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 history and depth, thanks in no small part to Gandalf’s central role in it. It is tempting to jump straight to the narrative that dominates this chapter. But I first want to reflect on the extra characterisation that comes prior, which is just as important in laying the foundations of the story.
We already gleaned some of Frodo’s personality from the first chapter. But I’m 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 people in this light? Indeed Frodo does not seem very concerned by it. But actually 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 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, and the science that can save people’s lives. 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 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 the ability to believe in the miraculous – everything is subservient to a bland disenchantment.
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, based on my hike in Ben Lomond. Drawing this was such a peaceful, cathartic exercise, so I am rather fond of it.
Click here for part 4.