‘Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,’ said Merry. ‘We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.’
‘Not to me,’ said Frodo. ‘To me it feels more like falling asleep again.’ (LOTR 997).
I was particularly struck by Merry and Frodo's conversation upon returning to the Shire because it speaks to how Frodo experienced his journey so differently than Merry. The passage above can be interpreted in several different ways and in this post I will attempt to find the interpretation that makes the most sense to me using Tolkien’s “Notion Club Papers” and The Lost Road.
When Merry says "it seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded", it implies that he has returned to the waking life, and that he is as someone who is awake and trying to grasp at the fading memory of the dream. We see this difficulty in retaining dreams after one is awake primarily through Ramer's experiments in "The Notion Club Papers", and also through Albion's experiences in The Lost Road when he is trying to recall fragments and a few words escape before he can write them down. I don't think it is the case that Merry is still in a dream that is fading off while he is asleep. He is returning to the Shire, after having travelled in Space (and Time, naturally) and so I am inclined to believe that he views his journey as a dream much like Ramer’s experiments with Space and Time travel, and that he is now returning to his waking life.
This interpretation of Merry’s experience is now very interesting contrasted with Frodo's very cryptic statement of "it feels more like falling asleep again". There are differing ways to read Frodo's statement. Falling asleep again could mean he was asleep (dreaming), woke up, and fell back asleep (as an end to waking life). Frodo could view his time in the Shire before the journey as having been a dream, experienced the journey as his waking life, and now returning to the Shire is like falling asleep and dreaming again.
Or he could be viewing the journey as a dream, woken up briefly (perhaps when the Ring was destroyed?), and then fallen asleep again and is perhaps now entering another dream.
Both interpretations of Frodo's statement rest heavily on the fact that his experience was ultimately shaped by his possession of the Ring, while Merry’s experience was not. The hold of the Ring over Frodo seems to trump all else, all other influences in his mind, when compared to the other hobbits. He is the only one who can resist the spell of the Barrow-wight, and he is also the only one that we know of who can dream the way Tolkien describes in “The Notion Club Papers. He can see things in his dreams that he previously had no knowledge of, and that end up being true (recall the dream of the Grey Havens, the Sea, and Gandalf escaping Isengard). So is the hold of the Ring over a Frodo like that of a dream? Is it what ultimately propelled him into a "waking life" by taking over completely and becoming his waking reality?
Tolkien seems very interested with the notion of dreams and how they can spill over into one’s waking life (NCP 195). He also implies you don't have to be asleep to be dreaming "Of course there isn't any distance between dreams and waking, or one kind of dream and another; only an increase or decrease of abstraction and concentration... You can lie "deep" and sodden in body-made dreams, and receive clear visions in "light" sleep (which might seem on the very margin of waking (186)”, where marginal means when the mind is wandering and not focused on anything in particular.
With "The Notion Club Papers" and "The Lost Road" as a guide, I venture to interpret Frodo's journey as his waking life, but with a dream that has spilled over into it. The dream is almost like an undercurrent, I would say, running in the subconscious of waking life. The hold of the Ring is the dream, which "soaks through all levels, and illumines all the scenes through which the mind passes out back into waking, and so it flows out into this life (NCP 195). Because Frodo's life comes to be defined by his journey of the Ring, it becomes his waking life and everything else becomes less real to him afterwards. The removal of the Ring from the world does not remove several of the lasting effects on Frodo, many of which are physical such as long life. Physical changes are not possible while dreaming so it must be taking place in Frodo's waking life.
The Ring and its hold on Frodo facilitate the exploration of the layers of waking and dreaming. Frodo, Merry and Pippin all dream in Tom Bombadil’s house but only Frodo sees a dream that later comes true (the Grey Havens) and one that already occurred in the waking world but he did not know about (Gandalf). The hold of the Ring cannot be discounted despite the fact Tom is not affected by the Ring. Merry is unable to see Frodo when he puts on the Ring because he still disappears. Here in Tom Bombadil’s house it would seem we have multiple layers of dreaming. Something about his house causes Frodo, Merry and Pippin to have dreams, but the hold of the Ring over Frodo is still first and foremost so this spills into his dreams, which would explain why his dreams differ in nature from the other hobbits. Frodo’s dreams are much more like those of Albion and Audoin where according to Alboin, he is left with “the feeling that he had seen things and heard things that he wanted to see, very much, and would give much to see and hear again (LR p49).” This brings to mind the dreams of the Sea and the Grey Havens. Yet I believe Frodo’s dreams are actually more like Audoins’ because Audoin dreams in pictures, although Frodo’s dreams have sounds in them such as singing and the sound of the waves.
Finally, I believe what Frodo means by “falling asleep again” can best be interpreted by considering what happens when Alboin falls asleep: he and Audoin go back in Time. When Frodo sees the Shire again, which seems to have remained relatively unchanged, he must have felt as if he was going back in Time, back to over a year ago, to the beginning of the expedition. Frodo knows what it is to go back in Time in his dreams, albeit not far, unlike the other hobbits who do not possess the Ring, because he sees Gandalf escaping which had already happened by the time he reached Tom Bombadil’s house. Ultimately, Frodo’s experience differs than Merry because Merry views the journey as like a dream, traveling in Space and Time. Frodo, however, doesn’t feel like he is dreaming until he returns to the Shire, whereupon he feels as if he has falling asleep and is now dreaming, therefore going back in Time and Space.