. Alas, not me: September 2021

15 September 2021

Sméagol-Gollum and the legacy of Pity.

It was some years ago that I first noted differences in the use of the names Sméagol and Gollum. Gandalf only calls him Sméagol when he is trying to persuade Frodo that he is pitiable. Frodo addresses him as Sméagol, but refers to him as Gollum. The Tale of Years in Appendix B, moreover, cleverly signals the changes in him by referring to him differently at different times. He is Sméagol until he murders Déagol for the Ring; then Sméagol-Gollum until he loses the Ring to Bilbo; and always Gollum thereafter.

2463: About this time Déagol the Stoor finds the One Ring, and is murdered by Sméagol.

2470. About this time Sméagol-Gollum hides in the Misty Mountains.

2941: Bilbo meets Sméagol-Gollum and finds the Ring. 

2944: Gollum leaves the Mountains and begins his search for the 'thief' of the Ring

2951: Gollum turns towards Mordor. 

2980: About this time Gollum reaches the confines of Mordor and becomes acquainted with Shelob. 

3001. Bilbo's farewell feast. Gandalf suspects his ring to be the One Ring. The guard on the Shire is doubled. Gandalf seeks for news of Gollum and calls on the help of Aragorn.

3009: Gandalf and Aragorn renew their hunt for Gollum at intervals during the next eight years, searching in the vales of Anduin, Mirkwood, and Rhovanion to the confines of Mordor. At some time during these years Gollum himself ventured into Mordor, and was captured by Sauron. 

3017: Gollum is released from Mordor. He is taken by Aragorn in the Dead Marshes, and brought to Thranduil in Mirkwood. 

About 20 June 3018: Gollum escapes [captivity in Thranduil's realm]

August 3018: All trace of Gollum is lost. It is thought that at about this time, being hunted both by the Elves and Sauron's servants, he took refuge in Moria; but when he had at last discovered the way to the West-gate he could not get out

13 January 3019: Gollum begins to trail the Ring-bearer.

16 February 3019: Gollum in hiding on the west bank observes the departure.

29 February 3019: Frodo descends from the Emyn Muil and meets Gollum.

11 March 3019: Gollum visits Shelob, but seeing Frodo asleep nearly repents.

12 March 3019: Gollum leads Frodo into Shelob's lair.

25 March 3019: Gollum seizes the Ring and falls in the Cracks of Doom. 

Note that from the first his identity as a Hobbit, and in particular a Stoor, like Déagol, is suggested. Note also the reference to his near repentance. Details like these disclose the hand of an author who, so far from merely portraying him as a villain, recognized his humanity, his kinship as a Hobbit, and agreed with Gandalf that Gollum's was a sad story. As the use of the different terms indicates, this author gave some thought to the journey from Hobbit to monster; and sees  the moment of final transition from Sméagol-Gollum to Gollum in his loss of the Ring to Bilbo. Even if the Prologue (14) did not inform us that the appendices were added in Westmarch in the Shire, it would be easy to guess that the author was a Hobbit with some personal connection to the story, likely a Fairbairn and a descendant of Master Samwise, who awoke at the crucial moment on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol and 'blighted' (as Tolkien himself said) Gollum's last chance for repentance. Even in that instant Sam knew he had been wrong to be as harsh as he was to Gollum. 

What the presence of these various descriptions of Gollum in Appendix B tells us is quite moving. It tells us that the pity which Frodo and even Sam came to feel for Gollum was handed down as an enduring legacy to Sam's descendants, and that among them it continued to be thought meaningful. It speaks to the forgiveness Frodo told Sam they should show Gollum since the quest could not have been achieved without him. Even if Gollum remained the villain of the story, some would remember that the sad story of Sméagol lurked behind that of Gollum.

Fear, Desire, and 'The Ring is mine.'


The Ring plays on fear as much as desire. To be sure Boromir and Denethor desire to save Gondor, but both share a desperate fear that they cannot succeed. Even Faramir says of his people ‘What hope have we? …. It is long since we have had any hope’ (TT 4.v.677); and even Faramir sees the temptation the power of the Ring would hold, for his brother in particular (TT. 4.v.681). For it seems a gift that will allow Gondor to survive. Frodo sets out to destroy the Ring because he fears the Shire will not survive otherwise. For all three the desire to save their homeland and their fear that they cannot will merge without their knowing it into a desire for the one weapon that seems capable of defeating Sauron. The idea of victory in battle may not come to Frodo’s mind as readily as it does to Boromir’s (and Sam’s, don’t forget.), but 'the Ring is mine' is no less of a challenge because of that. The ‘Captain-General of Gondor’ and ‘the Mister Baggins of Bag End’ are far less different than bearing and size suggest.

12 September 2021

'Perhaps', 'Not yet', and 'almost' -- Rereading The Lord of the Rings Fifty Years On

Nowadays I hear people say they are waiting for their Hogwarts letter, which usually is already quite overdue since their eleventh birthday is long gone. I didn't miss my Hogwarts letter. At eleven I got The Lord of the Rings, which suits me far better. 

In The Shadow of the Past we encounter two very telling passages about Frodo just as we begin to get to know him as Bilbo's heir and the Mr. Baggins of Bag End.

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.’

            FR 1.ii.42 (emphasis mine)


He did not tell Gandalf, but as he was speaking a great desire to follow Bilbo flamed up in his heart– to follow Bilbo, and even perhaps to find him again. It was so strong that it overcame his fear: he could almost have run out there and then down the road without his hat, as Bilbo had done on a similar morning long ago.

            FR 1.ii.62 (emphasis mine)

''Perhaps', 'Not yet' and 'almost'. He thinks of crossing the river and going in search of adventures some day, but doesn't. He burns to follow Bilbo at once, but doesn't. This is Frodo all over, at least to start with. Bilbo knew full well that Frodo's love for the Shire outweighed even his love for him or whatever fantasies of adventure he had cherished at uncle Bilbo's side. In the end it is not -- as we see -- the desire to follow Bilbo, but the desire to save the Shire that moves Frodo to cross that river. When he finally does so, given the mythological resonance of 'crossing the river on a ferry' and given that his parents drowned in this very river, Frodo in a sense dies there and then. For he dies to the Shire. It may be Sam who gazes back across the Brandywine as if leaving 'his old life behind in the mists' (FR 1.v.99), but he will return and reclaim that life. Frodo will not. 

04 September 2021

'To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity, and the Ring of Power' -- Perhaps a part of an Introduction


‘the burden of a large story’


‘They wanted a sequel. But I wanted heroic legends and high romance. The result was The Lord of the Rings. ....

‘The magic ring was the one obvious thing in The Hobbit that could be connected with my mythology. To be the burden of a large story it had to be of supreme importance.’

Letters no. 257, p. 346

‘Tolkien was his own best critic’, writes Anna Vaninskaya (2020: 156). Not only did revising his works release a torrent of new ideas, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, but reading and thinking about them revealed depths he had not fathomed before.[1] We can see this in his letters as well as in every phase of the creation of his legendarium, so masterfully laid out by Christopher Tolkien in The History of Middle-earth. An essential part of being his own best critic was being his own best reader. To call the Ring ‘the burden of a large story’ is to perceive that it is as much the burden the story has to bear as it is the burden Frodo has to bear. It is at once supremely important in and to the story. Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings he saw the blending of the Elvish perspective found in the ‘high Legends of the beginning’ and the ‘human point of view’ which first arose in The Hobbit (Letters no. 131, p. 145). At the same time he knew, more abstractly, that the tales of his mythology ‘must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error)’ (Letters no. 131, p. 144). What is reflected is seen indirectly, if not darkly; what is in solution is seen barely, if at all.  

The Lord of the Rings embodies the synthesis of each of these three theses – the burden of the story and the burden of Frodo, the perspectives of Elves and Men, the reflection and solution in a secondary world of truths fundamental to the primary world – not just individually but into a greater whole, which, presented mythically and realized artistically, creates and shares the significance of these truths, perspectives, and burdens metaphorically. ‘Tolkien is thinking in story,’ Simon Cook tells us in The Apprenticeship of J. R. R. Tolkien (2018) in which he argues forcefully that the ‘allegory of the tower’ which Tolkien told as a means to understanding Beowulf is also of vital importance for understanding Tolkien’s own writing. In employing this allegory Tolkien ‘is exploring a metaphor and making meaning, yet we remain on the surface and have not the key to his intentions.’

A work ‘so multifarious and so true’ (Lewis, Letters, 4 December 1953) as The Lord of the Rings will contain many essential elements besides those introduced above. Some of these Tolkien employed consciously, but there were others the extent of whose presence he recognized only subsequently. He knew well that there is far more to be found in a work, even by its author, than any author intends, as the candor and open-mindedness of these responses to his readers in 1956 and 1958 make clear.  

Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for domination)…. I do not think that even Power or Domination is the real centre of my story. It provides the theme of a War, about something dark and threatening enough to seem at that time of supreme importance, but that is mainly ‘a setting’ for characters to show themselves. The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race 'doomed' to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race 'doomed' not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete.

(Letters no. 186, p. 246, italics original)

As for 'message': I have none really, if by that is meant the conscious purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, of preaching, or of delivering myself of a vision of truth specially revealed to me! I was primarily writing an exciting story in an atmosphere and background such as I find personally attractive. But in such a process inevitably one's own taste, ideas, and beliefs get taken up. Though it is only in reading the work myself (with criticisms in mind) that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death.

(Letters no. 208, p. 267)

In his essay Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics Tolkien talks about the Beowulf poet writing his poem without full awareness or understanding of the theme he had set himself, and this, Tolkien avers, was a good thing: ‘Had the matter been so explicit to him, his poem would certainly have been worse’ (BMC 18). This remark follows from his earlier comment that myth is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and  geography, as our poet has done’ (BMC 16). Whether the Beowulf poet ever looked back and saw more clearly what he had ‘felt’ when composing the poem, no one can say. But Tolkien did. By far the greater part of his fascinating, insightful, and expansive commentary upon The Lord of the Rings comes from the letters he wrote in the years after he had finished it. To be sure, his published letters are only a selection, but the principle of that selection was to make available the material that would be of the greatest interest to readers of The Lord of the Rings and his other published works (Letters, 1).[2] It is reasonable then to see the letters we get before and after Tolkien declared the work finished as representative of his chief concerns in each period.

Letter 131, the ever cited ‘Waldman letter’ of late 1951 (Letters, 167), marks a terminus before which Tolkien’s comments to his correspondents almost invariably addressed the practical challenges of finishing the work, and after which theological, philosophical, and thematic reflections, often in response to questions or criticisms of readers and critics alike, became increasingly common. Wishing to see The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion published together, a desire which Allen and Unwin seemed reluctant to gratify, Tolkien set out to persuade Milton Waldman of Collins to take on both works. To accomplish this end Tolkien had to step back and think through his legendarium as a whole just as he had done with Beowulf in his 1936 lecture and as he had done with Faërie in On Fairy-stories in 1939.[3] So many of the larger questions he weighs in his later correspondence find their first expression here.

Clearly The Lord of the Rings reflects its author’s mind and meditations from beginning to end. Such themes as Death and Immortality, Power realized in Art versus Power realized in domination, the role small hands play while the eyes of the great are elsewhere, and the essential relationship between high and low, great and small, which gives meaning to the lives and efforts of both, are present throughout, but in telling his story the elements of the metaphor remained largely in solution. With the Waldman letter he begins to precipitate those long meditated elements out of solution.

Indeed important texts he composed in the 1950s, such as Laws and Customs among the Eldar and the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth may well owe their existence to the shift away from narrative to philosophical and theological concerns that we first see in Letter 131. The much lamented failure to complete the tale Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin at all or The Silmarillion to his satisfaction probably finds some of its explanation here, alongside the profound disappointment inflicted by Collins’s unwillingness to publish The Silmarillion, which was so severe that for some time he stopped working on it entirely (S&H C 405-06). Much as Lewis might have predicted, Tolkien explored so many thoughts in the process of reviewing his entire legendarium that it led him to produce new works and to reexamine and reformulate the metaphysical foundations of his world more directly.

One important element we do not find reflected upon in Letter 131, or anywhere before Letter 153 of 1954 in fact, is pity. A part of Gandalf’s exchange with Frodo on pity is present from the very first draft of The Lord of the Rings. Crucially, however, the effect of Bilbo’s pity is solely to save him from becoming another Gollum, or worse: ‘he would not have had the ring, the ring would have had him at once. He might have become a wraith on the spot’ (Shadow 81). There is not the least hint that ‘the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many’ (FR 1.ii.59) as in the published text, or, as in Letter 153, that ‘it is the Pity of Bilbo and later Frodo that ultimately allows the Quest to be achieved’ (Letters, 191). Consider, too, Letter 181 of 1956 in which Tolkien states that ‘the “salvation” of the world and Frodo’s own “salvation” is achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury’ (Letters, 234, italics original). Letters 191 and 192, both of 1956, also emphasize the importance of pity, mercy, and forgiveness in this context (Letters, 251-53); and in letter 246 of 1963 Tolkien again calls out ‘that strange element in the World that we call Pity and Mercy’ (326).[4]

Parallel with the limited scope of pity in the first draft of The Lord of the Rings is the limited conception of the power of the Ring. It is not yet the One Ruling Ring. Until Bilbo’s magic ring becomes the ‘one Ring to rule them all’, Bilbo’s pity cannot play the role Gandalf suggests it may well play in the fate of the world. Indeed it has no need to do so. Once the conception of the Ring changes, the two are woven together, with each other as well as with the themes of Death and Immortality. For the Power of the Ring encourages mortals to think they can cheat death, and immortals that they can preserve the world from the fading which is a part of its nature, and their own. Mortals with Rings of Power like the Nazgûl end up undead; immortals like the Elves ‘embalm’ what they would save.[5] Against the Ring pity offers the only real defense, but in the end the pity of this world cannot withstand the enticements of such power. Frodo will fail.

Pity thus plays an essential and paradoxical role in the lives of the characters and in the fate of all Middle-earth, and is a key to understanding The Lord of the Rings and seeing more deeply into Tolkien’s legendarium as a whole. If pity does not rule the fate of many, the Ring of Power will. For that is what Sauron made it to do. In this book I shall trace the long arc of pity and the Ring from the moment Bilbo stood poised in the darkness behind Gollum until Frodo, hurt beyond healing by the burden of the Ring, gazed upon Saruman’s corpse in the morning of the Shire and watched his fallen spirit scattered on the wind, the both of them unable to return home.


‘The Ring left him.’

(FR 1.ii.55, italics original)

If the ‘real theme’ of The Lord of the Rings is Death and Immortality, and if the Power of the Ring seems to offer Men and Elves the means to challenge these ‘dooms’ of their nature in addition to attaining more worldly ends, we must also question the nature of the Ring itself. The answer will affect our understanding both of the ‘temptations’ offered by the power of the Ring, and of the interplay of pity and the Ring. Does the Ring then possesses a consciousness and agency of its own? Scholars and fans alike commonly speak as if it does. Gandalf does so himself when he tells Frodo that the Ring left Gollum, a statement which gives by far the strongest evidence for consciousness and agency, but only if Gandalf means it to be taken literally. That Frodo mocks Gandalf’s assertion, I would argue, leaves room for us to doubt this, especially since Gandalf does not reply with a reaffirmation that the Ring made a conscious decision to leave Gollum and acted upon it, a point not to be neglected or passed over if true, but hammered home. Who would need to understand this more than Frodo?

Yet Gandalf does pass over it, and moves immediately on to another point which he considers more important and which he admits he cannot state ‘more plainly’, that Bilbo was ‘meant to have the Ring and not by its maker’ (FR 1.ii.55, italics original). Gandalf, moreover, has used metaphor earlier in this conversation to describe the Ring devouring its possessor (FR 1.ii.47, 55, 57). He has even employed outright deception, withholding as long as he can the truth that the hobbit Sméagol is in fact the creature Gollum, because he believes it to be of the utmost importance to the world that Frodo, who is also ‘meant to have the Ring’, pity Gollum as Bilbo had done.

This combination of reticence, deception, and metaphor warns against making any easy judgement about the Ring and its effect on its possessor. While Frodo reasonably and (I believe) rightly scoffs at Gandalf’s assertions about the Ring’s consciousness and agency, he is nevertheless rarely sure whether the urge to put on the Ring comes from the Ring, from within himself, or from elsewhere. This makes the distinction between the possibilities integral to the power of the Ring and the desires of those who possess or might possess the Ring inherently difficult to maintain, increasingly so as the Ring comes closer to its source. This is challenging for the reader as well as for the Ringbearer owing to the psychological, moral, and spiritual complexity of the struggle between ‘the Ring is my burden’ and ‘the Ring is mine’.

[1] Thus Lewis in Tolkien’s obituary in The Times (3 September 1973): ‘His standard of self-criticism was high, and the mere suggestion of publication usually set him upon a revision, in the course of which so many new ideas occurred to him that where his friends had hoped for the final text of an old work they actually got the first draft of a new one.’ The Tolkien Society reprinted the obituary in full in Mallorn 8 (1974) 40-43. Lewis’s comment appears unsourced in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien (1977: 138).

[2] Larger thematic concerns do not of course go unmentioned beforehand. Gollum’s near repentance touches upon pity: Letters, no. 96, p. 110. Letter no. 66, p. 78 addresses power: ‘For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs. Not that in real life things are as clear cut as in a story, and we started out with a great many Orcs on our side.’ For more on Power and the Machine: no. 75, p. 87; no 109, p. 121.

[3] On the Beowulf lecture, see S. Cook (2018), and Tolkien and M. Drout (2011). For On Fairy-stories, see V. Flieger and D. Anderson (2014).

[4] To the distinction between pity and Pity we shall return below.

[5] For Elves’ attempts to preserve the world from ‘fading’ as ‘embalming’, see Letters, no. 131, p. 151, and no. 154, p. 196. 

02 September 2021

The small hands of Beren and the smaller hands of Frodo

When we encounter Elrond's words at the council -- 'Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere' (FR 2.ii.269) -- we naturally think of the 'small hands' of the hobbits, of Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam who find and bear the Ring. And we are quite right to do so, but Elrond's proverbial 'oft' suggests that he has more than just the hobbits in mind. When we learn whose hands he means, it comes as quite a surprise. 

Here [i.e., in the story of Beren and Lúthien] we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, 'the wheels of the world', are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama. It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown. Thus he wins the hand of Lúthien and the first marriage of mortal and immortal is achieved.

Letters, no. 131, p. 149

It is only by stepping back from the tale of Beren and Lúthien itself and viewing it in its vast mythological context that we can see the hands of this 'outlawed mortal' and 'mere elf maiden' (!) as 'small'. How many comments by Tolkien could better illustrate the difference in perspective between the First Age mythology of the Silmarillion and the Third Age history of The Lord of the Rings? How many at the same time could reveal the essence of the continuing Tale that Beren and Lúthien and Frodo and Sam find themselves in over six thousand years apart? Or the all but inconceivable role of 'the Children of God in the Drama'?

As Elrond says, 'Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it?' (FR 2.ii.270).