Tolkien, Tagore, and Friendship (November 2020)

This assembly starts with a beautiful line of poetry that needs no additional justification. Rabindranath Tagore wrote “Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf.” Tagore is Bengal’s greatest poet, and of the Indian cultures, Bengali is the one I know best. His work is gorgeous and eminently quotable, so I shall offer you a little more – this time appropriately tailored to the subject of the assembly – which is friendship. Tagore says “Depth of friendship does not depend on length of acquaintance,” a sentiment with which I’m sure those of you have been here but a couple of months would agree.

Unfortunately, my attempt to lead you into a meaningful discussion hits a brick wall here because my Tagore scholarship is inadequate. I enjoy his words, I’ve read one of his novels, I’ve invested time in learning some horribly rudimentary Bengali but I don’t know his work. Those quotes came from a google search and the problem with Brainy Quotes, and the like, is that they are just not terribly clever. They give you a line but no indication of its source, you can’t read around or into what’s said and understand it more deeply – they give you a brief appearance of braininess but none of its substance. To really tell you what friendship is like I need to draw on one of the two areas that I know well.

The first of these is Mathematics, but unfortunately this jewel of academia has little to say about such human interactions as relationships and emotions. There are friendly numbers, which is an interesting idea if you like the less useful end of number theory, but they’re not really the same thing.

I’m left, therefore, with my knowledge of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which is both extensive and exact and about which I’m delighted to be scrupulous and critical. Some of you, I know, share my fascination with his writing – I shall try not to be too geeky for those of you who have not yet taken advantage of this opportunity for delight.

The Lord of the Rings is on one level the story of a journey taken by two friends, Frodo and Sam, from their home in a green and pleasant land to the location of their quest at the top of a volcano far away. They pass through many lands and face many dangers. One of the darkest chapters comes at the end of their journey (Chapter 3 of Book 6 – Mount Doom). By this point the friends are struggling through enemy country, a desert that surrounds the volcano. Sam has been carefully working out how much food and water they have and what they need to get to their destination and it suddenly strikes him that even if they do have the provisions to get there – just barely, if they’re lucky and careful – then they certainly won’t have any left to get back and it seems unlikely that they’ll find a branch of Nandos at the top of the mountain. The best they can hope for is to crawl to their destination, fulfil their quest, and lie down in the wilderness to die together.

Tolkien writes Sam’s internal dialogue
“It’s all quite useless,” said the voice in Sam’s head. “You’re a fool, going on hoping and toiling. You could have lain down and gone to sleep together days ago, if you hadn’t been so dogged. But you’ll die just the same, or worse. You might just as well lie down now and give it up. You’ll never get to the top anyway.”
“I’ll get there, if I leave everything but my bones behind,” said Sam. “And I’ll carry Mr Frodo up myself, if it breaks my back and my heart.”

Following this decision, Sam decides to leave everything behind that they don’t need for the last 50 miles. He throws his blanket into a crevasse, and Frodo throws away his sword. Sam’s heart does break as he throws away the pots and pans he’s carried for a thousand miles, giving up as he does so any chance of a cooked dinner. It’s a point in the book when you wonder whether they’ll make it, whether they’ll complete their quest, whether they’ll survive. It’s a point where the temptation is to close the book up tight and put it in the freezer where it can’t hurt you, but if you carry on reading you find that they do make it through. My contention is that neither of them would have made it if they were alone. Certainly not Frodo, wounded, starving, mistreated, more than half-mad. On his own he’d never have got as far as chapter three never mind out the far end. But without Frodo, I don’t think Sam would have made it – there would have been no reason for him to push himself as far as he did – without the friendship there would have been no reason to keep going.

The thing I love about The Lord of the Rings is how well Tolkien writes about humanity, what he has to say about the joys and trials that fill our lives, the idiosyncrasies we see in ourselves and in others; and here we have his take on what it means to have a friend, a proper friend, someone you’d do anything for and who would do anything for you. The trials we face are not as extreme as those of Frodo and Sam, but they can seem daunting at times, maybe overpowering. Whatever you’re facing, I encourage you to do it with a friend. If your journey is smooth then take someone with you; friendships are formed and deepened by spending time together, doing things together, sharing experiences. If your journey is more difficult then look around and you’ll find others finding it even harder. Take someone with you, help them with their challenges and you’ll find your own more manageable.

Let me clarify one thing – I do encourage you to take care of your friends, to bear each other’s burdens and in doing so find your own lifted, but I must warn you against hoovers of mood, drains of happiness, people who suck all the joy out of your life without generating a smile of their own. Don’t give yourselves to such people, don’t be one yourself – that’s not friendship: however difficult it gets for Frodo he does his limited best to make things easier for Sam, he doesn’t fuss or complain, and their conversations are moments of light in that dark chapter. You cannot take responsibility for another’s happiness – however much you might want to.

Tagore says “Depth of friendship does not depend on length of acquaintance” and he’s right – you can quickly make fast friends, as you have done in your time here. My scholarship failed at that point, but I am fortunate to have friends whose scholarship is more ingenious and so I took my problem and my quote to Ms Taylor who tracked down its original source – it comes from Chapter 44 of Tagore’s Reminiscences and refers to a friend he made on board ship as he travelled to England for the second time. She was also able to find the poem the other line came from and so I can share it with you. It’s called The Gardener XLV: To the Guests.

To the guests that must go bid
God's speed and brush away all traces
of their steps.
Take to your bosom with a smile
what is easy and simple and near.
To-day is the festival of phantoms
that know not when they die.
Let your laughter be but a meaning- less mirth
like twinkles of light on the ripples.
Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time
like dew on the tip of a leaf.
Strike in chords from your harp
fitful momentary rhythms.

Let your life lightly dance, take someone with you when you go, be a good friend and let your laughter be like twinkles of light on the ripples, take scholarship seriously and find context for your quotes. Strike in chords from your harp the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf.

Fill your life with Tagore.