On the release last Christmas of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson’s return to the Middle Earth of his earlier J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations, I was pleased to note a brief cameo from a significant star of The Lord of the Rings. No, I’m not talking about the return of Sir Ian Holm’s Bilbo or Elijah Wood’s Frodo in the movie’s prologue, nor yet another appearance from Flight of the Conchords‘ Bret McKenzie amongst the elf population. The cameo that appealed to me, rather, occurred as the young Bilbo Baggins (now played by Martin Freeman) goes running from his home in The Shire, desperate to catch the dwarves and join their quest. Yelling “I’m going on an adventure”, his contract as the dwarves’ thief of choice flapping around his hand, Bilbo dashes past many of the familiar pastoral sites of Hobbiton, including leaping over another hobbit pushing a wheelbarrow with the biggest pumpkin you’ve ever seen. This pumpkin is the cameo I’m talking about.
For those of you unfamiliar with the pumpkin, it, or rather another of its noble race, made a brief but significant appearance in one of the final scenes of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve often told people that this moment is, in my view, the best and most significant scene in the epic eleven and a half hour story and they haven’t really agreed or laughed at the suggestion. So, with this Wednesday being a marathon Lord of the Rings food session, I decided to use this opportunity to explain why the pumpkin scene is so important.
As I mentioned on Wednesday, the start of the opening movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, in its two prologues and two narrators – Galadriel and Bilbo – instantly establishes the contrast between the grand events of dark magic and the world in peril; and the quiet, parochial world of The Shire and the hobbits that live there. Jackson focuses on food (and gardening as the cultivation of food) to achieve this. “It has been remarked by some that a hobbit’s only real passion is for food,” Bilbo says as we watch the hobbits enjoy eating, drinking and admiring plants and crops, “A rather unfair observation as we have also developed a keen interest in the brewing of ales and the smoking of pipeweed”.
As with any small rural community, it’s the pub, in this case the cosy looking Green Dragon, that becomes the heart of that community. In the Green Dragon the hobbits can engage in banter and indulge their love of good food, good beer and unite in their simple, pastoral interests and enthusiasms, cut off from the concerns of the “big people”. In the early scenes of the opening film, our four hobbit heroes are shown at the heart of the Green Dragon’s jolly culture of singalongs and trading gentle insults.
A second recurring theme is also introduced in Bilbo’s hobbit introduction, that of Bilbo’s own previous adventure (the one now being dramatised in Jackson’s new film trilogy). That story is what is being written here, essentially the book of The Hobbit, dubbed in-universe “There and Back Again“, soon to be the title of Jackson’s third and final Hobbit film. Comparing Bilbo’s adventures with their own, emulating them or exploring how the reality of adventure compares to a story like There and Back Again is, behind food, a second major conversation topic for the hobbits. When Frodo questions the need to ration their food for a return journey, Sam uses Bilbo’s exact title, “We’re going there and back again, just like Mr. Bilbo. You’ll see”.
The going back element is important as it’s something that the hobbits cling to to get them through their adventure (although Bilbo’s own restlessness should have told them that his coming “back again” was never quite a return to how things were). From their concern about “second breakfast” in the first film right through to the third part where Sam marks time by thinking: “It must be getting near tea-time, leastways in decent places where there is still tea time”, this is what they’re fighting for: not to overthrow the Dark Lord Sauron or to restore Aragorn to his throne, but to make sure that there’s always a decent place that observes a proper tea time. The only reason why they find themselves in strange foreign places is to ensure that they can go back to their humble, pastoral lives unbothered by events in far flung places.
As they come to the final struggle across Mordor, it’s the pastoral idyll of home and the growing and eating of good, fresh food that Sam uses as motivation to complete their quest. “Do you remember The Shire, Mr. Frodo?” he says, “It’ll be Spring soon. The orchards’ll be in blossom and the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields and eating the first of the strawberries with cream”.
Which brings us to the ending. Or, rather, the endings. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are heavily criticised for the sheer quantity of endings that happen after the ring has been destroyed and Sauron defeated (this is regardless of the fact that Tolkien spent 100 pages, a whole new plot strand, and over 150 pages of appendices beyond the same point to reach the story’s end). But, actually, the scene with the pumpkin manages to condense a great deal of story and character stuff in that 100 pages of the novel into one largely wordless minute and a half long scene.
Here’s what happens. Having returned to a completely unchanged Shire (somewhat different from the novel’s anti-industrialisation conclusion), Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin pop into the Green Dragon for a beer. As Frodo returns from the bar with their drinks, he has (like his uncle years earlier and one movie later) to avoid a huge pumpkin being carried by another hobbit.
As Frodo sets the drinks on the table, the other hobbit can be seen behind them showing off his pumpkin. Other hobbits in the pub gather round and admire the grandeur of the big, orange squash, as the great pumpkin grower gives his oversized vegetable a polish.
All that our hobbit heroes can do is stare forlornly into their drinks before raising a glass to each other, while this gleeful pumpkin admiration happens around them. Apparently when you’ve seen a balrog rise from the depths of the mines of Moria a slightly larger than usual pumpkin just doesn’t cut it any more.
The scene concludes with Sam finally gathering the courage to talk to buxom rosy cheeked bar tender Rosie Cotton as the other three raise their eyebrows and smirk. It seems like saving the world from being plunged into endless torment and darkness is all that it takes for a guy to get up the courage to talk to a girl at the bar. The entire scene contains just two lines of dialogue, both largely in the background – “Hey, watch the pumpkin” and Rosie’s “Good night, lads”, echoing that first scene at the Green Dragon in the first film.
This is the magic of film and the reason why Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings can do things that J.R.R. Tolkien’s cannot. It’s a great example of visual storytelling in which the leads say nothing verbally to each other, but their body language in response to a big pumpkin says it all. There can never truly be a “there and back again”, however successful you are in saving all the things you truly love they will never be the same to you again. The hobbits have been so changed by their journey that Sam’s image of orchards, barley fields and strawberries and cream, embodied by this pumpkin, no longer means the same thing to them as it did at the start of their journey. They have made sure that The Shire will never change, but the pumpkin loving hobbits will never understand what Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin have done for them. They will, in a sense, forever be outsiders amongst the Green Dragon regulars now.
It’s the culmination of all the images of food and farming that fill the movie. All Merry and Pippin’s Green Dragon songs in Rohan and yearning for South Farthing pipeweed in Fangorn, all Sam’s wish for taters and some nice fish and chips, his increasing boredom with foreign elvish food, it all leads up to this bittersweet moment of being back home and finding that it’s not quite home any more. The pumpkin is a metaphor for any time that somebody finishes a huge undertaking and struggles to readjust to just living as things were.
It’s important to have an end where Aragorn gets crowned king and reunites with Arwen (if only to fit the movie’s title) and one where Gandalf, the elves, Bilbo and Frodo leave Middle Earth for good, but this pumpkin in the pub is the most important ending of them all. Most of the endings are there as a reward to the audience for this epic story, to pay off plot points that needed concluding. The pumpkin is the only ending that is about more complex character development.
In the very final scene Frodo articulates all this as he leaves Middle Earth for good: “We set out to save The Shire, Sam. And it has been saved. But not for me”. At the end of the day, though, he never had to say that. His silent response to the pumpkin said it all, proving at least some of those endings were worth it after all.