READER NOTES TO TOLKIEN’S FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
If I had to supply "reader notes" to Fellowship of the Ring, it would be as follows.
To begin, I would draw the reader to think a little more on the character of Lobelia, the would-be Shire matriarch who is astounded that Bilbo has managed to keep his property from her all these years. She's played for fun in this part of the book, but the reader should note she's nonetheless a bit too visible to convince one entirely that she's just there to provide some levity before the plunge into darkness begins. There's a lot of talk about keeping doors bars to her, about her returning -- like a fire-breathing dragon that's once again re-generated heat -- to launch a subsequent belch of deadly haranguing, and about putting on the magic invisible ring to escape her. To anyone who considers that it is our earliest scares and fears, brought to us not just through mothers, nurses and other early attendants, in their whisperings of dark "old wives tales" (that we note that even Elrond says we should never just pass over because they always trace on real truths) or scares of creatures stealing cribs and babies, but via the terrifying presence of this lot themselves, that are the source of all later fears, this section of Lobelia as "invading monster" should not be allowed to pass as inconsequential. It might not be. Note that at the end of the "Return of the Ring" Lobelia is "rescued" as actually someone on the hobbits' side, as someone to be proud of, but only after a barbarian gang has visited the town and done what barbarian gangs do to women who come out of their houses too readily to oppose them -- revenge themselves on them horribly. Tolkien has said that he had the end of the book in mind when he started the adventure: he may not only have had in mind his concern to demonstrate that the greatest evil, that the greatest occurrence of "Mordor" out there, is when such infiltrates your town of origins, but to displace a desire for revenge onto others and see them visit it upon the book's very first predator -- the advancing matriarch whom even the Ring-bearer would hope for greater spells to forestall. Gollum is quoted as thinking, "People would see if he could stand being kicked, and driven into a hole and then robbed. Gollum had good friends now, good friends and very strong. They would help him. Baggins would pay for it. That was his chief thought. He hated Bilbo and cursed his name." Driven out the door by the demands of a pressing Lobelia, not just by Black Riders, were these half-orc barbarians in a way Frodo's newly acquired "friends," his agents, serving out a revenge he needs denial and distance from? Flag it.
There is a sort of reminder to do this very thing in the text – to flag the relevance of Lobelia, and think on her further. For we soon learn from Gandalf of how Smeagal, the hobbit-like creature, became Gollum, the gangly, deadly, sometimes spider-like creature that Gandalf surmises it may well have been just to have outright killed when chance allowed, even if the greater wisdom would eventually come out of Bilbo having tamed this instinct for pity, and it wasn't just the Ring that did it. The Ring made him extraordinarily bothersome -- a sort of town nuisance writ large -- but it did not change him into something THIS disparate from his normal, after-all, "ultra-curious and inquisitive self." Rather, it was his expulsion from his home by the leading matriarch... by his grandmother, which did it – that’s what drove him away from all light and into the caves; that's what made him absolutely forlorn. He had finally overwhelmed her patience and exasperated her beyond all tolerance, and paid one hell of a price for it. When Frodo provides Lobelia with the home she covets, it is done ostensibly only for expediency -- the house needed to be sold quickly, and she was the most interested buyer. But given the foreboding tale of what happened to Gollum when he had exhausted a matriarch's patience, in addition, of course, to our own never lost knowledge that nothing scared us more than what happened to us in the nursery, in retrospect it can feel like it was sold to her almost in relief: the adventure-garnered prowess of Bilbo had kept the home safe to himself for over ninety years -- his adventure and might-backed "queerness" intimidated, not just irked or intrigued -- but with him gone, and it left only to young, inexperienced Frodo to forestall the accumulating anger of Lobelia's being denied, decade after accumulating decade, her inheritance, he took the last avenue he had to stop her from for sure blowing his house down. He threw her, this "dragon," accumulating fury and strength as the ages passed, a house-sized steak – everything she wanted -- and snuck quickly out through the door -- possible?
Bilbo is about to be left out as a character with any part to play in the story. But while's he's still here in the text, we can be drawn to think as we read how Frodo's journey to being his own "master," to maturity, differs from Bilbo's own. Both set out on their journeys at the same age. Bilbo's is estimated as only "quite a little fellow" by Gandalf, but it's a bit of a poor reading of him, actually, considering that it was Bilbo's perhaps singular ability to charm and deceive Smaug, the terrible fire-breathing dragon, that would, if he had lived, proved the greatest threat in Sauron's arsenal, that brought about Smaug's end: specifically, after catching site of a possible flaw in Smaug's ostensibly absolutely secure impregnability, he lures Smaug into exposing the full girth of his chest, bating him into doing so by making it seem just an extension of the sort of charitable play they've been up to in the pretension of their situation as simply of guest visiting host -- "please, show me your acquired paintings and magnificent heirlooms, if it pleases you," is what it essentially amounts to. His armored chest is forlorn one piece of armoring, and without it having been exposed here, Bard the archer would never have known it existed and been no opposition to Smaug but only a small piece of his carnage. Bilbo caught off guard the greatest evil power in his time, found out his only weak spot so that against impossible odds, the villain could nevertheless be taken down.
Frodo, on the other hand, does nothing of the sort. And while we see on his journey that he has considerable "grit," the traditional hobbit' ability to thrive surprisingly well -- to be "hard to daunt or kill" (7) -- when they become accustomed to being absent all the delicacies and comforts they normally ensure coat their lives, and that he does possess an unusual delicacy with language -- a characteristic which favors him with lordly Faramir -- it is certainly never HE who figures out how Sauron might actually be brought down. That person, in this narrative, is Gandalf. What he discerns about Sauron's one weakness, about his one flaw, that could be made fatal to him?: though he is beyond brilliant, he can't imagine anyone possessing the Ring not wanting to use its power -- it's beyond consideration that the Ring-bearer would seek to destroy an artifact that grants such great power. And so Gandalf loads it onto a member of the one race that seems capable of resisting its draw more than any other, and, as well, just as remarkably capable of bearing its crippling load of accumulating despondency, and ships him off, and that's what Frodo's usefulness basically amounts to. Question, then: which of the two is really self-actualized and great, and which does well only for being a reasonably good representative of his kind? Further question: which one goes on adventures where he would seem to have earned the kind of bearing that would have him fairly confidently oppose Gandalf, if he wishes, even as Aragorn is readily capable of, and of having maybe even Gandalf back down; and which one seems only capable of doing so out of an inadvertent ability to serve as a haunt -- like a young soldier sent just at the arrival of his budding adulthood to die on some straight-arrow path onto a foreign battlefield, his voice gets heeded only in respect of the worth he is being unjustly shortchanged?
There's a bit in "Return of the King" where Merry scans the effect all the places he has seen have had on him, and decides it hasn't been what he had hoped it would be... that it was perhaps mostly just overwhelming, an onslaught -- something that he didn't explore and to some extent "master," demonstrate personal efficacy amongst and upon, but rather something that just over-stimulated and overwhelmed him. He is described as someone who, "though he loved mountains [...] was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity." Merry, in effect, becomes the kind of person who actually is easy to daunt -- something not ostensibly one of their, that is, hobbits', characteristics... or so told us by a narrator perhaps more in mood to inflate, to be charitable, at the time. One sees him as someone who in effect was taught a lesson about his actual ability to handle things in the outside world, one he could be counted on to have others learn, other young hobbits who yearned for great adventure, so that they too would know that they're actually not up for any new thing other than what they'd been accustomed to as farmers and gardeners tending the Shire's peaceful grounds. This is a lesson "Middle-earth" inflicts, not just upon Merry but rather on all of the hobbits, pretty much as soon as they escape their door. And it leads, it would seem, to a kind of mindset that the text demonstrates severe "beatings" serve upon the beaten -- thereafter, if it's followed by kindness, you get an absolute readiness to comply, absolute servitude. Bad cop followed by good cop... a bit of "patting" after severe mistreatment, leads Gollum from being a troublesome miscreant to one "piteously easy to please" (604); and when it happens to hobbits it makes them completely begotten to anything that represents the old ways of Middle-earth and into those forever pit against everything new that’s arising without permission, without sufficient notice, and all too aggressively.
Just out the door and beginning on their own to make decisions like what path to take of the multi-various available, ostensibly still at a state of self-command where Gandalf's recommendations as to what they should do serve as only that -- as recommendations, not de-facto commandments -- and where at the very least Frodo sees escape from the Shire as an escape from all things sickeningly stupid, they encounter paralyzing horrors which daunt them with the lesson – you’re not on your own anywhere near up to this. Every predator will stir at the announcement of prey onto their turf that each will discern as fully within their mastery. Frodo is allowed to demonstrate fortitude while within the barrow mound, as he awakens himself before being eaten and smiting an advancing crawling skeletal hand, but out of their nevertheless still mostly being absolutely handled by Black riders, by an angry forest, and by a barrow Wight, what are they established as but those who'll be forever fixed to perceive rescuers absent any serious scrutiny? What are they but those so desperately pleased to be rescued they would only rejoice and celebrate old-world, old-way representatives like their rescuers, the high elves and Tom Bombadil? What are they other than those who after being whipped turned piteously, pathetically compliant?
At one point of the text Frodo delays a vote on which route the Fellowship should take, which course through the mountains -- under, over, or around -- by saying it should be delayed until daytime so that Gandalf's vote would be given fairer consideration (390)... "how the [night] wind howls [doubt]," he says. There is terrific wisdom here, but it's not deeply felt, and actually is more a demonstration of his being mastered by Gandalf than it is of masterly consideration of the effect circumstance has on perception and on ostensibly carefully deliberated choice. For one notes that after being so easily preyed upon by these three horrendous bugaboos, these three great horrors of the imagination, they're ready to be owned by the saviors who rescue them, a path which has them follow the high elves' ownership of them -- one of the "chief events of [Sam's] life," not just for evident charm but for being his first suffered "perfect rescuing vision" following the crawling advancement of something as horrible as a Black Rider -- onto Tom Bombadil's -- "give me the Ring you've been told to give nobody, Frodo!" "Sure thing, here, take it" -- and finally, the rest of the way, onto Gandalf, and Gandalf is no longer someone who "might suggest something" but someone whom the others will absolutely heed, someone they'll ensure they prejudice everyone else towards, whatever course or counsel he might be advancing. If the real risk to Gandalf's plans was ever the hobbits' independent judgment -- would Frodo perhaps actually give resisting, frustratingly indominable Boromir a listen?... A fairer listen, where if the two could actually find court alone the "two together [might actually find] wisdom" (522) -- this would have been the kind of course he would have plotted to scare away all sense of themselves as capable of standing on their own for a self-identity as those who could only conclude that they'll shrivel when caught on their own outside of guardian support. And so also, those whose thoughts only go to clinging desperately back, when they could have begun to settle on...: "well, this is neat and unaccustomed... I wonder if new wisdom lies here?"
A few things to note about the stay at Rivendale: One, why would Bilbo have wanted to come here, other than for purposes of reflected narcissism? He is living amongst people who are better than him at everything. The most they can grant him when he produces his highest, most self-actualized art is that it could pass as the worst their own kind might produce. It is not to say that one couldn't take pleasure nevertheless, mostly in the fact that you reached a great pinnacle for oneself, but you've surrounded yourself by others who perpetually tempt you to more take adverse pleasure in your accomplishment through understanding it as allowing you to partake to a very small extent in their own unquestioned, objectively great glory. It is a very beautiful vision -- this Rivendale of ample abundance and scintillating everything; but nevertheless one that a cunning Hell would contrive to keep you enslaved and secretly suffering.
Second, Elrond's heart tells him that he should refuse Merry and Pippen's request/demand that they be taken along on the adventure -- his heart does. This should not be allowed to pass notice, and indeed both Merry and Pippen refer to it later in the text as it plays on their mind, because it should make available to all of them evidence that subsequently if their own heart speaks loudly, it needn't mean it should be heeded without question: it doesn't just always tell the loudest and most profound truth, for as great as Elrond is in the text, his judgment is still second to Gandalf's, who speaks as an even greater Stewart of Middle-earth, more conscious of and loyal to all its parts, and it is Gandalf who essentially informs Elrond that his heart, in this, albeit, rare instance, knows absolutely not -- trust to already installed friendship in this instance and don't send Merry or Pippen away, or we all die. It's either here a battle of the hearts to match the battle of the minds we see elsewhere in the text, or its an example of mind pit against heart, but in either case what is shown is that even the heart belonging to one of the greats could lead a whole world the wrong way to its destruction. Yet Frodo does not remember this lesson as he deals with Boromir, waging between them the fate of the Ring. His heart tells him to ignore Boromir's argument, to ignore its favorable accents and compelling force, and he lets it lead him. And my guess is that many readers didn't think anything awry about his doing so at all. The text has prompted such wizard-followers of us all, that even Elrond himself can't make a dig at our loyalty. Pity the fate of any "Boromir" who'd hoped to change our mind, as well as the fate of any goodness that might have arisen if we were left open to being deterred, to being “waylaid... There's a sense that we're all done in by by the time we've reached Rivendale, and we should note that.
And finally, when the wizard Saruman tries to manipulate a good hearing for himself when precariously situated in his isolated tower before Gandalf, the horse lords, and the remaining members of the Fellowship, he succeeds in daunting all of them but Gandalf by making them feel like those "shut out, listening at a door to words not meant for them: ill-mannered children or stupid servants overhearing the elusive discourse of their elders, and wondering how it would affect their lot. Of loftier mould these two were made; reverend and wise. It was inevitable that they should make alliance. Gandalf would ascend into the tower, to discuss deep things beyond their comprehension in the high chambers of Orthanc. The door would be closed, and they would be left outside, dismissed to await allotted work or punishment." Early memories of being dismissed to the "kid's table" while "adults" discuss serious matters, as a deliberate tactic mostly intended to depreciate your self-worth, apparently remain in everyone, and thus leave you susceptible to evil manipulation, is what the text informs us here. Yet the Council of Elrond, the council of the good, is "high matters" enough yet hasn't integrated that lesson well enough that it seems to all "cheek" -- cheek that is rewarded rather than punished by the tolerant "parent" -- when Sam “pertly” bursts amongst them and demands a say. Invited guest Bilbo speaks up, and though he gets tribute -- Boromir laughs at his having done so, considering the nature and high quality of others who had previously spoken, but is shamed to find that no one else thinks of him similarly -- his claim as future Ring-bearer rings mostly of the once-notable, now-dotard, who still insists he can swing a sword (only great ones like the aged Denethor and Theoden get to be unquestionably still like that). He speaks up only so that he can with finality be shut out, however kindly -- one lingering bit of old business now out of the way.
And when Frodo speaks up, it seems almost as if volunteering so that others needn't demand... a response that isn't so much "out of your own initiative," but rather one that betrays slavish high receptivity to others' needs, conveyed through innuendo, implication, hints -- from atmospherically evident deliberate avoidance of the obvious. And so Elrond replies to his declaration, "yes, you were really the only choice... the one we all knew had to eventually "volunteer" for the task." Volunteer? Why did he wait for him to volunteer when the answer to himself and Gandalf, at least, was obvious? Is it because they still nevertheless had to keep their hands clean, because Frodo's going on what Boromir rightly estimates as a long, lonely death march into a volcanic maw -- a clear suicide mission, a clear mission of sacrifice, and of the most promising of young hobbits, so that the old establishment, the old foggies, can live on? There's something in their decision which rings of sacrificing youth, potential, and accumulated largesse -- the Ring itself, of course -- that points a finger at an urgent need more to placate the wrath of long-ignored old gods than the proclaimed intent to deal best with the realities of the world as they are. The young are being misled, lied to. It's guilt-inspiring if they admitted this fact to themselves: that they were so eager to dispense with their good fortune and wealth and of a representative of the young, so blood-thirsty and ultimately not leaderly but slavishly intent on heeding old gods looking upon them with doubt and scorn, that this was going to be their solution to any occurring world problem. And so hold out "gratitude" towards the young who've shaped themselves so they pick up out of the air the unacknowledged sordid wishes of others', and so ostensibly make up their own mind, make their own "choice," independent of influence. "It wasn't us: they chose to go themselves," is not in this instance a demonstration of respect and latitude and freedom -- about what separates what distinguishes what is good in this world from what is evil -- but about slippery evasion and manipulativeness: about a more evolved and foul kind of predatory evil.
"Be willing to make yourself vulnerable to falling into a volcanic pit, and you're elf-friend forever... that's the part we didn't tell you about was coming when we first drew you to find such pleasure in being acclaimed our friend after your amusing attempts at fluent elf-speech when we met you just outside your door. All peddlers of the dastardly draw their young prey in at first with readily pro-offered candy. Didn't any of the wise ever teach you so? Don’t trust those who arrive to offer salve and more just after disaster strikes, for mightn't they themselves have originated the disaster, just to garner an important vote otherwise hard to make claim to?" It’s an accusation launched at Gandalf many times in the text -- "why is it you always show up when disaster is upon us? Are you sure that you and the disaster are twinned in some way?... of the same agency, or of the same level of malicious intent -- one overt, the other covert, perhaps?" Is it because there’s truth behind it sufficient enough to arouse guilt, an aroused guilt that can be, if not quit, at least momentarily quelled, in seeing the accusation voiced ("ill news is an ill guest"; "you come with tidings of grief and danger, as is your wont, they say") to someone you’ll soon be able to later righteously dispense with -- someone like "the Two Tower's" Wormtongue -- that this accusation keeps on repeatedly being aired?
Just at the entrance to the Mines of Moria the text tells us that Gandalf understood that the enormous monster in the water was groping for Frodo specifically, it had focused on him, but that he decided to keep this secret to himself. We might assume this is Gandalf being respectful not to scare Frodo too much, but, really, is it any news to Frodo at this point that the greatest of monsters are mostly interested in the smell of him? Thinking on Gandalf's "discretion" is a way to not think of what else might otherwise be arising in the reader's mind concerning Gandalf at this point. Namely, perhaps, how already at this point on the journey Gandalf favored the Company taking the Fellowship has already suffered as great a danger as any of the other options could have offered him -- a danger that had the smell on for Frodo, and so one that could have been relied upon to bring message to Sauron that the Ring had been captured should such have happened. Keeping this secret keeps Gandalf from being embarrassed, shown up. And secret-keeping overall seems about giving one leverage over other people, about maintaining the falsity that some people can handle truth while others can't, and masking the truth that this "philosophy" is maintained in this world primarily to keep an old hierarchy in place, whatever the actual ability of Middle-earthians to handle discordant truths.
Aragorn keeps a secret to himself later in the narrative: that Boromir decided to snatch the Ring for himself. How noble of him to be do discreet and keep Boromir from shame... is what we're supposed to be thinking. How kingly. Yet what shame does Boromir really bear other than his being the only one on the Fellowship who didn't agree with the Council's decision, as it was not the course he would take, and so his being the only one that the Ring had something substantial to continuously play on? Not that he was evil but that he dissented, that he was not someone who would follow Aragorn "wherever he went (512)," was his only “sin,” his only "problem." And what good to the world is done in not offering an honest account of everything, in not challenging but playing to childish requirements that heroes be kept squeaky-clean flawless, for instance? Contra Gandalf, sometimes you need to break things apart to find out what makes them tick, if you really want to make improvements and not rather keep a flawed product intact because it's built the right way now for your use. A Middle-earth that must be kept from knowing things, a Middle-earth kept emotionally fragile, is in the dark and prey to be owned by the most malevolently motivated of things.
Boromir's attempting to steal the Ring is the last scare Frodo suffers from in "Fellowship of the Ring," but the one just previous shouldn't pass our notice. What scared him right before? -- the visage of great kings, of "silent wardens of a long-vanished kingdom," which drew him to feel "awe and fear" and made him "cower down [and to] shut his eyes and dar[e] not to look" (516). Shame, awe and fear seem to get a lot of respect in this book, if it's inspired by lingering ghosts from long ago or those who count themselves their servants, and the text seems to make nothing of the fact that Boromir has to try and discourse with Frodo only after Frodo’s been effectively bullied into submission by these great looming giants of the past that made him feel pathetic, vulnerable, small -- i.e., completely at their mercy. A crime of the sort mentioned in "Return of the King" is being committed here, where the old are venerated to keep the young from their due. It feels in the text almost as if Boromir snatches the Ring not out evil manifesting in him but out of fully understandable arising exasperation at the ongoing madness everyone else is determined to keep themselves caught within... their being caught within a fugue of silly elder' deference, to timidity spawned from too much heeding of old wives' tales, and not therefore able see the possibilities as they are no matter how well they would shine forth. Must "we" stay off the road that seems easiest, only because intrigue doesn't take as well there as it does in backroads and alleyways? What order is our present course fighting to keep intact?
The possibility that members of the Fellowship are mad, are in a state of heady madness, comes up many times through the rest of the text, ostensibly to show them masters of secret knowledge, secret ways, and able to mightily waylay all others' considerations of them -- and, quite frankly, also to demonstrate them those who cause upset and disquiet in others at their having been abandoned the help they had been seduced into thinking available to them (Aragorn’s more or less unexplained sprinting off from the war-march to Pelennor Fields, anyone?). I would suggest instead -- or, rather, in addition -- that it's a consideration that gets constant airing as if the one inscribing the journey is healthy enough to have some inner voice of sanity prompting the thought into his mind, to maybe finally wake him up... this is a plot of France with twice Germany's armed forces, or of Chamberlain's Britain, pretty much finding every way they can to lose to Germany's might at the onset of World War 2 – "here, we’ve got more tanks than you; want ’em?" This is a death-wish, or a masochistic desire to restage an oppressive onslaught from childhood. This sacrificing your advantage of an early chessboard capture of the Queen, is madness. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up... you ostensible movers of the board who are yourselves probably but pawns of ugly compulsions.
END OF READER NOTES TO FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING