24 January 2018

The Last Word on Adventure -- TT 3.viii.711

'I guess that you have been having adventures, which is not quite fair without me.' 
Merry Brandybuck, A Conspiracy Unmasked

One of the more marked differences between the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the initial attitude of the main characters towards the prospect of 'adventure.' Bilbo, as we recall, responded quite unfavorably when Gandalf tried to recruit him for one:  'We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,' (Hobbit 12).  By the time that Frodo has reached the age at which 'adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo' (FR 1.ii.43.), however, the tales of Bilbo's exploits have taught at least some of the younger hobbits connected to him to see things differently.  Merry (FR 1.iv.102, quoted above), Pippin (FR 1.iv.104), and Sam (FR 1.iv.99), all look gleefully forward to the adventure upon which they are embarking with Frodo, even is they also realize there must also be darkness and danger for it to be an adventure:
'Three cheers for Captain Frodo and company!’ they shouted; and they danced round him. Merry and Pippin began a song, which they had apparently got ready for the occasion.  
It was made on the model of the dwarf-song that started Bilbo on his adventure long ago, and went to the same tune....
(FR 1.iv.106)
Frodo, however, who would love to go on just such an adventure as Bilbo's, is gloomily aware that his journey is quite unlikely to be one (FR 1.ii.62; cf. 1.iii.77, and note the capital A): 
‘Of course, I have sometimes thought of going away, but I imagined that as a kind of holiday, a series of adventures like Bilbo’s or better, ending in peace. But this would mean exile, a flight from danger into danger, drawing it after me.

In fact Frodo fully expects his journey 'there' to have no 'back again' (FR 1.iii.66). Even so, neither he nor any of the others ever guessed that their adventures might involve fighting before Tom Bombadil handed them the swords from the barrow (FR 1.viii.146). Had Old Tom not rescued them, again, they would have all 'come to the end of [their] adventure' (FR 1.viii.140) then and there. All the hobbits then, including the more mature and sober Frodo, approach their journey with a certain naivete. 

In keeping with this it is no surprise to find that in The Lord of the Rings 'adventure' overwhelmingly records or reports the attitudes of the hobbits towards Bilbo's journey or their own. Of the twenty-eight instances of the word, only twice does a character who is not a hobbit use it. Glóin does so, but he is speaking to Frodo of his experiences on the road to Rivendell (FR 2.i.228). Gandalf alone employs it of the exploits of those who are not hobbits, when he says rather grimly of the Dúnedain: 'It may be that this War of the Ring will be their last adventure' (FR 2.i.221), an assessment haunted by the prospect of no 'back again'.

It is also no surprise that after the Company leaves Rivendell, by which time even Sam's 'desire for adventure was at its lowest ebb' (FR 2.iii.280), the word occurs only four more times. The first three are quite matter of fact, without the least air of Adventure. Once the Company are discussing their 'adventures' with each other as they seek to decide whether to go to Mordor or Minas Tirith (FR 2.x.402). Merry and Pippin then speak of their 'adventures' when Treebeard bids them to tell him their tale (TT 3.iv.471). Frodo, too, narrates the 'adventures' of the Company when he meets Faramir in Ithilien (TT 4.vi.677). The journey to Rivendell, the seemingly hopeless quest begun there, the shattering loss of Gandalf, Boromir's near fall and his self-sacrifice, have forced a shift in perspective on the hobbits. To sit at Bilbo's feet as children and with kindling eyes hear him speak of the brave deaths of Thorin and Fíli and Kíli is one thing; to watch their friends and comrades die -- even die heroically -- is quite another. Now they have not only have they known adventure, but the loss that too often comes with it, even before they have reached the most challenging parts of their journey. 

And it is precisely in the moment before Sam and Frodo plunge into the worst part of their adventure that the last use of word comes.
The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind.
(TT 4.viii.711, italics mine)
Their growth as characters is reflected in their evolving understanding of the very words they use. Step by step on their journey they leave behind both the conceptions they had, and the hobbits they were, when they began, which makes Sam's thoughts as he crosses the Brandywine for the first time seem almost prophetic: 
Sam was the only member of the party who had not been over the river before. He had a strange feeling as the slow gurgling stream slipped by: his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front. 
(FR 1.iv.99)
And, as is the way of prophecy, he had no idea how true it was.




  1. Nice work, as always. If I'd thought about it at all before now, I'd have expected references to "adventure" to dry up a bit earlier than the end of The Two Towers -- maybe after the loss of Gandalf? or after Boromir's fall and death and the resulting scattering of the hobbits? -- but I suppose it makes sense for the word to have a last hurrah just before the darkest plunge. Sort of a poignant post-modern metatextual moment.

    I was wondering if there might also be a way to work in some of Verlyn Flieger's commentary on Tolkien and /aventures/, esp. in her essay "Tolkien's French Connection." The kind of adventure the young hobbits were initially imagining is arguably an /aventure/, but they are ultimately forced to recognize they are on a quest. She talks a bit about this distinction and its implications, e.g.: "Bilbo had /aventures/ -- dangerous escapades exciting for their own sake, ending in peace and prosperity for Elves, Men, and Dwarves, and for Bilbo himself. Frodo goes on a /quest/ -- a journey as perilous for soul as for body -- with a fixed purpose, a goal beyond itself."


  2. Thank you for your kind words, Lee. Flieger's article is a wonderful commentary as always, and I did consider discussing the adventure/aventure distinction, but I was more interested in how the hobbits' uses of the word reveal things about them, that is, I was looking more exclusively within the text.

    Does Sam's remark really seem that post-modern and metatextual?

    1. Depends on your frame of reference, I suppose. Are there a lot of medieval tales and romances where the characters muse about what kind of stories they are in, and note their passing from one type to another? I'm obviously not comparing Tolkien to 20th or 21st century writers here.

  3. I think that Sam's perspective changes fundamentally quite early in the story when he meets the company of High Elves while still in the Shire. How interesting! Both Nazgûl and High Elves and the hobbits are still in their backyard. His desire to see Elves and so fulfil the romantic longings that Bilbo's stories first awoke is already satisfied and the "adventure" has hardly begun. My own take on Sam's later reflection on "adventure" as they climb up to the Pass of Cirith Ungol is that it is a kind of looking back on Sam's own spiritual journey. "This is how I used to see things and this is how I see it now."

    1. Right? We can clearly see the beginning of this in Sam's statement to Frodo the morning after they meet Gildor and Company:

      ‘Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now – now that your wish to see them has come true already?’ he asked.

      ‘Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.’