Happy Tolkien Reading Day!

Today is Tolkien Reading Day, and this year’s theme is “Hope”. There are so many expressions and manifestations of hope in Tolkien’s work, from Hurin hewing down trolls at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears and crying “Day shall come again!” to the figure of Earendil, “the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope!” Without question my favourite, however, is Sam’s vision of a solitary star as he and Frodo make their slow tortuous way through Mordor in “The Return of the King”:

“Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach”.

I hope (ha!) that you enjoy whatever Tolkien-related activities you have planned for today – whether it’s reading the books, or watching the films (or for that matter Kate Madison’s “Born of Hope”, which would be appropriate given this year’s theme). Or even settling down with a six-pack of cider and marathoning the Bakshi and Rankin-Bass adaptations (yes, I actually did this once). Each to their own!

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The Dowager Countess of Bag End: Lobelia Sackville-Baggins

‘ “I’ll give you Sharkey, you dirty thieving ruffians!” says she, and ups with her umberella and goes for the leader, near twice her size. So they took her. Dragged her off to the Lockholes, at her age too. They’ve took others we miss more, but there’s no denying she showed more spirit than most’. – Young Tom Cotton, “The Return of the King”

Eowyn, the Shieldmaiden of Rohan. Galadriel, Lady of Light. Shelob. Luthien. Elbereth. There are so many memorable, in some cases even iconic female characters in Tolkien’s world, whose influence reverberates well beyond the actual space they occupy within the text. So why on earth have I decided to start this blog by looking at a decidedly minor character, whose known deeds are confined to making off with Bilbo’s silverware and attacking Saruman’s lackeys with her umbrella during the scouring of the Shire? First of all, because chronologically speaking, she’s the first female character to make an appearance in any of Tolkien’s published works on Middle-Earth when she shows up at the auction at the end of “The Hobbit” (well, unless you count the fleeting references to Bilbo’s mother Belladonna Took, which I don’t). And secondly and more importantly, because in spite of her many unsympathetic characteristics, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the old battleaxe.

Now, I’m not denying that during her fleeting appearance at the end of The Hobbit and her more substantial cameo in the opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, Lobelia comes across as a pretty unsympathetic character. With her repeated attempts to snatch Bag End from under the noses of both Bilbo and Frodo and her snobbery (“You’re no Baggins – you – you’re a Brandybuck!”, she says to Frodo shortly after Bilbo’s disappearance), not to mention the dominance she obviously exerts over her less strong-willed but equally unpleasant husband and son, the matriarch of the Sackville-Baggins clan is an embodiment of a particular sort of woman Tolkien probably knew in real life – and heartily disliked. Worse, she’s a thief, and a repeat offender at that – not only did she infamously swipe Bilbo’s best spoons while he was off at the Lonely Mountain, but after Bilbo finally leaves the Shire his nephew Frodo is forced to divest her of “several small (but rather valuable) items that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella”.

If Tolkien had left it at that, I doubt Lobelia would be getting her own entry here – and I very much doubt I’d have chosen “Lobelia” as my username when I first signed up to a Lord of the Rings discussion board at the age of fifteen. (Come on. It’s better than “IluvLegolas2000”, or whatever). But when put to the test during the scouring of the Shire, Lobelia shows what she’s really made of. She unfurls, like that anachronistic umbrella of hers, and in the process becomes far less of a caricature and much more sympathetic. For all her snobbery, she has a spine of steel and a strong sense of right and wrong (spoon-swiping aside). Taking on Sharkey’s goons with her trusty umbrella is as brave, in the smaller arena of the Shire, as Eowyn facing down the Witch-King on the field of Pelennor, or Arwen fearlessly embroidering Aragorn’s banner in her comfy chambers at Rivendell*.

And she shows spirit right to the end. In the penultimate chapter of “The Return of the King”, we see her hobbling out of the Lockholes on her own two feet, still clutching her umbrella, despite being over a hundred years old. In the end, Tolkien even allows her a bit of pathos. In her final appearance in the story, as she drives off after being freed from prison, Lobelia is in tears – not just because of the grisly death of her son Lotho (of whom she was clearly very fond), but also because she had never in her life been popular before. And when she dies shortly afterwards, she leaves all of her money to her once-detested nephew Frodo, to help our poor hobbits left homeless by the troubles.

In the end, Lobelia reminds me of no-one so much as the Dowager Countess of “Downton Abbey” fame, splendidly played by Maggie Smith. Prickly for sure, and a horrendous snob in thrall to a set of values in which I have no sympathy at all – in short, not somebody I would ever want to sit down to dinner (or afternoon tea) with. But in a tight spot, it’s clear that that underneath that unsympathetic exterior there’s a core of firmness and decency – in short, she’s someone you could count on in a pinch.

*Obviously a joke.