Roots

Since I’ve already departed from my original plan by not posting in a while, I’m going to postpone the completion of my series on Desiring the Kingdom and write a tangentially related ramble of a piece.

For Christmas I received a few nice additions to my library, among them an anthology of essays entitled Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America.  (A review of this is at Fare Forward.) The goal of this collection is to give an apologia for “place” (i.e. a particular location with a particular culture) and rootedness. Unfortunately, modern America’s obsession with mobility and autonomy means having a strong sense of place and rootedness is seen as an oppressive burden, rather than a pillar of human flourishing. Though I have not finished reading the volume, I believe it will be a help to those of us who understand the danger of that sentiment and see the necessity of reestablishing our roots and revitalizing our places.

Indeed, it has already been a help to me. After reading a few of the first essays last night, I woke up this morning and read the first three chapters of Ecclesiastes. Verse 11 of the first chapter says, “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” Given that I had just been reading an essay on how we’ve largely lost our places and that I’ve been thinking about Evangelicals’ lack of respect for church tradition, this verse leapt at me from the page. (The aforementioned circumstances, and the fact that it is an overcast, rainy day, also put me in a melancholy mood.)

My thoughts centered around questions like: “What is the relationship between our rootlessness and our forgetfulness? Will a rootless people be able to stand for goodness or truth, or will they be tossed about by every cultural wave that breaks against them?”

I’ll put my cards on the table: I think losing our roots in a place will mean losing our cultural memory, and a rootless people will not have the strength of character to stand up to evil and falsehood. In this post I’ll mainly be addressing the latter concern, and in order to begin making the case that love for a particular place is a necessary trait for a person who would stand for the good, the true, and the beautiful,  I turn to The Lord of the Rings.

In this grand epic, Tolkien addresses the importance of place and rootedness with his characteristic depth of insight. The story is, hopefully, familiar. Bilbo Baggins finds a magic ring that turns out to be the One Ring, the Dark Lord Sauron’s terrible weapon. Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, inherits the Ring and must set out for Mount Doom on a quest to destroy it. He is joined by a menagerie of companions: three hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard. At a point on the journey, this Fellowship is split, and each smaller company must continue to do its part to defeat Sauron and save what they love.

Those things that they love are what keep the members of the Fellowship resolved to fight in the face of certain death. What is that they love so much that death is not too high a price to pay for its preservation? Well:

Though this exact scene is not in the book, it is certainly in the spirit of Tolkien’s thought. I imagine the following excerpt from The Return of the King served to inspire the cinematic adaptation:

‘So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,’ thought Sam: ‘to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it. But I would dearly like to see Bywater again, and Rosie Cotton and her brothers, and the Gaffer and Marigold and all. I can’t think somehow that Gandalf would have sent Mr. Frodo on this errand, if there hadn’t a’ been any hope of his ever coming back at all. Things went all wrong when he went down in Moria. I wish he hadn’t. He would have done something.’

But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.

At one of the most difficult parts of the journey, when Frodo is weakened by the trials through which he has gone to the point where he can’t even walk, Sam finds the strength to continue, both for himself and for Frodo. Sam’s manner of doing so may seem strange to modern ears, but it springs from an ancient well of wisdom. He doesn’t turn to abstract principles of Right, or Good, or Liberty, as important as those are. Rather, he relies on his memories of particular places and humble happenings which embody those grand ideas.

For Sam and Frodo (and Merry and Pippin), those places are the lands of the Shire. It is their love of the Shire, with its quaint, little people and quaint, quiet ways, that leads them to dare great deeds. Blossoming orchards, Rosie Cotton, fields of summer barley, Bywater, and strawberries and cream are the memories to which Sam turns to stave off fear and weariness. Nearer the beginning of their journey, Frodo relied on similar recollections to get him through tough times. It’s notable that, as Frodo’s memory of his home is clouded by visions of the Eye, he becomes unable to complete his task alone. He must be carried by one who remains spiritually connected to the Shire.

To briefly address the other members of the Fellowship, though the scope may differ, they are driven by comparable affections: Legolas for woodland realms, Gimli for stone halls, Boromir for shining towers. Aragorn and, even more so, Gandalf certainly have a greater number of particular places in mind, but they are still particular places. Attachment to a particular place is what Saruman is mocking when he tells Gandalf that “love of the Halfling’s leaf” has clouded his judgment. More could be about these characters on this subject, but I’ll leave it there for now.

To reiterate and conclude: rootedness in a place, while perhaps not essential in an absolute sense, is yet an important trait for one who would be good, true, and beautiful. This theme runs throughout J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, coming through especially strong in the person of Samwise Gamgee.  In subsequent posts I’ll attempt to explain more fully why I think that in order to be as true a friend as Sam we must give up our attachment to mobility and settle down in our places.

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