Wonder is one of the great delights in literature. It is invoked when a reader must struggle to distinguish between the imaginative and reality. One of literature’s wonders is its ability to draw attention to ordinary things with new alluring light. Long walks, small conversations, little annoyances and desires, and hospitality’s eating and drinking are all wonderfully common things in literature. The stuff of everyday life draws our imaginations into the larger tale. It does this not by teaching us to cook, offering a manual on how to have brief side-conversations, or extending vague and ordinary advice, but instead by invoking a deep longing for a fuller life. Because of this, anyone who practices hospitality does so through the higher desire for friendship, wisdom, and love. It irrigates the relational deserts of our lives with a vision of hopeful companionship, because it lifts our eyes and elevates the sacramental nature of the table. Food will inevitably attend all of us throughout our lives, and even the best table is accompanied by an eschataglogical longing for perfect peace and intimacy with those who accompany it. What better way to pursue virtue, friendship, and a literary life than to offer a renewed longing and vision for the ordinary magnificence of the table in both life and literature?
No writer has taken up the praise of hospitality more than J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring is a discourse on the delight of intimate meals, good food, and wise conversation. Of course, Aragorn’s hidden kingship and Gandalf’s power and wisdom are larger than life. However, Tolkien’s myth stands out among other great works for the quieter reason that it praises the common virtue of hospitality. The Hobbits gain strength from the tables that mark the early days of their journey. The conspiracy to join Frodo occurs around his table at his new home at Crickhollow. The hobbits then have a strange and warm encounter with the table of Tom Bombadil, before arriving at the chaotic Inn at the Prancing Pony. Yet, of all their encounters, the hobbit’s dinner in the Eastfarthing of the Shire is the most magnificent example.
On their way to Bree, the Company unexpectedly dines at Farmer Maggot’s table. Living on the edge of the Shire, Maggot is a courageous fellow, despite lurking dangers. Instead of fear, he exemplifies wisdom, courage, and generosity as he welcomes the hobbits for dinner. After a brief, disconcerting conversation about their perils, Farmer Maggot invites them into his home. Tolkien displays Maggot’s kindness through his description of the, “generous supper,” which was, “laid on the table,” and the rest and protection of, “lit candles,” and a “mended fire.”
Tolkien makes the reader feel as though he himself has been welcomed into the home of Farmer Maggot and his family, and that he is under the care of a courageous, generous, and wise man. After dinner and beer, with imminent risk to his well-being, Maggot deepens his hospitality and offers to drive them in his horse-drawn carriage to the Brandywine River. He gives the travelers a basket of warm mushrooms, a hobbit favorite, to take with them on the remainder of their journey. Hospitality can be costly. Farmer Maggot welcomes the hobbits into his home knowing they are being pursued by dangerous black-riders. He gives up his time, comfort, and safety, and his unlooked-for friendship warms both the hobbits and the reader. He demonstrates love of neighbor with dignity and integrity, upholding the forgotten practice of hospitality as the way of the exemplary and wonderful life. This warm moment displays literature’s capacity to expose the richness of common and praiseworthy things and can help us read the rest of the trilogy with particular depth.
Equally present in the literary tradition is the woeful effect of hospitality’s absence. In Act II of Shakespeare’s King Lear there is an unsociable display of hostility, which contrasts with Tolkien’s warmth. Having visited his daughter Goneril, Lear is expelled from her home. She shows a lack of hospitality and care, which culminates in her proclaiming, “entreat him by no means to stay!” In high drama, Goneril drives her father out of her home into a maddening thunderstorm. Antithetical to Farmer Maggot, Goneril demonstrates the degradation of poor hospitality on Lear. Goneril’s selfish hostility unravels the spirit and physical well-being of the King and the reader.
While Shakespeare’s Goneril tarnishes the table, Tolkien’s praise of hospitality is magnificent; he exemplifies the virtue and purpose that the table brings. He elevates the ordinary, often-hidden life. Both Tolkien and Shakespeare teach. They instruct through their examples. We can learn a great deal, which we have not yet lived through, in literature. Through great books we “are a thousand men,” as C.S. Lewis put it. We can eat a thousand meals, hold a thousand conversations, and live a thousand lives. We are welcomed into hidden-worlds with a wealth of wisdom in great literature. We should, therefore, elevate hospitality in our reading, because it both teaches and dignifies.
Our kitchens and homes are often hidden spaces, closed off to the world’s grand stage. They can be easily forgotten. We are inclined to praise the grand acts of literature and life, but it is the ordinary ones, done with dignity and love, that are truly praiseworthy. Teachers, students, and readers may not fight off a cyclops, but they will eat. Praising hospitality, in all its dignity and delight, offers a purpose-filled and virtuous life that is attainable for all readers. The quiet or lonely reader can welcome; they can sacrifice. They can consider others, “more important than themselves” across their tables, seeing in their guests not mere mortals, but images of God. And they can honor them. When we praise hospitality openly, we can begin to see the litany of ways it edifies the world behind closed doors and garden fences. It is in our homes and in the literature of our lives that we can begin to see and offer, as R.S. Thomas says, “light and love in the thickening shadows of our kitchens.”