10 February 2017

Some Thoughts on Structure and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings

Yes, Simon. There she is again


Quite a few years ago now in his still highly relevant article, 'The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings', Richard West made clear how intricately woven together The Lord of the Rings is. Unlike the simpler and more 'organic' practice common in modern novels, the medieval technique of '[i]nterlace, by contrast, seeks to mirror the perception of the flux of events in the world around us' (West 78), which leads to a narrative that, like life, is 'cluttered', 'digressive', and 'chaotic' (79). But there's more to it than that, as West points out:
Yet the apparently casual form of the interlace is deceptive; it actually has a very subtle kind of cohesion. No part of the narrative can be removed without damage to the whole, for within any given section there are echoes of previous parts and anticipations of later ones. The medieval memory (lacking modern information retrieval systems and therefore necessarily greater than ours) delighted in following repetitions and variations of themes, whether their different appearances were separated by scores or hundreds of pages. Musical art gives an analogous aesthetic pleasure and shows a similar structural binding ... but in literature, the interlace structure allows detailed examination of any number of facets of a theme.
(West 79)
Now in the course of The Lord of the Rings Frodo offers to give the Ring to others three times, but all of these come in the first two books, and never again after that.  A proximate cause is easy to spot -- Boromir's attempt to take the Ring at the end of the second book -- but that is only part of it. It is not the truest cause.  For in the first two books Tolkien weaves together a series of offers by Frodo with a series of (real and imagined) attempts by others to take the Ring. How these offers and attempts are made are telling in themselves, but as with Boromir each of them is part of the larger web of the story and allows us to reflect on questions of the effect the Ring has on those who possess it, claim it, or who have considered what they might accomplish if it were theirs.

  1. In The Shadow of the Past Frodo offers the Ring to Gandalf in fear, but has just proved himself unable even to throw the Ring into his fireplace, which, it has already been demonstrated, is scarcely able to warm it up (FR 1.ii.49-50, 60-61). Gandalf refuses the Ring, also out of fear, because he knows his 'pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good' will make him a prey to the Ring's power. Given the truculence with which Bilbo, like Gollum before him, asserted and defended his claim to ownership of the Ring in A Long-expected Party, Frodo's offer to Gandalf is tantamount to a denial of a claim to the Ring. 

  2. In The Council of Elrond Frodo, upon learning that Aragorn is Isildur's heir, seems almost relieved: '"Then [the Ring] belongs to you, and not to me at all!" cried Frodo in amazement, springing to his feet, as if he expected the Ring to be demanded at once.' Aragorn replies, 'It does not belong to either of us...but it has been ordained that you should hold it for a while' (FR 2.ii.237).  Frodo here in fact asserts Aragorn's claim to the Ring. This not only shows how true and wise Aragorn is by his refusal, but also supports the view taken above that Frodo has so far refused to claim the Ring. 

  3. In The Mirror of Galadriel Frodo's perception of things that are hidden and secret is enlarged, because he is 'the Ring-bearer, and one who has seen the Eye' in Galadriel's Mirror. This puts him on more of an even footing with Galadriel, since it allows him to recognize her as another Ring-bearer. Now he asks her what she wants, just as she had asked all the members of the Fellowship earlier in this chapter, and the fears for Lothlórien she reveals in her response parallel Frodo's fears for the Shire in The Shadow of the Past (FR 1.ii.62), as well as those stirred in Sam by what he has just seen in the Mirror.  In all humility then, it seems, Frodo offers to give her the Ring, and by implication renounces any claim to it: 'I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.'  Like Gandalf and Aragorn, Galadriel also refuses, but not without admitting the dreams of power and glory she had dreamt, as she pondered what she would do if the Ring ever came into her possession; and not before giving Frodo a glimpse of the majesty she would attain with the One Ring on her hand (FR 2.vii.365-66). It is intriguing, however, that here the offer of the Ring is conditional -- 'if you ask for it.' Requiring her to ask for it is an assertion of power and control, and suggests that Frodo's attitude towards the Ring has been changing. It is also intriguing that no sooner does she reject the Ring than he asks her how he might use it to 'see all the [other Rings] and know the thoughts of others', which Galadriel warns him not to try, since to use the power of the Ring would require him to train his 'will to the domination of others.' To try, she says, 'would destroy you.'
In addition to these three offers to give up the Ring -- whether Frodo could have actually done so if anyone had accepted is another matter -- Books One and Two begin and end with attempts, two real and two imagined, to seize the Ring -- 
  1. In A Long-expected Party Bilbo claims that the Ring is his when Gandalf urges him to give it to Frodo: 'It is my own. I found it. It came to me.' But, as Gandalf continues to press him, Bilbo grows paranoid and fears that Gandalf wants the Ring for himself and will try to take it by force.  He lays his hand on his sword, implicitly threatening the kind of violence he had so significantly eschewed by not stabbing Gollum when he had the chance (FR 1.i.34).  

  2. In The Flight to the Ford the Black Riders very nearly catch Frodo at the Ford of Bruinen (FR 1.xii.213-15). He attempts to command them, but they laugh at him. His questioning Galadriel about using the Ring needs to be read in connection with his failure here. His later invocations of the Ring to control Gollum (TT 4.i.618, iii.640; RK 6.iii.943-44), his wondering whether he was ready to confront the Witch-king at Minas Morgul ('not yet' -- TT 4.viii.706), and his claiming the Ring for his own (RK 6.iii.945), are all obvious 'facets' of this 'theme', but so, too, is his subsequent mourning for its loss (RK 6.ix.1024)

  3. In Many Meetings Bilbo's reaching out to touch the Ring sparks a reaction in Frodo as paranoid and close to violence as Bilbo's response to Gandalf had been (FR 2.i.232). This moment is significant in three ways: first, in showing the effect the Ring is already having on Frodo by recalling Bilbo's behavior in A Long-expected Party; second, by enabling Bilbo to understand at last what the Ring does to those who bear it; and third, by the alarmingly small effect this moment has on Frodo's understanding of what the Ring is doing to him: he just moves on. 

  4. In The Breaking of the Fellowship Boromir almost succeeds in seizing the Ring for himself (FR 2.x.396-400).  Frodo escapes only because he uses the Ring, which also results in vastly expanding his perception of the world, but in doing so he nearly reveals himself to Sauron, just as he had almost done, it would seem, when looking into Galadriel's mirror 11 days earlier. 

As Boromir's attempt follows so closely upon Frodo' offer to Galadriel, it might be worthwhile to consider these two moments side by side. Galadriel confesses that she has wanted the Ring, but will not take it or ask for it. She knows well that any good she might do at first will only end in despair. Boromir does not have the wisdom to see this -- he imagines himself becoming 'a mighty king, benevolent and wise.'  He not only wants the Ring, but requests it and will brook no refusal.  Frodo's psychic brushes with Sauron in these episodes, which emphasize his own increasingly complex relationship with the Ring -- 'He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you?' (FR 2.x.401) -- must be viewed in context with Galadriel's silent probing of Boromir's mind at their first meeting in Lothlórien, an encounter   that left Boromir rattled and suspicious, and Galadriel concerned that he was in peril (TT 3.v.496). Who would grasp that peril better than she? Who would find her desire to save her land and people more unnerving than Boromir? As Faramir later wonders, from a fascinating perspective that encompasses both sides of the experience: 'What did she say to you, the Lady that dies not? What did she see? What woke in your heart then?' (TT 4.v.667).  Boromir and Galadriel will have seen in each other's thoughts a reflection of their own fears and desires.

There are of course other scenes in the first two books that we might examine in greater depth, to see how they might contribute to our understanding of the Ring and the relationship of Frodo and others to it. In addition to some of the passages cited within the points made above, the scenes in the Shire, at Bree, and on Weathertop would be worth closer inspection. From my discussion of these same passages we can also see that much more lies ahead, which I have not yet fully thought through, and which will doubtless alter my own understanding of what I have seen so far. Still it would be foolish to think that every last passage can or should be fitted into some sort of pattern, as tempting as that can often be. 

But there is one more rather eccentric piece of this puzzle that I think requires comment at this time. In The Old Forest Tom Bombadil comes plunging into the story like some rogue comet from the Oort Cloud. The hobbits spend most of three chapters in Tom's Country, measuring from the High Hay to the East Road beyond the Barrow-downs, just as they do later in Lothlórien. Unlike Galadriel, however, Bombadil asks to see the Ring, which Frodo, to his own surprise, gives him without demur, but when Bombadil puts on the Ring and makes it disappear instead of vanishing himself, Frodo becomes alarmed and suspicious. Even though Bombadil immediately returns the Ring, Frodo must test it to be sure he hasn't been tricked. Again, the Ring has no effect on old Tom, who sees Frodo quite clearly (FR 1.vii.132-33).  Pardoxically Frodo reveals himself by disappearing. The Ring is already at work on him. Unlike Galadriel and everyone else in The Lord of the Rings, however, Tom is his own Master and desires nothing but what he has. Thus the power of the Ring has no pull on him. He knows of the Ring, but seems to have little interest in it except as a curiosity (cf. FR 2.ii.265).

Like Lothlórien, Tom's Country is also Faërie. Under his mastery time there flows differently from time in Bree or The Shire or Rohan, but not in the same way as it does in Lórien, from which one emerges to find that one has fallen behind time in the mortal world. In Tom's Country it is always the present, but the past remains vibrant and accessible: Tom can still go singing out into the ancient starlight when only the Elf-sires were awake (FR 1.vi.131); the trees can remember 'the times when they were lords' (FR 1.vii.130); the Barrow-wights can recall the first Dark Lord (FR 1.viii.141); and visions of Dunedain kings, once and future, can rise up before the hobbits' eyes as well as in their dreams (FR 1.viii.143, 145-46).  In Galadriel's Golden Wood we may also see visions of times past and times perhaps to come, but the land itself is anchored in an age long gone: In Lórien the Elder Days 'still lived on in the waking world' (FR 2.vi.349), but only if she had the One Ring could she perhaps preserve it that way forever. Tom and his Country serve as another structural counterpoise to Galadriel and hers.

What, finally, is the theme whose facets we are examining through this extensive and intricate web? Perhaps that which Gandalf touched upon first in The Shadow of the Past and which Elrond expands upon in The Council of Elrond, two chapters which occupy the same position and play much the same part in their respective books:
‘A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later – later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last – sooner or later the Dark Power will devour him.’
(FR 1.ii.47)
And:
'Alas, no,' said Elrond. 'We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron's throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.' 
'Nor I,' said Gandalf. 
Boromir looked at them doubtfully, but he bowed his head. 'So be it,' he said.  
(FR 2.ii.267)
This is how good becomes evil. Boromir's question to Frodo on Amon Hen -- if the Wise won't wield the Ring, someone has to: 'Why not Boromir?' (FR 2.x.398) -- is not all that different from Frodo's asking Galadriel about using the Ring himself the moment she has refused his offer.

It will be interesting to see how this line of inquiry unfolds from here.




Richard C. West, 'The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings' in Jared Lobdell, A Tolkien Compass (1975), pp. 77-94.


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