Reading and Drawing the Lord of the Rings Part 3: On Being an Oddity

Frodo in the Shire

In his Foreword, Tolkien describes ‘The Shadow of the Past’ as the oldest part of the tale and ‘the crucial chapter’ of the book. One can see why, as it anchors the entire tale in gravitas, thanks in no small part to Gandalf’s central role in it. It is tempting to jump straight to the gripping narrative that dominates this chapter. But before we get to that I want to reflect on the extra characterisation that comes prior, which is just as significant in laying the foundations of the story.

We already gleaned some of Frodo’s personality from the first chapter. But I am struck by the number of times Frodo is portrayed as an outsider in this one. Here are a few examples:

“The growth of hobbit-sense was not very noticeable”

He at once began to carry on Bilbo’s reputation for oddity.

“Some people were rather shocked.”

“It was not until Frodo approached the usually more sober age of fifty that they began to think it queer.”

“Often he was seen walking and talking with strange wayfarers…”

“…more often he wandered by himself…”

“…to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the starlight.”

“He took to wandering further afield and more often by himself.”

“as a rule dwarves said little and hobbits asked no more. But now Frodo often met strange dwarves of far countries.” 

“…Bilbo was cracked and Frodo’s cracking.

We can say it is of no consequence – what does it matter if one person is viewed by the rest of his community in this light? Indeed Frodo does not seem very concerned by it. But of course this does reflect a deeper problem with those around him.  In an earlier post in this series I spoke about the positive aspects of the Shire-folk’s parochialism. But here it’s worth considering the downsides.

Many of his fellow hobbits are so comfortable with the status quo that they are not only oblivious or ignorant, but some are even hostile towards anyone that challenges their fixed notions. Though I make no claim that it was meant to be interpreted this way, I couldn’t help but think about some of the hostility and inhospitality towards refugees and foreigners that we are seeing in the UK and other parts of the world right now. In the Shire, that friendly, familiar, bond with ‘insiders’ seems to also translate into a deep suspicion and lack of welcome towards ‘outsiders’. No community is perfect, and the Shire is not necessarily as idyllic as we might want to think. There are some unwholesome characteristics here that aren’t necessarily visible unless a pressurised situation might expose the cracks.

As the hobbits hold forth in the Green Dragon, we have a glimpse into the type of mentality that is prevalent in the Shire. We also see that being narrow or open minded is not necessarily connected to one’s level of education.  For example we have Sam Gamgee, very much a part of that rustic community, himself a humble gardener. It is true he knows more because he can read and write, learned his letters as he says – but that is because he cared to know and made an effort to broaden his mind; and indeed at the feet of the one whom everyone else deemed cracked and mad…Bilbo Baggins of course. If you shun those who are different , then you miss out on a wisdom that others may not possess.

Perhaps we all know people who, if you speak to them about some admittedly outlandish ideas, silly to some even, they laugh at it. Usually it’s a bit of a joke, and one might relish making others groan with the absurdity of some of the stories. But sometimes I do wonder – what is it that makes us dismiss people’s ideas so easily as daft or unrealistic? How are people so fixed in their certainty that others may be wrong? It is not convictions that I am talking about here. Moral convictions, principles , values are very important as a guiding light for any person – and actually everyone has some kind of value system even if they have no faith. And I am not talking about respect for expertise and research-based evidence. What I am talking about is the worship of science and reason, of bare and brute facts, a belief in only what is tangible.

And that is what we see reflected to some extent in the Green Dragon.  Ted Sandyman is, well, plain rude. He doesn’t give Sam a chance. We think he is rude because we may have read the foreword and know that Tolkien was never fond of the Miller. And the story-teller is, after all, fully sympathetic to Sam’s stories. But let us be honest, if this was us sitting by the fireside in the Green Dragon, would we too have derided Sam for his belief in ‘fairy stories’? Would we have mocked the Bagginses for being ‘cracked’? Actually, sadly, perhaps many of us would. Too many have lost that enchantment, lost the ability to believe in the miraculous – everything is subservient to a positivist view.

Sam is outnumbered, and after his best efforts he susbsides. There is no point wasting his perceptiveness on those who are too proud to take seriously the knowledge and insights of others. And though Sam and Frodo come from such different backgrounds – in status, wealth, and education – we are given a hint right from the start why they are such suitable companions for the journey ahead.

For Frodo represents the opposite of the insularity of the Shire-folk – certainly, he loves the shire.  How often he will remember the shire when he has left! It will be a source of hope and motivation for much of his adventures. But he really is quite different from the other hobbits even at the start of the story before he has set off. He is different even from Bilbo. Bilbo made this transformation over the course of his adventure, whereas Frodo inherits his uncle’s otherness and of course, having grown up in Buckland, was already a bit of an outsider. This coupled with the fact he is an orphan, instils something melancholic in his personality. 

Years ago, being fairly young when I first read The Lord of the Rings, I envied Frodo for being able to get up and go off ‘tramping all over the Shire’ anytime with his friends, for having the countryside all around him. Later, I used to pore over maps that I’d take on hikes and wonder what lay beyond the coordinates of my walking route.  I had the same yearning to travel and explore. Since those days, I’ve had the opportunity to do a fair bit of that, and can better understand both the contentment and the restlessness described of Frodo.

For Frodo though, the restlessness does not abate but increases with age; he has a concern for the outside world, a latent sense that he has a duty ahead of him that he must fulfil, but not knowing what that is. This is conveyed through words associated with him such as “regret”, “wild lands”, “strange visions”, “ominous”, “restless”, “wandering”, and he is often “by himself”.

He is not even half ready for that duty when the story starts. That becomes clear from his conversation with Gandalf. Him being ready for whatever it is he must do, can only really occur after Frodo has already taken that leap into the wilderness and into danger. We none of us are ready for the tasks ahead of us until we are catapulted into some crisis or other – and the only way we can grow or even find fulfilment in any form is by enduring the trials of those tasks we are thrown into.

Now, even though Frodo was not ready at first for his particularly difficult task, I think one of the conditions that made Frodo suitable for it out of anyone was the fact he is somewhat marginalised (though paradoxically also much-liked) by his community.  Not that he doesn’t have privilege, he is a wealthy hobbit, of the gentry, learned and cultured –  a linguist, no less.  But he does not have everything –  and it is important that he does not. 

Drawing (top) – is inspired by the following passage:

“Frodo went tramping all over the Shire with them; but more often he wandered by himself, and to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the starlight. Merry and Pippin suspected that he visited the elves at times, as Bilbo had done.” (The Shadow of the Past: p. 41)

Drawing in black ink and pencil – the landscape is based on a photograph I took during an Autumn hike on Ben Lomond.

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11 Responses to Reading and Drawing the Lord of the Rings Part 3: On Being an Oddity

  1. John.Y. says:

    This post is very thought provoking and also one of my favourite as it goes into detail and things you never notice when first reading the chapter. The way Frodo and Sam Gamgee are oddities and believe in elves and other creatures such as dragons and tree-men. Also that Bilbo, Sam and Frodo are all adventurous many people find them weird. It is also true that Frodo does not seem to be affected by this. Sam and Frodo get along well even though they have different backgrounds and education. Frodo and Bilbo both seem to enjoy travelling and wandering. The many phrases listed also seem to show the shire folk’s thoughts.

    • Earthoak says:

      Thank you John. Y for your kind comments! I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post. Yes, it’s remarkable how many new things you find on re-reading the chapters. Look forward to hear about your progress with the book!

  2. joviator says:

    You’re right about the parochialism of the Hobbits. The places in England whence JRRT got the family names of the Shire are the ones that voted most strongly to leave the EU.

    Excellent artwork! I like seeing the different species of trees in the right places.

  3. Orchid says:

    I’ve just reached the end of the first book so can really appreciate Sam’s unique insight that you mentioned and why he is the perfect companion on this journey.
    It’s intriguing to read your perspective of the Shire, something about the Shire didn’t rest with me as comfortably as it did in the Hobbit. Maybe it’s the loss of these ‘outsiders’ that you mentioned that lends itself to lose that enchantment it once had..
    Thank you for writing!

    • Earthoak says:

      Yes! Sam goes on quite a personal journey even in the Fellowship. Your comments on the Shire as seeming a bit different from how you perceived it in The Hobbit are very interesting: the notion that it is the ‘outsiders’ or oddities that lend the Shire it’s idyllic qualities is fascinating. Would love to hear more on this! thanks for reading.

  4. I like the observations on how other Hobbits in the Shire reacted to Bilbo’s (and Frodo’s) oddities; you question, how would we react. It gives me pause for thought, to question myself, would I go with the crowd or be independent of others? I need to go back re-read the LOTR again. Reading your blog and learning from your observations makes me feel very eager to read them again soon. Lastly, I really love your ink & pencil drawing, for me this piece creates a sombre feeling with Frodo walking through the Shire; at the same time the natural landscape creates a sense of calm and stillness.

    • Earthoak says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words and encouragement. I’m really glad if reading these posts motivates you to re-read the Lord of the Rings, the first reading is always special and memorable, but you will find lots of new things you hadn’t noticed before when you read it again. Thank you for coming by!

  5. Tom Hillman says:

    As always a thorough and thoughtful post. Thank you. To those who blindly worship science I would add those who blindly reject it. I also think that Frodo has a whiff of snobbery about him. He discovers that he likes being The Mr Baggins of Bag End (not saying I wouldn’t), and his remark about thinking an invasion of dragons might be good for the Shirefolk, while not meant seriously, also suggests that he thinks he knows what is what better than they do. While he is correct as far as knowledge of the outside world is concerned, his attitude towards them is condescending, and not in the old sense. (I am not suggesting that he was ever less than polite in his personal dealings.) And he also has a mistaken attitude towards the ‘outside’. Gildor has to correct him when he refers to The Shire as the hobbits’ own. Don’t mistake me. I think Frodo is a great and noble character, but he’s not perfect.

    • Earthoak says:

      Thank you for reading, Tom, and for your valuable insights. Blind following, and blind rejection: indeed, two sides of the same coin. I think I agree with you about Frodo, in fact you have pre-empted the next post a little! He is quite condescending, that’s true; but then the Shirefolk haven’t been particularly kind in what they say about Bilbo – perhaps the snobbery is actually resentment? Still, there are some uncomfortable, though not obvious, similarities between Frodo’s restlessness and Gollum’s search for deep roots in the mountains. It is not a connection I would have made when I first read the book, or even years after. But I am noticing Frodo’s flaws a lot more – and it adds substantially to a sense of his growth throughout the story. Good point about Gildor; yes, Frodo has much to learn and indeed unlearn. Having said that, do we even know if Frodo’s attitude towards the Shirefolk really changes by the end?

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