A Lesson on Hobbits (Gandalf)
He was, the wizard mused to himself, wiser than even he himself knew. Had he not said to Frodo that he knew more about hobbits than hobbits knew about themselves? "Soft as butter they can be, and yet sometimes as tough as old tree-roots." Gandalf felt a soft glow of pride as he recalled his words–wise and prophetic both.
And "an obscure branch of knowledge." Gandalf chuckled as he remembered that casual remark. For all that he was the (self-proclaimed) authority on hobbits in Middle-earth, they sometimes surprised even him. Even when you knew them from childhood, as he had known Frodo. Watching the hobbits settle in for this night's camp, he reflected that he should write a book. Bilbo would certainly collaborate with him.
Gandalf braced his staff against the log on which he rested and surveyed their campsite with satisfaction. The Company sprawled about him in various positions of overstuffed content, their stomachs full of roast grouse and venison steak. The hunting had been excellent; both Aragorn and Legolas had brought down their prey. Sam had eagerly taken the game presented him, combined it with the hobbits' foraging, and turned out a feast rivalling that of Elrond's tables. The incessantly blowing wind had tormented them with the aromas of meat flavoured with onion and garlic, rosemary and thyme, and it was not only the hobbits who had impatiently awaited Sam's announcement of supper. That had been another stroke of his brilliance–gang-pressing the little gardener into accompanying his master. Though like as not, Gandalf mused, Sam would have followed Frodo on his own.
The subject of his current ruminations was seated at his feet, using his knees as a backrest while he picked bits of moss and forest debris out of his foot hair. His usual tidy appearance restored, Frodo yawned expansively, arms outstretched. The fire gave a blush to his cheeks and the weary set of his shoulders was hidden by the darkness, and for a moment, the wizard was strongly reminded of the big-eyed tweenager Bilbo had taken in so long ago.
Catching Gandalf's eye upon him, Frodo smiled sleepily. "My apologies, Gandalf. That fourth helping of venison was perhaps one too many. I shall be ready to turn in, in a little while." He settled himself more comfortably against Gandalf's knees and looked around the campsite hopefully. "Would anyone like to give us a story?" he asked, prompting his cousins to drag their eyes open.
The other two would have followed Frodo too, Gandalf thought with a sigh. In fact, they did. Wizard or no, Elf-friend or no, Gandalf did not relish of thought of explaining to the families of Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took that he was leading their irreplaceable sons on a clandestine mission that could only be considered a fool's hope. Especially to Esmeralda Brandybuck, Merry's mother. If he did survive this Quest, Gandalf resolved to steer clear of the Shire for a few generations.
At Frodo's query, Merry took his pipe out of his mouth and poked Pippin with the stem. Over the resultant "Ouch!" he said, "Excellent idea, Frodo! I could do with a story."
"Or a song?" Pippin asked, struggling up into a sitting position against Merry. "I don't think I could stay awake for a story."
"Legolas?" Aragorn asked.
The elf shook his head. "I sang last night. As we approach the mountains, it seems fitting to me that Master Gimli favour us with the music of his people."
A snort from beyond their campfire conveyed Gimli's opinion of Legolas' elegant phrasing. "I have the guard. And the stars would begin to pale before I could finish the shortest of Dwarvish sagas. If you hobbits cannot stay awake to appreciate my work, I will not make the effort."
"Boromir?" Pippin asked. "You did promise us a story back in Rivendell, when we were all ill with colds."
"I am too filled with Master Samwise's excellent cooking," Boromir hedged, wondering when the hobbit was going to forget that ill-considered remark. Not for the first time, he reflected that Pippin reminded him of one of those little terriers the women of his father's Court kept; once they sunk their teeth into something (like his leg), their little jaws had to be pried apart.
"And I have the guard after Gimli," Aragorn drawled. "Thus it falls to you, Gandalf. Having heard you sing before, I strongly recommend a story."
"Good!" Pippin said brightly. "Wake up, Sam. Gandalf is going to tell us a story."
"I wasn't asleep, Mr. Pippin."
"You were snoring."
"I was not! I was just … breathing, heavy-like. A story about Elves, Mr. Gandalf?"
"Hobbits!" Merry and Pippin cried together.
"It was my suggestion," Frodo told them. "And I would like to hear some history."
"Pooh on history," Pippin retorted. "And pooh upon anything educational, instructive, or enlightening. I want to hear Gandalf tell us a story about himself."
"No worries then on the educational, instructive or enlightening part," Merry whispered to Sam.
"What did you say, Meriadoc Brandybuck?"
"If we are going to hear a story," Frodo said, standing up so quickly that the log rocked, forcing Gandalf to dive for his staff or have it dashed to the earth, "then we must have a bit of afters to go with it."
"Must we?" Boromir asked, looking puzzled.
"Of course," Frodo declared. "One cannot be done without the other." Three strides brought him to his pack, where he knelt and dug out a small pouch, carefully distributing one toffee each.
"Old hobbit tradition," Gandalf agreed with a final hard look at Merry. "If they are not talking or singing, they must be eating."
"Or smoking," Pippin said cheerfully, popping the sweet into his mouth. "Or drinking. You wouldn't happen to have a mug of ale in that pack, would you, Frodo?"
"That would be a treat," Sam remarked regretfully, stowing his sweet in a pocket. "A bit of cheer on what's faring up to be a cold night."
The wind rose and fell, whistling in the distance. The hobbits shivered and Frodo resumed his seat at Gandalf's knees, helping himself to a corner of the wizard's cloak. This time when the wind ceased, the howling did not.
"Wolves," Aragorn said softly, one hand on the pommel of his sword.
"Far away, far away," Gandalf reassured them. "We will enter their domain once we start climbing the mountain." The Company glanced uneasily at each other, and checked the closeness of their weapons.
"A story," Gandalf mused, speaking a little louder to cover the distant music. "A story … yes … a historical story…" Frodo beamed at him and Gandalf smiled back, thinking for a moment how much he loved this hobbit. "Well, my lads, would you like to hear of when I and your Cousin Bilbo and Gimli's father and the other Dwarves of Thorin's Company were surrounded by wolves on their Great Adventure?"
"Bilbo's told us that one," Pippin said dismissively. "Dozens of times. Sam, if you don't want that toffee, I'll have it."
"I'm saving it for later, Mr. Pippin."
"I have not heard the tale," Boromir put in. "I would greatly like to hear it, if Gandalf is willing."
"Bilbo tells it better," Pippin informed him. "He does all the different voices and pulls these wonderful faces, and he can howl just like a wolf–"
"I will be telling it now, young Master Took." Gandalf glared at the young hobbit, who looked not in the least contrite. "Forgive me if I think I know a little more about wolves than Bilbo, who (if you recall), had hardly ventured far from his own front door before."
"He also said he was quite happy and content until you dragged him off into the Wild," Frodo commented.
"I did not drag him, Frodo Baggins. I merely … gave your uncle the opportunity he had always longed for. Whether he knew it or not."
"Tell us about fighting the wolves," Merry interjected, eyes shining in the firelight. "About how everyone was tired and cold and hungry, and then you heard the howling in the distance–"
At that moment, far ahead of them in the mountains, another wolf cried. The howl rose on the wind and wavered, then fell away into the sudden silence. Another answered it, ending with a series of sharp barks, calling the pack to hunt. Abruptly Sam stood up and scurried to Frodo's side. Frodo smiled at him and patted his arm reassuringly.
"Ah yes," Gandalf said heartily, turning around to catch the gleam of Gimli's eyes in the darkness. The dwarf shifted his great battle-axe to his shoulder, where it would be quicker to wield at need. "I sincerely doubt we will encounter those wolves again–their great-great-grand cubs, perhaps. Well, they were snarling and snapping around us, and I stood my ground and summoned fire–"
"Bilbo said you climbed a tree," Frodo pointed out. "Everyone climbed a tree. It was your suggestion, Bilbo said."
"Actually, Bilbo said Gandalf screamed it," Pippin announced to the others helpfully.
"According to my father," Gimli put in from beyond the fire, "thirteen dwarves in chain mail and a wizard struggling to climb up various trees is not something for delicate sensibilities. My father said he learned several new words from Gandalf that day."
"What words?" Merry asked, all ears.
"Never you mind," Gandalf told him repressively.
"The wolves would have gotten Mr. Bilbo if Mr. Thorin hadn't told Dori to pick him up," Sam contributed. He leaned back against Gandalf's log and fished out his sweet, unwrapping it. "Mr. Dori climbed out of that tree and came down for Mr. Bilbo, and up they went with a wolf snapping at Mr. Dori's cloak!" Sam paused, momentarily overcome by that mental image. "And I'm eating it right now, Mr. Pippin, so you can just stop looking at me like that."
"Like what? I was just looking. I have to look at something. I–"
"And you didn't mention you had any toffees, Frodo. I could have done with one now and then on the trail."
"Which is exactly why I didn't mention them. I was keeping them for occasions when we need them."
"Like Gandalf's stories?"
"That is enough," Gandalf said firmly over the soft snickers coming from Aragorn and Boromir. "I believe I was trying to tell you about the wolves attacking without these interruptions–"
"What interruptions?" Merry demanded. "We were just–" There was a silence. "Oh. Sorry."
"I always thought it wasn't a very good plan to set the pine-cones afire and throw them at the wolves," Pippin said thoughtfully. "I mean, what with all the pine-needles and dead trees and branches about, of course the forest would catch fire. Be a miracle if it didn't."
"It is very easy to say that now," Gandalf told him, "but my options were limited at the time and it is very difficult to think with thirteen dwarves and one hobbit yowling at you."
"Yes, but … well, anyone would have known–"
"Have another sweet, Pip," Frodo said a bit desperately.
"Don't mind if I do," Pippin said amicably, leaving Merry to drop opposite Frodo and reach over Gandalf's legs, helping himself to the pouch Frodo held out to him.
"The pine-cones were magic," Merry went on. "They burned blue and red and green and went off in coloured sparks and smoke! Like fireworks! What a sight that must have been!"
"T'was a bit cruel to throw them at the wolves, though," Sam said. "Poor things."
"Poor things?" Gandalf echoed in disbelief. "They were going to eat us!"
"Well, that's what wolves do, isn't it?" Sam returned. "You and Mr. Thorin and all the rest of them foul-mouthed dwarves had invaded their territory. It was their territory."
"You wouldn't like to show us how you did it, would you, Gandalf?" Merry asked, evidently still enthralled by the idea of pyrotechnics. "Look, there are lots of pinecones about."
"No, Merry," Frodo told him before Gandalf could reply. "He'd probably burn down the whole forest this time."
"I had everything under control," Gandalf protested.
"But they would burn so nicely," Merry pressed, gathering up several. He stepped between Frodo and Pippin and deposited them in Gandalf's lap, then stood in front of Gandalf looking at the wizard hopefully.
"Wouldn't mind seeing that for myself," carried Gimli's voice.
"I am not setting any pinecones afire–"
"Sit down, Merry," Frodo ordered, "and stop bothering Gandalf. He is probably too tired." Looking disappointed, Merry discarded the pinecones and settled against the other side of Gandalf with Pippin. Frodo nodded in approval.
"Thank you, Fro–," Gandalf began.
"After all, all this walking is hard on someone Gandalf's age," Frodo concluded.
Frodo looked up inquiringly.
"Cheeky hobbit! Disrespectful of your elders!" Something like a chortle cut off his tirade. Gandalf peered across the fire suspiciously but could not tell which of shadowed forms had emitted it.
"But of course you're our elder," Pippin said, puzzled. "You're everyone's elder."
"Thank you very much for that reminder," Gandalf grit out.
"What I should like to know," Merry interrupted, "is what you thought you were going to do when you reached the top of the tree. I mean, you'd set the tree on fire, and the fire was climbing up the tree. What were you planning on doing? Growing wings and flying?"
"I should have liked to see the Lord of the Eagles," Frodo said wistfully. "And to be carried by him and his folk! I know poor Bilbo was in terrible straights, what with hanging on to Dori's legs, but can you imagine such a thing? Being carried by the Lord of the Eagles!"
"You were taken by the King of Eagles to his eyrie?" Boromir murmured in astonishment. "What an honour you were given for your deeds!"
"He was having a lay down," Pippin informed Boromir.
Gandalf closed his eyes and his hands clenched white on his staff. Seeing this, Aragorn leaned forward and said hurriedly. "We have a long march tomorrow, my friends. It is time to turn in."
"That was a very good story," Frodo said. "Thank you, Gandalf." The wizard growled something into his beard. Turning to Legolas, Frodo continued. "I have the watch after you, I believe?"
"I will wake you at dawn," the elf confirmed.
Frodo nodded. "Bed, lads!" he said to others. "Goodnight, everyone." With many yawns, the hobbits rolled themselves into their blankets and were asleep within minutes.
"It is time for my watch." Aragorn stood and stretched, lithe as a cat. "Thank you, Master Gimli." Gimli replied with a grunt, swinging the great axe easily off his shoulder as they passed.
Some time later, Gandalf made his way to where Aragorn stood at ease, leaning against a tree. They listened intently for a moment, but the wind no longer carried the hunting howls of the pack to them. After waiting a few moments for Gandalf to speak, Aragorn said, "Will the wolves be a danger?"
"Possibly. There are other creatures and things in those mountains I fear more."
"I had never heard you tell that tale. It varies slightly from the one our friend Bilbo tells." The darkness hid Aragorn's features, but the wizard could hear the smile in his voice.
Gandalf harrumphed. "Bilbo was not responsible for the safety of fourteen other lives. And an ungrateful lot they were, too. Much like these." A wave of the hand encompassed the four blanket-bound forms, lined up like peas in a pod.
Aragorn lowered his voice. "They love you, you know."
Gandalf was silent for long moments. "And I, them. Bilbo will never forgive me if I do not bring them back. And if I do not bring Frodo back…"
"I know." Aragorn's murmur was no more than a whisper on the wind.
Gandalf cleared his throat, and Aragorn let him be until he was ready to speak again. "It appears even one as old as I can learn something new–or perhaps I should say realise something new about hobbits." Aragorn raised an eyebrow, waiting.
Gandalf smiled into the darkness. "Hobbits are argumentative, opinionated, cheeky, disrespectful … and the truest, most loyal friends one could ever hope for." Aragorn nodded. "And," Gandalf continued softly, his voice oddly gravelly as his gaze swept over the smaller forms of the sleeping hobbits, "once they take possession of your heart, they never give it back."
"The Shadow of the Past," The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien