The Journey to the Crossroads
In our modern setting, the staff is most frequently assigned the role of the cane, and associated with the infirmed and elderly. Such a narrow understanding of the purposes of staves and staffs obscures their rich and fascinating history. As Faramir gifts two our two hobbits two staves of seemingly humble origin, it is valuable to remember how staffs have served men and women for generations, often in varied capacities.
The stave is a symbol of authority. Kings carried sceptres and lords rods, representing the power of their offices and the authority of their positions. In some societies a person’s status and role could be determined by the staff they carried, distinguishing a shepherd’s crook from a merchant’s walking post from a priest’s religious stave. To break one’s staff was a sign of protest; to have one’s staff broken, as we saw first-hand at Isengard, was as forceful as exile. In handing Frodo and Sam two staves, Faramir is providing them with physical guarantees of his favor while they walk through the lands he oversees, objects that will verify his word.
The stave is further a versatile tool. In it simplicity rests its incredible value, uses that go beyond support for the weary traveler or balance for the teetering walker. The Boy Scouts of America list a number of uses for a walking stick: testing the depth of a body of water; making a stretcher or splint during injury; serving as a weapon when in desperate need for self-defense. Each of these tasks has a particular instrument that may perform it better, but with the single staff all these needs are served well enough, especially in times of great haste or isolation. In providing Frodo and Sam with two staves, Faramir recognizes that he knows not what lays ahead for these two new friends of his. Therefore, he provides them with something that can serve them across multiple scenarios, against many unknown obstacles.
The stave is finally an instrument of beauty. Whether in stark simplicity or elegant adornment, a staff can hold in its form the history of an individual, the culture of a people, the tradition of a society. Whether made of wood or metal, the staff can take on the properties of its source: the color, the hue, the texture, the strength. Some staff are carved with runes or with images that snake their way around its circumference; others are gilded with jewels or other precious materials to indicate their value. From the supplejacks of the southern United States to the makilas of Basque country to the bamboo whangees of East Asia, a walking stick can embody a view of the Beautiful. In offering these two walking sticks, made from the wood of Ithilien in carved in the fashion of his people, Faramir gives a simple and yet heartfelt gift, a true outpouring of his care.
So think not the staff too small a detail; think not the stave to minor an instrument compared to the bite of Sting or the light of Galadriel. The walking sticks of Frodo and Sam offer much reflection on authority, on versatility, and on beauty, and as we near the conclusion of our own pilgrimage, we might think with care about what stave we have in our own hand.