Elves and Potatoes: 1. Elves and Potatoes

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1. Elves and Potatoes

"Cut it back above a five-leaf, or a seven-leaf; don't just snick off the head. Shake the petals off into the trug for drying, but leaves and stems go into the bucket." Hamfast Gamgee wielded his shears deftly on the fragrant but fading roses that twined along the gateposts at Bag End. "Mr. Bilbo has his leaf-piles on the far side of the garden."

Sam rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand, leaving a smudge of dirt behind, and picked up the fallen clippings, dividing them as his father instructed. "What about that big withered branch there? It won't fit in the bucket."

Ham disentangled the broken stem with its brown leaves and snipped the few fibers that still held it to the main body of the rosebush. "There's another pile for burning." He surveyed the trimmed plants and nodded to himself. "That'll do. 'Twouldn't be right for Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo to come back from Buckland and have the first thing they see be dead blooms on the gateway."

"When are they coming back?" Sam took as big of strides as he could as he walked by Ham down towards the end of the garden, careful to avoid stepping on any of the plants that spilled over onto the pathway.

"In a fortnight or so. Mr. Bilbo sent word, he means to be back well before their birthday."

They had reached the compost piles. There were seven of these, lined up against the low stone wall and separated by woven wood fences.

"Toss the clippings into the left-middle one," said Ham.

"Why does Mr. Bilbo have so many?" Sam asked, throwing the contents of the bucket onto the heap.

"He says that letting the leaves and such rot for seven years makes the best soil, that's why. And he has the room to do it, o' course. But at the end of the year he'll let us take away any that's left of the oldest lot before he starts afresh. So mind you always put the weeds and prunings on the right pile, Sam. Down at the end you can stack the branches to be burned for kindling. I'll take the petals off to the shed, it's too late to start them drying today."

Skipping back, Sam followed his father home to Number 3 Bagshot Row, around on the far side of The Hill from Bag End. Today had been his first day to officially work in the garden as Ham's helper, though of course he had been there many times before. He had celebrated his thirteenth birthday the previous Mersday, with a grand party as these things went for the Gamgees.

All five Cottons had been there, from Tom who was Sam's own age down to little Nibs; even pestiferous Rosie, at nine old enough to want to do everything her older brother could do. Lily and Violet and Robin Smallburrow, who lived in Hobbiton, came, and four of the Goodchild cousins from Bywater, and of course his own brothers and sisters, except for Hamson who was off in Tighfield working with uncle Andy Roper. They had had strawberry squash to drink, and sweet cakes with whipped cream on top to eat, and played tag and blind-man's-bluff and hide-and-seek, and Sam had given each of his guests a toy animal that he had whittled himself, out of wood. Some of them were a bit difficult to recognize, true, but they were well-liked all the same, and Sam had kept the oddest-looking one, an oliphaunt, for himself.

It had been a glorious day, but the best part of all had been in the evening, when Ham had said that Sam would be coming to help at Bag End from now on. He had hoped that he would; he liked working out-of-doors better than the thought of being apprenticed to a rope-maker, like his brother.

For the next fortnight they were busy in the Bag End garden. Ham had not neglected it during Bilbo's absence, but his own patch of ground had received a good share of his attention, especially the potatoes and other root vegetables, of which he was especially proud. But now that the Bagginses were returning from visiting their kin in the more dubious parts of the Shire – as most of Hobbiton considered Buckland to be, being on the far side of the Brandywine – Ham wanted to be sure that there would be no question of his care.

Sam found the garden a place of wonder. Part of it, of course, was given up to vegetables and fruits, just like the Gamgee garden, and indeed that of every respectable Hobbit in any station of life. In Bilbo's absence he had told Ham that anything that ripened should be dried or preserved if it could be, but that whoever did so could take a third part in payment. Some things, like melons, that could not be preserved, were to be distributed among all of the poorer folk around The Hill; a welcome gift, especially since Bilbo liked to grow rare and wonderful varieties. Sam remembered a melon he had tasted three summers before at a Mid-Year's Day celebration. The flesh of it had been almost white inside its netted orange rind, but the smell and taste of it as fragrant as if the whole of summer were captured there. His mouth watered at the memory.

Herbs took up a good deal of space as well. Parsley, thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage; hyssop, balm, lovage, mint, chamomile; yarrow, rue, flax, borage; including many that Sam did not recognize, which Ham carefully taught him not to pull out as weeds. The boy was surprised to find pipe-weed growing, for everyone knew that the best weed came from the Southfarthing, and only inferior sorts could be grown in these more northerly parts. When he asked Ham about it, his father said, "No, of course Mr. Bilbo doesn't smoke such stuff as that. He likes the flowers, I've heard him say."

Which made Sam look more closely at all the flowers that he saw. He wanted to know what a gentlehobbit would like to grow. Besides the roses, there were sturdy sunflowers, their seeds fast-ripening now; forget-me-nots glowing blue against the dark green of their foliage; nasturtiums with their peppery-tasting flowers and thin-stemmed broad round leaves; snapdragons in bright clear colors, tempting a Hobbit-lad to distraction in snapping them. And again, many varieties that he had never seen elsewhere. Sam began to be curious how it was that Mr. Bilbo could find so many sorts. Mostly folk saved seed from one fall to the next spring, and maybe traded with a friend or neighbor, but this variety was far beyond that. Perhaps in Buckland they grew all these different things.

Then there were the fruit trees, apple, cherry, pear, peach, with plum-bushes and raspberry-canes and more than Sam thought a single old Hobbit could possibly want, even with a young cousin with a hearty appetite to help out. He knew, though, that Bilbo gave away much of the fruit, only keeping what he and Frodo could use. The Gamgees and others were lucky to have the Baggins family as neighbors.

After working in the Bag End garden all day, sweat trickling down his neck despite the straw hat he wore to keep off the sun, Sam loved it when there was time to go down to The Water for a quick dip with his friends. None of them could swim, but they flung themselves splashingly about in the shallow water and enjoyed it, cooling off in the process. Then they would scatter to their respective homes for supper, where mothers threw up their hands in despair as they dripped their way into the nice clean floors of the parental holes.

"Cold-taters-sliced-ham-cottage-cheese-ripe-melon-carrot-salad-fresh-bread," Sam tallied up the table under his breath. He dove into his plate with abandon, surfacing only after a good deal of chewing and swallowing to ask for second helpings.

His mother Bell laughed a little and ruffled his hair as she handed him his refilled plate. "Planning to grow as tall as Mr. Frodo, are you Sam?"

"Maybe," said Sam. He looked up to Mr. Bilbo's adopted heir very much. Frodo always had a kind word to say to the Gamgee children.

"Or maybe just going to be stout like your da," she said, spooning potatoes onto May's plate as well and then passing the bowl to her husband.

"That's more like," Ham agreed, digging in. "No one makes herbed taters like you, Bell, I can't resist."

At last the two Baggins men returned from their holiday in the east, strolling up to Bag End in the heat of a late summer afternoon as if they had only been down to The Ivy Bush for a pint of ale. Their bags and bundles had, in fact, been sent by waggon from Buckland while they walked, and would follow them from the inn that evening.

"Hullo, Master Hamfast," said Bilbo, looking around. "I see you've kept my garden in tip-top condition, as usual."

Ham knuckled his forehead. "Done my best, Mr. Bilbo, this dry summer."

"And I see you have a new helper. Sam, isn't it?"

"My youngest lad, yes," said Ham, reaching with one arm behind him and pulling Sam forward, "now 'prentice to me."

"Very good, very good. We're going to have a bit of a rest now, Frodo and I, but I shall certainly see you tomorrow," Bilbo said, and patted Sam on the shoulder, shaking hands with Ham.

"A pleasure to see you again, Master Hamfast, and young Sam," said Frodo, before disappearing into the cool darkness of Bag End.


Sam was weeding the cabbages the next morning when Bilbo emerged to speak with Ham.

"Anything that I should know of right away, Master Hamfast, concerning the garden?"

Ham leaned his spade against the wall and straightened, pushing back his hat to scratch his head with work-roughened brown fingers. "Widow Sandyhole is taking the tomatoes to preserve. That crop hasn't done as well as it might. Summat's been eating of the leaves."

Bilbo frowned. "Do you have any idea what?"

"Greenfly, mebbe. I planted them marigolds between like you said, though."

"Hmm." Bilbo moved among the tomato plants, inspecting each one carefully. Sam, nearby, had paused to listen, but resumed weeding vigorously when Bilbo came close and peered over the top of the tomatoes at him.

"Young master Samwise," said Bilbo, "come here."

Sam dropped his weeding fork and trotted over with alacrity. "Yes sir?"

"I want you to go fetch a book from my library, please. It's called On Garden Pests and is on the second shelf." Bilbo saw that Sam was opening his mouth with an unhappy look on his face and added, "Don't you know which room is the library? It is the fourth on the right, going in the back door. All right, run off now with you." The old Hobbit turned and began talking again with Ham.

Sam hesitated for a moment, but a shooing motion from Ham urged his reluctant feet towards the kitchen door of Bag End. He passed through the bright cheery kitchen with its copper pots lined up like fenceposts and its white-scrubbed wooden table, and out into the hallway.

"One... two... three... four..." he counted, and turned the shiny knob. His heart sank at the sight.

Books and papers everywhere! Piled on the table, balanced precariously on the arm of the comfortable-looking red leather armchair, and most especially and tragically, dozens of books on the second shelf of the great bookcase that stood on one side of the room. Sam had never imagined that so many books could exist in the world.

He went over and looked at them, thinking that perhaps he could guess which it was that Mr. Bilbo had asked for. On Garden Pests, he had said. Sam ran his finger along the shelf, then pulled one of the volumes off at random and opened it. Dense lines of black squiggles faced him on one page, and a picture of a harp on the other. That could not be it. He tried again. This book had no illustrations at all, wherever he looked; no help at all. The third book he tried had pictures of all sorts of different flowers, but not of anything that Sam thought could be called a garden pest.

By now he was nearly crying with frustration, and in his dismay dropped the book as he was trying to return to the shelf. It hit the floor with a loud bang.

Several minutes later Sam heard a creak behind him and looked up to see that Mr. Frodo had come into the room.

"Why, what are you doing here, Sam?"

"Mr. Bilbo asked me to fetch him a book," Sam mumbled, "but I don't know which one it is."

"What is it called?" asked Frodo.

"On Garden Pests."

Frodo knelt down beside him and looked along the shelf. "Here it is." He pulled it out and handed it to Sam. "Weren't you looking on the right shelf?"

"Yes sir, but," Sam gulped and confessed, "I don't know how to read. I looked at the pictures an' all, but I couldn't tell which it was."

"I see," said Frodo slowly. "Well, there's the book. Go on now, take it along to Bilbo, I'm sure he's waiting for you."

"Yes, Mr. Frodo. Thank you." Sam clasped the heavy book carefully in both hands and carried it outside.


"Bilbo." Frodo's voice interrupted his cousin as he was stirring up an omelette for their supper.

"Yes? Just hand me that grated cheese, please, Frodo."

"Did you know that young Sam Gamgee can't read?"

"He can't?"

"No. I discovered him in your library trying to bring you the book that you'd asked for. He was looking at the pictures to try to tell which it might be." Frodo shook his head. "So I found it for him."

Bilbo muttered under his breath and dropped a lump of butter into his frying-pan. "Let me finish this and we'll talk it over while we eat."

It was a fine summer's evening. The sun had just dipped behind the hills to the west and the shadows stretched long, but the air was warm and it was still quite light. Bilbo had set the little table outside for their supper.

"So Sam hasn't had any schooling," said Bilbo once the edge had been taken off their appetites. "Somehow I thought he had been to Mistress Greenhand's down in Hobbiton. I know the oldest boy, at least, spent some time there before he was 'prenticed."

Frodo shrugged. "If Sam went, he didn't learn anything. But I doubt he did go. He seems a fairly intelligent lad and I think he'd have made a good pupil."

"Hmm." Bilbo tapped his fork against the edge of his plate, thinking. "It's the expense of it, I'm sure. And I imagine that Gaffer Gamgee doesn't think it necessary for a lad training to be a gardener to be able to read and write, nor see he might need to reckon any more than he can do on his fingers at market."

"Probably not."

"But I think book-learning is worthwhile, whether you be a Baggins or Brandybuck, or a Gamgee or Goodchild. Yes," Bilbo made up his mind, "I'll have a talk with Ham about teaching Sam his letters. You'll help me if I need, won't you, Frodo?"

"Of course, though I can't think you'll need any help," said Frodo, and passed Bilbo the platter of cold chicken.


Ham indeed was reluctant to see the desirability of having his youngest son learn his letters, but Bilbo persuaded him into it.

"He'll work in the mornings with you as usual, but after luncheon he will spend two or three hours with me or with Frodo, then go back and help you for the rest of the afternoon," said Bilbo. "If you need an extra pair of hands, for some task, we can arrange things accordingly."

Still unconvinced, but unwilling to disagree with his employer, Ham accepted the offer on Sam's behalf.

"I still don't see the need of it," he grumbled at home on the first morning of the new arrangement. "Young Ham needed to know how to figure a bit for the ropewalk, but what's a gardener to do with books?"

Bell poured out his tea. "If Mr. Bilbo wants him to learn, and offers to do the teaching, why not? It won't harm him."

"Mebbe not," said Ham dubiously. "Sam, you'll work hard and give satisfaction, Mr. Bilbo being so good as having offered this."

"Yes da," Sam said, who could hardly eat for excitement.

He presented himself after lunch at the door to Bilbo's library with a certain amount of trepidation, but Bilbo set him at ease at once.

"Ah, very good, you're right on time. Come sit at the table with me." Bilbo patted the stool next to him. He had cleared off the papers and books that had formerly been strewn over the surface of the table, and when Sam sat down he could see only two things; a sheet of paper with several dozen symbols on it, and a tablet covered in wax with a pointed stick attached to it by a cord.

"I've seen you weeding, Sam, and I'm sure a nimble-fingered little lad like you will have no trouble learning to write as well as read, so we're going to start you on both today. First," Bilbo drew the paper closer, "we'll start with learning the alphabet, and then you can practice making the letters and numbers."

By the end of those three hours, Sam had memorized the names and appearances of all the letters and numbers, though he found reproducing them with stylus on wax tablet more difficult. Bilbo had to warm and smooth the wax over and over again to let him keep trying.

"Gondolin wasn't built in a day," said Bilbo cheerfully, putting the things aside until the following afternoon. "Now, go along with you outside and I shall see you again tomorrow."

Wondering what Gondolin was, Sam obeyed. Ham looked at him sharply, as if to see whether his new knowledge would be visible on his face. Apparently satisfied, he told Sam to fetch water for the herb-patch.

Day by day, Sam became more comfortable with the idea that he was learning to read and write just like a gentlehobbit. He took to practicing his letters with a stick in the mud by The Water before splashing around with Tom, Robin, and the other youngsters. Mr. Bilbo usually taught him, though once in awhile he was busy and Mr. Frodo would take a turn. When Mr. Bilbo was there, he interspersed his lessons with tales of his adventures in the east, talking of Dwarves and dragons and Elves until Sam's head spun with ideas of strange places. Mr. Frodo was not as patient a teacher, but he talked about more familiar things, setting Sam to write sentences about gardens and family and Hobbiton life.

When colder weather came, the harvest was in and there was less work to do outside, Sam was allowed to spend the whole of the afternoons practicing his new skills. By now Bilbo had started him on the basics of reckoning as well, and was teaching him to use pen and ink instead of the wax tablet for writing, but Sam preferred reading.

"Do you have all the books there are?" he once asked.

Bilbo chuckled. "Certainly not, Sam. The Elves have been writing books for hundreds and thousands of years. I have a few of theirs, though." He stood on a step stool and reached down a slim volume from one of the higher shelves. "Look here."

The lettering in the book was beautiful – far more elegant than Sam's own still-clumsy hand – but the words were strange. Sam looked up at Bilbo in bewilderment. "I can't read it."

"No, it's in Sindarin, the Grey-Elven language, not in the Common Tongue that we use here in the Shire," said Bilbo. He read a few sentences aloud, the unfamiliar cadences dropping like music into Sam's ears, and then translated. "Lo! the flame of fire and fierce hatred engulfed Gondolin and its glory fell, its tapering towers and its tall rooftops were laid all low, and its leaping fountains made no music more on the mount of Gwareth, and its whitehewn walls were whispering ash."

Sam listened in wonder, and then asked, "What is Gondolin, Mr. Bilbo?"

"Ah, Gondolin was a great city that the Elves built in a hidden valley, ages ago," said Bilbo.

"Have you been there?"

"Oh, no. It was destroyed at the end of the First Age, you see; and all the lands around it have been covered by the great seas far to our west." Bilbo went over to the desk and rummaged among the scrolls and rolls in the pigeonholes. "Here we are." He spread out two sheets on the table, holding their edges down with books. "This shows the Shire – here is Hobbiton, Sam – and the lands to the west, to the Havens and the Sea. See the Blue Mountains? And this map shows Beleriand that is lost, and the same mountains on the very eastern edge. Gondolin was in the west of that land, somewhere, but its location was hidden so that the Enemy could not find it, so it is not marked here."

Sam looked at the maps and nodded as if he understood, but he did not really grasp all these distances and strange countries.

Bilbo had picked up the Elvish book again and was paging through it, his lips moving slightly. Sam decided that he had best be off for the day, and let Mr. Bilbo get on with his reading. "I'll just be going now," he said, and Bilbo nodded absently in response as Sam slipped away.


Now it was nearly Yule, and with the preparations for that Bilbo let Sam have his afternoons off, for the fortnight before. "But be sure to come over on the last day of Foreyule, for Frodo and I will have a special gift for you, Sam."

The mention of a gift worried Sam. Should he not have something to give to Mr. Bilbo in return, and Mr. Frodo too? He brought the question to his mother.

"If you want to give them something, then you should," Bell agreed, her hands busy kneading bread but the rest of her attention on her youngest son.

"But what can I give to someone like Mr. Bilbo? He has everything he could want," said Sam, leaning against her and smelling the good smells of cakes cooling on the table.

"Give him something you made yourself, Sam. He'd like that. It needn't be fancy or big. You could write him a letter to thank him, perhaps, or carve him a napkin-ring," said his mother. "If you need to buy a bit of paper we can find a penny for it somewheres."

"I don't want to have to spend money," Sam said. "And if I did he'd hear about it, maybe. So I'll carve something. Thanks, mum."

He started right away. There were only a few days left until Yule, and he had plenty else to keep him busy, but he managed to carve a nice little piece of beech into a napkin-ring with different flowers from the Bag End garden around the outside. That was for Mr. Bilbo, he decided. He began a similar one for Mr. Frodo, but there was a flaw in the wood and it split when he was halfway finished. There was not enough time to start again. Sam, frustrated, threw the ruined piece into the fire and looked around helplessly for inspiration. His eyes fell on the small box in which he kept his treasures and he opened it to see if there was anything there that was not too mathom-like or too childish.

Right on top was the oliphaunt he had made that summer for his birthday-party, and then kept after all. Sam picked it up and looked at it. A little more smoothing out and polishing, and it might do; at least it would be something he could be sure Mr. Frodo did not already have. He hummed to himself as he worked.

On the last day of Foreyule, as Bilbo had asked, Sam was on the doorstep to Bag End, his two parcels tucked in his pockets. He lifted one mittened hand to pull the door-bell. It had snowed the night before, but the clouds had lifted and all the land glittered clean and white in the chilly sunshine.

"Good morning!" said Frodo, answering the door. "Bilbo is in the kitchen. Come along and we'll get you a cup of something hot."

What Bilbo had for him was hot eggnog, rich and creamy and full of unfamiliar spices. Sam sipped at it, swinging his feet from the chair until he remembered his manners and stopped. Bilbo left the kitchen and came back with a book.

"This is for you, Sam, as a reward for being such a good pupil. I know you'll take care of it," he said, his voice stern but his eyes twinkling.

Sam reached out one finger to touch the dark brown leather cover, then drew it back. He could not believe that Mr. Bilbo would give him such a precious thing.

"Open it, Sam," urged Frodo.

Inside the front cover, Bilbo had written in his somewhat spidery hand, "To Samwise Gamgee at Yule, 1396. From Bilbo Baggins." Frodo had added below, "And Frodo Baggins." On the opposite page was the title, Stories of the Elves.

Hesitating, Sam turned over a few pages. The words were all written large and clear, and he could read them with ease, though he did not recognize them all. Every fourth leaf had an illustration. Sam's dazzled eyes saw dragons, wizards, Elves, swords – every kind of exciting thing he could think of. "Oh, thank you," he said. He tried to think of something more to add, but could not, so said again, "Thank you, Mr. Bilbo, and Mr. Frodo."

"You're very welcome, Sam," said Bilbo. "Someday you may want to know more than is in this book, but I think it will keep you occupied for quite a while. If you have trouble with any of the words, just ask one of us at a lesson."

Sam remembered now that he had gifts for his teachers. He felt shy of giving them; they seemed to be so small and rough next to the beautiful book. But the alternative was to give nothing, and that was not to be borne. He pulled out the two packages, each neatly wrapped in bright blue cloth and tied with string.

"I brought something for you, too," he said, his face bent to the table and glancing at each of the older Hobbits only from the corner of his eye as he handed over his gifts.

Bilbo opened his first. "What a lovely napkin-ring! And all of my favorite flowers on it, too. Did you make it yourself, Sam?"

Sam lifted his head. "I did, Mr. Bilbo."

Bilbo gave him a hug. "Thank you. I'll use it today."

Now Frodo unwrapped his gift. Before he could say anything, Sam said anxiously, "It's an oliphaunt."

"Yes, I can see that," said Frodo, turning it over in his fingers. "Where did you learn about oliphaunts?"

"My uncle Halfred, who lives Overhill, tells stories about them to me and my cousins. Do you s'pose they're real creatures, like dragons?"

"I think they are, Sam." Frodo looked at Bilbo.

"So do I," said Bilbo firmly, "although I've never met anyone who has seen one, or even met anyone who's met anyone who has."

"Thank you, Sam, it's a splendid oliphaunt and will look very well on the window-sill in my room," said Frodo, also hugging Sam. "Now, would you like another cup of eggnog?"

Sam accepted and drank it while the Bagginses chatted kindly with him. Bilbo wrapped the book well for Sam to take home with him, "In case you should slip and drop it in the snow," he said, but Sam understood that he was teasing.

"Thank you!" he said again as he left, his bare feet leaving a second set of prints in the snow beside his earlier ones.

Bell and Ham were pleased to hear that Sam's gifts had been appreciated by both Frodo and Bilbo. Sam unwrapped his book to show them with pride what Mr. Bilbo had given him. "Look, they even wrote that it is my book inside," he said, pointing at the page.

"What is it about?" his mother asked.

"It has all kinds of stories," said Sam, "about adventures. Elves and dragons and such."

"Elves and dragons?" said Ham. "Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you." He shook his head solemnly. "You'd best remember that, Sam."


Author's note:
The piece of poem that Bilbo reads to Sam is from a fragmentary "Lay of Earendel" written by Tolkien probably in the 1920s and to be found in The Lays of Beleriand, vol. 3 of The History of Middle-earth. Ham's remark, "Elves and Dragons? Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you," is taken from the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, and his further comment there that "Mr. Bilbo has learned him [Sam] his letters - meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it," is what inspired the present story.

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Celandine Brandybuck

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: General

Rating: General

Last Updated: 08/09/04

Original Post: 08/01/04

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