Tolkien’s Ceremonial Heroism


What most distinguishes a warrior from a great killing machine is an instinct for ceremony. Diomedes and Ajax have a gift for slaughter, but only Achilles, as he sends off Patroclus and the Myrmidons to fight, will perform a spontaneous ritual prayer:

Achilles went into his hut and opened up the lid
on a beautifully decorated chest
placed on board his ship by silver-footed Thetis
for him to take. She’d packed it with cloaks and tunics,
and woollen blankets, too—protection from the wind.
There he kept an ornate goblet. Other than Achilles 
no one used it to drink gleaming wine. With this cup
Achilles poured libations to no god but Father Zeus.
Taking this out of the chest, first he purified it
with sulphur, then rinsed it out in streams of water.
He washed his hands and drew some gleaming wine. 
Standing in the middle of the yard, he poured it out,
gazing up at heaven. Thunder-loving Zeus looked on.  (Iliad 16: 220-32)

We have seen that for Tolkien heroes are ennobled and beautified by ceremony. Boromir before his death was a less attractive man, resentful, truculent, and self-centered. But at his funeral — which is a perfect, spontaneous performance by three heroes, the sun, and the landscape — even those of us who previously disliked him discover now that we love him. The ceremony immerses him in a holy haze of beauty and reverence, which completes him by turning his life and death into an unforgettable picture:

Now they laid Boromir in the middle of the boat that was to bear him away. The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it upon his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilts and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies. Then fastening the prow to the stern of the other boat, they drew him out into the water. They rowed sadly along the shore, and turning into the swift-running channel they passed the green sward of Parth Galen. The steep sides of Tol Brandir were glowing: it was now mid-afternoon. As they went south the fume of Rauros rose and shimmered before them, a haze of gold. The rush and thunder of the falls shook the windless air. (The Two Towers, p.19)

Similarly, the war of the Ring is not concluded by the destruction of the Ring and of Sauron. A lesser novelist would have drawn out the scene at the Crack of Doom, amplified the struggle with Gollum, created a climactic fight with Sauron, and showed in detail the collapse of the evil empire, followed by a chapter to wrap it all up. For Tolkien, however, there have to be several ceremonious episodes before the war can be considered over, and to enjoy the book fully the reader has to have the capacity to enjoy ceremony and not rush over these pages. Since all rituals are conducted with solemn exactitude of speech and gesture, the reader must enjoy taking the time to visualize these and to let each moment sink in. It is not like the endings of popular films such as Star Wars, in which the ceremony consists of applause, fanfare, and smiling celebrity; all this does is embellish the action and signal to the audience that they can start to leave now. Tolkien’s ceremonies commemorate not victory but greatness and significance, together with loss and sacrifice. Indeed, the main function of slowness in ritual is to enable remembrance and contemplation, and the power of the ritual is in direct proportion to the memories of the participants and their contemplative inclinations. A film version of Tolkien’s ceremonies might effectively include slow flashbacks of crucial moments, bringing to mind the entire sequence of events and giving it a place in history or legend. The ceremony thus connects the passing particular with a timeless whole, which gives meaning and therefore motive for the warrior’s efforts. The fighter only fights, the killer only kills, but the warrior defends a whole world from disintegration into meaninglessness. 

   In the improvised perfection of Boromir’s funeral we see that ritual is not the rote repetition of traditional motions and formulas; it emanates from a deep sense for the complex harmonies of human action and natural setting. In the crowning of Aragorn, we see another improvisation without any guiding precedents. This time both Faramir and Aragorn make up the ceremony, which becomes not just a decorative flourish but a piece of theater — fusion of painting, dance, and poetry — that allows Aragorn to be manifested:

‘Men of Gondor, the loremasters tell that it was the custom of old that the king should receive the crown from his father ere he died; or if that might not be, that he should go alone and take it from the hands of his father in the tomb where he was laid. But since things must now be done otherwise, using the authority of the Steward, I have today brought hither from Rath Dínen the crown of Eärnur the last king, whose days passed in the time of our longfathers of old.’
   Then the guards stepped forward, and Faramir opened the casket, and he held up an ancient crown. It was shaped like the helms of the Guards of the Citadel, save that it was loftier, and it was all white, and the wings at either side were wrought of pearl and silver in the likeness of the wings of a sea-bird, for it was the emblem of kings who came over the Sea; and seven gems of adamant were set in the circlet, and upon its summit was set a single jewel the light of which went up like a flame.
   Then Aragorn took the crown and held it up and said:

Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn’ Ambar-metta!

And those were the words that Elendil spoke when he came up out of the Sea on the wings of the wind: ‘Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world.’
   Then to the wonder of many Aragorn did not put the crown upon his head, but gave it back to Faramir, and said: ‘By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head, if he will; for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory.’
   Then Frodo came forward and took the crown from Faramir and bore it to Gandalf; and Aragorn knelt, and Gandalf set the White Crown upon his head, and said:
‘Now come the days of the King, and may they be blessed while the thrones of the Valar endure!’
   But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.  (245-46)

Aragorn does not become the king until this moment. It is not an identity that he has or has had all along, but it has to be conferred ceremonially, through proper timing and the right accessories. In the same way, Boromir becomes himself only at his funeral. Unlike a mere killing machine, who only has this life and this death, Aragorn and Boromir are raised by ritual into the timeless community of warrior heroes. 

   The real action of The Lord of the Rings is ceremonial theater, which frames the physical struggle and elevates it. The entire story exists as a tension between the sweating, striving, frail bodies of all the participants and their spiritual, mythic reality: Gandalf is Mithrandir, Frodo is The Ring-bearer. They do not shuttle between the two identities but are in fact both of them. This is one reason why the epic warriors of The Two Towers seem so flat: there, they are only one of these poles. This is also why Aragorn and Arwen are less satisfying. In contrast, Frodo and Sam are interesting because they are always wondering about how to situate themselves between rocky reality and the burdensome call of legend. 

   In our own times the ceremonial, whether religious or civic, can feel like a desperate affectation that arises from fear of change and resistance to loss. Because we either fear losing our traditions or have already lost them, we fabricate rituals that reassure us of our cultural identities: the “traditional” wedding that is in fact less than a century old, “traditional” Scottish kilts that were invented by an English industrialist and ended up using Flemish patterns, “traditional” Christmas roast turkey that would have been unheard of in Dickens’ day. Occasionally Tolkien’s ceremonialism can feel like the attempts of modern religious groups to evoke the radiant order of medieval piety. Thus, Aragorn’s stilted, archaic language when he slips into his persona of king is reminiscent of modern religious warriors who want to bring back the Caliphate. This modern traditionalism is actually an admission that the old order has been lost, and instead of the organic fluidity of a living culture we get a rigid, formal version that derives its authority from being thought of as “traditional.” In contrast, real Irishmen, unlike American Irishmen, don’t have to wear green on St.Patrick’s Day because whatever they wear is Irish. Throughout The Lord of the Rings the use of immemorial sacred props and ancient languages, the evocation of dead civilizations and the fascination with lost archives, are all acknowledgements that the world of old has passed and that we who are alive must come to terms with their passing. 

  Of the ceremonies that have to take place before the heroes can leave Gondor, most are typical of epics generally: ceremonies of feasting, hearing great deeds sung, gift-giving, the naming of heroes and of royal lineages, the burial of fallen kings. The most remarkable one involves Aragorn’s finding and transplanting of a sapling of the Eldest of Trees:

Then Aragorn cried: ‘Yé! utúvienyes! I have found it! Lo! here is a scion of the Eldest of Trees! But how comes it here? For it is not itself yet seven years old.’
   And Gandalf coming looked at it, and said: ‘Verily this is a sapling of the line of Nimloth the fair; and that was a seedling of Galathilion, and that a fruit of Telperion of many names, Eldest of Trees. Who shall say how it comes here in the appointed hour? But this is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake. Remember this. For if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world. Here it has lain. hidden on the mountain, even as the race of Elendil lay hidden in the wastes of the North. Yet the line of Nimloth is older far than your line, King Elessar.’
   Then Aragorn laid his hand gently to the sapling, and lo! it seemed to hold only lightly to the earth, and it was removed without hurt; and Aragorn bore it back to the Citadel. Then the withered tree was uprooted, but with reverence; and they did not burn it, but laid it to rest in the silence of Rath Dínen. And Aragorn planted the new tree in the court by the fountain, and swiftly and gladly it began to grow; and when the month of June entered in it was laden with blossom.
   ‘The sign has been given,’ said Aragorn, ‘and the day is not far off.’ And he set watchmen upon the walls. (250)

   This sapling, no more than three feet high, had already put forth young leaves long and shapely, dark above and silver beneath, and upon its slender crown it bore one small cluster of flowers whose white petals shone like the sunlit snow. (250) There is something tinselly and synthetic about this young tree; indeed, it is not really a tree, but an emblem of a tree. Tolkien loved actual trees in their dense foliage and wild gnarliness, and he could have arranged for Aragorn to discover such a tree rooted deep in a mysterious valley that then becomes a place of pilgrimage for the kingdom. Instead, this sapling appears to have no roots: it is not of the kingdom, not of its earth, but can be placed anywhere at the king’s wish. It is a spiritual entity, not a natural one — essentially the same sort of thing as a plastic Christmas tree, but more elegant and somewhat alive. Tolkien has found the perfect symbol for the heroic mythology that scaffolds The Lord of the Rings: heraldic, beautiful, metallically shiny, and not fully alive. The world of the hobbits is alive: earthy, bustling, unceremonious, unsolemn, full of sensory delight and humor. Ceremony, on the other hand, cannot co-exist with humor; a single chuckle can bring down a ritual. Yet to Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and later Merry and Pippin, the mundane comforts of hobbit existence are not enough: they need this higher solemnity to become completed. With the exception of Faramir and Éowyn, the martial warriors in this book are content to be epic figures and do not yearn for any fulfillment of their earthly natures. There is no living tension in them; they are like a silvery sapling growing in the snow, destined to reach maturity with magical speed because it is exempt from the patient labor of organic growth. 

   The faery sapling perfectly expresses Tolkien’s ambivalence towards the world of martial heroism: it is beautiful, we need it, but there is something not quite alive about it, something gleaming and superficial, without depth. In needing to have such an emblem before us,  we are confessing that we have already lost what it stood for: we no longer have an authentic, natural relationship with the higher order that gives meaning to our lives, and therefore we evoke it every now and again with ceremonial theater — or with fantasy novels. As the Daoist sage Zhuangzi put it, Those who seek to satisfy the mind of man by hampering it with ceremonies and music have already lost their original nature.

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Tolkien’s Art of the “Meanwhile”


Historians develop two intellectual qualities that are also essential to novelists: the ability to understand and remember long, complex causal chains, and the ability to hold in mind events and situations going on simultaneously in different places — that is, to see multiple causal chains developing parallel and invisible to one another. It seems obvious that a historian of World War II has to understand the changing internal events and preoccupations of a dozen different countries before he can understand how a particular battle or treaty negotiation plays out. Similarly, a “domestic” novelist such as Jane Austen has to have a clear comprehension not only of the goings on in several households, but also what is happening in various rooms of the same house: while A and B are conversing and C and D are playing music together, E is in her room reading a shattering letter. When these people all sooner or later converge, their convergence is colored and permeated by their previously independent activities. A crime novelist has to be unrelenting and pedantic in keeping track of exactly what everyone is doing, where, and when: absolutely nothing can be fuzzy in a forensic investigation. Fantasy novelists might seem to have more latitude because surely fantasy is allowed to be vague and misty, but in truth the fantasy novelist has to create a probable world and therefore is even more tightly bound to laws of causation if the events of his books are to seem credible. 

   Thus the first half of The Two Towers deals with Aragorn, his crew, and the Rohirrim at war, while the second half describes the journey of Sam and Frodo to Mordor. Both halves occur simultaneously, and even though Tolkien doesn’t make a huge deal of the simultaneity it is clear that the experience of re-reading the novel gains in richness if, as we read the adventures of one party, we know precisely what the other party is doing. Tolkien is gentle in his narration, suggesting but not asserting the synchronicity : the two parties might be able to see, from their different places, the gleaming of the Anduin in the setting sun, or hear the same noise of battle. At any given point, then, the story has several layers, which can function as thematic counterpoint: for instance, the exploits of the Rohirrim and the humble tenacity of Sam and Frodo are two different views of heroism. We usually know where everyone is at any time, except Gandalf. 

   Tolkien’s maps in themselves are suggestive of a whole world with many different kingdoms and corners in which distinctive things are unfolding. We get to see some of these things, but we also get the sense that there is an abundance of stories playing out throughout Middle Earth and potentially convergent with the ones we know of. It is instructive to watch how Tolkien so deftly creates the impression of a layered world.

   Early in The Return of the King we are introduced to the great city of Minas Tirith through the admiring eyes of Pippin:

Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.

At last they came out of shadow to the seventh gate, and the warm sun that shone down beyond the river, as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien, glowed here on the smooth walls and rooted pillars, and the great arch with keystone carven in the likeness of a crowned and kingly head. (Ch.1, 24-25)

Through a subordinate clause inside a subordinate clause — as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien — the attentive reader is brought with a shock of recollection back to an episode in The Two Towers, just before Sam makes rabbit stew, when the two hobbits find themselves in the faintly Mediterranean, very Virgilian woodland that used to be the garden of Gondor:

The road had been made in a long lost time: and for perhaps thirty miles below the Morannon it had been newly repaired, but as it went south the wild encroached upon it. The handiwork of Men of old could still be seen in its straight sure flight and level course: now and again it cut its way through hillside slopes, or leaped over a stream upon a wide shapely arch of enduring masonry; but at last all signs of stonework faded, save for a broken pillar here and there, peering out of bushes at the side, or old paving-stones still lurking amid weeds and moss. Heather and trees and bracken scrambled down and overhung the banks, or sprawled out over the surface. It dwindled at last to a country cart-road little used; but it did not wind: it held on its own sure course and guided them by the swiftest way.

So they passed into the northern marches of that land that Men once called Ithilien, a fair country of climbing woods and swift-falling streams…

Day was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress. and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness. (Part 4, ch.4, 257-58)
Frodo and Sam cannot know that this place of vegetative luxuriance will be their last occasion for pleasure and refreshment for many months. Ithilien is like Kew Gardens gone wild, a magical liminal realm where plants from every season and every zone all grow in profusion together after devastation and abandonment. The lush, disordered growth stirs hope in natural resilience, but also evokes sadness at the destruction of one of the last great civilized places:

South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Dúath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away. Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.

The travellers turned their backs on the road and went downhill. As they walked, brushing their way through bush and herb, sweet odours rose about them. Gollum coughed and retched; but the hobbits breathed deep, and suddenly Sam laughed, for heart’s ease not for jest. They followed a stream that went quickly down before them. Presently it brought them to a small clear lake in a shallow dell: it lay in the broken ruins of an ancient stone basin, the carven rim of which was almost wholly covered with mosses and rose-brambles; iris-swords stood in ranks about it. and water-lily leaves floated on its dark gently-rippling surface; but it was deep and fresh, and spilled ever softly out over a stony lip at the far end. (258-59)

A little way back above the lake they found a deep brown bed of last year’s fern. Beyond it was a thicket of dark-leaved bay-trees climbing up a steep bank that was crowned with old cedars. Here they decided to rest and pass the day, which already promised to be bright and warm. A good day for strolling on their way along the groves and glades of Ithilien...(259)

All this is evoked in the reader by what is essentially a “meanwhile” — embedded in a subordinate clause that suggests sunshine that is enjoyed by both parties: and the warm sun that shone down beyond the river, as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien, glowed here on the smooth walls and rooted pillars. Tolkien does not belabor the point; he trusts his reader’s imagination and memory, and knows that one clause will be enough to get us to think about Frodo and Sam while we are with Pippin. His conciseness is daring and astonishing. The thematic counterpoint here is a meditation on the dying civilization of Gondor. Pippin is encountering a culture made of stone, manly stone:

The door opened, but no one could be seen to open it. Pippin looked into a great hall. It was lit by deep windows in the wide aisles at either side, beyond the rows of tall pillars that upheld the roof. Monoliths of black marble, they rose to great capitals carved in many strange figures of beasts and leaves; and far above in shadow the wide vaulting gleamed with dull gold, inset with flowing traceries of many colours. No hangings nor storied webs, nor any things of woven stuff or of wood, were to be seen in that long solemn hall; but between the pillars there stood a silent company of tall images graven in cold stone.

Suddenly Pippin was reminded of the hewn rocks of Argonath, and awe fell on him, as he looked down that avenue of kings long dead. At the far end upon a dais of many steps was set a high throne under a canopy of marble shaped like a crowned helm; behind it was carved upon the wall and set with gems an image of a tree in flower. But the throne was empty. At the foot of the dais, upon the lowest step which was broad and deep, there was a stone chair, black and unadorned, and on it sat an old man gazing at his lap. In his hand was a white rod with a golden knob. (26)

It is one of those very masculine warrior cultures in which all men aspire to be statues, hard and imperishable rock-versions of their mortal selves — where women stay in the shadows, and animals are rare because they are too chaotic and dirty. There is something dead about it, something sterile and impotent. Ithilien is the counterpoint in its undiciplined profuseness: it can be wild and beautiful because the repressive, inhibited men of Gondor have gone. 

   Pippin is not aware of what Frodo and Sam are experiencing, and Frodo and Sam cannot guess the smooth marble character of Gondor from the broken, overgrown resort they see in Ithilien — but with a succinct “meanwhile,” Tolkien lets the reader into experiencing the two perspectives simultaneously. As Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien gives density and richness to the account of Pippin marveling at the glow of sun on stone. 

   Shortly after, there is another “meanwhile” moment as Beregond, explaining recent history to Pippin, brings up Faramir, who at this moment is within shouting distance of Frodo and Sam:

“And the Lord Denethor is unlike other men: he sees far. Some say that as he sits alone in his high chamber in the Tower at night, and bends his thought this way and that, he can read somewhat of the future; and that he will at times search even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him. And so it is that he is old, worn before his time. But however that may be, my lord Faramir is abroad, beyond the River on some perilous errand, and he may have sent tidings.” (37-38)
It is no coincidence that during this episode in Ithilien Frodo and Sam meet Denethor’s son Faramir — at about the same time as Pippin meets Faramir’s father Denethor. The “meanwhile” thus also conveys a sense of fatedness, of two events being intimately bound — not through any causal connection, since from a logical point of view one can argue that the simultaneity of the two meetings is due to chance, but from a synchronicity either poetic or prophetic, according to which Gondor and the hobbits are meant to be bound up with one another: self-consciously archetypal warrior-men and little creatures who never thought of themselves as heroes.

   

“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)