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On Tolkien

Inspired in part by the movie, but more I think by my 11-year-old cousin's newfound interest in the books, I recently reread The Fellowship of the Ring. (My cousin is about the age I was when I first read the trilogy, and I was reminded of my awe and wonder at reading it then.)

Reading it now is not quite the same for me, as I am (inevitably) more critical and less amazed. Reading Tolkien as a child, I was too caught up to doubt even for a second his choices of motifs or words, but today I find all the fearful chatter about "Black Riders" (for instance) tiresome, even knowing how terrible they will turn out to be. The story, however, remains compelling and inspired. Frodo & Co. grapple with evil, both within themselves and outside, and Tolkien depicts their battles earnestly — the tale is timeless in this regard, at the least.

A couple other elements stood out differently. For one, I hadn't remembered that Frodo is an orphan. His parents, Drogo Baggins and Primula Brandybuck "went out boating on the Brandywine River; and [they] were drownded, and poor Mr. Frodo only a child and all," we learn in the first few pages of the book.

Of course, most every fantasy hero seems to be an orphan (including of course that Harry Potter fellow). I haven't the space here to give this the discussion it deserves, but it is interesting, I think; an orphaned child is at once a compelling subject for a story, and also free of obligation (to family and even, perhaps, himself), and so, I think, better suited to risk everything for glory or the fate of the world itself. For what hero is not ultimately alone, and who is more alone than an orphan?

Frodo is also, interestingly enough, quite grown up by the time his adventure starts, which I also had not remembered. He is 33 at the time of Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday, when the book begins — and he doesn't actually leave the Shire with the ring for another 17 years after that. Even for creatures as long-lived as Hobbits, the 50-year-old Frodo is no longer quite young, but more like a man in his 30s.

Of course, Hobbits as a rule take on youthful characteristics on Middle-earth, but Frodo's maturity of purpose and capability for sacrifice are not so much the marks of a young man finding his way, I think, but of a grown man accepting his role in the world for what it is. Which distinguishes The Lord of the Rings from most (if not all) of the other fantasy I've read, where, it seems to always go, our young hero must learn to be a man before good can prevail. Frodo, on the other hand, must face the pitfalls and temptations that doom not children, but grown adults.

I was also touched by something Aragorn says, when, in The Prancing Pony in Bree, the Hobbits at last accept his aid and guidance. They do so before learning that Strider is in fact a friend of Gandalf's, and so ask of him why he did not tell them so. "I must admit," Strider says, "that I hoped you would take to me for my own sake. A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship."

This doesn't fit, for Aragorn is hardly hunted, as far as we ever learn, nor is he alone but by his own choosing. Yet it fits in that Tolkien sought to give his lost King a human soul, even giving him hopes and longings that ill befit an archetypal hero who ultimately must rule the land.

So Tolkien is at once better and not as good as when I first read him, but he measures up the only way that matters — he is worth rereading.

January 17, 2002 5:20 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

when Aragorn says a hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship...he is talking about Frodo...not himself.

Posted by Melian on April 1, 2003 9:10 PM

That's an interesting thought. I don't think I agree, though -- why would a person say, "I hoped you'd like me for who I am, because you must feel hunted?"

(I can see how he'd say, "I hoped you'd find a friend in me, because you must be feeling short on friends," but there seems to be more in that remark than just that.)

Posted by M on April 2, 2003 11:53 AM

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