a “cordial consent of being to being”* throughout the house of Elrond.  For it is a House and not a Court; and Elrond is a host, and not a king.  The great of the world pass through such a place and rub shoulders with the comparatively insignificant, all with the greatest amiability and enjoyment.  The Elves themselves are sometimes “like kings, terrible and splendid,” while others are “merry as children”—and they coexist with perfect amicability.

There are few incidents in the Lord of the Rings that I love as much as Bilbo, the old Hobbit, requisitioning the appearance of Aragorn, the Heir of Isildur and rightful King of most of Middle Earth, to help him work out a rhyme in a little ditty he is composing for the amusement of the Elves.  And Aragorn comes, not because Bilbo is his equal, but because the two are friends, and greatness and smallness do not matter in a such place.  In much the same way, when Frodo is seated (to his dismay!) at the table of the great during Elrond’s feast, his feelings of smallness vanish as he enters into conversation and enjoyment with his neighbors.

What I am trying to gesture at with these ramblings is something I find foreign to our world and way of thinking.  For there is a hierarchy among the intelligent beings in Middle Earth—not merely a hierarchy of position and personal qualities, such as we find in our own world, but a radical hierarchy of essences and species and internal powers.  Our own modern-day quibbles over the equality of the sexes and the races vanishes like a star in the sun in the world of Middle Earth.  For in Middle Earth, the inequalities between Hobbits and Men and Elves are greater, involving the exercise of immaterial powers over persons of lesser degree—involving even the ability to inhabit a suprasensible world in addition to the sensible one.  Yet in houses like Rivendell, this radical hierarchy does not create envy or oppression among the ranks of beings, but rather concord and mutual respect.  There is dominion without domineering, giving-of-place without fawning, and above all, merriment and good humour in putting up with both one’s betters and inferiors.

After all, at the end of the day, the setting of Rivendell gives us the chance to enjoy what some never enjoy in our own world.  In how many places could such a diversity of ranks and privileges co-exist without perversion and abuse?  Rivendell satisfies our desire that Hobbits should be Hobbits and not Elves; that Elves should be immortal and not Men; that Men too should be what they are—some Kings, some innkeepers, and some children—and that all should enjoy the best that their order offers.

 

*A phrase of Jonathan Edwards’.  Sometimes a Protestant can sound just like a Thomist.

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