Frodo and the Tyranny of Being Watched

When we think of the many burdens and eventual traumas that Frodo had to deal with by the end of the story, what do we remember? We know of the physical maiming of course, and Shelob’s sting. We also know of the psychological blow that the Ring inflicted on Frodo – the pain of being wrenched from it was unbearable. And though Frodo was robust, and his intent for goodness protected him somewhat, that pain never went away. Gandalf did say, in fact, right at the start as they sat in Frodo’s study in Bag End “I could not ‘make you’ [give up the Ring] – except by force, which would break your mind.” (Bk 1: ii: 59). That Frodo retained any sanity at all after Gollum’s fateful intervention – even with the help of healers – is remarkable.

But what we hear less of is the damaging, but less tangible, impact of feeling constantly watched. Sauron’s spies are scattered throughout Middle-earth. He has ways of knowing via traitors, palantirs, or the Nazgûl. And worst of all, his dark twisted lust for the Ring binds him to its whereabouts as it draws nearer to Mordor. One of the most chilling episodes of the book occur as Frodo pauses at the summit of Amon Hen. There we are told:

And suddenly he felt the Eye. There was an eye in the Dark Tower that did not sleep. He knew that it had become aware of his gaze. A fierce eager will was there. It leaped towards him; almost like a finger he felt it, searching for him. Very soon it would nail him down, know just exactly where he was.” (Bk 2: x: 392)

That fear only continues to grow as Frodo journeys on, until the Eye encompasses his inner and outer vision.

But it is not just Sauron and his slaves that inflict this intrusive watchfulness on Frodo. It is Gollum too. Ever since the Company enter Moria, Frodo cannot escape the feeling that they are being followed:

..Frodo’s spirits rose a little; but he still felt oppressed, and still at times he heard, or thought he heard, away behind the Company and beyond the fall and patter of their feet, a following footstep that was not an echo.” (Bk 2: iv: 306)

He knows they – specifically he – is being watched though he says nothing to anyone until Sam and Aragorn mention it as they journey along the Anduin. As Frodo swaps notes with Sam, he is able to describe in some detail all the times he thought he noticed some unusual movement or sound or sight – from Moria to Lorien to the Great River. Which means his brain is constantly working. He can’t help but remain vigilant, which stops him from sleeping even though he is desperately tired.

And even before Frodo encounters these far greater dangers on his journey, we can see that the prying and nosiness of the Shire also unsettles him. When he overhears the exchange between the Gaffer and the (still unknown to him) Black Rider at the bottom of The Hill, he says: “I am sick of questions and curiosity about my doings, I suppose.” (Bk 1: iii: 68)

This of course does not compare with the oppressive surveillance of Sauron and other enemies. But it does point to the way in which the inability to simply exist without constantly being on others’ radars is a source of deep discomfort.

This made me wonder about the times we live in now. Everyone (or almost) is ‘plugged in’, with masses of data stored on every single consumer choice we make. Our digital footprint means we are always on The Radar: whether we like it or not, whether we are doing anything interesting or not (not, usually), and whether anything is ever done with that information or not. And while we may benefit from the human connections that technology gives us, to a lesser or greater extent, it also normalises a banal type of surveillance – anyone can become a mini-celebrity, which means everyone can and is encouraged to become a mini-voyeur. The tyranny of watching and being watched – so eloquently and sadly conveyed through Frodo’s gradual deterioration – now weighs upon all of us, though in a more insidious form. Social media/ internet-stalking makes a miniature Sauron out of everyone (that does it), but without even half the effort. Is it any wonder that rates of anxiety and mental health issues are rising exponentially – not only for the watched; actually I am thinking especially of the watchers here…

When Frodo and Bilbo leave Middle-earth to dwell in Aman, Tolkien mentioned they “pass out of time and history” (Letter 154). True – we know nothing of their time there, there is no record of their doings or sayings, no surveillance, no being trapped by people’s curiosity, no being tricked into feeling curious about others. I reckon that, in part, is a profound source of their peace.


The Fellowship of the Ring (Book 1 and 2), Harper Collins, 2001

Image: Artist – Cor Blok, “Frodo Caught in the Barrow Downs”

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12 Responses to Frodo and the Tyranny of Being Watched

  1. tom says:

    And yet some will act like you have something wrong with you if you aren’t happy to have your face a matter of public record. They get annoyed if you ask them not to put your image on social media or even worse ask that they take it down. Our participation is viewed as consent. It isn’t, but the alternative is not to show up, make a fuss, or wear a Guy Fawkes mask, I suppose. Even walking down the street is deemed consent to have your image taken and stored and published.

    Now for something completely different. I was just thinking before I read your post about how in the scene when Frodo has Gollum at his mercy and recalls what Gandalf had said to him about mercy (not quite accurately). So we have Frodo the narrator remembering Frodo in the Emyn Muil remembering Frodo at Bag End. Are the differences between what Gandalf actually said and what Frodo remembers he said a product of Frodo’s memory in the scene in the Emyn Muil or of the art of Frodo the narrator looking back and trying to bring out what was going on in that moment?

    It’s Frodo’s all the way down.

    • Earthoak says:

      Thanks so much Tom for your thoughts. I can relate to this! I think for some, to even be present on social media implies you have already accepted some imaginary terms and conditions on exposure. Although I hear the much younger generation (zoomers?) are a lot more cautious and are more likely to have locked accounts. Still, not sure that solves the problem.

      As for the multiple perspectives of Frodo: that is excellent. Which Frodo has the most power? Narrator Frodo perhaps, as he comes at the end and is able to shape the history forever. Does his awareness of his audience (insofar as he even knows who they might be) matter here?

  2. tom says:

    ‘Frodos all the down’ — of course.

  3. Whenever you write something I always feel that it is worth waiting for so thank you so much for this. This is a wonderful reflection on the gaze of others. Frodo’s irritation at the nosiness of his neighbours is in proportion to his growing desire for privacy. He wishes to keep his doings secret and that desire grows throughout his journey to Mount Doom. Sauron in contrast regards all that is kept private as suspicious at best or potentially dangerous. Wedded to this he takes a malicious, even sexual, pleasure in stripping away the defences of others. In some ways I wonder if Frodo’s exhaustion in Mordor acts as a kind of defence against the Eye. Although he feels its malice constantly as a physical presence and force he shuts down any kind of inner life, any perception of any kind.
    By contrast again however, it will be under the gentle gaze of others that he will be healed in the Undying Lands. He and Bilbo will tenderly watch over each other and I like to imagine Gandalf, in particular, and maybe Gandalf’s teacher, the Lady Nienna, the lady of pity, tending for him until he is healed. Their gaze will never at any point demand entry but will always wait patiently until he is ready to reveal some part of himself. How different that is from some expressions of contemporary pastoral ministry in which the pastor demands complete vulnerability on the part of the other, calling such vulnerability a virtue and all desire for privacy a vice. Such pastors are like Sauron in this regard.

    • Earthoak says:

      Thank you so much Stephen for your kind words, and for sharing such powerful insights. I think your description of Sauron taking pleasure from stripping others’ privacy is absolutely correct. And you are also right that people like that, who see personal boundaries as a challenge to overcome, come in all types and in all spaces, from congregations to the workplace to social work or education. With Sauron he ended up having to transgress those defences by force -but it would be so much easier for him today, since people so often give up those defences ‘voluntarily’ in our attention-economy.
      Your reflections on the gentle healing in the Undying Lands offer a welcome antidote to all this.

  4. Happy says:

    I love the imagery you’ve used to accompany your article; you can really get a sense of the mental toll that Frodo experiences.

    I think it’s interesting that you draw parallels with the Frodo’s heart-sickness at his constant surveillance and social media use. On the surface there are some obvious differences, mainly I would think, that Frodo in no way welcomes the intrusion, whereas social media users seem to embrace it. And yet, they both have a similarly detrimental effect on the psyche, which you’ve captured perfectly.

    A very enjoyable post 🙂

  5. Earthoak says:

    Hello Happy 🙂 thanks for reading and for your reflections. I think that’s an important distinction, yes. Frodo’s case is tragic precisely because he did not court any of the intrusion he experienced. The influence of the Ring may well have produced some hidden aspirations to greatness or repute within Frodo (which perhaps alarmed him too at moments of quiet reflection). But that’s another (and fascinating) discussion. As for social media users – it’s an interesting one isn’t it? Do ‘users’ (what a dark and strange word for it! Same word we use for people addicted to drugs) truly embrace it? On the surface yes. But did they have real autonomy in that choice? I think a lot of people give that autonomy up without realising it. Somewhere along the way people allowed themselves to believe their contacts want to see what they ate for lunch or want to know their most mundane of observations (especially irritations). But there was probably a time when they didn’t believe that to be the case and rightly had more discretion- but when that change occurred, I doubt they’d be able to say. That isn’t willingly embracing a culture of intrusion (and imposition) but sleepwalking into it.

    Frodo struggled because he was still a free agent. If we are no longer struggling against the intrusion we probably gave that freedom up long ago. Am I on the right lines? Will keep thinking on it. Thanks again!

    • Earthoak says:

      By the way the artwork is by a really good Tolkien artist called Cor Blok. I love his work. I believe Tolkien personally approved of his illustrations of the books. There is some great research being done on Tolkien illustrations, and they’d have more to say on this. But I think part of the reason is that Blok kept that medieval theme running in his art, but also kept some key details and dramatic moments of action hidden. That allows the reader/viewer freedom to retain their own imagination. I like that principle very much and try to follow it in my own art. Thanks for noticing the accompanying imagery!

  6. Steve says:

    Back in the apartheid era in South Africa one was particularly aware of being watched — see here: Enemies of the State. And now I’m trying to write a novel about someone being put under pressure to watch others. And who will watch the watchers. Please forgive any typos in this comment — WordPress now only shows me half a line of what I’, typing.

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