Samwise the Wise

When Confucius was in Qi he heard the music of the Shao, and for three months he forgot the taste of meat. Analects, 7.14


“Me, Sir!” cried Sam, springing up like a dog invited for a walk. “Me go and see Elves and all? Hooray!” he shouted, and then burst into tears. (63)

This, Sam’s reaction to Gandalf’s announcement that he would be Frodo’s companion in the perilous adventure, reveals three essential things about him, all of which we will come to understand more deeply: his loyalty, which here is presented as canine in its instinctual simplicity; his love of elves, which now seems merely boyish in its blithe adventurousness; and his emotional volatility, which makes him seem childishly transparent. He seems appropriately innocuous, a Sancho Panza too little to overshadow Frodo’s Quixote, and not complex enough to bear the weight of the main action — and yet Sam Gamgee (humorously named after the colloquial term for cotton-wool in the Birmingham of Tolkien’s childhood) will turn out to be the real hero of The Lord of the Rings, with a soul that can hold in itself several different worlds.

As Frodo’s humble gardener, he can tend the land well, while harboring a love of exotic tales and ballads. During their first encounter with Elves,

Sam walked along at Frodo’s side, as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy. (80)

It is as if he is afraid of being woken up. The “half” that feels fear secretly knows it is really awake while clinging to the bliss of dream, while the “half” that feels astonished joy has just found out that there is another kind of “awakening” in which one’s eyes are suddenly opened to realms never before imagined. The others might assume that they are awake and never question what they take to be the waking state, but Sam is often unsure. He is much like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he returns to himself.

In various magical encounters with Elfdom, Tolkien juxtaposes Sam’s response with another character’s, because he wants us to notice the special quality in Sam’s experience.

Pippin afterwards recalled little of either food or drink, for his mind was filled with the light upon the elf-faces, and the sound of voices so various and so beautiful that he felt in a waking dream. But he remembered that there was bread, surpassing the savour of a fair white loaf to one who is starving; and fruit sweet as wildberries and richer than the tended fruits of gardens; he drained a cup that was filled with a fragrant draught, cool as a clear fountain, golden as a summer afternoon.

  Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night, though it remained in his memory as one of the chief events of his life. The nearest he ever got was to say: “Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that, I would call myself a gardener. But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean.” (81)

Pippin is not insensible of the otherworldly experience of coming face-to-face with these ethereal creatures of myth, these higher souls who do everything with inconceivable beauty — but for him the experience condenses around tastes, textures and temperatures, and he can almost name them. For Sam, nearly all the exterior details have vanished into an indescribable atmosphere that is contained in the image of a simple apple, an apple that he cannot grow — but what vitalizes this atmosphere is the singing, which “goes” to his heart, his very center. Later, in Lothlorien, there is a similar contrast, but between Frodo and Sam:

The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured forever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain.

   He turned and saw that Sam was now standing beside him, looking round with a puzzled expression, and rubbing his eyes as if he was not sure that he was awake. “It’s sunlight and bright day, right enough,” he said. “I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.” (341-2)

Again, it is not that Frodo is insensible, but that Sam’s sensibility is of a different order. Frodo’s experience can be described with an aching lyricism, and we can watch his mind in these paragraphs searching for words to grasp what is happening. For Sam, however, what happens is much more internal, or rather, he has lost the sense of inside and outside, just as he has lost the sense of waking and dreaming; a song for him is not something he sings, but something he lives inside. The emphasis on inside is potent: he is not just saying that he is a character in a song, but that he is inside the song itself, he is the heart of the song. If Sam were not present, the perspectives of Pippin and Frodo would be adequate to expressing an uncanny, exquisite transcendence of the mundane. In contrast, Sam brings to the whole experience a certain interiority and depth: Pippin and Frodo apprehend it as upwards, a soaring of the spirit, but for Sam it is an inwards, something within the mundane.

This quality is the foundation to Sam’s loyalty, which is encapsulated in the sentence Sam refused to leave his master. (81) It is a feudal loyalty rooted in an archaic social order, but it is not mindless, not unthinking, not a dog’s loyalty. The other characters have to be convinced or convince themselves to follow Frodo; theirs is a faith arrived at because there is no other option as compelling. Thus their faith is founded on judgment, which is in turn founded on a belief that they are capable of judging both the situation and Frodo’s place in it. Sam’s, on the other hand, is a spontaneous and absolute faith, not based on reasons or evaluation — because quite reasonably he never assumes that he is competent to judge. This is related to his inability to tell whether he is waking or dreaming; the whole world is perplexing and astounding to him. What he does see is the particular beings with whom he finds himself in relationship. Unlike the other characters, he can feel intense friendship with an animal, who has a personality and a surprisingly ordinary name — the pony Bill, who for the others is just a pony. Sam has a child’s ability to see an animal as almost everything; he is not capable of seeing “just” a pony, since for such a soul nothing is “just” anything. Everything is incomparable; for there to be a “merely” one has to presume owning a standard from which to measure everything. When Sam has to part with Bill, Tolkien writes as if tactfully averting his eyes in the last sentence:

Sam stood sullenly by the pony and returned no answer. Bill, seeming to understand well what was going on, nuzzled up to him, putting his nose to Sam’s ear. Sam burst into tears, and fumbled with the straps, unlading all the pony’s packs and throwing them on the ground. The others sorted out the goods, making a pile of all that could be left behind, and dividing up the rest. (296)

Most readers are as sad for the loss of Bill as for the loss of Gandalf. The latter comes as a terrible shock, but the former evokes the long quiet grief of all the animals we have lost. It is after the parting with Bill that Sam starts to be written about with genuine respect for an inner world that the narrator himself either cannot see or will not divulge:

“What did you see?” said Pippin to Sam, but Sam was too deep in thought to answer. (325)

The “deep in” has become characteristic of Sam. All of his actions emanate from this depth and indeed are made radiant by it. As a gardener, as a keeper of animals, and as a squire, Sam has intelligent mindfulness for the details, and is sensitive to the moods of those he cares for — but this capacity for care is established only in a heart that lives inside a song.



Lyric and Heroic




Hobbits, like smaller children, are easily attached to little things — particular spoons, pieces of furniture, foodstuffs. The attachment goes with their cozy life, made up of appropriately scaled houses and regular meals and baths, and established firmly on genealogical records and documents of local history. Knowing where we are and who we are guarantees the mental surety we need to enjoy fully what is around us. In the meantime, the seething, shimmering life beyond the borders of the Shire can be ignored; it is somehow not real, not able to compete with silverware and scones. This settled domesticity presents itself as an image of one kind of middle-class ideal, constituted wholly by comfort, pleasure and security, undisturbed by the restless agitation of a soul that hungers for more than this. It is capable of producing nice, genteel lyric poetry about seasons, birds and flowers, but it will be a lyricism sealed off from striving and discontent.

Frodo has this kind of lyricism in his soul; it characterizes his ability to notice little things with surprising objectivity, even at moments of high emotional tension. His perspective lends to the description of the journey the cool, understated, lyrical feel that no other type of figure in the book could have given:

“I wonder if I shall ever look down into that valley again,” he said quietly. When they had  walked for about three hours they rested. The night was clear, cool, and starry, but smoke-like wisps of mist were creeping up the hill-sides from the streams and deep meadows. Thin-clad birches, swaying in a light wind above their heads, made a black net against the pale sky. (70)

The leaves of trees were glistening, and every twig was dripping; the grass was grey with cold dew. Everything was still; and far-away noises seemed near and clear: fowls chattering in a yard, someone closing a door of a distant house…After riding for about an hour, slowly and without talking, they saw the Hedge looming suddenly ahead. It was tall and netted over with silver cobwebs. (107)

The Aragorns, the Gimlis, the Gandalfs would all have been too wrapped up in the grand themes to have described the path in these terms; their minds would have been looking far ahead, or dwelling feelingly far in the past — but Frodo is nearly always there in the present, which is why the turmoil and dread of the murky beings of past and future tend to surface in his dreams and visions. Through Frodo’s eyes, Tolkien’s account of the journey can often feel like a description of a walk he has just taken that day in the countryside near his own house: a very English, mild-mannered, modest description, not distorted by passion, and never solemn (as the human beings in the story can be). The very matter-of-factness of Frodo’s mode of seeing expresses a character that is not easily swept up by the hyperbolic and that doesn’t become rigid in his moral or aesthetic sensibility. Even when hiding in mortal terror from the Dark Riders, he is still open to delight:

They watched the pale rings of light round his lanterns as they dwindled into the foggy night. Suddenly Frodo laughed: from the covered basket he held, the scent of mushrooms was rising. (95)

What is powerful here is not just that he detects the presence of mushrooms, but that he can notice the scent rising — not just the atemporal noun, but the verb in the present. This lyrical openness to the moment is part of the unfathomable quality that attracts Gandalf to hobbits, and it is also what opens Frodo up to the possibility of a very different mode, the epic or heroic. It would make sense to say that Frodo is a lyric being who is thrown into an epic task, like all those Edwardian Englishmen who suddenly had to become the men who could imagine themselves defeating Hitler. I think, however, that in the true lyric soul there already is a germ of epic, for the lyric soul falls easily into fantasy, and its fluid elasticity does not permit it to remain lodged among the things of earth or pinned to the clouds of the sky. Yet what differentiates such a soul from the more simply epic type is that epic action is not a culmination and does not take place for its own sake: heroism serves an end other than the heroic, and that end may be the lyric, which gives us the ability to be content and rich in our mundane lives. This is why a hobbit is a better hero for this book than a man, because it is too natural for men to yield to the heroic obsession.

The distinctiveness of Frodo’s relationship with the world, as it is captured for us in Tolkien’s account of the journey, emerges more clearly if we look at a comparable passage in Tolstoy. The day of the great hunt in War and Peace has many similarities to the sojourn in Tom Bombadil’s house, and one of these similarities is the weather. Here is Tolstoy:

There had been a sharp frost, but by evening the sky had clouded over and it had begun to thaw. On the morning of the 15th of September Rostov stood at the window in his dressing-gown and gazed out on a morning that was perfect for hunting. There wasn’t a breath of wind and the sky looked as if it was melting and dissolving into the ground. The only movement detectable in the air was the gentle descent of microscopic beads of moisture in a misty drizzle. Out in the garden bare branches were hung with limpid droplets dripping down onto newly fallen leaves. The kitchen-garden soil gleamed black and wet like the heart of a poppy, and only a few feet away it melted into the damp shroud of grey mist.

Nikolai went out onto the wet, muddy porch. There was a smell of dogs and rotting leaves. (539)

This description has the solidity and texture of an oil painting. We are there with Nikolai as he scrutinizes the morning. Not only is Tolstoy’s visualization of the moisture in the air lucid and precise, but so is the grasp of the effect of this moisture: damp leaves and wet-dog smell. The olfactory penetration brings us physically into the scene; we are no longer only seeing it. The poppy image also, startling in its originality, awakens in us an awe at the mysterious connection between seemingly unrelated things; after mulling over this image, we re-enter the scene with all our senses and memories freshly engaged.

In contrast, Tolkien’s vision of the wet day has a feathery, water-color feel:

“The room looked westward over the mist-clouded valley, and the window was open. Water dripped down from the thatched eaves above. Before they had finished breakfast the clouds had joined into an unbroken roof, and a straight grey rain came softly and steadily down. Behind its deep curtain the Forest was completely veiled.

“As they looked out of the window there came falling gently as if it was flowing down the rain out of the sky, the clear voice of Goldberry singing up above them. They could hear few words, but it seemed plain to them that the song was a rain-song, as sweet as showers on dry hills, that told the tale of a river from a spring in the highlands to the Sea far below.” (126-27)

“The drink in their drinking bowls seemed to be clear cold water, yet it went to their hearts like wine and set free their voices. The guests became suddenly aware that they were singing merrily, as if it was easier and more natural than talking.” (123)

Lovely as it is, the description doesn’t get beyond seeing, and Tolkien moves quickly from the details of the scene to song and tale — from the present and earthy, to the remembered or imagined. This too characterizes Frodo’s sensibility: it is always moving, and no matter how observant and attached to sensory details it may be, there is in the back of it always song and tale, some echo of mythic or heroic that has the power to distract the prose from merely earthy realities. Although Nikolai Rostov himself is a dreamy, distractable character who can be carried away by visions of martial greatness, nonetheless in the scenes of hunting and at Uncle’s house Tolstoy is at pains to express a deeper fact about Russian soil and soul: they will always remain true to themselves and  cannot be distracted from their fundamental nature. From just the passage quoted above, I think Tolstoy is the greater, more substantial writer — but it may be that Tolkien was deliberately eschewing this kind of substantiality in his prose. Indeed, as a sane Englishman, he would point out that there is something over-idealized and full of fantasy in Tolstoy’s attachment to the Russian countryside, and the “solid,” down-to-earth feel of his descriptions of the fields, the hunters, ‘Uncle,’ and Anisya Fyodorovna are just as mythopoeic as anything in Lord of the Rings. War and Peace is, after all, a fantasy novel too, but wearing the rhetorical mask of history. Furthermore, the Ring preys on a certain insubstantiality and self-uncertainty, and our hero’s vulnerability may lie in his wavering or fluttering between the lyric and the heroic.


The Sacrifice of the Sacrifice to the Sacrifice: An Old Riddle


What is the answer to this crazy old riddle — or barrage of riddles?

1.The Man has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He pervaded the earth on all sides and extended beyond as far as ten fingers.

2. It is the Man who is all this, whatever has been and whatever is to be. He is the ruler of immortality, when he grows beyond everything through food.

3. Such is his greatness, and the Man is yet more than this. All creatures are a quarter of him; three quarters are what is immortal in heaven.

4.With three quarters the Man rose upwards, and one quarter of him still remains here. From this he spread out in all directions, into that which eats and that which does not eat.

5. From him Viraj was born, and from Viraj came the Man. When he was born, he ranged beyond the earth behind and before.

6.When the gods spread the sacrifice with the Man as the offering, spring was the clarified butter, summer the fuel, autumn the oblation.

7. They anointed the Man, the sacrifice born at the beginning, upon the sacred grass. With him the gods, Sadhyas, and sages sacrificed.

8. From that sacrifice in which everything was offered, the melted fat was collected, and he made it into those beasts who live in the air, in the forest, and in villages.

9. From that sacrifice in which everything was offered, the verses and chants were born, the metres were born from it, and from it the formulas were born.

10. Horses were born from it, and those other animals which have two rows of teeth; cows were born from it, and from it goats and sheep were born.

11. When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet?

12. His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Warrior, his two thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born.

13. The moon was born from his mind; from his eye the sun was born. Indra and Agni came from his mouth, and from his vital breath the Wind was born.

14. From his navel the middle realm of space arose; from his head the sky evolved. From his two feet came the earth, and the quarters of the sky from his ear. Thus they set the worlds in order.

15. There were seven enclosing-sticks for him, and thrice seven fuel-sticks, when the gods, spreading the sacrifice, bound the Man as the sacrificial beast.

16. With the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice; these were the first ritual laws. These very powers reached the dome of the sky where dwell the Sadhyas, the ancient gods.

(Rig Veda 10.90, tr. Doniger, Penguin Classics)

This is the famously baffling Purusha-Sukta, or “Hymn to Man,” from the Rig Veda: How does the innocent reader, uninitiated in the mysteries, even begin to crack it? Well, it turns out that because we are human the riddle is already open to us, and the face of the poem is riddling not because it is concealing something clear and simple but because we ourselves are its riddle.

On the first few ruminations the poem seems to lay out the transformation of the human from the disorderly and primitive to the orderly, cultured, religious. Primal man could be everything, ranged freely, was vast in perception and sympathies, and was intimately conjoined and cogenerated with Viraj/Nature. But in verse 6 there is a turn, and the gods — whom he himself might have created — sacrifice him for the sake of creating a higher being with a world. Primal man is replaced by social, religious man; a creature who does not have a world but lives merged with all has become a higher creature who now abides in a realm where he is differentiated from other animals, worships various deities that have emerged from himself, and is divided into different social strata. Man is killed off, and Man is born, the human world is born: the sacrifice seems definitive. Original man has been sacrificed, in a sacrificial ritual that articulates the transition, to a new man who can is not only the sacrificee, as it were, but is now an active sacrifice to the new order because, once we are conscious of the fact of our being creatures of  a distinct world as opposed to no world, each act we do expresses a commitment to the sacrifice — every time we cook a meal, every time we go to work. The transformation looks at first like a leap from undeveloped to developed — or, to use an image from Chinese writings, from an uncarved block of wood to a finished sculpture. In this way, the poem is a witty and concise expression of gratitude for our happier state now — a hymn of praise from the orthodox and satisfied.

To read it this way, however, is to turn the poem into a triumph that corroborates our complacency in the social state we are used to. Can we understand at all the state of Man at the beginning of the poem? Indeed we can, for our access to it is through the imagination of a child, who can take on all things, be all things, enact all things, because the child does not yet live within a certainty of what it is and should be and is limited by. Man at this stage has no sense of time, and no rigid sense of spatial boundaries: the child — not to mention the lunatic, the lover and the poet — is frequently lost in the activity at hand, momentarily forgetting where they are, how much time has passed, and sometimes even who they are. This state, observes the poem, is not just a submergence in the natural world around us; on the contrary, three quarters of it is aerial and transcendent, “trailing clouds of glory” from higher realms. It is a state of being without the differentiations and impositions of self-consciousness and self-alienation. The English Romantic poets tried to describe this, and so did the Chinese philosophers of the Dao, such as Zhuangzi, who saw it as on the one hand becoming a “great clump of earth” and on the other as freely flying with the winds. To them, this state is the best that we are capable of; here we feel most enlarged, most ourselves, most in harmony with the Everything, most connected and yet also most free. We experience it less frequently as we grow older, and the more conscious of it we become, the more we strive to regain it. From this point of view the transformation of verse 6 is our greatest loss.

Other Vedic poems say that we created the gods, for that primal human being has a tendency to bow down before the grandeur of the universe, and from that tendency we create images to whom we grant the authority to ordain our actions. Thus in organized religion we replace the genuine experience of the divine with a theologized godhead whose rule is justified so that we obey, substituting the security of governance for the chaotic union with the ineffable. And it is in obedience to this new authority that we obtain the safety of a world by sacrificing the primal human being: we kill off the chaotic, and well aware that the anointing and dismemberment are an act of murderous destruction, we ritualize it as a consecration.Self-murder is elevated into renunciation or making holy, for such an act can be perpetrated only by ourselves on ourselves. Yet — the ritual has to be performed again and again, indeed every day; it is not a one time thing, a done deal. We are the sacrifice perpetually, and have to re-sacrifice constantly — hence, we “sacrifice with the sacrifice to the sacrifice,” because it is not only an action but what we fundamentally are. Zhuangzi would point out that this is because the primal man cannot be killed, cannot be dismembered and reduced to sizzling lard — because that primordial creature is what we essentially are. Every act of cultural commitment, every day and moment in which we make ourselves into willing subjects of the society in which we find ourselves, involves violence against our basic nature, which is the nature of a child, an innocent, a tree, a cat: we cannot kill this, but each day that we try to kill it re-commits us to a life in which we confess our misery by avowing the need for happiness, which we know we do not have. Zhuangzi’s version of the second half of this poem would be this:

The ruler of the South Sea was called Heedless, the ruler of the North sea was called Sudden, and the ruler of the central region was called Chaos. Heedless and Sudden frequently met in the land of Chaos, who treated them well. Heedless and Sudden conferred how they would reciprocate his kindness. “All men have seven openings for the purposes of seeing, hearing, eating and breathing. Chaos alone does not have them. Let us try to make them for him.” Every day they dug one opening and at the end of the seventh day Chaos died…(tr. Hoechsmann and Yang, 128)

— except that he knows that Chaos cannot really die. It lives on, in pain — and perhaps its persistence in this condition is a worse death than death. The “sacrifice of the sacrifice to the sacrifice” would, in this reading of the poem, be pleonastically and pointlessly reflexive, a desperate self-congratulation of the present state that very much resembles a snake swallowing its tail: it is a dead end, an enclosing, a live burial.

The Hymn to Man is thus ambivalent at its center. Its riddling knottedness reflects the inner warfare not of the poem but of our own hearts: We want the developed world we live in, we want its benefits and its sense of place and meaning, indeed we dread to imagine ourselves living without it — but we also understand, in our heart of hearts, what we give up to get here, every day and every moment. We give up, not gave up — because the first four verses are in the present tense, an eternal present, where we cannot die but can feel undying agony. Not the poem, but we ourselves are the riddle, the being that is double and that feels its doubleness through unhappiness. The Hymn to Man is a richly potent poem because it simultaneously consoles us by presenting a portrait of ourselves as secure and prosperous burgher — but it does not let us forget that beneath this burgher’s robes squirms a flayed man.


“Who Is Tom Bombadil?” (2) — Uncles


Tolkien’s visionary originality in conceiving a vast fantasy epic, well crafted yet also satisfyingly baggy, a gripping war story punctuated with philosophical interludes and spiritual aspiration, must have been at partly provoked by the great Russian novelists. He takes the fantasy epic and lifts it from Poetry to Novel, or something in between. More specifically, in spite of his habit of reviling modern literature, he must have known War and Peace, another novel about the quest for heroism and nobility, which also has the threat of a powerful invader, the build-up and full unleashing of a war, and a protagonist — Pierre Bezukhov — who in his good nature and seeming innocuousness (albeit not in his size) has certain resemblances to a hobbit. Among various other echoes of Tolstoy’s work, one scene stands out as  a forbear to the meeting with Tom Bombadil: Part 4 chapter 7, the conclusion of the great hunt scene, in which Natasha and Nikolai Rostov find themselves in the house of their ‘Uncle,” a character that has much of the “feel”  and some of the other accessories of Tom Bombadil. It could be that Tolkien imitated this magnificent scene, or that he vaguely remembered it, or that he is alluding to it in order to make a thematic point through contrast with it — or that both Tom and ‘Uncle,’ rather than being consciously paired, both emanate from some more archetypal template that also generates similar figures in other European novelists.

This template would be the evocation of a character who carries or incarnates the “spirit of the land,” and who has the wisdom and vitality of that land. The accessories would be a house, a woman, and the produce of that land — and all of this would be experienced by a handful of guests from a more recent world. Indeed, the character and his accessories stand in counter-opposition to a way of being that is modern or corrupt, and cannot therefore play a further role in the novel because there is no place for it in the more recent world that our protagonists find themselves in. This is why both ‘Uncle’ and Tom Bombadil are relatively unimportant for the furthering of plot; their function is to embody the presence of a more ancient way of being that abides in this plot but is not of it. For this reason too they are Uncle and not Father figures, standing outside the lines of generation and not fundamentally involved in the creation of the future.

1. “Uncle” Himself. That Tolstoy refers to him throughout as “Uncle” already suggests that the archetypal resonance is more significant than the individual name. Like Tom Bombadil, he is cheerful, at ease in his own skin, and speaks on the borderline of sense and nonsense: “There was a hint of laughter down one side of his face under his grey moustache, and it broadened out as the song went on and the tempo quickened, while his flourishes tore at the heartstrings…’Uncle’ sang like a true peasant, with one simple thought in mind — in any song the words are the only thing that matters, the tune follows on, a tune on its own is nothing, a tune just brings it all together. And this gave ‘Uncle’s’ natural way of singing a special charm, not unlike birdsong.” (561-2; tr.Briggs, Penguin Classics) Unlike Tom, who is essentially solitary because he precedes society, “Uncle” speaks, sings and plays as a representative of a whole tradition or community whose roots are in the land. However, like Tom, who characteristically wears blue and green (celestial and vernal, blitheness and hope), “Uncle” also wears blue that stands out whimsically against his surroundings of predominantly earth-browns: he arrives “wearing a Cossak coat, blue breeches and low boots.” (558) The blue breeches point to a dreamy inner life and an independence of Manichaean polarities — contrasting with the blacks, whites and greys of typical Father figures.

Moreover, just as Tom Bombadil governs the Old Forest with  natural authority, so too “Uncle,” while eschewing political office, is recognized and sought out as counsel and magistrate: “From one end of the district to the other ‘Uncle’ was thought of as an eccentric but also the noblest and most selfless of men. He was brought in to arbitrate in family disputes and chosen as executor. People told him secrets. He was invited to serve as a justice, and in other similar posts, but he had refused all public offices point-blank, spending autumn and spring out in the fields on his bay horse, winter indoors and summer stretched out in his overgrown garden.” (559) He is a wisdom figure, both ancient and youthful like Tom, but unlike Tom he has an ancestry and a history: “‘Uncle’ led his guests through into a little hall furnished with a folding-table and red chairs, then into a drawing-room with a round birch-wood table and a sofa, and on into his study, with its shabby sofa, threadbare carpet and several portraits — of Suvorov, ‘Uncle’ in military uniform and his father and mother. The study reeked of tobacco and dogs.” (557) The sense of personal history is captured in the state of wear of the furniture and upholstery, but also in the “reek of tobacco and dogs”: in Uncle’s world, stuff and events “hang” in the air, and bear traces. It is significant that Tom Bombadil is “clean” in comparison; the blue and green are perennial freshness, on which history has no power to stick. Tom Bombadil is a version of the Uncle that cannot belong in any history: “He is.”

2. The House. Tolkien’s world is a world largely without smells: there, there are no horse smells, no dog smells, no manure smells, no tobacco smells, no man smells or woman smells, even though there are horses, dogs, manure, tobacco, men and women — and the humidity of that world also doesn’t carry the fragrance of mud and leaves. It is a world essentially “clean” of real bodily presence; instead, we have the bodies of literary epic, which have stature and animation but no smell. Tolkien characters generally don’t stink; if they do stink, it is to betoken evil, for stench in this world signifies moral badness and not the simple fact of being embodied. “Uncle’s” house is different: “The inside of the house, with its unplastered timber walls, was not the last word in cleanliness; nothing suggested that the main aim of its inhabitants was to keep the place spotless, though there were no signs of real neglect. There was a smell of fresh apples as you entered, and the walls were hung with the skins of wolves and foxes.” (Briggs, 557)

Both his house and Tom Bombadil’s have the power to suffuse guests with unaccustomed gladness. The hobbits are so cheerful and relaxed at Tom’s that it is easy for them to forget how many days have passed. Similarly, in “Uncle’s” home of slightly shabby furniture and little passageways leading to unseen rooms full of vivacity, there is mysterious euphoria: “There was a corridor leading from the study, where they could hear the sound of women laughing…Natasha winked at her brother, their mutual glee was uncontainable, and they broke out into a great roar of laughter before they could think of a reason for doing so.” (557-8) The center from which this glee spills out may be “Uncle” himself, who like Tom Bombadil lacks the self-consciousness that can be perturbed by thoughts of other people’s views of them: “Like the pair of them ‘Uncle’ was also  in high spirits. Far from taking exception to their laughter — it never occurred to him that they might be laughing at his life-style — he joined in with the brother and sister, revelling like them in inexplicable glee.” (558)

Yet Tom’s house differs from “Uncle’s” not only in its cleanliness, the cleanliness of new paint, but in having a ceremonial, heraldic quality, everything neatly arranged as if for a ritual, as if emanating from a ritualized reality: “The four hobbits stepped over the wide stone threshold, and stood still, blinking. They were in a long low room, filled with the light of lamps swinging from the beams of the roof; and on the table of dark polished wood stood many candles, tall and yellow, burning brightly.” (121) Sometimes this shades into the ritual arrangements of fairy tales, as in “Snow White” or “Goldilocks”:  “…they followed him down a short passage and round a sharp turn. They came to a low room with a sloping roof (a penthouse, it seemed, built onto the north end of the house). Its walls were of clean stone, but they were mostly covered with green hanging mats and yellow curtains. The floor was flagged, and strewn with fresh green rushes. There were four deep mattresses, each piled with white blankets, laid on the floor along one side. Against the opposite wall was a long bench laden with wide earthenware basins, and beside it stood brown ewers filled with water, some cold, some steaming hot. There were soft green slippers set ready beside each bed.” (123)
   It is a world of beings who have not grown up, and serves here either as a temporary refuge from the ineluctable growing-up that Frodo is hurled into in the larger narrative, or as a signal that the world of Tom Bombadil is wrapped an infantilizing atmosphere, in which guests would not reach their full fruition if they were to linger.

3. The Woman. The Uncle has a partner — not a wife, because there is no power high enough to authorize this relationship, and not a mother-figure, because their relationship has to remain in a state of fluid play and not end up subordinated to the needs of family. Thus there is always something ambiguous in this relationship:

“…the door was opened by a serving woman who from the sound of it was walking on bare feet, and in padded a plump, red-cheeked, good-looking woman of forty or so, with a double chin and full red lips, carrying a large heavily laden tray. Her eyes radiated good will and her every gesture spoke of warm hospitality as she looked round all the guests and treated them to a broad smile and a polite courtesy.

“For all her exceptional stoutness, which made her bosom and her belly stick out and her head tilt back, this woman (‘Uncle’s’ housekeeper) moved with surprising elegance. She walked over to the table, put the tray down, and with a few skillful movements of her puffy white hands transferred bottles, dishes and snacks to the table-top. This done, she walked off and paused in the doorway for a moment with a smile on her face. ‘Take a good look — it’s me! Now can you understand how ‘Uncle’ lives?’ was what her expression seemed to say to Rostov. Who could have failed to understand? Not only Nikolay, but Natasha understood ‘Uncle’ now, and what had been meant by that furrowed brow and that smug smile of contentment hovering around his pursed lips as Anisya Fyodorovna had come into the room.” (558)

She is earthy, rounded, experienced, deft, sexual, at home in her world and in herself, a figure of natural grace yet not outside the mesh of time. In this description, her name comes only at the end, as if it makes no sense without the prior account of her unique excellences. She knows she holds the key to “how ‘Uncle’ lives” — the ‘how’ indicating not only indifference to conventional judgments, but also the insistence that there is a place for bodily pleasure and satisfaction in this version of a good life. As we noticed before, Tolstoy is not afraid of bodies.

In contrast, Tolkien’s description of Goldberry, with her silvers and golds,  her petals and pools, has the feel of a Pre-Raphaelite painting:    “In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water-lilies were flowing, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool… she was clothed all in silver with a white girdle, and her shoes were like fishes’ mail.” (121, 129) She is a picture of a woman, and not a woman — ethereal, with fairy-tale accessories, indeed almost an elf or a fairy but not quite, and not human either. There is no sexuality in this picture. Tom and Goldberry have a celibate bond based on their relationship to the forest; they relate to each other like children, dwelling on little things such as berries, pebbles, and flowers. They are two eternal beings frozen in a state of innocent, presexual play, having no internal knowledge of desire or betrayal. For this reason the Ring has no power over them, but for this reason too the hobbits must move on, because the world of Tom and Goldberry is incomplete, ultimately stultifying. Tolstoy’s account of Anisya Fyodorovna has exactly the blooded warmth that this relationship lacks, although Tom and Goldberry do have gentle affection and admiration for each other.

The contrast is reinforced by the foodstuffs they bring to the table. Tom Bombadil says, “I see yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries gathered.” (122) This is picnic food, or snacks for tea — a small child’s picture of an ideal meal, with little appreciation of the work involved in producing the bread, butter and cheese. Goldberry’s queenly description does not suggest hands that thrive when churning butter or kneading dough. Anisya Fyodorovna, however, is the sturdy mistress of a farm, capable of doing all the work herself as well as directing others, and the food that she brings to the table is an extension of her own body:

“On the tray were a bottle of home-made wine, several different kinds of vodka, tiny mushrooms, little rye-cakes made with buttermilk, oozing honeycombs, still and sparkling mead, apples and all sorts of nuts, raw, roasted, and steeped in honey. Then Anisya came back in bringing preserves made with honey and sugar, along with ham and a freshly roasted chicken.

“All these delicacies had been grown, picked and prepared by Anisya herself, Every smell, taste and flavour seemed redolent of Anisya, redolent of her plumpness, cleanliness, whiteness and her broad welcoming smile.” (558-9)

She is bodily nourishment incarnate, content in this world because she is not agitated by longing for a world beyond, an artist of earth’s pleasures. Her table suggests a mental self-sufficiency, emotional abundance, no aching void that seeks the infinite to fill it — and thus Tolstoy’s description actually expresses, without needing to say it, the interior strength that would be invulnerable to the Ring. ‘Uncle’ and Anisya Fyodorovna are the antithesis of Napoleon.

If Tolkien was aware of this alternative possibility in his conceiving of Tom and Goldberry, he instinctively chose the less earthbound route. It is as if he recognized that the lives of such beings as ‘Uncle’ present a deeper vision of the Hobbiton life, in which the little comforts hold depth and meaning and are not so little after all. He may suspect this to be a truer vision of things, but he wouldn’t want us to get mired in a world where satisfaction is possible, because to him what makes us more fully human is the quest for an ideal that cannot be embodied or even held.







“Who Is Tom Bombadil?” (1)


Early on in The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits meet a character who saves them from trouble twice and who yet doesn’t appear again in the whole book: Tom Bombadil, the most enigmatic figure in Tolkien. Many readers hate him: he seems a distraction from the grim conflict looming over the whole world; indeed, he doesn’t express interest in it, and even his manner of dressing, talking, and singing seem to belong in another book (his name has the folksy ring of “Johnny Appleseed’ or “Jack the Giant-Killer”). For these reasons the movie adaptations have simply left him out. His appearance in the narrative is also apparently random; he could have appeared almost anywhere as an interlude in the action, yet for some reason Tolkien places him near the beginning of the journey — as if he were meant to make a lingering impression, to stay in our minds as a significant thought or an overtone of possibility. If the book as a whole is only an adventure and conflict narrative, then Tom Bombadil may indeed be an unnecessary diversion, and Tolkien might have made a mistake — but we see throughout that Tolkien is a shrewd and subtle story-teller, and the presence of a figure like Tom surely signals that the ambition of the book reaches further than mere adventure. One reason readers dislike him is that he makes an impression disproportionate to the few pages in the book allotted to him, and yet this impression is not enfolded literally into the larger plot. Whenever a great writer gives us a character or episode that does little to further the plot but is simply there, you can bet that the presence of this is to add some kind of commentary to the action, to reveal a new level of meaning to the plot.

Tolkien himself seems to want to keep this character enigmatic, undeveloped. In his densely conceived fictional world, every character and creature seems to have a designated place in space and time, a history and a genealogy, so it is significant to find one so shadowy and at the same time so powerful. Very few people in the book have even heard of him. Gandalf knows him but is reticent about him, and Elrond himself is unsure who he is (258), even though they are neighbors. Why would Tolkien have created a character like this? Understanding this might help us to see more deeply into the kind of book The Lord of the Rings really is.

Tom Bombadil appears when the hobbits are ensnared in the malevolent Old Forest, rescues them, and takes them home. He comes to us “singing nonsense” (116) and wearing “an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band.” (117) A little later, “Tom was all in clean blue, blue as rain-washed forget-me-nots, and he had green stockings.” (129) The dress belongs to one of those itinerant older male figures of fairy tales, a bard or a peddler, and it expresses whimsical lightness of spirit — no solemn wisdom, no obsession with power, unlike the whites, blacks and greys that are worn by those whose interests center upon power and governance. The trees listen to him — not because he is somehow owns them but because of natural authority. According to Goldberry, “The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.” (122) In a book that concerns itself intensely with questions of rulership, Tom appears then as a different kind of ruler, with a different kind of authority, uninvested in genealogy or force but having something to do with ease and fearlessness.

“Who is Tom Bombadil?” asks Frodo. “‘He is,’ said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.” (122) At this the reader wonders: Is he God, the I Am? — or if not God, then some being who exists in an eternal present and who can take no predication? When Frodo later asks Tom “Who are you, Master?” the response is equally strange:

“Eh, what?” said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless — before the Dark lord came from outside.” (129)

He is something between an unfallen Adam and Prajapati, the primordial man of the Vedas, but unlike such figures he carries none of the solemnity of The Father; rather, he is an Uncle, trusted, jovial, affable yet distant, earthy yet also ethereal — the primal permaculturist, letting the things around him be themselves. If we take these his self-description literally, he is a supernatural figure, enlarging his own stature by speaking of himself in the third person and turning himself into a pagan earth-god.

Let us listen to his reply carefully. “Eh what?” He is surprised by the question, as if such a question were strange to him: Why would anyone ask such a thing, and what do we ask for when we ask it? Who is the who we are looking for? We know from personal experience with those close to us, and from experience of ourselves whenever we say or do things that we never thought were in us to say or do, that the person we can claim to know is not the same thing as the person before us who has a fathomless capacity for generating surprises. “Don’t you know my name yet?” — as if we know him already, as if he were already an intimate part of our lives. The yet is powerful. “That’s the only answer.” The question is the only answer? Either we know the name or we don’t, but Tom is saying something deeper — “Don’t you know my name yet?” is the only answer to “Who are you?” Perhaps in all honesty this is true of all human relationships: there are people we know and people we don’t know, and of those we know, we know the names, whatever names may be, whatever we really call them by in our heart of hearts. With our intimates it is rarely their social names that we name them with when it matters. “Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?” This is a counter-challenge to the naming challenge. Who are you? is not the same as What is your name? Tom Bombadil, after all, is a ridiculous name for an eternal pagan god; just so, “Frodo” may be a ridiculous name for who he is, which he does not know. Who he is is alone and nameless. What could he mean? Frodo is not the representative of all the social relations that his records and genealogies, his ties with family and friends, his list of legal possessions and bonds; Frodo is something else, which cannot be summed by all the relational tags — he is the being that underlies them and moves through them, inhabiting and animating them. The name “Frodo” is as idiotic as “Tom Bombadil.” The being Frodo is a vast abyss of surprises that cannot be determined beforehand. Perhaps this is true of all beings, perhaps it is true only for certain figures such as Tom and Frodo; Gandalf certainly recognized this depth in Frodo. It is a depth that is boundless in time and space because it is coexistent with all time and all space — soul itself, which animates us in our space-time dimension but that also lives in eternity, and lives outside the space-time continuum.

Carl Jung in an essay called “Synchronicity” describes a number of cases of deja vu, when we know that an experience we are now having has been experienced before; or of knowing that something has happened when a loved one on another continent falls seriously ill or dies; or of seeing clearly an event that has not yet happened, but that then happens. Ordinary experience requires contiguity in space and time, but experiences like the ones just given — which most of us have had — show that the psyche does not need spatio-temporal contiguity for experience. It has one foot outside space and time. Thus, Tom Bombadil sounds like a supernatural figure if we interpret him, literally, to mean that in the world of space-time he preceded, chronologically, the raindrop and the acorn; but what he means is that the place he really lives from, outside space and time, precedes and succeeds and is coeval with all the moments of history. He is free, and this is why he is fearless and why the Ring has no hold on him. It is also why Gandalf later says that the Ring cannot be entrusted to his safekeeping because Tom will lose it carelessly; from his point of view, what’s more interesting about it than a raindrop or an acorn? His is a position for which the epic and the heroic have no significance, and if Frodo is to accomplish his task he has to move on. Tom Bombadil may have the fundamental truth of things, but the greater story that is to be fulfilled needs us to honor him, worship him, and then leave him behind. Nonetheless, he is the first to reveal that the essence of Frodo is profound and nameless, and therefore invulnerable to the forces of evil. He gives Frodo reason to have faith in something great in himself that might win, or at any rate not lose, and being attuned (if only partially) to this depth, Frodo is able to undertake the great task.

Some have wondered if Tolkien might have intended to unmask Tom Bombadil later as a force for evil; after all, he presides over the Old Forest and the Barrows, both places of sinister malevolence and ancient grudges. But neither of these is “evil” in the same way that Sauron is evil. They are naturally spiteful, hateful, places, and Tom is matter-of-fact about them as a gardener would be about aphids and weeds. The beings of these places may be dangerous, but they are not threatening on the level of significance — whereas the Ring and its makers have the power to make human life and hobbit life into a grey thing not worth living, Tom is beyond their drama — and perhaps in this respect, he helps Frodo to focus on the more interesting drama, the one about goodness.

On Getting Lost

No writer has ever described more accurately the feeling of trudging through a landscape, of finding a path, of getting lost, than Tolkien. Much of the Fellowship of the Ring is about leaving the confines of home and launching out into unfamiliar territory, and this journey on foot over particular quirky terrains is meticulously unfolded and is an essential thread in the book. Very often when we read we make the mistake of predetermining in our heads which parts are crucial and which “transitional”: the battles, the key conversations, the confrontations, the councils, are all crucial, whereas the bits in between — in which the protagonists attempt to “get there” — are seen as physically necessary but not thematically essential. The underlying prejudice takes for granted that the narrative is for the sake of the destinations and climaxes, and the wanderings over land can be skimmed because locomotion is after all an inconvenient task that we undertake to connect places that are important to us. It is this prejudice that makes airports, bus stations, train stations so ugly and unpleasant, not to mention the planes, buses and trains themselves: Because we view the physical activity of travel as a regrettable necessity, the forms of travel themselves become dismal. Yet careful readers have always known that in a great work of literature the supposed “transitions,” when considered seriously, contain as much of the whole as so-called major chapters or scenes do. In the growth of an animal, would we consider adulthood the interesting thing, and all the preceding stages merely means to get there? — or is the flowering of the rose, the full moon, the most important aspects of moons and roses? The Japanese writer Kenko is surely right to say that to think like that would be as vulgar and puerile as to think that the only thing interesting in a romance is sexual consummation. For this reason Tolkien’s careful attention to the realities of journeying and to the resistances of topography cannot be ignored as only passage-work.

For example, read this slowly:

“He soon found that the thicket was closer and more tangled than it had appeared. There were no paths in the undergrowth, and they did not get on very fast. When they had struggled to the bottom of the bank, they found a stream running down from the hills behind in a deeply dug bed with steep slippery sides overhung with brambles. Most inconveniently it cut across the line they had chosen. They could not jump over it, nor indeed get across it at all without getting wet, scratched, and muddy. They halted, wondering what to do…They waded the stream, and hurried over a wide open space, rush-grown and treeless, on the further side. Beyond that they came again to a belt of trees: tall oaks, for the most part, with here and there an elm tree or an ash.” (87)

Tolkien renders perfectly what it feels like to be finding a way through wooded terrain, the ups and downs, the surprising obstacles, the periods of thought and decision. In such terrain we cannot see very far, and so every few yards we have to take stock, recalculate, and recommit; there can be no long route followed effortlessly. When we are alone in a forest and suddenly realize that we are lost, there is always a moment of embryonic panic that then has to be reabsorbed in order for us to think calmly. The panic has to do with all kinds of grim imaginings — what if we don’t get home before dark, what if we freeze out here? — but even when we know that nothing terrible will happen, there is still the panic that needs to be suppressed — and this panic is more primordial, a panic at lostness itself, which is fear of being caught in an alien and unnavigable world. When accompanied by a group we tend not to feel this, since companionship muffles fear; it is harder to feel that panic when there are people around us who could help.

This early landscape is English, with familiar features such as hedges, gates, dikes, and trees with known names; nevertheless, even this landscape has to be read and navigated, its turns and passages correctly interpreted. Tolkien expresses a tangible sense of crossing over ground, and one can almost smell mud and moist air as the hobbits pick their way over the ruts of the lane. This landscape is involved in lives and purposes, histories and intentions, unknown to the journeyers; the trick is always to move past obstructions and not antagonize further obstruction.

“The sun escaping from the breaking clouds, as it sank towards the hills they had left, was now shining brightly again. Their fear left them, though they still felt uneasy. But the land became steadily more tame and well-ordered. Soon they came into well-tended fields and meadows: there were hedges and gates and dikes for drainage…They passed along the edge of a huge turnip-field, and came to a stout gate. Beyond it a rutted lane ran between low well-laid hedges towards a distant clump of trees.” (89)

The detailed account of this foot-journey is no mere transition but a necessary stage in the “training” of the hobbits. Prior to the journey, the news brought from distant lands might well provoke terror at unknown forms of destruction now slowly approaching; the imagination runs wild, and the will caves in to it. What happens on the journey counteracts this: We now have to pay attention, make singular decisions as to where to turn, how far to go — and each decision both reveals who we are and habituates us to some tendencies that we might need for the challenges ahead. The hobbits do not tend to crash recklessly through undergrowth, or to take turns whimsically; their strength is a cautious decisiveness that may come from being so close to the ground. A friend has described this entire process of getting lost and finding the way as a “taming of the imagination” — a disciplining of desire and dread, to make both head and heart clearer.

It is only after this that the hobbits enter the Old Forest, and here the landscape feels markedly different: no longer the lived-in English countryside, but thick primeval woods not hospitable to humans or hobbits. This time the forest feels the way it would to a small child who is lost in it: looming, menacing, confining, dark, and of dubious intentions. This may actually be our more primal relationship to forest, not Wordsworthian faith but deep mistrust stemming from acute knowledge that we really do not know what kind of a world this is. This forest governs us, forces us into paths we are not sure we want to take:

“At length they made up their minds to go on again. The path that had brought them to the hill reappeared on the northward side; but they had not followed it far before they became aware that it was bending steadily to the right. Soon it began to descend rapidly and they guessed that it must actually be heading towards the Withywindle valley: not at all the direction they wished to take. After some discussion they decided to leave this misleading path and strike northward; for although they had not been able to see it from the hill-top, the Road must lie that way, and it could not be many miles off. Also northward, and to the left of the path, the land seemed to be drier and more open, climbing up to slopes where the trees were thinner, and pines and firs replaced the oaks and ashes and other strange and nameless trees of the denser wood.

“At first their choice seemed to be good: they got along at a fair speed, though whenever they got a glimpse of the sun in an open glade they seemed unaccountably to have veered eastwards. But after a time the trees began to close in again, just where they had appeared from a distance to be thinner and less tangled. Then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles. These lay unusually right across their line of march, and could only be crossed by scrambling down and out again, which was troublesome and difficult with their ponies. Each time they climbed down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth, which somehow would not yield to the left, but only gave way when they turned to the right; and they had to go some distance along the bottom before they could find a way up the further bank. Each time they clambered out, the trees seemed deeper and darker; and always to the left and upwards it was most difficult to find a way, and they were forced to the right and downwards.” (112)

The move from Shire to Old Forest is not only temporally sequential, but feels as if in fact the Old Forest is the underlying reality of the seemingly benevolent countryside. Beneath domesticated nature, where we wander through a labyrinth of man- or hobbit-made routes, there is the specter of primeval nature that is not necessarily friendly to us and that we have to treat with caution, even fear — because there we are truly lost, vulnerable, puny. Here the hobbits are genuinely unsettled, and their relationship with nature destabilized in a way that it wasn’t before, even when pursued by the Riders; in those frightening moments they were able to hunker down behind a bush or in a hollow, finding refuge in nature. In the Old Forest there is no refuge, and going through this might be an essential education both for surviving the hostile landscapes to come as well as to appreciate the serene beauty of places like Rivendell and Lorien.

There is one other dimension to these descriptions of wandering: they are given from the point of view of a narrator who knows the topography intimately. The characters may be lost, but the narrator knows exactly where they are at any moment. This illusion of authorial topographical omniscience creates in us a sense that the landscape is real, pre-existing the characters, indeed INSIDE which the characters are located, as if on a map. It is not merely a setting for the action, but one of the principal characters in the action — and as we shall see, each landscape ends up affecting the characters and altering them as they are forced to have a relationship with it and to negotiate, deal, with it. This is why Tolkien paints the journey with such painstaking detail: the trudge over difficult ground may be the very heart of the book, for it is in this that Frodo finds not only his way but himself finding his way. And there is no way to find, if one first doesn’t realize that one is actually lost.


Tolkien: Midway in the Journey of our Life…


The Lord of the Rings is a grand adventure that can enthrall the young, but it is a book that speaks most directly to those of us who have felt loss and emptiness, who have succumbed to temptation and who long to restore a beauty that has been lost. Every page of the book refers to or describes the broken vestiges of former times when there was heroism, nobility, magnificence — all either gone, or embodied in a few wanderers here and there. The many long passages of our protagonists trying to find their way in a strange landscape and getting lost evoke the beginning of Dante’s Inferno: “Midway through the journey of our life I found myself lost in a dark wood…I cannot rightly tell how I entered it.”  We wake up one day to discover that the person who had the innocence, the hope, the dreams, has vanished, and has been replaced by a person whom we do not recognize as ourselves but who vaguely remembers what it is to have dreamed and hoped. What usually happens next is that we succeed in convincing ourselves that this drab new person has awoken to reality, and that the hoper and dreamer was nothing but a fantasist who will inevitably be ground and pulverized by experience.

This indeed happens to most human beings. We spout platitudes like “It is what it is” to reconcile ourselves to reduced aspirations that reach no higher than the knees. One of Tolkien’s wisest inspirations is to choose hobbits as his heroes, little people, the undying child in the heart of adults who can still yearn. These creatures take longer to grow up, apparently — just as most human beings in fact take a longer time to relinquish the things of childhood than their outward behaviors might suggest. The hobbits of Hobbiton — who are not necessarily representative of the entire hobbit species — are lovers of comfort: their cozy little houses with reassuringly rounded doors and windows, their multiple breakfasts (the favorite meal of most children), their love of furniture and spoons and everyday things. Their lives are a sweet parody of the middle-class dream: a world without troubles, but with soft seats and dependable warm meals. No wonder that a hobbit like Frodo — avid listener to Bilbo’s adventures and poetry, a friend to wanderers — would be discontented by such a world and long for something more: “…to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the starlight….He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange vision of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself: ‘Perhaps I shall cross the River myself one day.’ To which the other half of his mind always replied: ‘Not yet.” (41, 42) He is bursting out of the confines of Hobbiton. It is more than inquisitiveness about the larger world, but a whole-being need felt even in his feet, which have to roam. When the dark riders appear, Frodo risks everything to get a peep of them: “Frodo hesitated for a second: curiosity or some other feeling was struggling with his desire to hide.” (73) It is this “other feeling” that I find interesting, for it might not have a name because it is bigger than can be named.

Jung calls it enantiodromia, the need of the soul to “run in the opposite direction” midway in life. We spend our first decades building up our strengths, developing in one direction, fortifying the foundations that have to support the rest of our lives, our families, our aspirations — but in the process of doing this, we are oversimplifying, narrowing, flattening ourselves. Our souls are so much more than the strengths we build them into, and they know it — so midway in our lives a strange pressure intensifies that pushes us in the directions we have neglected. Either we choose to become more complete by anticipating or responding to this inner urging, or we ignore it only to find that it hits us in the back: the man who has been a puritan fanatic succumbs to a sleazy sex scandal; the successful CEO and entrepreneur falls into a black depression and abandons all his work; the formerly happy mother of three suddenly feels empty and leaves the family to live in an ashram in India. Frodo anticipates it. The Hobbiton hobbits live in repression; they are comfortable, they seem to have all they need and seek nothing outside their small lives — but they resolutely ignore the peril that encroaches on their borders, and show no interest in the vast tides beyond that might drown them. The ignoring of external difficulties is necessarily a reflection of the ignoring of internal ones; their obsession with comforts is in fact a fear of what is intractably uncomfortable — namely, suffering and death. In the descriptions of the Shire there seems to be no place for a cemetery, no mention of burial practices, in spite of the abundance of records of ancestry. Hobbiton hobbits live in an illusion of perpetual coziness, a world that is always something and filled with somethings. All this is cloying to Frodo, who feels trapped and wants the vastness of seas and mountains, and who is drawn by the Nothing that the Black Riders represent and that the Ring summons.

It is no coincidence that Tolkien puts Frodo’s age as past the “tweenses,” past youth where everything is still possible and nothing is truly begun yet: “…his fiftieth birthday was drawing near: fifty was a number that he felt was somehow significant (or ominous); it was at any rate at that age that adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo. Frodo began to feel restless, and the old paths seemed too well-trodden.” (42) At fifty, the life might be seen as complete; one is stable, settled, finished — yet very often, when a person reaches this point at which there should come a sense of order and fulfillment, the soul refuses and is faced with an upheaval. It could come from inside, as depression or as what seems to everyone else as insanity; or it could come from outside, as a task imposed or as a thrown-down glove that one can take up or turn away from. All too often we reject the upheaval: This shouldn’t be happening to me, I was looking forward to peaceful twilight and not to a storm. The acceptance is much harder for someone who thinks he knows what he is and what he loves, and yet is confronted with laying those aside and following what he must. For the weaker soul this manifests as a choice between equals, and such souls are torn apart by the dilemma; they cannot choose one horn without regretting the loss of the other, and since there is no going back the regret is life-long. But Frodo is stronger.

“I should like to save the Shire, if I could…” (61) It starts as a simple heroism, uncomprehending of the depth and power of the menace, but even in these early chapters he knows that the quest is more important than comfort and contentment, and that he must do the thing that perhaps only he can do. Underneath this there is the desire to have the great task that only he can do, the task that presents itself not as one option among many possible options but as a destiny that is felt in the heart. Thus he can enter into this with some blitheness, graciously shouldering the burden that he cannot yet weigh. By the time he has to renew his commitment in Rivendell, he knows not only that he has to renounce his dream of earthly happiness but also that he can, to the deep respect of his companions: “An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.

“‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.'” (263-64)

The longing fills all his heart, yet the “other will” that speaks through him is not not Frodo, but the greater Frodo that is not a mere individual but a destinied individual, a hobbit who is not complete but who has to undertake this terrible thing on the way to completion. The nobility of Frodo is that unlike heroes for whom the heroic task is natural and who can think of nothing else they would rather be doing, Frodo is old enough and knows himself well enough to know that there is something he would rather be doing but that there is a big thing that he must be doing — not only for the sake of all those who depend on him, and those great ones who expect it of him, but also for his own sake, only because he is called to it — because he is Frodo, and yet must become fully Frodo. In the middle of our life’s journey, Frodo without hesitation takes the road to do the thing that can kill him, and he does it with a calm, matter-of-fact dignity characteristic of the little guy who has reflected, and who is willing to take on death with open eyes.