Ironically enough, it began with elves.
The remnants of an elven division from ancient times had begun to reform, and its leaders sought the counsel of a great Elf-lord far to the east. They were to set off from the docks of Celondim and welcomed all who wished to walk with them. I decided to join them for a spell and, in due time, we came to the outer bounds of the Shire. The Bounders and a dwarven friend of theirs welcomed us with open arms, save for those filled with mugs of ale and bags of pipeweed. We retired to the Bird and Baby, where I helped to judge a smoke-ring contest between one of the elves and the dwarf. The dwarf and I quarreled a bit over my judgments concerning his smoke rings. We became fast friends.
He said he could use a Scout for a foray he had planned, so I agreed to join him and some of his friends for a venture far to the north, into the barren wasteland of Angmar. The whole way there he groused about aches and pains and feeling old and, I had to admit, he looked the part. He wore a rather shaggy, gray-white beard. It was a flocculent affair, a veritable woolly mask that obscured a good portion of his being, and he walked a mite hunched over. When I saw these things, I began to worry a bit.
Soon enough, we came upon some trolls in the foothills, and the dwarf lit out after them! As the trolls began to encircle him, the dwarf bellowed a war-cry that nearly split me in two and began knocking the trolls silly! The rest of us caught up and helped mop up the rest of the trolls.
“Try to keep up, Longshanks,” he told me afterward. I noticed his slouch was more pronounced now than before. “Sorry, my game is running away from such things usually,” I said, smiling. He let out a sigh loud enough to make me rub my ear again and shook his head.
After many more battles, we completed our task and set out for home. On the way back, the dwarf began complaining about feeling old again. He went on and on, until I had finally had enough.
“Look, you!” I exclaimed, “When your bellow stops making the bones in my chest rattle, and your hammer ceases to knock trolls on their backsides, I will believe it! Until then, knock it off! And you can stop slouching already. No one is buying it,” I finished with a triumphant nod.
He said that he did not notice he was slouching, but he knew that he walked straight as an arrow on his own, so it must have come from traipsing around with us big-folk. We stared at each other a moment, his woolly mask hiding all but a little twinkle in his eye. I broke into a smile while shaking my head. He had become dearer to me with each passing day.
After a time, the dwarves began their attempt to retake Khazad-dum, and my dwarven friend began mustering friends and allies to him unceasingly to aid in the endeavor. Virtually every day, for months upon months, we ventured into the depths with whatever friends we could gather. We made slow progress at first. Many times, we were driven off. Some refused to return after their first forays, deciding that such trials were not for them. Some moved on to different lands, deciding the effort was not worth their time. And some did not care for the dwarf’s manner and way of leadership, leaving his company to find another whose leadership better suited them.
A dear friend of mine, one who happens to be a wonderful bard and writer of tales, is often fond of saying that good literature is like a looking-glass one holds up to themselves. It forces us to see ourselves as we really are. It challenges us, forcing us to wrestle with the notions it presents until we either break our gaze or come to terms with them, having become the better for it. We are broken down, only to be remade in a new way, a better way.
Trials and hardship also offer a looking-glass of sorts. The horrors found in the depths of Khazad-dum offer trials beyond measure. One cannot help but be tested there and on many different levels. It is only natural to look to those who lead us for aid in such a circumstance.
There are some who ventured with the dwarf who believed him to be callous and hard, for he would only give a bit of guidance in such times. They saw our failures as his fault, believing that, if he had given them more thorough instruction and command, we would have seen our way through, rather than having to flee the depths in defeat. They saw in him a lack of compassion, but, after a time, I began to understand.
When our little ones begin to walk for the first time, it is very hard to watch them fall. It is our instinct, in our very nature to reach out and catch them, to guide them and protect them. It is an act of compassion to do so, is it not? But, if we do this for too long, they might never learn to walk on their own. A day may come when we are not there to catch them and, when they reach out for us but find nothing to lean on but themselves, the fall will hurt all the more. They will remember that pain and may not ever try again.
How much more compassion does it require to let them fall, and let ourselves fall with them so that, after much trial and error, we all are able to suffer through the hardship together? I think that, in these times, the woolly mask hid a profound compassion, one of such plaintiveness and poignancy that, sadly, some could not help but turn away from it. They could not see the purpose in his actions.
As time wore on it became more difficult to find others willing to join us in our forays. Hopes of venturing into the deepest parts of the depths, that require a great many, were dashed. Our ventures, for the most part, came to an end. During one of the last adventures, I began to realize something. My friend’s grousing about getting old had more weight to it these days. It was he, rather than the enemies we faced, who was being knocked about and too much for my liking. The bones in my chest had not been rattled by one of his bellows for a long while. And I could not help but see something that the woolly mask was unable to hide: the fatigue and sorrow that had dulled the light in his eyes. Sadly, there are many ways in which one can age.
Dearest friend, my heart goes with you on your long journey back to the Lonely Mountain, for it will be I who am the lonelier for it. I will be lost for a long while, as I try to make sense of the world without you by my side. So many have taught me the lesson that height and stature are not one and the same. But, if they were, to my eyes, you would stand upon the shoulders of giants. You have more than earned the right to lay down your hammer in the time and manner of your choosing. Would that I could take it up in your stead, but my mind is too feeble, my body too weak. May you find peace for the remainder of your days.