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.



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