On Small Mysterious Details

Flotsam and Jetsam

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A barrel of Old Toby (Source)

In the grand scheme of Merry and Pippin’s account of the siege and flooding of Isengard, it’s a small detail: the discovery of Longbottom Leaf (“Old Toby”), the pipeweed of pride of the South Farthing, in the storehouses of Saruman. Compared to the froth of the Ents, the visits of both Gandalf and Wormtongue, and the events at Helm’s Deep, it seems an insignificant addendum, an out-of-place observation. Aragorn adds a couple more layers to the puzzle, and as we learned when we first set out from Rivendell, it is wise to listen to what a Ranger notes. That the trade routes in the Western lands have long been sundered; the some of the half-men at Helm’s Deep looked oddly similar to the Southron spy they first dealt with in Bree; that Saruman would have even knowledge of the best product of such a craft: all hint at something more beyond the small and mysterious details. Aragon muses that he should mention this to Gandalf, however small; yet, at least explicitly, he never does, and so the detail is lost to both the Fellowship and the reader in the passage of time and pages.

The Longbottom Leaf is a small, mysterious detail, one which will have no great significance for many a chapter ahead: in fact, one might argue that the question of the barrels is the last mystery solved in The Lord of the Rings, the last puzzle piece placed in the closing scenes of The Return of the King (which I shall not spoil). As such, the pipeweed of the South Farthing, a seemingly insignificant piece of color added for authenticity and charm, may teach those on the Lenten journey something of great value. Old Toby reminds us of the importance of small, mysterious details.

In our times of distraction and anxiety, when much needs to be accomplished and there is no time for pause or reflection, it is easy for the details – especially those small and obscure ones – to slip through the cracks. It is all too easy for our eyes to brush over the words, to overlook the occurrence, to miss the slight of tongue or the added word. We cannot observe or understanding everything that happens around us: we are not perfect, or robotic. But in the midst of some of those small and mysterious details might be valued clues or hints at what is to come, and might draw our attention to things that need us that may not seem otherwise.

How then can we restore our ability to better discern the small and mysterious details of our lives? First, we can remember to pause, and think, and reflection on occasion. Like our five companions in the storeroom, sometimes haste is not the answer, and especially after many miles travels and many hurdles overcome we often need to recuperate with conversation and musing. Second, we can hone our minds on the details on the things that matter most to us, the things for which we have the comparative advantage in observation. Few others would have recognize the Longbottom Leaf, or known its significance, outside of Merry and Pippin: yet they observed and noted it because it is part of their discipline, their specialty. Aragorn is very keen at observing tracks on the grounds; Legolas’s eyes give him keenness over things far away. Each plays to their strengths.

Finally, there is a place for memory: “she took all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Sometimes the small mysterious details won’t reveal their true natures immediately. Then we must hold on to such things as best we can, and await their fulfillment in true time.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Paying of Debts and the Smoking of Pipes
2015’s Reflection: “On Being Positively Hasty

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