More Than Food and Drink
By Hannah Simmons
Hospitality has a close relationship to literature on the one hand and human purpose on the other.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, the principal characters face several destinies or missions. Some are easy to identify, such as Frodo’s mission of destroying the Ring or Aragorn’s accession to the throne of Gondor. Others, however, are easily missed, even by those who fulfill them. In The Fellowship of the Ring, after they meet the Wood Elves, Sam Gamgee tells Frodo that his purpose for the trip has changed: “It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want—I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.” In this instance, Sam shows more insight than previously, by recognizing the larger story. He perceives that he has a role to play in Middle-earth that cannot be achieved by remaining in the Shire. It is easy to simply consider this role as the help that he gives Frodo along the path to Mordor but in reality, his calling is something much deeper. Sam’s destiny is to restore the hospitality of the Shire to its full purpose, through the reintegration of just these stories.
When the Hobbits of the Shire are first introduced, they seem to exemplify perfect hospitality; however, their vision of hospitality only includes food, drink, and entertainment (as seen in so many who turn up for Bilbo’s party). Bilbo, who has experienced the hospitality of Dwarves and Elves outside of the Shire, yearns for a deeper meaning of the word, thus prompting his departure from the Shire and return to Rivendell. When Sam is first introduced, he is debating the importance and truth of the old tales with a very earthly Hobbit named Ted Sandyman. Ted urges Sam to stop paying attention to the stories of the outside world, arguing they have no effect on them. The Hobbits have become recluses, forgetting that they belong to a story larger than themselves. By detaching themselves from the things that really matter, they try to make hospitality all about the material aspects of food and drink which, though they play a role, are not the essence of hospitality. Sam, who already has an appreciation for ancient stories, is the one who is destined to bring back current tales to the Shire.
Throughout his journey with Frodo, Sam is exposed to many examples of a more complete hospitality, perhaps most strikingly with the Elves of Rivendell and Lothlórien. When Bilbo first visited Rivendell during his adventures in The Hobbit, he wrote that that “house was perfect, whether you like food or sleep or work or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” The Elves perfectly understand the necessary balance between material comforts of food and drink and the spiritual comforts of stories and thoughts. It is in this “Last Homely House east of the Sea” that Frodo can recover from his nightmarish wound and the rest of his companions are able to fortify themselves for the road ahead. Along similar lines, the Fellowship reaches Lothlórien after the tragic loss of Gandalf, and they spend several days there. “It seemed to them that they did little but eat and drink and rest, and walk among the trees; and it was enough.” Unlike the rowdy parties of the Shire, the Elves understand the importance of silence for strengthening the understanding. These experiences help Sam bring a fuller understanding of hospitality back to the Shire.
After Lothlórien, Frodo and Sam experience a prolonged stint of inhospitable places as they wander through the marshes outside of Mordor. It is not until The Two Towers, when they run across Faramir in Ithilien, that they again find hospitality. Faramir, after hearing their tale, invites them into his hideout and offers them food and drink until “they felt glad and easy of heart as they had not done since they left the land of Lothlórien.” On top of offering food and drink, he creates a space where they feel comfortable to tell him anything, even the purpose of their mission. He does not use what they reveal to him against them, but to aid and encourage them in their quest. Because of their long period without hospitality, Sam and Frodo can more completely appreciate the beauty of this generosity.
It is not until the end of The Return of the King that someone recognizes what Sam’s real role was. Before leaving Middle-earth from the Grey Havens, Frodo prophesies, “You will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more.” Even as Frodo must leave the story, Sam must keep the story going. He must remind Hobbits of their history and of how fleeting things of this world are. If he had remained in the Shire, he could never have accomplished this—he would never have experienced true hospitality or known true struggles. By reintegrating the wider narrative of Middle-earth into the culture of the Shire, Sam paves the way for a greater appreciation of hospitality, both material and spiritual. Great vocations like Aragorn’s or Frodo’s may seem more important, but Sam’s calling is no less meaningful.
Hannah Simmons is seventeen, and lives in Austin, TX, where she attends Valor South Austin. She enjoys writing, reading, and playing games with her family. She also loves watching English soccer and is an avid Wolverhampton Wanderers fan. She is considering Covenant College, Grove City, Hillsdale, and the University of Dallas, and hopes one day to become a high school teacher.
Each time we administer the CLT, the top scorers from that exam are invited to contribute an essay to the Journal; well done to Miss Simmons on her high score! If you enjoyed this piece, you might like this essay from teacher Trevor Copeland on hospitality as a virtue, or this author profile of Francis Bacon (whose name certainly puts one in mind of feasting). And be sure not to miss out on our podcast on education and culture, Anchored.
Published on 5th August, 2022. Page image of J. R. R. Tolkien’s illustration of Rivendell in The Hobbit (source), provided for under fair use.