“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, J. R. R. Tolkien)
“How bright your garden looks!” Gandalf tells Bilbo in the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring. Indeed, the whole chapter shines with celebration planning and anticipation, 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. Writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, along with contemporary C. S. Lewis, are fast falling out of fashion, partly because of overuse in some circles (give us new writers of faith to read!), partly because of their penchant for telling stories that come fully round and that keep their eye on hope and beauty up to the end. Postmoderns cringe, alongside any number of us who have felt the blows life can deliver, who have seen a friend die, had a rotten time trying to make the bank account cover expenses, or watched as the twin towers fell.
Bilbo’s garden offers a glimpse into the world as it once was, and as it might be again. It is 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.“How bright your garden looks.” How can Gandalf say such a thing? When he praises Bilbo’s flowers, the battle for Middle Earth has not yet reached the round windows and doors of the hobbit’s beloved home, Bag End. But the old wizard, sitting by the 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. Gandalf, as it turns out, is not turning a blind eye to the world’s ills. Nor is he merely commenting on the greenery outside the hobbit hole; his words bear the weight of all that he, like his creator Tolkien, has seen.
And Tolkien had seen the darker side of things. So had Lewis. It’s easy to forget that both men had been to war. Both, in fact, saw front line action at the Somme, Tolkien in 1916 and Lewis a year later. Lewis was wounded, Tolkien sent home with trench fever. Lewis later claimed he never thought much about his time in the war, that it hadn’t left a lasting impression upon him. In his autobiography, he can hardly speak of training and fighting without veering into happier tangents about books, friends, or imaginative fancies. The horrors of his time in France, he says in Surprised by Joy, are “in a way unimportant.”
Tolkien never made such a claim. His response to the trenches is more definitive, and more definitively negative. In a letter years later to his son Michael, who was enlisted during World War II, Tolkien shows he has 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. Still, Tolkien denies the war had much impact on his fiction, either on its conflict or structure. The only concession he makes to its effect is “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.
“How bright your garden looks!” 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 scholars of medieval literature, whose texts are rife with gardens of 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. It is 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. In Surprised by Joy 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.
In the end, though, the garden doesn’t belong to Bilbo, anymore. Frodo gives his home to Sam, who has been Bag End’s faithful gardener for years. 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 angry words when he returns from Mordor to plant grains of Galadriel’s dust. He scatters the contents of her box to flourish the trees and flowers and gardens of the Shire until his homeland is more beautiful, more heavenly, more distinctly home, than it ever was before.
A few folks have accused Bilbo (and hobbits in general) of excessive pining for home. 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 silent on his war experience as he claims. Nor did Lewis remain unaffected. Both men had been up to their necks in mud, grime, and 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.
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.
In The Hobbit, upon returning from his big adventure, 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.
img via Steve Olmstead