. Alas, not me: November 2021

26 November 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 4


Unsurprisingly, given what we've seen in Parts One, Two, and Three of this post, the narrator includes no lighthearted parenthetical comments once the Witch-king stabs Frodo on Weathertop. The only such remark in Flight to the Ford describes the rather grim state, doubly grim for Hobbits, of their provisions by the time they met Glorfindel: 'stale bread and dried fruit (which was now all they had left)' (FR 1.xii.211, emphasis mine). Once Frodo is recovering safely in Rivendell, the commentary picks up again slightly, with one parenthetical in direct speech (Gandalf: FR 2.i.221, sourcing an idiom), one strictly informational (the age of Dáin: 2.i.229), and one in which Frodo, himself just out of his sick bed, curiously wonders whether anyone is 'ever ill in Rivendell'(FR 2.i.230). Again unsurprisingly the serious matters of The Council of Elrond leave no room for such commentary, but once more in The Ring Goes South we find four hobbitish asides of a humorous bent (FR 2.iii.277, 280 twice, 288). Once the fellowship sets out, however, another 48 pages pass before the next such item appears, in Lothlórien (FR 2.vi.346), which notes the hobbits' approval of the food shared with them by the elves on their first night in the Golden Wood. Two hundred and twenty pages then pass before we come to another, in the chapter Treebeard, to which we now turn.

Here we encounter the last significant spike upwards, with fourteen parenthetical remarks. No chapter after Treebeard has more than five. Now Joe Hoffman over at Idiosophy has made several excellent observations and -- what is not necessarily the same thing -- has been quite complimentary of my analyses of these texts. Treebeard does sound like an old hobbit dispensing advice to the young, and Merry and Pippin must have been Frodo's sources for this chapter as well as the preceding chapter, The Uruk-hai (where regrettably neither Uglúk nor Grishnákh sounds like the gaffer or even Ted Sandyman). That eleven of the fourteen parentheses annotate descriptions of Treebeard and the other ents bears out Joe's observation (TT 3.iv.465, 470, 471, 472, 478, 480 five times, 483), which receives further support from the three such comments Treebeard makes himself (TT 3.iv.465, 473 , 476). So, too, and more directly does Pippin's quoted reminiscence about Treebeard's eyes, which the narrator makes clear derives from a later time (TT 3.iv.463): 'often afterwards Pippin tried to describe his first impression of them.'

With Merry and Pippin in these two chapters we see again much the same as we have previously seen with Bilbo and Frodo. Painful and frightening experiences close down the good humor on display in the parentheses. The quarrel with Gandalf, the horror in the barrow, the terrible mistake with the Ring at the Prancing Pony, the abduction by the orcs shows that the Hobbit tendency to make jokes even in serious situations has it limits (RK 5.viii.870). Some experiences are too dreadful for asides. But we can also see their resilience. Once they have left the barrow behind once they have escaped the orcs, their spirits quickly revive. 

As with Frodo in the barrow, the seeds of Pippin's courage begin to grow when things looks darkest for him and Merry as captives of the Uruk-hai. Pippin here started to be less the 'fool of a Took' Gandalf had called him (FR 2.iv.313), just as Frodo there became less one of the 'ridiculous Bagginses' (FR 1.ii.49). We also learn from Pippin that Merry had displayed exceptional bravery when the orcs first attacked them (TT 3.iii.444), though he had not had so far to go. The parallel between Frodo and Pippin here, and through Pippin's recollection to Merry, is maintained by the resumption of parenthetical comments once the danger is behind them. The emergence of Pippin and Merry in book three will be followed by Sam's in book four where he begins to carry the narrative burden, i.e., the tale is told increasingly from his perspective as Frodo becomes more isolated in his lonely struggle with the Ring. The parallel thus signals a shift which I shall follow up on in my next post. 

17 November 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 3

As we saw in Part One and Part Two, the number of parenthetical comments rapidly declines from the first chapter onwards. Thirty-two parentheses in A Long-expected Party alone are followed by thirty-four all told in chapters 2 through 8 of Book 1, from 1.5 parentheses per page (32/21) in chapter one to 1 every three pages (34/107) in the next seven chapters. 

In the section of text I will be discussing here in Part Three, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony starts us off with fifteen in thirteen pages, but from Strider through Flight to the Ford we find only eight in the next fifty-two pages. After At the Sign of the Prancing Pony we find only one more chapter that has a comparable number of parentheses, namely Treebeard, with fourteen. But these two chapters are aberrations. For in the balance of the book only once more do we find as many as five (Window on the West), and only three times do we encounter as many as four (A Knife in the Dark, The Ring Goes South, and The Grey Havens). By contrast there are thirty-four chapters with none at all, and seven with only one. At this point a simple chart (not a single logarithm, Joe) makes all perfectly clear: 

The fifteen parentheses in At the Sign of the Prancing Pony are indeed anomalous as far as the trend of the numbers goes, but not without an explanation as far as Hobbits go. As we saw in A Long-expected Party, the comments are good humored until something unpleasant happens, in this case, until Frodo puts on the Ring. Of the fourteen parentheses in the body of this chapter*, only one is strictly informational -- 1.ix.151: '(mostly dwarves)'. The rest smile upon the various characteristics of hobbits, touching upon their love of food, drink, genealogy and song as well on their peculiar relationship with the Men of Bree and those who pass through the town. If we bear in mind that the lighthearted parentheticals in Fog on the Barrow-Downs follow the horror of the barrow and round out the chapter on a (generally) much more positive vibe than it had at the start, we can see that At the Sign of the Prancing Pony begins emotionally where the previous chapter ended. This provides us with a story that sweeps more or less happily along from the moment when Frodo does precisely the right thing in the barrow to a moment when he does absolutely the wrong thing at the inn, leading to the rescue of his friends from the wight in the former, and plunging them into grievous danger in the latter.

These two moments help define his relationship with the Ring for Frodo as well as the reader. The decision Frodo faces in the barrow mirrors Bilbo's beneath the Misty Mountains, where he had Gollum's life in his hands. For Bilbo the choice to use the Ring to escape was correct, but for Frodo it would have been wrong; for Bilbo the choice to strike would have been wrong, but for Frodo it was right. Each passed the test. To choose otherwise was to become another Gollum. This is why Gandalf considered the experience in the barrow so crucial. Frodo's situation at Bree also mirrors that of Bilbo at his party. Bilbo, however, put the Ring on intentionally and meant to cause the consternation his disappearance provoked. How the Ring came to be on Frodo's finger in Bree is unclear in the moment, even to Frodo, and draws precisely the sort of comment and attention that Frodo had most wished to avoid. In both cases dark, unpleasant conversations follow, with friends suspected of being enemies. By disappearing, however, Frodo has revealed himself to friends and enemies alike. In fact the two parenthetical comments in the following chapter, Strider, occur in the context of Gandalf's letter, which serves to demonstrate that Strider is a friend despite his rascally looks and Sam's wariness (FR 1.x.167, 169). Once the hobbits have survived the night thanks to Strider, a bit of humor returns with the parentheses in A Knife in the Dark, which smile wanly at Butterbur's insistence that he hadn't slept, Pippin's declaration that he can carry as much as he must, and the hobbits' leaving the 'evil relatives of the cricket' behind in the Midgewater Marshes (FR 1.xi.177, 178, 183). A fourth comment, recounting the happy fate of Merry's ponies who found their way back to Bombadil and thence to Butterbur, hints at a broader happy ending while reminding the reader that the ponies were more sensible when it came to danger than the hobbits (1.xi.179 ; cf. 1.viii.144), a truth which makes quite clear how lucky the hobbits were to meet Strider, just as they had been to meet Bombadil earlier. Strider, as Gandalf and Frodo will both say, is the one who saved [them] from disaster (FR 2.i.220).

Earlier the parentheses helped us see the ambivalence with which Frodo looks down the road ahead of him. We will do well to recall here Bilbo's own inability to make up his mind about the Ring and then to stick to the decision he had made to give the Ring to Frodo, and which he had at least in part arranged his party to enforce. Now they help to illuminate a range of behaviors seen in Frodo and Bilbo alike. These behaviors are at times intentional, at times accidental, at times even heroic. Yet a bad ending is not far off, as we see when Bilbo threatens Gandalf with his sword the night of the party, and when Frodo by betraying his identity and location to the Black Riders endangers the lives of the very friends his courage had saved only the day before. 

The inconsistencies of Frodo's behavior are of a piece with the ambivalence of his feelings, and in these the earliest days of his quest the two give the measure of his burden. What comes next at Weathertop, at the Ford, and in Rivendell will take Frodo further down this road while adding new dimensions to his struggle. He will show courage and insight, hatred of his road and of his enemy, defiance and a wish to dominate those who would dominate him, a willingness to take on the quest to save Middle-earth and the desire to strike even his dearest kin when he reaches for the Ring.


* The one parenthesis not in the body of the text is in a footnote on 1.ix.160 which explains that 'Elves (and Hobbits) always refer to the Sun as She.'

04 November 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 2

After the 32 parentheses in A Long-expected Party, the number in The Shadow of the Past plunges to five. Of these one occurs in direct speech (Gandalf: 1.ii.53). Three present genealogical information, always of interest to Hobbits (all on 1.iii.42). A fifth wryly signals that Frodo had a bad feeling about the 'significant (or ominous)' approach of his fiftieth birthday (1.ii.43), the age at which 'adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo.' Since Tolkien always uses 'befall' of evil or at least strange and unpleasant events, this explains the rather proleptic 'ominous' as well as pointing to Frodo as the author of this comment. For Bilbo did not regard his adventure as an evil, even when he came to understand that the Ring was; and Frodo, whatever he may have genuinely felt about 'adventures' before Gandalf told him about the Ring, certainly did not want the 'adventure' he got. It would be no surprise then, though it need not be so, if as narrator Frodo took his disquiet as he neared fifty as ominous.

Three is Company contains seven parenthetical statements, of which four are purely informational (1.iii.65, 68, 70, 81), two are humorous comments on Hobbits (1.iii.71, 77) and one again suggests uncertainty in Frodo's attitude towards something that made him uncomfortable (1.iii.70), namely the conversation he overhears between the Gaffer and a stranger later discovered to be one of the Black Riders.

In A Shortcut to Mushrooms one pokes fun at Sam's disappointment about missing the beer at The Golden Perch (1.iv.88) and the other at the way farmers complain about their prospects (1.iv.92).

A Conspiracy Unmasked provides five, three informational (all at 1.v.98), one showing Sam's mixed emotions about leaving the Shire (1.v.99), and one Frodo's about seeing his and Bilbo's things in the house at Crickhollow (1.v.100).

All three in The Old Forest suggest uncertainty. Merry isn't confident that it is the bonfire glade ahead of them (1.vi.111); Frodo doubts it's even possible to turn back (1.vi.113); and Frodo and Sam think the words Old Tom is singing are 'nonsense', but they aren't entirely sure (1.vi.119).

While the first parenthesis In the House of Tom Bombadil conveys details about the house itself (i.vii.124), the other three highlight Frodo's ambivalence regarding the Ring. Indeed these three seem to work together to accomplish precisely that in the scene with Bombadil and the Ring (all at 1.vii.133). When Old Tom returns it, Frodo suspects trickery '(like one who has lent a trinket to a juggler)'. Having put the Ring to the test by donning it, he is 'delighted (in a way)' and 'laugh[s] '(trying to feel pleased)'. It is as if on some level Frodo wished it were not his Ring, even though compelled to prove that it was. Bombadil's imperviousness to the effects of the Ring seems important to Frodo only in so far as it makes him doubt the Ring.

Fog on the Barrow-Downs is reminiscent of A Long-expected Party, which lacks parenthetical statements in the parts in which no one would find anything amusing. Here the scenes telling of the hobbits' capture by the Barrow-wight have no parenthetical remarks until the narrator reaches the moment when he recounts the awakening of Frodo's courage, a virtue 'hidden (often deeply it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit', and informs the reader that 'though [Frodo] did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) thought him the best hobbit in the Shire' (both at 1.viii.140). There is a gentle humor in the humble concession of the first and the citation of Gandalf as an authority in the second, which suggests a resolution in Frodo we have not seen before, and the narrator's faith in that resolution. As such it marks a strong contrast with the uncertainty we've seen before. 

Once Old Tom appears to rescue them the more broadly humorous commentary returns. just as it does in A Long-expected Party once Bilbo has let go of the Ring and left it to Frodo. The next five parenthetical comments, including one in direct speech by Bombadil (1.viii.144), are either amusing themselves or embedded in an amusing context (1.viii.142, 144, 145). Yet as the hobbits are about to return to the road, ending the passage through Faërie they had begun when they entered The Old Forest, even Bombadil makes a remark parenthetically that could be taken to express uncertainty (1.viii.147): 'Tom will give you good advice, till this day is over (after that your own luck must go with you and guide you)'. As always with Tolkien, however, what is called luck or chance is often far more. Bombadil's mention of luck here nicely balances his answer to Frodo's question upon their first meeting (1.vi.126) and thus bookends their acquaintance:

‘Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?’

Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. ‘Eh, what?’ said he. ‘Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you. We heard news of you, and learned that you were wandering.'

Consider also consider that even as Old Tom tells them they must trust to their luck, Strider -- unbeknownst to the reader and the hobbits (and Bombadil?) -- is on the other side of the hedge dividing the Downlands from the road (1.x.163-64): Strider, whose role and arrival had been foreshadowed that very afternoon outside the barrow in Bombadil's conjuring of visions of the 'sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless' (1.viii.146). He, too, had heard news and was waiting for them, though it was no plan of his to find them here (1.x.163-64). 

When Frodo steps out into the larger world and takes on the task of saving the Shire, he leaves behind the place which defined him, where he was 'the Mr. Baggins of Bag End'; and he does so on the very night when it becomes clear -- to the reader if not immediately to Frodo the character -- that this identity is not quite the advantage it had long seemed to be, even within the Shire. Farmer Maggot's attitudes towards Hobbiton show this, as do those of most of the hobbits who discuss the 'queerness' of the Bagginses in the evening at The Ivy Bush and The Green Dragon. Mr. Baggins may find them 'too stupid and dull for words' at times, but behind their deference they have their own opinions of how strange he and Mr. Bilbo are. When Maggot links Frodo's present troubles to Bilbo's adventures, he is doing no more than voicing to Frodo's face the longstanding common opinion that no good could come of adventures to the 'queer' folk who went on them. 

The larger world in which such adventures take place is far more dangerous in fact than even the most parochial hobbit imagines. Even the more broadminded Mr. Baggins of Bag End fails to grasp that not only is he 'quite a little fellow in the wide world after all', but that the wider world, whether it is the Faërie of The Old Forest, Bombadil, and the Barrow-wights, the world of History, or that blending of both in which a man might walk, will not be fenced out forever. The Ring, which threatens Frodo's identity because he already cannot do with it as he wishes, compels him to leave the place that helps define that identity. 

01 November 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 1

When I first got the idea for this post, my idea was to write it up quickly. The more I looked at the evidence I had gathered (with the welcome support and feedback of Joe Hoffman), the clearer it became that a longer post was in order. Or a series of shorter ones. So let it be written. So let it be done.


For some years now I have been inclined to believe that Bilbo is the narrator of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings. But how far he carried on with the story remains hard to say. I had also heard that Michael Drout had a similar opinion, which he was kind enough to confirm for me, but we didn't have the chance to discuss details. Recently, however, I noticed something about the text that looks very much like it might be a clue. First let's look at what we know.

Bilbo's conversation with Frodo and Sam in Rivendell in Many Partings makes clear that he didn't get very far.

The evening deepened in the room, and the firelight burned brighter; and they looked at Bilbo as he slept and saw that his face was smiling. For some time they sat in silence; and then Sam looking round at the room and the shadows flickering on the walls, said softly:

'I don't think, Mr. Frodo, that he's done much writing while we've been away. He won't ever write our story now.' 

At that Bilbo opened an eye, almost as if he had heard. Then he roused himself. 'You see, I am getting so sleepy,' he said. 'And when I have time to write, I only really like writing poetry. I wonder, Frodo my dear fellow, if you would very much mind tidying things up a bit before you go? Collect all my notes and papers, and my diary too, and take them with you, if you will. You see, I haven't much time for the selection and the arrangement and all that. Get Sam to help, and when you've knocked things into shape, come back, and I'll run over it. I won't be too critical.'

        (RK 6.vi.988)

It has also been long observed that the narrator of the earliest chapters of The Lord of the Rings starts out sounding much like the narrator of The Hobbit, but that changes before too long. Further, we have Tolkien's remarks in letter 151 of September 1954.

Frodo is not intended to be another Bilbo. Though his opening style is not wholly un-kin. But he is rather a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror — broken down, and in the end made into something quite different. None of the hobbits come out of it in pure Shire-fashion. They wouldn't. But you have got Samwise Gamwichy (or Gamgee).

In the Letters Tolkien uses 'style' many times, but almost invariably he is speaking of words -- of narrative, diction, and language -- when he does so. It's little likely then that his reference to Frodo's 'opening style' refers to anything but his writing style, a remark he offers as a concession of some regard in which they were a bit alike. We might expect Frodo, then, to begin in a style similar to Bilbo's, but to develop his own reasonably soon. But when does his portion of the narrative 'open'? And when does his style begin to diverge from Bilbo's?

I would suggest that the punctuation gives us a clue. During a recent reading of A Long-expected Party I noticed, not for the first time, that the narrator made an awful lot of parenthetical remarks. I found myself relishing the marvelous running social commentary the narrator was  offering on his fellow hobbits. 'For what do we live', we might almost hear him ask, 'but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?' That so much of this commentary is nested in and around parentheses made me wonder. On reflection I could not recall it as a conspicuous feature of the entire work. 

A quick search revealed my impression was correct. The entire Lord of the Rings (removing the appendices) contains 158 parenthetical remarks, 20 percent of which (32/158 = 20.25%) occur in A Long-expected Party. If we discount the 25 instances in the Prologue, which we know was written by a Man rather than a Hobbit, the portion in A Long-expected Party approaches a quarter (32/133 = 24%). Numbers aren't everything of course, but this compares rather well with An Unexpected Party, which contains 25 parenthetical remarks out The Hobbit's total of 120 (25/120 = 20.08%) in The Hobbit as a whole.*

Two thirds (22/32) of the parentheses in A Long-expected Party occur before or during the party up to the reactions of the guests to Bilbo's disappearance (FR 1.i.31: 'with a few exceptions'). Of these 22, 14 are funny per se or in their context, and eight simply add information (e.g., 1.i.22: 'the Old Took himself had only reached 130'). There is, however, not a single parenthesis in all of Bilbo's argument with Gandalf about the Ring or in Frodo's brief conversation with Gandalf after Bilbo has gone. The remarks resume again the following morning in very much the same generally humorous vein. Only two of these ten comments are strictly informational ('two Boffins and a Bolger' and 'old Odo Proudfoot's grandson', both at 1.i.39).

Surely it is noteworthy that a long (5+/21 pages), centrally located, and thematically crucial section of this chapter has none of the types of comments we find on almost every other page of it. True, the two scenes found in these pages (31-36) are much more dramatic, more dialogue than narrative, which leaves less scope for parenthetical remarks; but it is also true that there is nothing that either the characters in these scenes or their narrator found in the least amusing. It is a bitter, uneasy darkness at the heart of the chapter, bracketed, as it were, by the far brighter sections on either side (pp 21-31, 36-42).


I have found Joe's friendship, humor, and commentary invaluable for some years now. He is also my second if I am challenged to any duels. 

*The Hobbit is also far more densely packed with parentheses: 120 in 95356 vs 158 in 481,103. The Hobbit also raises its own questions about narrators, which we shall examine elsewhere in connection with the narrators of The Lord of the Rings. The interested reader should look to Paul Edmund Thomas' 'Some of Tolkien's Narrators' in Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-earth, edd. V. Flieger and C. Hostetter (2000).