22 January 2015

The Restlessness of the Ringbearer

One of the great joys (and benefits) of reading a text closely and often is that doing so allows you to notice words, patterns, characterizations, etc., you might otherwise pass by, and, even more importantly, see connections among them.  Recently I have been working on a series of posts which examine how Gollum is portrayed in The Lord of the Rings before he physically enters the stage at the beginning of Book Four.  In my first post I discussed at length what impression the reader can form of him from the references in A Long-Expected Party. Yesterday, while working on the second post, I made one of those connections, which I'll treat briefly here because it is tangential to the portrayal of Gollum, though still of interest.

I had been reading through the first few pages of The Shadow of the Past when suddenly the following words struck me differently that they had previously done. Gandalf is the speaker.

'But as for his long life, Bilbo had never connected it with the ring at all. He took all the credit for that himself, and he was very proud of it. Though he was getting restless and uneasy. Thin and stretched, he said. A sign that the ring was getting control.'
(FR 1.ii.47, emphasis original)

Now the link between these words and the page in A Long-Expected Party where Bilbo so describes himself is long and well-established for me and many others. Every reader of Tolkien worth their salt knows it well:

'I am old, Gandalf. I don't look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts.  Well-preserved indeed!' he snorted. "Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.  That can't be right.  I need a change, or something.'
(FR 1.i.32, emphasis original)

But since I had spent so much time looking at the passage in A Long-Expected Party for its links to Gollum, links which reveal other less savory aspects of what the Ring was doing to Bilbo, other words leaped off the page at me when I came to the passage in The Shadow of the Past.  Specifically 'restless and uneasy' because I had just seen the first word a few pages earlier, in a description of clearly uneasy Frodo.

As time went on, people began to notice that Frodo also showed signs of good 'preservation’: outwardly he retained the appearance of a robust and energetic hobbit just out of his tweens. ‘Some folk have all the luck,’ they said; but it was not until Frodo approached the usually more sober age of fifty that they began to think it queer.

Frodo himself, after the first shock, found that being his own master and the Mr. Baggins of Bag End was rather pleasant. For some years he was quite happy and did not worry much about the future. But half unknown to himself the regret that he had not gone with Bilbo was steadily growing. He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself: ‘Perhaps I shall cross the River myself one day.’ To which the other half of his mind always replied: ‘Not yet.’

So it went on, until his forties were running out, and his fiftieth birthday was drawing near: fifty was a number that he felt was somehow significant (or ominous); it was at any rate at that age that adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo. Frodo began to feel restless, and the old paths seemed too well-trodden. He looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond its borders. He took to wandering further afield and more often by himself; and Merry and his other friends watched him anxiously. Often he was seen walking and talking with the strange wayfarers that began at this time to appear in the Shire.
(FR 1.ii.43)

The connections Bilbo and Frodo here are many and obvious.  Both are well preserved (by the Ring of course); both think of going to see mountains (1.i.32); both wander the Shire and talk to 'queer' folk; and Frodo is fast approaching the age at which adventure 'befell' (befell, like a misfortune, a very hobbitish word to choose here).  Both are also restless and uneasy.

Let's add another, that restlessness and uneasiness are a sign that 'the ring [is] getting control.'  So here is one more sign of the Ring's influence over Frodo before he's ever started on his journey, to be put beside his state of 'preservation,' his reluctance to hand the Ring to Gandalf even momentarily (1.ii.49), and his inability to throw it into the hearth even when he thinks its necessary to destroy it (1.ii.60-61).  

We should not exaggerate the weight of this evidence.  It shows us that the portrayal of Frodo is complex from the beginning,   It throws some shadows on his character and his desire to follow Bilbo, but it does not by any means blacken them. It makes him human.  And if, as Gandalf implies, Frodo was also meant to have the Ring (1.ii.56) by some Providence whom may not name, then all that lies in Frodo's character, both the good and the bad, will prove necessary to an ending that none but the One foresaw.  As in great things, so in small:

'And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.'
(Silmarillion 17)

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