Mirth in Middle-earth

Goofing off one day in the throne room at Barad-dûr, several Wraiths noticed Sauron grimacing into his glowing palantír.  There stood a tiny seven-foot-tall Aragorn, waving a tiny sword.  Hitting the log-off button angrily, Sauron fumed, “Thinks he’s so funny!  How did he know about my feet?!”

Wraith at work

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth we encounter nine rather gloomy Ringwraiths and it would be difficult to imagine a more serious bunch of not-quite-dead fellows.  Whatever remnant of weird stuff they might be made of, not a single one of those guys could be said to have even the ghost of a decent funny bone.

Sauron’s feet were less like feet, and more like… The paws of a werebeast.  In ancient days, escaping the fearsome grip of Huan, his enemy, Sauron’s shape-shifting magic had become fickle.  He ever since had to wear tennis shoes around the House of Lamentation to hide the truth about his feet.  Aragorn was right, the Dark Lord didn’t need to wear socks since the fur was so thick.  Plus, he felt a terrible urge right now to lift one paw and scratch under his chin!

Sauron's secret

My point is that it can’t be pure coincidence that there are nine occurrences of the word “mirth” in The Lord of the Rings.  When I think of this, I always conclude, oh sure, Frodo got the ring to Mount Doom and Gollum took it into the fire.  But by the time Frodo found the doorway into Orodruin, he had entirely lost his sense of humor.  He stood there at the Crack of Doom unable to recall even a single one of the wisecracks he had come up with, for posterity.

One Wraith turned to another.  An eerie whisper floated out of the dark hood, “The boss sure would like to give that Aragorn the finger!”  The hood of the other Wraith nodded and hissed, “But he already gave it to Isildur!”

Everyone knows it was Galadriel’s laughter that really saved Middle-earth.  I have always liked the way she laughed when Frodo offered her the Ring.  A moment later, contemplating the temptation, “suddenly she laughed again” and in so doing she passed her test.  You see, the Valar exiled her because she took herself way too seriously and they found it tiresome.  Mirth won back her passport to Valinor.

Wraith having fun

A third Wraith leaned near the first two, “Have you ever noticed how he counts us on his fingers when he does the roll-call at our staff meetings?”  The first one shot back, “Yep!  And you’re always one of the pinkies!”

There is plenty of warm good humor in the Shire, but we first glimpse “mirth” as a kind of enchantment in the House of Bombadil.  It turns out that old Tom has been waiting for millennia for someone to stop by with the One Ring.  Rather than fuss nervously about what to do about the fate of Middle-earth, Tom has in mind a fun practical joke.  I’d bet that he told Goldberry all about the look on Frodo’s face.

Wraith having fun

Later that day in the locker room in Barad-dûr, a Wraith came rushing in, his dark hooded cloak flapping.  “Didja hear the news?!”  He looked around.  He wasn’t sure where the other fellow was standing.  When a towel and a vial of shampoo lifted up from a nearby bench, he knew where to look.  A thin reedy voice quavered, “Uh-huh.  We’re all gettin’ promotions!”

Tolkien’s mirth is a weighty matter of magic and wisdom.  We observe this truth through Pippin’s eyes in Minas Tirith when he glimpses in Gandalf’s careworn visage “a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.”  Galadriel must have known about Gandalf’s penchant for a good gag.  She surely rejected the Ring for fear of ending up in Gandalf’s routine down at the local comedy pub in Minas Tirith.

“Garn!” rasped the first Wraith, “I sure didn’t know the Lidless Eye had that many tear ducts!  You’d think he just lost another finger, instead of that pompous old No-Dude-Will-Ever-Kill-Me Lord of the Nazgûl!”  The Wraith followed the floating towel and vial into the showers.  An invisible throat cleared, “Well, the boss did try to give the old dwimmerlaik a few tips about what not to say on a first date!”

Describing Aragorn in the appendices, Tolkien provides us with the ninth and last use of “mirth.”  Someday a diligent scholar will find among Tolkien’s scribbled manuscripts the thing that Aragorn said to Sauron while skyping him through the palantír.  It’s likely that Aragorn’s jokes were pretty clunky, and on that occasion, rather than chuckle lightly to emphasize the honest effort at humor, Aragorn felt compelled to wave his sword around.

Wraith snickering

The towel came to rest on a hook and the shower came on.  It flowed through empty space.  The shampoo vial rested untouched on a ledge.  The first Wraith stood watching for a moment and turned away, disappointed.  He’d always been curious to see how the others washed their hair.  He hadn’t been able to figure that out since he… faded.  That’s why he always wore a big ugly cloak with a hoodie – after all these years his hair looked pretty frightful!

I’m certain that Tolkien’s Ringwraiths forgot long ago how to snicker.  We can only guess how things might have gone for them if they’d retained even the slightest clue about how to pull off a decent practical joke.  With even a modest amount of experience at pranking, they might have had a little warning when the punchline came for them in the end.

The second Wraith watched him leave.  They always pulled this joke on that guy.  Everyone knew he was desperate to figure out how they washed their hair.  And he had no clue about the truth.  All eight – uh, seven now – of the other Wraiths were totally bald!

Lidless Eye

The Wedding in the Dingle

Down in the Dingle, before the seas were bent upon the circles of the World, before the first acorn opened in the valley of the Withywindle, dwelt a strange creature of ancient Middle-earth.  Old Tom Bombadil made his paths along the winding willow-strewn river when there were no other folk to follow them.  Elves came; then other peoples of Middle-earth.

Long ages passed.  And in his house upon a grassy hillside Tom sang his songs above the river.  From his words came a weird tolling of nonsense and forgotten meanings, a rhythmic poetry that rang out across that ancient land.

He often sat beside the water, his long beard tickling the passing reflections.  There he one day glimpsed Goldberry.  He saw her in the river under water-lilies, below shady willow roots.  The way Tom told the tale, young Goldberry tried to capture his heart.  But he refused to follow her into the depths, to her home beneath the water.

Iarwain Ben-adar they called him long ago, the Elves who came to Lindon and who built Mithlond.  He became known to the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains as Forn.  And among the humans who settled in that region he was called Orald – these folk made barrows for their dead, not far from the Withywindle.  Eldest, he was.

A century or so before the end of the Second Age of the World, Elendil established his realm in Arnor.  Númenórean refugees occupied the lands surrounding the Withywindle.  They found Orald a curious creature.  His songs were full of enigmatic mastery, and he could have helped them with his power, but he was forgetful of their worries, and their many wars had no hold on him.  Instead, he sang his songs to the animals and trees.

Over eight hundred years into the Third Age, Arnor splintered into three realms.  Now the kings of Cardolan ruled over the region.  The refugees from Númenor learned that Orald’s land had its own dangers, but it was a refuge from the cares of their politics.  They whispered spells over the forging of swords to settle matters among themselves, but they set aside their weapons in the House of Orald.

About 1150 of the Third Age, Hobbits first appeared west of the Misty Mountains.  Orald took notice as they migrated into Eriador among the splintered kingdoms descended from Arnor.  By 1300 they begin to settle around Bree, an old town in that part of the world.  In 1601 the Hobbits were granted leave to live beyond the Baranduin by King Argeleb II of Arthedain.

Orald knew the kings of Cardolan.  He knew them for hundreds of years as they buried their dead in the ancient barrows of Tyrn Gorthad.  At the end of that time, not long after the Hobbits settled nearby, one day he noticed a woman among them.  “Fair she was,” he said of her over 1300 years later.  And she wore a pretty blue brooch on her shoulder.

Whatever Orald said to her in those days, and whatever she said to him, one day she died – and with her death came the end of Cardolan.  A plague in 1636 destroyed the kingdom and ravaged the Hobbits.  The last prince of Cardolan died in battle with the men of Carn Dûm, and he was buried in an ancient barrow near the realm of Orald.

In the years that followed the end of Cardolan, evil creatures crept into the cold barrows.  Wights from Angmar.  Some say the sorcerers of Rhudaur had a hand in this, enemies of Cardolan.

By then Orald had become known among the Hobbits as Tom Bombadil.  This name came to him from Buckland.  And under this name the resonation of his singing entered their legends.  They told of his dealings with mischievous animals and hard-hearted Old Man Willow, and they spoke of the power that his songs had over the evil of the Barrow-wights.

And in their tales they also passed down the memory of the marriage of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry.  They recalled how Badger-folk danced and Willow-man tapped upon the windows of the house.  In their traditions pretty Goldberry wore upon her golden tresses a garland of forget-me-nots and flag-lilies and her dress was silver-green.

Tom often told the Hobbits of how Goldberry had tried to capture his heart.  He liked to say that he one day stole her away from her home in a deep pool of the Withywindle.  At their wedding the Hobbits remembered how he sang like a starling.

And the Elves slowly forgot about Iarwain Ben-adar.  Círdan and the Elven mariners at Mithlond ceased to wonder about the old strange creature in the Dingle of the Withywindle.  Elrond and the Elves of Rivendell didn’t come to visit.  None of them attended the wedding.

But down in the Dingle that day came Hobbits from Buckland.  And there were Badgers.  And Old Man Willow.  And a Barrow-wight with bright eyes sat up and wept in his barrow.

This all happened when Tom Bombadil wedded pretty Goldberry, the River-daughter.  She wore shoes that flashed like fishes’ mail.  And she sang of the seasons, of still waters like skies full of jewels.  And among lamps that gleamed in the House of Bombadil, everyone heard how old Tom hummed that day like a honeybee.