Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part X
We have now spent a good ten thousand(!) words looking at McGarry and Ravipinto’s article. The conclusion thus far is essentially twofold – that Tolkien is much more interested in the danger posed by control than by transformation, and moreover that transformation is an inevitable, though often regrettable, part of the world’s existence. To seek to resist this inevitable change (with Death being the greatest inevitable change of all, at least as far as Men are concerned) is fundamentally problematic.
Having dealt with the article’s introduction(!), let us press on.
The hero of high fantasy is traditionally male and usually begins the story as a young man. The story then follows his development as he comes into his power – a bildungsroman, a coming of age.
The Lord of the Rings throws a curveball. With Aragorn’s development confined to the appendices, we only see him as a fully-realised leader – no bildungsroman here (in fact, Aragorn’s journey is not the conventional Hero’s Journey at all. He never leaves and returns to an ordinary world, but remains in the special world throughout). Rather, the characters that do undergo a coming of age are the four hobbits – whom I have pointed out (see instalment VIII) as being the actual heroes. So far so good, until you realise that the two most important coming of age stories – those of Frodo and Sam – are very different spins on the bildungsroman.
Let’s take Frodo first. Frodo is thirty-three when he becomes custodian of the One Ring, and fifty when he actually goes on the Quest. He is not a young man during his transformative adventure, but actually a middle-aged one. Even more curiously, he starts off as the Master of Bag End – a comfortable member of The Shire’s upper-middle-class, which is as high a material station as he will ever get, since Frodo’s “coming into power” is actually the reverse of the norm. For all the appreciation from the Great and the Good, Frodo returns to The Shire unable to participate in local affairs ever again (he alone of the four hobbits does not end up in a position of authority), and finally goes over the Sea in search of a healing beyond the powers of mortals. A tragic tale of a shell-shocked veteran… yet, as Saruman irritably points out, Frodo grows in stature throughout the story, not in a material sense, but in a moral sense. This is the character who bluntly informs Gandalf from the comfort of his hearth that Gollum “deserves death”, and who then learns the power of pity – pity that ultimately saves the world. Frodo’s coming of age is on a decidedly unworldly level, which makes him a very unique fantasy protagonist, even if McGarry and Ravipinto do not acknowledge him as such.
Samwise Gamgee is a very different kettle of fish (as the Gaffer always said). Sam is younger than Frodo, but still clearly an adult at the time of the Quest (he’s thirty-eight). What makes him such an odd example though is that not simply his social transition from gardener and handyman to long-serving Mayor, but that he achieves his coming of age as someone who is at all times the loyal supporter. Sam’s role as the “true” hero of the story stands in an odd relationship to his narrative role as a sidekick and helper. Like Frodo, Sam also achieves moral growth: he is able to shake the conservative smugness that had previously been a tendency, and he learns pity when it matters most. Unlike Frodo, however, his moral growth is accompanied by actual growth in a material sense. He becomes Master of Bag End, he marries and has numerous children. He becomes Mayor. For all that he is the commonest Everyman (no hidden heir here!), the future belongs to Sam – his descendants will live on, but Frodo’s will not. This notion of the working class triumphant is a most unusual element for a work so allegedly conservative as The Lord of the Rings…
The hero may be of questionable parentage, an orphan who does not know his origins, but he is almost never a member of a persecuted minority in terms of race or sexuality. In many cases, the hero is later revealed to be of noble or even royal lineage, thus he is often more privileged than he himself knew.
Frodo is an orphan, but he knows his origins: his parents died in a boating accident (I do wonder if he should have developed a fear of water as a result. As it is, he seems to have no qualms about travelling the Anduin). Sam’s father is, of course, an entertaining minor character. Neither of our heroes fit the role of the hidden heir.
(Aragorn does, sort of. He only learns of his ancestry aged twenty, but seeing as he is eighty-seven at the time of the Quest, the point is a moot one, and he actually subverts the trope by hiding his lineage from other people when serving in Gondor).
Meanwhile, neither Frodo nor Sam are a member of a persecuted racial or sexual minority (another rather moot point, since The Shire is ethnically homogenous outside the differing strains of hobbit, and homosexuality is not discussed in the work at all). Sam, as mentioned before, is working class, and in the context of Shire society, is decidedly not from a background of privilege – his rise is social mobility in action.
If you really want to see a persecuted hero in Tolkien (as opposed to persecuted minor character), The Silmarillion of all places is a better bet. Beren son of Barahir is a mortal man of no great lineage, chased all over the place by Morgoth, and is treated with contempt by Thingol. Men play second fiddle to Elves at that point, you may remember – human beings are an oppressed social group in their own right. Yet Beren rather defies expectations…
Examples are easy to come by.
Considering that McGarry and Ravipinto’s article indicates that it is using Tolkien and Martin as its reference points for representative high fantasy, I find it surprising that neither Tolkien characters nor Martin characters feature in the ensuing list of examples.
The hero begins his journey with the peace of his normal existence shaken – the status quo disturbed.
As at least one commentator has pointed out, all stories – fantasy or otherwise – start with normal existence being shaken (hence the saying that all plots are either about someone going on a journey or about a stranger coming to town). It’s called a narrative hook, and is designed to get the reader’s attention. This does not mean that all stories are inherently conservative.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo finds himself the unlikely bearer of a dark legacy, the One Ring… Frodo must flee before he is discovered by Sauron’s minions. He is led on this journey by the wizard Gandalf…
No, he isn’t. Gandalf warns Frodo of the nature of the One Ring, but he does not lead him on the journey to Rivendell (Frodo waits for the wizard, of course, but matters force his hand). Tolkien is a good enough author to realise that it is much more interesting to see the characters bumble on their own, without a guiding hand doing everything for them – it’s why he cooked up the Necromancer excuse to separate Gandalf from Bilbo and the Dwarves in The Hobbit, and why The Lord of the Rings would be a lesser book if the Fellowship outside Frodo and Sam had lasted until Mount Doom.
Frodo himself is essentially landed gentry… Merry and Pippin, second cousins to Frodo, are hobbits of good parentage, though not quite as good as Frodo himself. Sam, meanwhile, is Frodo’s gardener, most definitely not as wealthy or well born as Frodo.
As discussed before, Frodo is middle-class via his Baggins father (upper-middle-class given his Brandybuck mother). Yes, he enjoys a nice inheritance and a comfortable home, but he is not upper class – there’s no title in it. Meriadoc Brandybuck (future Master of Buckland) and Peregrin Took (future Thain of the Shire) are the actual aristocrats, not Frodo.
It’s worth remembering that Bungo Baggins (Bilbo’s father) built Bag End with his Took wife’s money, and that Drogo Baggins (Frodo’s father) used to hang around his Brandybuck in-laws for the free food. The Bagginses may be comfortable, but they aren’t elite.
All four characters – whether well born or common – are invested in the status quo, their quest an attempt to preserve the idyllic lifestyle of The Shire.
No, they are invested in not being enslaved. This goes back to McGarry and Ravipinto’s fundamental misreading of the conflict in The Lord of the Rings. This is not about preserving the Shire’s status quo (which in any case is not actually the utopia it is so often made out to be), but about trying to escape the iron fist of Mordor.
The true victory of these heroes is the restoration of the world they left behind.
But the world isn’t restored, at least not how it was. The Shire has been (forcibly) shaken out of its perpetual complacency; the new movers and shakers in society – Sam as Mayor, Merry as Master, and Pippin as Thain -are very different people as a result of their experiences. Rejecting Saruman’s “transformation” (again, actually rejecting domination from a washed-up former despot) does not mean endorsing the smug parochialism of the past. In fact, the changes are such that all three characters leave The Shire before they die – Sam over the Sea, Merry and Pippin to Gondor. Hobbit isolationism is dead.
As for Frodo… ask him how much “restoration” there was.