. Alas, not me: A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 3

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.'

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