“Inside Bag End, Bilbo and Gandalf were sitting at the open window of a small room looking out west onto the garden. The late afternoon was bright and peaceful. The flowers glowed red and golden: snap-dragons and sunflowers, and nasturtiums trailing all over the turf walls and peeping in at the round windows.”
—The Fellowship of the Ring
“How bright your garden looks!” Gandalf tells Bilbo in the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring. Indeed, the whole chapter has been bright with planning and anticipation for a great celebration, and the Shire glows verdant with meadows and trees. It isn’t popular to start or finish stories with such happiness these days. A ready eye to life’s darker realities is the thing. (I don’t necessarily disagree.) And J. R. R. Tolkien, along with C. S. Lewis, are fast falling out of fashion, partly because of overuse (Give us new Christian writers to read!), partly because of this penchant of theirs: telling stories that come full-circle, and that keep their eye on hope and beauty all the way ’round to the end. Postmoderns cringe, alongside a growing number of Christian writers who want to make sure the grim realities that the gospel addresses get told. (Again, I don’t disagree.)
But don’t let’s forget that when Gandalf praises Bilbo’s flowers, this particular tale—Frodo’s tale, at least—is only at its beginning. The battle for Middle Earth has not yet begun in earnest; it certainly hasn’t reached the round windows or doors of Bilbo’s beloved home, Bag End. Gandalf, sitting by Bilbo’s sunny window, knows a broader reality, a tale more akin to those we hear later from Tom Bombadil about dying kingdoms spanning the warring centuries. “How bright your garden looks.” How can he say such a thing? Gandalf, as it turns out, is not merely commenting on the greenery outside the hobbit hole; his words bear the weight of all that Tolkien had seen.
And J. R. R. Tolkien had seen a darker side of things. So had C. S. Lewis. Both men had been to war. Both, in fact, saw front line action, Tolkien in the earliest, most horrifying days of the Battle of the Somme, and Lewis a year later in the same region. (It would be a solid eight years before they actually met each other, at an Oxford University faculty meeting.) Lewis was wounded, Tolkien sent home with trench fever. Though Lewis later described his experiences in most grueling and gruesome terms, he also claimed he never thought much about his time in the war, that it hadn’t left lasting memories with him. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, he can hardly speak of battle training or combat without veering into happier tangents about books, friends, or imaginative fancies. The horrors of his time in France are “cut off from the rest of [his] experience” and are “even in a way unimportant.” I disagree. (So does Joseph Loconte for the length of an entire, excellent book. And even Lewis contradicts himself mightily, relievedly, about this in his letters.)
Tolkien never made such a claim. His response to his own time in the trenches of World War I is more definitive, and more definitively negative. In a letter years later to his son Michael, who was enlisted during World War II, Tolkien had certainly not forgotten the suffering and bitterness of the previous war—“One war is enough for any man”—and laments the start of a second. No, Tolkien’s dubious denial about his war experience concerns his fiction: “Personally I do not think that either war had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding. Perhaps in landscape.” Ah. The landscape. He means, of course, settings like Helms Deep, the Pellenor Fields, the Middle Earth fighting grounds that reflect the grimy trenches and bleak battlefields he’d actually seen. But there is that other type of landscape even more pervasive in Tolkien’s books, a brighter one. And it begins with Bilbo’s garden.
Bilbo’s garden offers a glimpse into the world as it once was, and as it might be again—a reminder of the ordinary things the hobbits set out to save, and of the homely things they are ultimately saved unto, in all their potential nearness and glory.Rebecca D. Martin
Bilbo’s garden. Both Lewis and Tolkien approved the value of green spaces and growing things, and both men abhorred their opposite: the ugly machinery of industrialization and purported “progress.” Also, both men were walkers, amblers and observers of the English countryside and of Oxford’s own green meadows and tree-lined college pathways. They were also both medieval scholars, and medieval literature is rife with gardens in a multitude of meanings. For the medievalist Tolkien, as for Bilbo, the garden is a place set apart, separate from the world and its concerns. And it is a common space within the world, too, through which enter friends, family, and even the unbidden stranger. Which means it is also the space through which the adventurer must pass in order to leave home and enter the wide world. Frodo “turned and (following Bilbo, if he had known it) hurried after Peregrin down the garden path.” But along the road, his gate and garden remain ever before his mind’s eye, representing the highest of hopes: returning home. “Then world behind and home ahead / We’ll wander back to home and bed.” In short, Bilbo’s garden offers a glimpse into the world as it once was, and as it might be again—a reminder of the ordinary things the hobbits set out to save, and of the homely things they are ultimately saved unto, in all their potential nearness and glory.
For C. S. Lewis, the idea of a garden is the very beginning of imagination. He describes the mossy garden of a biscuit tin lid that his brother, as a young child, had once brought in from outside and decorated: “That was the first beauty I ever knew.” The garden is also, for Lewis, a place of ultimate glorification, an end goal that hearkens back to a perfect beginning. (Think of the Pevensie children in The Last Battle, running up mountain after mountain to reach a hilltop garden again and again that is, each time, more vibrant and real than before.) Tolkien brought the concept full-circle, too: garden was both beginning and end. Here in the opening pages of The Lord of the Rings is Gandalf’s high praise of Bilbo’s yard. And in the very, very end, Sam returns through the same garden’s gate to “yellow light, and fire within,” from garden to garden, from home back to home. “There and back again.” Could this be the trajectory of our own lives’ stories, whatever happens in between, whatever horrors we must walk through to get from start to finish? Tolkien hoped so.
Because in the end, it isn’t actually Bilbo’s garden, is it? Some go so far as to say that this isn’t Frodo’s or even Bilbo’s story. Some (including Tolkien) propose that the story ultimately belongs to Sam, who is the faithful gardener. We often think of the ent Treebeard as voicing Tolkien’s clearest statement on the earth and trees and growing things; we hear him in the film version of the story, booming out against Saruman’s environmental destruction: “Gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning!” But Sam Gamgee’s actions resonate louder than any words when he returns from Mordor to quietly, diligently plant grains of Galadriel’s dust. He scatters the contents of her box to flourish the trees and flowers and gardens of the Shire till his homeland is more beautiful, more heavenly, and more distinctly home, than it ever was before.
Some readers have accused Bilbo (and hobbits in general) of excessive pining for home. “He wished again and again for his nice bright hobbit-hole. Not for the last time.” But this is neither naiveté nor, worse, denial on the part of the hobbits. Theirs is a poignant response to the gritty actualities of life. So it is that Tolkien, in his fiction, did not stay as quiet on his war experience as he claims. Nor did Lewis remain unaffected. Both men had been up to their necks in mud, grime, and far worse. Bleakness and gunfire, fear and death. In Lewis’s words, both men had seen “the frights, the cold, the smell . . . , the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, . . . the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass.” And what did they return home to write about? Narnia, of all things. The Shire, and the reclamation of Middle Earth.
For the poet T. S. Eliot—a contemporary of Tolkien and Lewis, though not one of their writerly circle—“the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was the beginning.” In the beginning was a garden. In the beginning of Bilbo’s story is a window overlooking the yard at Bag End. “How bright your garden looks!” This is not empty chatter. Against the blackest smoke of Mordor, through the awful memory of world wars, despite the darkest pain and loss in bleak everyday life, how bright home shines: the green garden; the ordinary, safe space behind gate and door; the community that peoples our days; the affirmation and hope of bettered things to come.
Upon returning from his big adventure in The Hobbit, years before Frodo sets out with the Ring, Bilbo catches sight of “his own Hill in the distance.” He stands still to take it all in, and he waxes poetic:
“Eyes that fire and sword have seen
and horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.”
There, also, stand Lewis and Tolkien, one in Narnia, one in the Shire, with all their knowledge of war and worse. Their gaze is toward home, and they are commenting, as it were, on Bilbo’s garden. In literature, as in life, there are worse places to set off from, and there couldn’t be a better place to fight for, and to arrive at in the end.