Hebe Stanton (Secretary 2014-15) gives us the second of the Anniversary issue’s lovely Shire-based stories.
A long time ago in the noontime of the world – for the morning had passed, and the Ages were wearing on – there lived a famous family of hobbits in the shadow of ancient towers. They were not like other hobbits, who rarely do anything more gossip-worthy than steal the occasional mushroom from a farmer’s fields; for one thing, they were archivists and librarians, and studied languages long-lost to this green earth; for another, they lived within far sight of the Sea, which was thought to make them strange and dreamy and altogether unfit for good wholesome Shire life. Though their work, and their general existence, was admitted to be necessary for the balance of things, and they were routinely praised from afar, the earthier inhabitants of the Shire were, secretly, thankful that the Fairbairns of the Towers rarely descended from their green hills.
Be that as it may, the Fairbairns were quite content in their labyrinthine dwellings amid the immemorial Elven-towers. Occasionally young and excitable hobbits from the Four Farthings were sent to live with the family for a time, so that they might satisfy their taste for adventure safely, as it were, and lose their longing for the wide blue yonder in ancient tales of the Great Danger and even ancienter tales of times when Elves and Ents and other strange creatures could still be seen walking the wide lands. As a matter of fact this hardly ever worked; more often than not the young hobbits would come back older and dreamier, more remote from their fellows, and always vaguely dissatisfied with the everyday realities of life in the Shire; but they no longer showed any inclination to travel beyond its borders, which was good enough for their beleaguered parents.
Such a child, in any case, was Elfreda Goodbody of the Southfarthing. Owing to the influence of a rather Tookish grandmother who claimed to have met the King in the South as a very young child – a piece of nonsense, of course, but very memorable for an impressionable six-year-old like Elfreda – she had grown into a rather vague tweenager, much given to drifting about the Shire-fields in an attractively waifish way, wandering at twilight in pale dresses through the gentle woods in search (so she claimed) of Elves, or reading old picture-books in sunny glades (as she liked to call them). Quite apart from being unnatural in the generally hale and hearty Goodbodies, this behaviour was beginning to attract veritable hordes of hobbit-boys who would pop up at odd moments, hoping to catch sight of her unguarded. It was deemed advisable to send Elfreda to Undertowers before anything untoward happened.
Elfreda, surprisingly, was not as elated by this as one might expect. In actual fact she had quite enjoyed being trailed by what she liked to think of as her entourage of admirers, and was not at all pleased at the prospect of being sent to an isolated outpost of the Shire where there would be no hope of Adventure, or, failing that, an untoward encounter with the handsomest of the hobbit-boys. But, as so often happens in these cases, her feelings were not consulted, and she found herself being shipped off in the month of April, just when the Shire was at its fairest, to the high and white Elven-towers in the West.
The journey was long and, mostly, uneventful, though rain on the second day meant a long and dull day spent before the fire at the Red Dragon in Tuckborough. But soon enough the Goodbody pony-trap was winding up the long road in the twilight of evening to Undertowers. It was an unprepossessing place, for the most part, built in the old style into the hills; the only outward sign of its existence were a multitude of round windows looking out onto the road, which spiralled on up into the foothills until it was lost in the shadows of sunset. The front door – round and green, in memory, apparently, of its founder’s home at Hobbiton in the Westfarthing – lay in a place where the road cut a ledge into the side of the largest of the hills: at that time of evening the shadow of ancient Elostirion lay upon it. The hobbit-servant who had travelled with Elfreda (and was to return to the Southfarthing the next day) rang the bell, and the green door was opened – after a few minutes – by an old, old hobbit whose hair was quite as white as milk.
He beamed: “Elfreda, I presume? Welcome to Undertowers! My name is,” (here he appeared to think for a moment) “Adalgrim Fairbairn, although hardly anyone calls me that any more. I, and all the Fairbairns, are, of course, at your service!”
Elfreda curtsied coldly. “And my family at yours,” she said, because it was what was expected of her.
“Come in, do,” said Adalgrim, motioning to the pair at the door. “The nights are cold here, and it does not do to let the night-shadows wander in.”
Elfreda followed, not without a look back over the Westmarch to the Shire proper, where lights were kindling in the valleys like stars. A shadow seemed to pass across her mind then, and she wondered if she would ever return to the quiet lands of the Southfarthing.
* * *
It would not be inaccurate to describe Undertowers as labyrinthine. Almost a small town in itself, its tunnels and passageways extended right through two or three of the tallest hills of the Westmarch, though the central chambers were reserved for the libraries and archives for which the Fairbairns were famed. The living quarters were all close to the surface, where windows looking out over the Shire or into the West could comfortably illuminate them. In true hobbit tradition, the number of pantries and kitchens was very large – food to stock them was bought in daily from the lower lands – and meals were frequent, large and raucous. The Fairbairn clan was extensive, and its numbers were boosted by numerous visitors from the Shire proper. It was easy enough for Elfreda to settle into a tolerable routine, though she remained aloof from hobbits of her own age. She did, however, spend much of her day in the library-passages deep beneath the surface, mostly at first because there was nothing better to do. But there was a strange peace to be found in wandering with a safety lantern through caverns lined with oaken shelves where the dust motes swirled and the spiders scuttled (these, it was said, were growing ever larger in these late days – although why the days were late was never specified by the fairhaired scholars who had studied deepest in the archives). Occasionally she would come across other browsers, lanterns bobbing in the silent dark as they pored over fading shelfmarks or sat in forgotten corners, immersed. But mostly the tunnel system was vast enough that she remained alone.
She liked to gather six or seven volumes at once and carry them out to the lighter upper levels to read; on finer days she would venture out on to the hills, to find quiet haunts in which to study. At first her fare was little more original than the picture-books she had read at home in the Southfarthing; but as the days passed into weeks she found herself reading myths, legends, fairytales, histories of the long-vanished Third Age; of faraway cursed lakes where gold and jewels had lain untouched for centuries; of forgotten Elf-realms between the Mountains and the Sea (she murmured their fair, alien names under her breath to herself: Lothlorien, Imladris, Eregion, Ithilien), of lands lost under wave, of great cities of white stone and unnamed horrors in the East. The world seemed impossibly vast in those books where wonder still dwelt in the corners of the earth, and it never occurred to her that wonder lingered yet in her own Shire, where vast libraries lay beneath green hills shadowed by towers made in times long-forgotten by a race that had perished utterly from this Middle-earth.
It was not long before Elfreda’s time was spent wholly among the legends of other times. She sought out treatises on Elf-magic, bestiaries written in old Osgiliath; she found rare copies of the Quenta Silmarillion, and devoured the tales of the Silmarils, marvelling at ancient oaths and noble loves and terrible slaughters, impossibly high and distant. She traced through vague shadows on the borders of old stories the mythology of the Ainur, and would spend hours imagining the Song at the beginning of time, the great and cataclysmic moment when the World came into being. She had fallen to the perilous spell of Undertowers, and there were none now left in Middle-earth who could rescue her.
* * *
It was in a time of high summer, when the orchards of the Shire were swelling with fruit and the hills of the Westmarch basked in long days of sun (though it was never hot, for a constant Western breeze blew in from the Sea), that Elfreda decided to climb Elostirion, the tower that Gil-galad built for Elendil in the long ago. She had discussed the plan with Adalgrim, who had over the months become a sort of confidante (for they were both lonely souls); he had opposed it superstitiously, saying that it was sacrilegious, dangerous, foolish. Who knew what old and twisted magics lay there still? But Elfreda was determined; she very much doubted that any Elf-magic could be dangerous, at least not in the way that Adalgrim hinted, and she wished very much to see the Sea of which she had read so much, which, it was said, could be seen on a fair day from the top of the tower. As far as she knew, no Fairbairn had climbed the tower which overshadowed their home for at least a hundred years.
She took with her a knapsack of easily-stored food, for she was a hobbit first and foremost. She left from a back door of Undertowers, a little higher up the hill than the famous green door, which opened out onto the white road winding into the unexplored passes and valleys of Emyn Beraid, the Tower Hills. But that was not her way; for the road went West, dwindling as it did so into a path used only for long rambles, until it vanished utterly into the forgotten places of the earth. Instead, she took a track that led off almost straight up the hill upon which Elostirion stood. The way was steep, and occasionally there were flights of steps cut into rock as she climbed; but soon enough Elfreda had reached the summit of the hill, and she stood in the shadow of Elostirion as the sun began to wester.
If I told you that Elfreda felt no fear as she squeezed through the half-open stone door of the tower I would be lying. Her heart was pounding, though she did not, like Adalgrim, fear hidden traps or dark monsters. She feared only emptiness: that she would climb the tower and find, after all, nothing but dust and cobwebs and the whispering West wind. That, for her, would be the ultimate terror: the knowing that the Elves and their works had indeed passed utterly from the earth.
And yet she climbed. Within the tower was only a single staircase, spiralling ever upwards, hugging the walls. To Elfreda (who, you must remember, was less than four feet tall) the climb seemed endless; even more so because the steps had been made for Elven-legs, and were far too high for her hobbit-legs to reach comfortably. She had to stop often, to sit in an alcove or a windowsill and eat a little seedcake or drink a little water. But she never stopped for long; the silence in the tower unnerved her, and the curving staircase seemed to extend into infinity below and ahead. Not even the wind outside could be heard, though there was no glass in the windows spaced at intervals along the staircase. And still she climbed through infinite white.
It seemed many hours later (though in reality the sun was still quite high in the Western sky) when Elfreda noticed the light streaming from above beginning to brighten, until all at once she emerged from the endless staircase into the large chamber of white stone at the top of the tower. Here, at least, the windows were glassed, framed by five elegant arches of stone through which light almost brighter than was bearable streamed unceasingly. In the centre of this glaringly bright, aggressively silent room stood an empty pedestal carved in the likeness of a white tree with stars amid its leaves. Elfreda knew that once this pedestal must have held the lost Seeing-Stone of the North, and the knowledge filled her with a strange fright and awe. But then she looked through the windows.
The world upon which the windows of Elostirion looked was not the world that she knew. East she gazed, out to the Shire which she knew so well, and saw nothing but forest and rolling downs. South she looked, and the Tower Hills rolled before her. There was no sign of Undertowers and the villages of the Westmarch, but it seemed to her that shimmering figures moved in the passes between the hills, and parties of travellers moved along frequented roads. North she turned, and – glory upon glory! – a city rose shimmering in the afternoon light, beyond the wide and calm Gulf of Lhun, a city of towers and ships and ever-circling gulls, a city that had been ruined for long years before Elfreda’s birth. She looked, in fact, upon the Grey Havens, Mithlond of old, and it lived again through the far-seeing glass of Elostirion. Ships moved through the ancient Gulf, riven by unimaginable tumults in the War of the Valar, and horses moved on the roads around the city, and spires of smoke rose turning in the sunlight of the Elder Days. And in the far West, when finally Elfreda turned her eyes from the elven-city, she saw upon the horizon of the vast and heaving Sea a white sail journeying East into the wonder and sadness of this Middle-earth.
* * *
It is a sad fact that Elfreda never was seen again at Undertowers, and no Goodbody ever knew where she had gone, or why. But it is said among the Fairbairns (who nevertheless say a good many things whose truth is doubtful) that at the setting of the sun upon the day she left a star burned upon Elostirion’s tip, and a sound as of unearthly song, achingly sad and fair, was heard through all the Westmarch.