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”