Adult Consolations: Tolkien on Fantasy

Only in the English-speaking world are fairy stories relegated to the children’s section. In Germanic cultures, the Märchen is for everyone, and often too dark for children; in France, the Conte is a sophisticated, sometimes cynical genre. Tolkien is insistent that the best fairy stories are for adults. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” written in 1939, over a decade before The Lord of the Rings, he wrote:  If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can. (p.15) What, then, will adults “get” from a serious reading of The Lord of the Rings? Tolkien offers three benefits of reading good fantasy: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

   Great works of literature generally give us ways to experience our world afresh, to make the familiar unfamiliar. Our world is often lost to us through overfamiliarity, such that we no longer pay attention to the people and things around us; literature helps us to “recover” the world we have lost. Perhaps all art does this in some way. 

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (19)

Fantasy literature “recovers” by getting us to imagine alternative worlds composed of elements from our world, but reassembled into new combinations and reshaped. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series illuminates the world we think we know by making us live for a while in an alternate universe the features of which bear a distorted resemblance to elements of our own. The effect is to tickle and startle us into a new perception of our lives,  in much the same way as Chesterton’s word Mooreeffoc perplexes us:

Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. That kind of “fantasy” most people would allow to be wholesome enough; and it can never lack for material. But it has, I think, only a limited power; for the reason that recovery of freshness of vision is its only virtue. The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits; but it cannot do more than that: act as a time-telescope focused on one spot. (19)

Tolkien then differentiates this valuable effect from the powerful thing that happens when “creative fantasy” unlocks what is inside you (your hoard) and liberates it to surprising transformations:

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you. (19)

What does he mean by this? In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s long education through Bilbo’s stories and songs frees him to imagine possibilities for himself that those around him would never consider; it opens up his ability to undertake the grinding trek to Mordor and gives him the faith that the often perilous struggle might be good for him. It also renders him incapable of simply living in the Shire any more. Creative fantasy has the power to dissolve ties that we thought were natural and unbreakable.

   From unleashing the imagination it is only a small step to Escape, the second great benefit of fantasy. Tolkien disagrees strongly with people who denigrate “the literature of escape”:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it. (20)

There is nothing in itself wrong with the need to escape; in many situations, escape is understandable and justified. It might be argued that most forms of literature are “escapes” from our ordinary lives, in that through them we are taken to different times and places and meet different people. This can be a very good thing — again, loosening our chains to the world we take for granted by getting us to entertain other possibilities. The escape from ideas of natural Necessity also includes what Tolkien calls “the Great Escape: the Escape from Death,” with which fairy tales and religions share a preoccupation. This fictional freedom from necessity may be the virtue and the vice of fairy tales: on the one hand, why should there be only one necessary way for things to be? — and on the other, surely the habit of thinking in terms of Escape will trap the prospective escapee in a permanent misery of resisting what in fact cannot be resisted — such as sickness, old age, and death.

   Against the facts of the irresistible, the third benefit of fantasy literature is Consolation, which is the essence of the fairy tale and which is manifested as a “eucatastrophe”:

…Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. (22)

Kata-strophe itself literally means “downturn,” or “overturn.” The prefix eu (“good,” “well”) expresses a reversal of the downturn, a fixing of the upset. A good example would be the confused action leading to the destruction of the Ring: in spite of Sam’s incapacitation, Frodo’s sinister change of heart, and Gollum’s frenzied triumph — or because of them — the Ring is destroyed in a sequence of events that nobody would have imagined beforehand. 

   But is the Eucatastrophe a mere plot element, just another form of peripeteia? — or is it a an irruption of grace, even when the downward plunge of plot has not been reversed? Tolkien seems to mean both of these.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.  It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (22-23)

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect in a serious tale of Faërie. In such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. (23)

These “piercing glimpses of joy” arrive as revelations of a world behind or held within our world; they irradiate the surface world of the narrative, giving it a luminous transparency in  which the hidden dimension expressed through song and poetry suddenly becomes manifest. Such moments are “eucatastrophic” because they unexpectedly redeem or save the seemingly hopeless world. Of all the characters, Sam is the most receptive to the “turn,” as when he encounters the magic of Lothlorien:

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.” (Fellowship, 341-2)

Even in the depths of hardship he has the intense sensitivity to beauty that we see in Japanese literature, where a hardened warrior can be brought to tears by a glimpse of the moon:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. (Return, 199)

There are several extraordinary moments like this throughout the book. Another memorable moment is the one at the end of the “Siege of Gondor” chapter in which Gandalf, about to be assailed by the Black Rider, hears a cock crow:
   

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
   And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last. (193)

Here, we have eucatastrophe on two levels: the horns of Rohan signal a happy turn of the plot, while the cock’s crow — which does nothing to further the plot — illuminates the darkness of the situation with a reminder of the beauty of the dawn.

   Without such moments, the story would be not much more than a chain of events, an action narrative, without “heart” or “soul.” Tolkien’s point is that the outer sequence of events is held together by an “inner consistency” that gives it solidity and depth. The sequence of events is not all there is, but issues from a meaning or logos that lights it up to one who is sensitive. The reader who is attuned to this inner consistency can feel how all the disparate elements of the story cohere into a meaningful pattern — just as Gandalf is able to sense at the outset that Gollum might have a function in the whole. 

Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” (23)

   Tolkien compares the eucatastrophe to the evangelium (eu-angelium: good news), a kingdom of grace that permeates the world and redeems it all from its sins and stupidities. The novel, however, does not necessarily announce any such religion: there is no God, apparently also no gods, no afterlife, no linear plot of ascension and salvation, no theology of sacrifice. A Buddhist might well experience the eucatastrophe as nirvana in samsara; a Hindu might see a flash of the One Brahman in the multifarious universe. In Middle-earth there are beings like Tom Bombadil who have existed from the beginning of an uncreated universe, and there are many hints of long ages that succeed one another with cyclical logic. The world-weary Elrond speaks as one who has seen it all before and knows that we will see it again. The history of Middle-earth is not redeemed by any Deliverer from high, but from something that glows within it and transfigures it with unearthly beauty. Tolkien is adamant that any true Fantasy will be lit by this, and that it is something that adults will be moved by more than children. The Consolation consoles because it brings us back into contact with something that we tend to lose with age: an attunement with the magic of the world, the fairy improbability of everything.

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Sam’s Deep Breath: The Exquisite Ending to the LOTR

Sometimes a man gets up from his dinner
And walks outside and walks and walks and walks —
Towards a Church, that stands in the East.

And his children bless him as if he were dead.

And sometimes a man, dying in his house,
Remains inside, remains in dish and glass,
So his children are drawn out into the world
Towards the Church that he forgot.
(Rilke, Book of Hours, 2.19)

Frodo and Sam have been ones who walked and walked to the end of the quest. Since any adventure ends either in death or in a return to less adventurous reality, the chapters that ensue after the completion of the quest inevitably feel like an anticlimax in comparison to all the heroic action. Frodo is saved from the anticlimax of living by being given a special destiny in the ethereal West, but Sam has to come back down to the hobbit house of dish and glass, chair and baby. Many have felt the ending to The Lord of the Rings to be not only anticlimactic, a disappointing descent for Sam’s high aspirations — but also terrible, because in consigning him to his new domestic role Frodo has in fact abandoned Sam to a half-life in which all his rich yearning will have to be suppressed in the face of incomprehension. He apparently ends up as the third kind of person, who is not in Rilke’s poem: the one who went out, came back, and is now imprisoned for life in dish and glass. Everything depends on how we read the very last line of the novel — which, as I hope to show in this essay, is the fitting and true climax to the story, carrying the full force of the preceding thousand pages.

And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
   He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.
(311)

Rose is the mother-figure who swallows him back into comfort and domesticity. If the book had ended with this action — and put little Elanor upon his lap — we would have been left hanging in the air: we need Sam to say something, to show us where he is, to prove his commitment, otherwise the lacuna will be filled only with the reverberating grief of Frodo’s departure. What is in that “deep breath,” and what is meant when someone says “well, I’m back”?

   The final chapter takes place firmly in Sam’s point of view: The clearing up certainly needed a lot of work, but it took less time than Sam had feared. (301) For the most part it continues so, with Sam trying to make sense of what is happening:  It was a fair golden morning, and Sam did not ask where they were going: he thought he could guess. (307)  The only exception is when Frodo has a fit while Sam is away doing forestry work, but presumably the narrative gives this to us because Sam is later told about it by Farmer Cotton, who was the one who found Frodo in his fit. Three times in this short chapter the phrase “torn in two” comes up between Sam and Frodo. The first time, Sam is bringing up his dilemma of wanting to live with Rosie and Frodo at the same time:  ‘I feel torn in two, as you might say.’ (304) This is a problem with an easy practical solution, but it masks a deeper dilemma, which is not about how to live with two people, but about how to live in two worlds:

‘I wish I could go all the way with you to Rivendell, Mr. Frodo, and see Mr. Bilbo,’ said Sam. ‘And yet the only place I really want to be in is here. I am that torn in two.’
   ‘Poor Sam! It will feel like that, I am afraid,’ said Frodo. ‘But you will be healed. You were meant to be solid and whole, and you will be.’ (306)
We saw in The Fellowship of the Ring that the special thing about Sam is that he is a fusion of two opposite perfections. On the one hand he is supremely practical in taking care of people, animals, and plants; he is well suited to being the gardener of the Shire, an earthy and affectionate statesman. On the other, he is also the most lyrically rapturous of the hobbits, with his mind and heart constantly in the realm of song and legend — as when, in Lothlorien, he feels himself to be inside the song. He has two worlds, and the blessing of the quest is that for a thousand pages at least, and by the side of Frodo, he is able to inhabit them simultaneously. But how will he do that back in the Shire? Frodo understands  Sam’s torn heart, and it is striking that he interprets it as a wound: “you will be healed.” What does he mean by this? He cannot mean that both worlds will become integrated in Sam’s life in the Shire — because if that were possible, Frodo himself would not have to leave. And he cannot mean that time will take its course and sooner or later Sam’s ties to the story and to Frodo will be superseded by familial absorption; he knows all too well that Sam is governed by unshakeable loyalty, that his yearning is profound, and that if that absorption were to happen it would mean that the Sam we knew has died inside. Could Frodo’s words be mere empty consolation, based on nothing more than faith and hope? The consolation is repeated and amplified a few pages later:

‘And I can’t come.’
   ‘No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.’
   ‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too. for years and years, after all you have done.’
   ‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone. so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on. (309)
From the perspective of legend, it would be right for all the Ringbearers to leave together, and Sam must have accompanied Frodo with this possibility in mind. This moment echoes the moment when Éowyn turns up in armor and ready for battle, only to be told to stay behind; and her acceptance of Faramir instead of Aragorn, and a healer’s life, raises the same questions as Sam’s return: is she forced into domesticity, does she surrender, or does she assent? Frodo’s consolation to Sam is that he will be needed and also surrounded by love, and that there is greater growth for him along that path — whereas the sojourn in the West is a kind of final stasis and happy embalming, with no prospect of movement or growth. Frodo knows that while he himself has been completed, finished, by the quest, Sam is not and has more work to do, which he can be happy in. 

    When Frodo leaves, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are filled with a sadness that was yet blessed and without bitterness. (309) What kind of sadness is this? There is sadness at anything good coming to an end or being lost, but most endings and losses are confused, entangled, unresolved. This one is a clean finish, with nothing left undone, and with the chance to bid a real farewell. And yet the sadness is profound.

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.
   At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire. but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road. (311)
To understand what Sam is feeling, we have to search into our own experience and remember a time when we actually stood for hours in silence lost in emotion. I recall once, as I lay on the top bunk of a Chinese train compartment, noticing how the old man in the opposite bunk lay there gazing for six hours at a small photograph held between thumb and index finger of his right hand, his face without expression, his body absolutely still. Such is the remembrance of a person who is saying goodbye not to a person or a thing but to a whole essential history; it is almost a farewell to life. The grand story that he has been part of, the great love that he has felt, now has to reside far inside him: hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. The three hobbits know that they have concluded this part of their lives, and that it is definitively gone; this is why they never again look back. 

   Thus Sam returns with full heart, and Rosie — if she loves him — must know it, and also understand why he isn’t beaming to be home. She has to settle him back into his role physically. He drew a deep breath: he doesn’t only take a deep breath; rather, the drawing is effortful, deliberate, a slowing down of emotions and heart, a self-settling and reorienting.  This is not easy for him. Part of him had not expected to return, after all. Well, I’m back — not just I’m back. The well is like a sigh, a gasp, expressing surprise and discovery. It is acknowledgement that he might also not have come back, and also that miraculously he has found a reason to be back. If you have ever experienced the temptation to walk away from everything and then, to your own puzzlement, nonetheless refused the temptation and returned, you yourself will have drawn that deep breath and said Well, I’m back, if only to yourself. But Tolkien is not done: the last words are he said. Sam has to utter the thought before he can truly be back, for the words are a commitment. Tolkien’s phrasing could be taken to mean “Well, I’m back” was what he said, suggesting that there are things that Sam isn’t saying and perhaps will never say, at least to these people. 

   Sam’s torn nature is his peculiar completion. Whereas Frodo’s completion renders him unable to live in the Shire, Sam can live because he has two worlds and is well established in each of them. He will never be fully here, but perhaps the other world in the background can be sublimated in his earthly work — growing plants with magical elf-dirt, for example,  and being keeper of the legends for his community, and raising his children with stories from “the church in the East.” The novel’s last line gives perfect expression — in soothing iambic pentameter — to the mystery of Sam, who — like Tolkien’s readers — have no choice but to find a way to occupy two worlds, the one we imagine and the one we have to live in. 

“An Evil Thing in Spider-Form”

Why must the entrance to Mordor be guarded by an ancient “evil thing in spider-form”? Why do Frodo and Sam have to pass through the dark, spiraling tunnel of Shelob’s lair before they can reach Mount Doom? Not only is the spiral path up a cone reminiscent of Dante’s spiral journey downwards in the Inferno and then upwards in the Purgatorio, but the figure of Shelob — like the Balrog in the Mines of Moria — also recalls the various guardian beasts that Dante places at crucial transitions. Although Tolkien insists that he is not writing allegory, his guardian monsters nonetheless carry allegorical resonances beyond their function as physical obstacles in the narrative. To get at Shelob’s peculiar resonances, we have to pay attention to the way Tolkien handles her in the narrative as well as the unusual, sometimes startling words he uses to describe her. 

Whenever a skillful writer seems to break one of his own implicit “rules,” it is a signal to the reader to sit up and prick the ears. Near the climax of The Two Towers, when Frodo and Sam have found a way out of Shelob’s lair and are running towards the summit, Tolkien interrupts the action by doing something that he never does, at least in the Lord of the Rings: at this crucial moment, in the midst of a breakneck escape, the narrator pauses to give us “background.” Ordinarily, Tolkien supplies background through his characters, as when Elrond gives an account of the war, or when Gandalf tells us what he knows about the Balrog, or when Tom Bombadil is described by Goldberry, Gandalf, and himself. This way of rendering the world may carry less authority than a clear account from an omniscient narrator, but has the effect of being more honest to how we really form a picture of the world: do we not work with our little experience of what the person or thing says and does, the words about it uttered by other people, and our fluid interpretations of our experience and other people’s words? In our own lives we can never take an encyclopedic perspective. Besides, Tolkien knows well that a habit of presenting background to every personage and situation makes for a clumsy and boring narrator. 

   At first Shelob is presented piecemeal, through the sensory experience of the hobbits. First, there is pitch-blackness, in which the absence of markers causes all sense of time to disappear:

 Gollum led the way close under the cliff. For the present they were no longer climbing, but the ground was now more broken and dangerous in the dark, and there were blocks and lumps of fallen stone in the way. Their going was slow and cautious. How many hours had passed since they had entered the Morgul Vale neither Sam nor Frodo could any longer guess. The night seemed endless. (Ch.8, p.319)

If eternity is a state beyond time, then this is a kind of negative eternity, in which no calibration of progress or regress, motion towards or away from, location or destination, is at all possible. This darkness, however, is not void of any quality, for it does give out an overpowering stench: 

Darker it loomed, and steadily it rose as they approached, until it towered up high above them, shutting out the view of all that lay beyond. Deep shadow lay before its feet. Sam sniffed the air.

`Ugh! That smell!’ he said. `It’s getting stronger and stronger.’

Presently they were under the shadow, and there in the midst of it they saw the opening of a cave. `This is the way in,’ said Gollum softly. `This is the entrance to the tunnel.’ He did not speak its name: Torech Ungol, Shelob’s Lair. Out of it came a stench, not the sickly odour of decay in the meads of Morgul, but a foul reek, as if filth unnameable were piled and hoarded in the dark within.

`Is this the only way, Sméagol? ‘ said Frodo.

‘Yes, yes,’ he answered. ‘Yes, we must go this way now.’

‘D’you mean to say you’ve been through this hole?’ said Sam. `Phew! But perhaps you don’t mind bad smells.’

Gollum’s eyes glinted. `He doesn’t know what we minds, does he precious? No, he doesn’t. But Sméagol can bear things. Yes. He’s been through. O yes, right through. It’s the only way.’

`And what makes the smell, I wonder,’ said Sam. `It’s like – well, I wouldn’t like to say. Some beastly hole of the Orcs, I’ll warrant, with a hundred years of their filth in it.’ (Ch.9, p.326)

In general, Tolkien is not a writer who notices smells; even his corpse-strewn battlefields do not reek of slaughter and decay. He describes the other-worldly fragrance of healing herbs in The Return of the Kng, but in The Two Towers there is only a stench so tangible that it is felt like a blow:

At length Frodo, groping along the left-hand wall, came suddenly to a void. Almost he fell sideways into the emptiness. Here was some opening in the rock far wider than any they had yet passed; and out of it came a reek so foul, and a sense of lurking malice so intense, that Frodo reeled. And at that moment Sam too lurched and fell forwards. (ch.9, p.328)

Gollum’s words are suggestive: He doesn’t know what we minds, does he precious? — as he addresses the Ring, his only companion during his many years in the depths. Sam implies that they are standing above something like a vast grave and privy, holding — hoarding — the vile refuse of hundreds of years of Orc and spider bowels; and when Gollum uses the words through, right through, he too evokes bowels, an alimentary passageway which has even been his home for a while. Gollum has lost all squeamishness, and seems not even to notice the smell. To beings not inured to it, however, the badness of the smell is not physical but moral; it is as if this particular stink is intended to offend and brutalize — for why else would something smell so unnaturally bad?

   The third aspect of Shelob, as she manifests herself bit by bit in the darkness, is her sound, startling and horrible in the heavy padded silence: a gurgling, bubbling noise, and a long venomous hiss (328) — a mixture of poisonous snake and diabolical cauldron, a vat for processing meat. It is after the hobbits break out and manage to see her whole that Tolkien the narrator interrupts the action to give us the “background” to Shelob, just in case we were tempted to think of her as only a monster to be defeated on the way to the goal:

There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Lúthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Dúath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.

Her past is essentially impenetrable: is she older than Tom Bombadil? Who is Ungoliant, and does Ungoliant have an origin?  Does Shelob have to be coeval with her food, Men and Elves? Does she eat flesh? — or is she an ancient vampire, living on blood and then casting the drained husks into the pit below? At this point the description starts to go beyond the physical: how does a creature grow fat with endless brooding on her feasts? Can brooding make one fat? What is it to weave webs of shadow? And what does it mean to say all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness? What is it for her to vomit, and how can darkness be vomited? Are the webs of shadow her vomit? What does this have to do with brooding, and what does the conjunction for mean here? Why not and? Physically, the description makes no sense, but spiritually it makes powerful sense in its evocation of a spreader of corruption and degradation. 

   Gollum treats her like a pagan god, either because he really thinks of her as one, or because he knows that she thinks of herself as a deity deserving worship and sacrifice:

Already, years before, Gollum had beheld her, Sméagol who pried into all dark holes, and in past days he had bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret. And he had promised to bring her food. But her lust was not his lust. Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.

Tolkien’s diction in these passages is thick, gnarled, full of knots: and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret? “Darkness of her evil will” is intelligible, suggesting a brew of malice, hatred, blindness, and inscrutability — but in what sense does such a will “walk” beside someone, and does “all the ways of his weariness” mean “eveywhere he went in his exhaustion,” or “all the actions and movements that came from his despair”? Does this evil will “cut him off from light and from regret” because under Shelob’s influence he deprives himself not only of actual daylight but also of his capacity for moral insight and innocent joy (two connotations of “light”), and is also rendered morally numb. The sentence reminds us that Gollum once had “light and regret” — but are these permanently gone, or can they be revived when he is out of Shelob’s reach? We are then told that she only desired death for all others, mind and body: thus, it is not merely the physical food of flesh that nourishes her, but the death of all others — and how would death of mind feed her, except as the profound  spiritual malice that delights in crushing love and hope? The foulness of Shelob is an expansive, metaphysical foulness that goes way beyond vampirism. She embodies the anti-life and anti-spiritual, and thus is uncontainable by anything merely geological: swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her. What is meant by “the darkness”? — the one inside the mountain, or the one she vomits, which comes from inside herself and must be a moral or spiritual darkness? The implication is that she cannot be limited and, from inside herself, is unceasingly extending her borders. This, then, is no simple spider, but a spirit of negation.

   As the description progresses, the resonances amplify:

But that desire was yet far away, and long now had she been hungry, lurking in her den, while the power of Sauron grew, and light and living things forsook his borders; and the city in the valley was dead, and no Elf or Man came near, only the unhappy Orcs. Poor food and wary. But she must eat, and however busily they delved new winding passages from the pass and from their tower, ever she found some way to snare them. But she lusted for sweeter meat. And Gollum had brought it to her. (332-3)

Infinitely ingenious in her snaring of food, Shelob is not satisfied  only by meat: she lusted for sweeter meat — innocence , joy, love, which Gollum knows he can deliver in the form of Frodo and Sam. Does she communicate her lust by speaking to Gollum, or does he figure it out through some kind of latent sympathy? If she can speak her lust, it would seem that she has the deliberative, persuasive intelligence of a creature who is not fundamentally alone; but if Gollum can pierce her darkness to guess this desire, he must understand from within himself the satisfaction of devouring the morally sweet. He can understand that from her point of view he will be bringing “nice food”:

`We’ll see, we’ll see,’ he said often to himself, when the evil mood was on him, as he walked the dangerous road from Emyn Muil to Morgul Vale, ‘we’ll see. It may well be, O yes, it may well be that when She throws away the bones and the empty garments, we shall find it, we shall get it, the Precious, a reward for poor Sméagol who brings nice food. And we’ll save the Precious, as we promised. O yes. And when we’ve got it safe, then She’ll know it, O yes, then we’ll pay Her back, my precious. Then we’ll pay everyone back! ‘ (323)

We now see what Gollum has grown not to mind. He doesn’t mind digging around in the chewed bones of his former companions, and by implication, if he doesn’t find his Precious there, he also won’t mind searching for her in the pit of Shelob’s excrement. We realize that in his years hiding in the mountain Gollum has become a denizen of the sewer, and both physically and morally, nothing is too dirty for him. If this utter loss of inhibition comes about through badness or weakness of character, Gollum would be straightforwardly loathsome or contemptible — but the reality is more disturbing: his corruption issues from nothing less than love, which can value preciousness in something outside himself. 

   In contrast, both Sauron and Shelob find nothing precious but themselves, and every other being a means for their own satisfaction. Their relationship is symbiotic:

And as for Sauron: he knew where she lurked. It pleased him that she should dwell there hungry but unabated in malice, a more sure watch upon that ancient path into his land than any other that his skill could have devised. And Orcs, they were useful slaves, but he had them in plenty. If now and again Shelob caught them to stay her appetite, she was welcome: he could spare them. And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat (his cat he calls her, but she owns him not) Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made. (323)

What could be worse than Shelob’s horrifying, deadening darkness? — Sauron’s delight in hearing the reports of her play with victims. We can only imagine the questions he would ask and the pleasure of his contemplation. In Shelob, we see a mindless lust to devour goodness, but in Sauron — more sinister because Tolkien only hints at it and lets us imagine — we encounter contemplative, aesthetic sadism, a refined evil.

   Others have written about The Two Towers as a book of war, in which Tolkien draws from his experience as a soldier in some of the worst battles of World War I — for example, how the journey through the Dead Marshes resembles the experience of crawling through No Man’s Land during the battle of the Somme:

Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror. ‘Dead faces! ‘.        

Gollum laughed. ‘The Dead Marshes, yes, yes: that is their names,’ he cackled. `You should not look in when the candles are lit.’


`Who are they? What are they? ‘ asked Sam shuddering, turning to Frodo, who was now behind him.
‘I don’t know,’ said Frodo in a dreamlike voice. ‘But I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them.’ Frodo hid his eyes in his hands. ‘I know not who they are; but I thought I saw there Men and Elves, and Orcs beside them.’

`Yes, yes,’ said Gollum. `All dead, all rotten. Elves and Men and Orcs. The Dead Marshes. There was a great battle long ago, yes, so they told him when Sméagol was young, when I was young before the Precious came. It was a great battle. Tall Men with long swords, and terrible Elves, and Orcses shrieking. They fought on the plain for days and months at the Black Gates. But the Marshes have grown since then, swallowed up the graves; always creeping, creeping.’ (Ch.2, p.235)

The passage also invokes Dante’s journey over the frozen Lake Cocytus, where he sees innumerable bodies in the ice. Shelob, the ancient goddess presiding over an abyss of blood, bones, and excrement, at the climax of a book of war, can be read as an incarnation of the mindset that doesn’t mind war, and that can live quite happily suspended over this nasty abyss.

   But I think Tolkien means her to be much more. The poets of the Upanishads saw our universe as an unending process of hunger and consumption: for a being to survive, something else has to die — and our lives, moment by moment, are made up of eating, digesting, and excreting other beings. We too are food; we do not get to escape the universal process. Shelob’s malice consists in trying to prove to us that we are nothing but this process: we are essentially food and shit, and essentially beings that reduce everything else to food and shit. This is the meaning of the overwhelming stench. Shelob is a vision of ultimate degradation, in which all higher aspiration quails to nothing. Sauron comprehends that all those trying to enter his kingdom via Shelob’s lair will perish as much from despair and demoralization as from fangs; to survive Shelob, we will need the invincibility of genuine love, which is why Sam and Frodo can make it, and also Gollum, who loves one thing. Of course, Sauron does not believe in this, so he expects Shelob to batten on all intruders.

   The narrator, having given us this important background to Shelob, then returns to the action. While we the readers now have a fuller sense of what Sam and Frodo are facing, they do not know what we know:

But nothing of this evil which they had stirred up against them did poor Sam know, except that a fear was growing on him, a menace which he could not see; and such a weight did it become that it was a burden to him to run, and his feet seemed leaden. (323)
The horror of Shelob is moral and spiritual in its reverberation, but through our heroes — who are not simple, but sensitive and innocent — such horror is felt with visceral immediacy, for true evil cannot be hidden but is atmospherically evident to the pure of heart. That we are allowed to know what they have no suspicion of makes them more helpless, more vulnerable, but also perhaps more capable of action; to have brooded over the meaning of Shelob might only have paralyzed them, and Sam’s heroism will be founded on love, not knowledge. 

Frodo’s Laughter


In life, it is almost impossible to predict what a rescue or victory will look like before it happens: often, an apparent victory is Pyrrhic, and an apparent rescue may be “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” In fiction, victories and rescues can take obvious, stereotypical forms, such as the valiant destruction of the enemy in battle, or the seizing of the doomed hero from the maw of death; without doubt, we find these more predictable climaxes in The Lord of the Rings. But what distinguishes Tolkien’s power as a writer is his insight into the small and seemingly insignificant moments that most people do not notice — which is one reason he chooses to centre his epic on hobbits, beings whom no one could have expected to play the pivotal role in a cosmic conflict. He knows that the greatest turns in a story may come through a look, a gesture, a word — for such “little” things can change minds and hearts, and since all actions issue from minds and hearts, it is the “little” events in the soul that create the story. They are only considered “little” because they are not obvious to us, and they are not obvious to us not because they are little but because we are not good at noticing such things.
   In the second half of The Two Towers, nestled in dark crannies far away from the great battles, we witness a great transformation in Frodo’s spirit, effected by nothing less than the words of Sam. In chapter 3 of Part 4, Frodo finds himself paralyzed by a sense of hopeless inadequacy:

He sat upon the ground for a long while, silent, his head bowed, striving to recall all that Gandalf had said to him. But for this choice he could recall no counsel. Indeed Gandalf’s guidance had been taken from them too soon, too soon, while the Dark Land was still very far away. How they should enter it at the last Gandalf had not said. Perhaps he could not say. Into the stronghold of the Enemy in the North, into Dol Guldur, he had once ventured. But into Mordor, to the Mountain of Fire and to Barad-dûr, since the Dark Lord rose in power again, had he ever journeyed there? Frodo did not think so. And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fate. But he had taken it on himself in his own sitting-room in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. This was an evil choice. Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice? (Ch.3, p252)

This is the despair of one who has just realized that he has undertaken a task impossible for him, and that the only outcome of the undertaking is “terror and death.” It is the sense that some of us wake up to in mid-life that we are unrescuably embarked on a course from which no success or happiness can be reasonably expected, and in which there is no guidance from anyone: we are on our own, without even the light of old hope. And Frodo is also exhausted.

   What starts to lift him out of his despondency is Sam’s unexpected reaction to Gollum’s report of a sighting of men:

`Were there any oliphaunts?’ asked Sam, forgetting his fear in his eagerness for news of strange places.
   `No, no oliphaunts. What are oliphaunts? ‘ said Gollum.
   Sam stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’), and began:
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house.
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie. 

‘That,’ said Sam, when he had finished reciting, `that’s a rhyme we have in the Shire. Nonsense maybe, and maybe not. But we have our tales too, and news out of the South, you know. In the old days hobbits used to go on their travels now and again. Not that many ever came back, and not that all they said was believed: news from Bree, and not sure as Shiretalk, as the sayings go. But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. So when you said “Men out of the South, all in red and gold,” I said “were there any oliphaunts? ” For if there was, I was going to take a look, risk or no. But now I don’t suppose I’ll ever see an oliphaunt. Maybe there ain’t no such a beast.’ He sighed.
(255)

Nowhere previously in the narrative has there been any mention of “oliphaunts,” a word from Old French that evokes wild imaginings of the great animal in medieval courtly romances. The possibility of an oliphaunt appearing pops suddenly out of Sam’s mouth, and it is one of those indications that Sam has an inner life that we are not privy too: his mind bursts with legend and lore, and throughout the journey, in his long stretches of silence, he must be thinking about things like oliphaunts. Moreover, even though they are in one of the darkest episodes of the journey, his excited curiosity temporarily banishes fear. This is a lesson for us: curiosity can kill fear, not just the cat. 

   When he “sighs” at the thought that he might never see an oliphaunt, his sad resignation is both insane and exhilarating: Now, at this terrible moment when you are staring failure and death in the face, you are worried that you might never see one of those mythical beasts from the poems of your childhood?! What exhilarates is the evidence that Sam doesn’t fully live here, in his immediate physical surroundings. This is why for him curiosity can conquer fear: his inner world, mostly hidden from us but occasionally manifest in his encounters with Elves, is much larger and more beautiful than his physical world, and it may be more real and vivid. What moves him most deeply, as we saw in Lothlorien, is the discovery that his inner world of image and story can spill over into the material universe in which he has to eat, act, and die. Unlike Frodo, who is driven by a heroic quest, Sam is on this journey because he wants to find out if the legends that have shaped his life are true or not — that is, whether in his own experience it may be possible for a legend and an actual life to tread the same ground. His concern for oliphaunts is far from trivial. 

   Gollum of course isn’t interested, and we don’t yet know that he has already hatched his plan to kill them both. What is interesting is that he maligns his old self: Smeagol, obsessed with finding the secrets of the world, would have been very interested in oliphaunts, but Gollum seeks to emphasize that he only thing that interests him now is safety. Frodo, however, is something of a mean between Gollum, who has long since given up the dream of happiness for himself, and Sam, who is invincible because most of his being is alive in a dream of happiness. This is why be can understand both: Gollum and Sam are two poles of Frodo.

`No, no oliphaunts,’ said Gollum again. ‘Sméagol has not heard of them. He does not want to see them. He does not want them to be. Sméagol wants to go away from here and hide somewhere safer. Sméagol wants master to go. Nice master, won’t he come with Sméagol?’

Frodo stood up. He had laughed in the midst of all his cares when Sam trotted out the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt, and the laugh had released him from hesitation. `I wish we had a thousand oliphaunts with Gandalf on a white one at their head,’ he said. `Then we’d break a way into this evil land, perhaps. But we’ve not; just our own tired legs, that’s all. Well, Sméagol, the third turn may turn the best. I will come with you.’ (255)

He had laughed: Only now are we told that the background accompaniment to Sam’s recitation was Frodo’s laughter. I can imagine that the laughter began when Sam adopts his recitation posture of standing straight with arms behind his back, a posture in which the poetry can shine proudly forth through face and chest. It is also the posture of a confident 10-year-old boy declaiming on stage — Sam’s unbreakable inner child, ready to stand and recite in even the darkest times. This magnificent vision is the first that loosens Frodo from his despair.

    Later, when they catch sight of the troop of men,


To his astonishment and terror, and lasting delight, Sam saw a vast shape crash out of the trees and come careering down the slope.
(269)

Again, “lasting delight” balances out “astonishment and terror” — and it is “lasting” because it can be savored in words and memories forever. The apparition of a real oliphaunt brings about a contact with immortality that completes a life and thereby renders death harmless:

Sam drew a deep breath. ‘An Oliphaunt it was!’ he said. `So there are Oliphaunts, and I have seen one. What a life! But no one at home will ever believe me. Well, if that’s over, I’ll have a bit of sleep.’ (270)

What a life! The greatest satisfaction would be to find ourselves living the life that we only dreamed about in our childhoods; only then could we go to sleep happy and fulfilled, even in the midst of battle.

   Frodo’s reinvigoration continues when, a few chapters later, the same conversation is resumed — once again, when he expresses grim hopelessness:

‘I don’t like anything here at all.’ said Frodo, `step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.’
‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. `And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into? ‘

   `I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.‘ (320-21)

And you don’t want them to: in other words, to be a participant in a story, you cannot be omniscient, because what it means to be someone in a story is that you don’t know how things are going to go or what the next moment will be, and you cannot really choose how things will turn out. Without the ignorance and terrifying uncertainty, there would be no stories and no heroes, only a chain of actions and events no more significant than any other. 

   As before, Sam is always fascinated by where tales end and “life” begins: do the two worlds councide or leak into each other, is the world of legend infinite like time and the universe? In these passages we witness Sam thinking aloud; perhaps these are good examples of what goes on in his head during the long trudge to Mordor. He may be the only character in the Lord of the Rings permitted to unveil his interior monologue, the swirl of his private preoccupations apart from the demands of the immediate action. Because Sam lives in two worlds, he is always wondering about his place in them and about how they might go together.

   What happens next in the conversation is surprising and powerful, because it holds the key to how Frodo finds the strength to go on:

‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. `But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’
   ‘And then we can have some rest and some sleep,’ said Sam. He laughed grimly. ‘And I mean just that, Mr. Frodo. I mean plain ordinary rest, and sleep, and waking up to a morning’s work in the garden. I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time. All the big important plans are not for my sort. Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, or course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring! ” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave. wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”‘
   `It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. ‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad? ” ‘
(331-22)

In the course of the conversation there arises in Frodo a new way to view his struggle: he learns, through Sam, to see himself as a character in a great story. No longer is he merely Frodo the hobbit, but now he is Frodo and the Ring, accompanied by Samwise the Stouthearted. From now on they will be the inspiration of books and movies, and of radiant faces enthralled by their story. The sudden realization is what makes Frodo laugh his long clear laugh. All the other characters are some how locked into dull, rigid programs: the warriors have to be warriors and they know at every step the grim duty they must follow, and the villains pursue their own narrow ends without humor. Warriors and elves have genealogies and histories, and it is for these that they live — to fix their names, and ensure their legacies. But genealogies and histories are not tales: tales exist for the sake of “lasting delight,” and they contain such beings as hobbits and oliphaunts — improbable creatures. Tolkien’s warriors are never astonished by their own improbability. It takes the comic sensibility of a hobbit to be amazed by self-recognition, and to laugh in it. The comic mind can step outside itself and see itself from new angles, precisely because it does not have a deadly investment in taking itself seriously. It’s okay, even wonderful, to be a character in a tale.

   In this tale, Sam will act Sam to the hilt, Frodo will be Frodo, and Gollum will be Gollum: each will play their roles perfectly, and thereby fulfill their tale. This is a tremendous lesson for those of us who feel ourselves mired, even doomed, in hopeless situations: we really don’t know how it will turn out, and at the present moment it may free us to imagine ourselves as characters in a great tale — not the noblest characters, far from perfect, and often unintelligent. What more can we do than play ourselves wholeheartedly and leave the world another story to enjoy? — for even when we fail miserably and die, we can still make an extraordinary and satisfying tale.

   This is why, when Gollum returns from his dubious excursion, he finds Sam and Frodo happily asleep: Peace was in both their faces. (323)