Monday, May 23, 2011

The Bagginses and the Ring

The question of hobbits can be assessed through the analysis of individual hobbits. I will begin with Bilbo Baggins, and continue on to others.

Bilbo Baggins was a somewhat pretentious bourgeois, the son of the dominant Belladonna Took of the famous and powerful Took family, and he was interested in the things that reasonably well-off hobbits were interested in. The interests of hobbits at that time, and for the general span of hobbit history, were acutely local, rustic, and (for lack of a better term) gossipy. They were in the lap of luxury, not needing a real government to keep them in line (I believe that the Shire’s government would be a good example of the kind of “anarchy” that Tolkien wished for in his letters), and without any wide-ranging viewpoints. They simply did not concern themselves with bigger things.

After Bilbo was thrust into the situation mentioned in The Hobbit (see also “The Quest of Erebor”), Bilbo attempted to deal with the situations presented to him in strange and legalistic ways, ways which, in retrospect, look highfalutin and silly. But Bilbo proved himself to be very courageous, as he went in to see Smaug in his mountain, something the dwarves themselves did not have the stomach to do (it is worth noting that Bilbo maintained good relations with dwarves; they were with him when he left the Shire on his 111th birthday).

Bilbo came into possession of the Ring from Gollum, not exactly winning it fair and square, and kept it for the next roughly sixty years, until he left the Shire on his 111th birthday and gave the Ring and Bag End to his cousin/“nephew”, Frodo, son of Drogo, on his coming of age. Having the Ring for sixty years, Bilbo used it rather sparingly -- only on his adventures, or for games, or to avoid obnoxious people on the street. He never used it to try to manipulate the will of another person, but he kept the Ring with him at all times, and it grew on his mind as time went by. As Bilbo grew older and older, Bilbo began to feel stretched, “like butter over too much bread.” At this point, he was beginning the process of fading, by which a body which is mortal is clinging to the earth.

Tolkien believed that there was a difference between trying to cling to the world artificially and being one with the world, such as the elves. The Elves do not die a natural death, and their history is the history of the planet; but they envy the Men for their ability to die, and grow sullen and detached from the world the longer they exist. Yet for Elves this is natural: It was meant for Elves to stay on Arda. For others, this is not natural: the hobbit whose body clings to life will start a more painful and less graceful (note: graceful = full of grace) decline. Once Bilbo is separated from the Ring, he declines quickly into old age.

Frodo, however, is forced to bring the Ring to Mordor. He has more opportunity to be tempted, keeping the Ring on his person close to Mordor in a time when Sauron had all of his attention focused on it. Frodo and the Ring battle within himself, characterized by a battle between Sauron and Gandalf within Frodo’s own soul. As Frodo moved closer to Mordor, he met Gollum, and it is clear that Gollum is what Frodo can become, and shall become/will become if the Ring gets the best of him. In the Cracks of Doom, the battle within Frodo is lost, Frodo is both “broken” and “broken down” by the Power of the Ring, and he ceased to be the lively hobbit that Bilbo never ceased to be. He had begun the process of becoming Gollum, of becoming subservient to the will of the Ring -- and it was a blessing that the external Gollum defeated the internal Gollum of Frodo and stole the Ring, falling into the Cracks of Doom and unmaking the Ring. It is here that the process by which the substance of Frodo turning into transparent light ends, leaving Frodo a half unmade hobbit himself, part substance and part wraith, part hobbit and part otherworldly apparition. It is in this sense that Frodo is damaged; the process of becoming Gollum was not allowed to finish, and so, like an Alzheimer’s patient, he is both there and Frodo and gone and not Frodo. He has done his job. He has finished his quest for the Ring. And he will cease to do anything of much note ever again.

It is Frodo’s servant and body-man, Samwise Gamgee, who supports Frodo as he loses substance. It is by Sam’s will that Frodo physically goes to the physical brink, and I believe it is also here that he goes to the brink with the Ring, and falls. Frodo has fallen, but his body did not follow.

Later, Frodo, playing no role in removing Saruman from power in the Shire, removes himself from Middle-earth, going to the Gray Havens. He passes through, and will there “pass away” - even death exists for a hobbit in the Undying Lands. The poem in the Tolkien Reader begs the question, was Frodo able to enjoy his stay, or was he too corrupted by the Ring to be able to appreciate this sort of heaven-on-or-possibly-formerly-on-earth? The poem seems to me to hint that Frodo’s corruption has removed a part of him that is necessary to see anything but forest, the way that in a dream you can eternally search for something and yet never get any closer.

If Frodo died, then surely Bilbo did too. It seems that Bilbo, whose life has become one nap after another in his old age and decrepitude, will pass on, peacefully, without the torment in his soul that Frodo surely felt for the remainder of his life.

The Ring never really died until Frodo died.



  1. I like your discussion of Bilbo and Frodo’s fates, particularly the dual role of Gollum as an external threat and an internal emotional struggle for Frodo. But I have a quibble. I feel it’s unfair to say that Frodo was “playing no role in removing Saruman from power in the Shire.” He doesn’t wield a weapon in the defense of hobbiton, but Frodo is instrumental in enforcing a code of conduct on the warring hobbits, with his decree not to kill others of their kind, and in advocating for leniency on the part of his enemies. It seems clear his experience with Gollum in the cracks of doom taught the lesson that Gandalf gave to him in Moria, and he is now trying to pass it on to his fellows. Even to the end, Frodo remarks of Saruman “I pity you.” Frodo is also significant as a chronicler of the Bilbo’s book between the scourging of the shire and his trip to the havens.

    I think Frodo is not as static and wholly broken after his ordeal as sometimes portrayed, but still has an important role to take in reconstruction as a counselor and historian, if one less visible than that of Sam’s or Aragorn’s. It sends an important message that a hero has to do more than merely oppose evil in war; they have to build good in peace before they can achieve their final rest. As Sam says, it isn’t the end until one’s cleaned up the mess.

    David Gittin

  2. I am somewhat confused by your depiction of Frodo necessarily failing when it came to the battle with the Ring. You start out by stating that “Frodo, however, is forced to bring the Ring to Mordor” which can be debated. He seems to accept the inevitable fact that he is the one given this task of destroying the Ring and enlists the help of the other races to achieve this goal but it is important that, unlike Boromir, he did not try to take the Ring. Towards the end of his journey he pessimistically tells Sam that he doesn't believe there will be a return journey. I like to believe that this doesn't indicate that he believes his task will fail but instead that once the Ring is destroyed, no matter what happens afterward, he will have completed his mission. The mission seemed to be simply to get the Ring into a position in which it could be destroyed. I do believe it is a blessing, as you say, that Gollum eventually destroyed the Ring, but that blessing could only be realized after Frodo (and Sam) put in the necessary work to get the Ring to the very Cracks of Doom.
    Brian W.

  3. This really is an illuminating post. I especially like the idea of the post-Mount Doom Frodo as an umbra, a wraithlike shadow of himself; “part hobbit and part otherworldly apparition.” We tend to want Frodo to experience a transfiguration-style theosis after the ring is destroyed, but instead Frodo appears to have his spirit sapped away from him (consider the effects of the dementor’s ‘kiss’ from the Harry Potter films, though not as extreme) leaving him wizened, stoic, and reticent. His presumptive heir and manservant Sam, describes the new Frodo as appearing “very pale, with eyes that seemed to see things far away.” When Sam asks if Frodo is well, Frodo replies that he now bears a sempiternal wound. We are left wondering about Frodo’s eventual fate had his wound been allowed to fester. Frodo however prevents this from happening, and, like a disembodied spirit or phantom, he finds rest in an Elysium of sorts, the undying lands of Valinor. Markedly, the new Frodo drifts away from his former existence, as a man would drift into a sleep. He affirms this fact in Book VI chapter 7, stating that at the journey conclusion, he feels as if he is “falling asleep again.” Tolkien makes a brilliant analogy here. The process of falling asleep is a journey from the conscious world—one’s primary reality—to the unconscious reality of the dream, the phantasmic land of faerie. Thus it would make sense that Frodo appears shade-like, for he is at the threshold of Elysium—transitioning in liminality to Life; but to one that is separate from the life that he has known.

  4. This is a very fascinating post. Your analogy of Frodo becoming like an Alzheimer's patient particularly resonated with me.

    That being said, I think your analogy could be carried a step forward. I don't think he was entirely broken as you suggest, but rather that he was overwhelmed yet still fighting. Consider that while he didn't actively defend the Shire he was still concerned with not killing any Hobbits, and that he was concerned with Sam's well-being upon his own departure. While he was damaged, I don't think he was entirely overcome but rather constantly fighting.

    Charles Martino

  5. I really like your point about the Ring living on within a person even after its destruction at Mount Doom. I think that the physical mark of this is the Morgul blade that continues to tax Frodo's health even as the Ring and the Nine Riders were destroyed in the War of the Ring.

    I personally view Frodo's journey into the Undying Lands as one of salvation, where the Gods see fit to bestow upon him some respite from his journey (we see this first when the Eagles descend from heaven to rescue Frodo upon the completion of the quest). Given a lot of the religious symbolism and thematic elements that surround these stories it doesn't seem unreasonable to assume that a "salvation" motif also exists at the end. Frodo, after being corrupted by the power of the Ring in the end, is given some sort of reward for his trials. At least, that is how I choose to see this world.

    -James T.

  6. I like very much the way you phrase it when you talk about the "internal Gollum" and the "external Gollum," but I'm not sure about the light that is supposed to be shining from within Frodo. I had thought of this light as a shining forth from within of Frodo's fea, as it were: a glimpse of what it would be for him to be fully himself, not turning into a wraith. But I think you are spot on with the thought that the Ring is not fully gone until Frodo passes into the West.


  7. You mention that without the ring Bilbo declines rapidly into age and decrepitude. Indeed, I’ve sometimes thought that there are hints that the ring acts as a kind of portrait of Dorian Grey. It simultaneously prolongs vitality and drains it. Somewhere, old age and wrong-doing are catching up with the ring-bearer, and will be revealed when the ring passes to a new owner, like the cracking of the mirror. The theme of the double life of course appears in other places in LOTR. To your point about Frodo, it’s always hard to frame questions of the either/or kind, did Frodo succumb to the ring, or didn’t he? To my mind these are often cup-half-full/cup-half-empty questions, where the answer depends on what piece of the evidence you choose to emphasize. Of course one’s analysis should try to preserve a proportion to the emphasis it displays in situ. But, aside from the analytical approach, you point out some important developments in Frodo’s character. I do agree that Frodo is damaged by the end. As I said once before, with apologies to T.S. Eliot, by the time the cure has come, the patient’s illness is no longer the same. Your conclusion, moreover, resonated with something I once argued in another blog post response. Rather it resonates with an impression that I’ve always had about what happens at Mount Doom. You say that “The Ring never really died until Frodo died.” It’d’ve been more merciful had Frodo perished at Mount Doom. But he actually has to go through the melancholy of maladjustment to life in the restored world. Back to the question of whether he can enjoy seeing the light of the Undying Lands, I suspect so. And I suspect that, had the theology allowed it, even if he had fallen into Mount Doom, he’d’ve seen it as well.