Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tolkien Week: Frodo's Journey

This week we've been having guest posts in honor of Tolkien Week and celebrating the release of The Sword of Six Worlds. Today's post comes from Matthew Johnson, whose short fiction has appeared in places like Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Strange Horizons and has been translated into Russian, Czech and Danish. His first novel, Fall From Earth, is available from Bundoran Press and Irregular Verbs, a collection of his short stories, will be published in early 2014 by ChiZine Publications. His website is

Frodo's Journey

Is Frodo a hero? He's undoubtedly the protagonist of The Lord of the Rings, and he does a great many things that may be called heroic, but the question of whether he is a hero -- and, in particular, of whether his story follows the pattern of the Hero's Journey -- is a good deal more complex.

The Hero's Journey, of course, is the story-pattern identified by Joseph Campbell and described in many of his books, most notably The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Though his work became widely known within his field, it didn't reach far into public awareness until George Lucas used it as the structure for Star Wars; this led to tremendous interest in Campbell's work and, later, to the hero's journey pattern being taken nearly as holy writ among screenwriters.

Campbell's aim was to identify the common patterns that are found in hero myths worldwide, in part to show that similarities between myths found in different places were due not to diffusion (the spreading of stories from place to place) but, in his opinion, due to the presence of particular archetypes within the human psyche. According to Campbell, King Arthur, Jesus and Gilgamesh don't have similar stories because the people who told stories about King Arthur had heard about Jesus and the people who told stories about Jesus had heard about Gilgamesh, but because all the stories we tell are psychological adaptations designed to help us through universal human experiences; in the case of the hero myth, the transitions between childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

That's why the basic outline of the Heroic Journey begins with a protagonist who, though seemingly normal, has a special or mysterious parentage and then receives a call to adventure that's often tied to those mysterious parents in some way. After trying to refuse the call once or twice the hero finally accepts it and is brought into a new world of wonders, where he makes allies -- often including a wise old mentor -- and typically acquires one or more magic tools that help him win his first victories over beasts and monsters. The hero must pass through an underworld or abyss to face Death, or someone or something closely symbolic of it (often a dark double of the hero), before emerging as a genuine hero. Once this has been accomplished the hero either returns home to take his place in society -- typically one of much greater importance or authority then if he had stayed home -- or else finds a new home in which he does the same.
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What does this have to do with Tolkien? Certainly neither The Hobbit nor The Lord of the Rings could have been directly influenced by Campbell, since his first work on the heroic journey wasn't published until 1949. Still, considering the great influence of myth and folktales on Tolkien's writings (as well as the unconscious influence of his deep knowledge of these subjects) if there is any truth in Campbell's analysis then we should be able to find at least some aspects of the monomyth in Tolkien's work. And, as it happens, we can: many of his characters' stories have numerous elements of the Hero's Journey, and one of them follows it so closely it's almost hard to believe that Tolkien didn't know Campbell's work. I'm talking, of course, about Bilbo.

If you've read The Hobbit that description of the Hero's Journey probably sounded pretty familiar. Unusual only in his being descended (on his mother's side) from the formidable Took family, Bilbo is chosen by Gandalf to leave his comfortable home and go on an adventure. Of course he tries to turn the wizard down, but soon his "Tookish" side is awakened and he agrees to go. Early in his journeys he has to rely heavily on his mentor, but when they're separated (during a long journey underground) he acquires a magic ring and overcomes Gollum, a creature whose wet, slimy cave is a dark reversal of Bilbo's own comfortable hole. After he emerges from underground Bilbo is a much more formidable character, becoming the savior and de facto leader of the group in Gandalf's absence (especially with the aid of his magic ring) and, after being key to the defeat of Smaug he "dies" twice more: once when he is knocked unconscious during the Battle of the Five Armies and, in a more mundane but also more meaningful context, when he returns home to find that he has been declared dead and his relatives have moved into his house. Following his "resurrection" he takes his place as an important person in the community and the world, knowing that he has played a part in bringing ancient prophecies to life.

Though the connections between Bilbo's story and the Hero's Journey are striking, they're not really that surprising; Tolkien's theory about how different myths were connected, which he refers to as "the soup pot" in his essay On Fairy Stories, was very similar to Campbell's, though the two came to their conclusions from very different directions. In Tolkien's words, the Pot of Soup, or "the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty." Both historical and fictional figures may, over time, be put into the Soup, where they mix with "many things older, more potent, more beautiful, comic, or terrible than they were in themselves." It's not surprising, then, that Tolkien's stories might be made up largely of ingredients taken from the Soup that once belonged to Theseus, Beowulf and so on. What is surprising is how poorly Frodo's journey fits the pattern.

To begin with, Frodo doesn't acquire his magic tools as he goes along, but has them from the beginning. He doesn't receive, or try to deny, a call to adventure: his journey is originally supposed to end at Rivendell. Like Bilbo he does undergo several underworld journeys, and when he encounters Gollum the creature is more explicitly a double (being identified in The Lord of the Rings as a hobbit who was warped by the Ring). Rather than triumph over him, however, Frodo is simultaneously betrayed and saved by Gollum. Most importantly, Frodo never truly returns home: like Bilbo he has been transformed by his experiences, but instead of being made into a solid member of society (symbolically, an adult) he "dropped quietly out of all the doings of the Shire." Nor does he return stronger than before, as the wounds he suffered on his journeys pain him until his final passage to the West.

It's not just the greater complexity or the darker tone of Lord of the Rings that keep Frodo from following the Hero's Journey: Merry and Pippin's stories fit the pattern nearly as well as Bilbo's does. For them the journey is truly an adventure, and their transformation is a positive one (they literally "grow up") as they become first heroes and then leaders back home. It seems likely, then, that Tolkien made a conscious choice to make Frodo's story not just not a standard hero narrative but almost a parody of one. Is if Frodo isn't a hero, then, what is he?

Take another look at the differences between Bilbo and Frodo's stories. Bilbo is undeniably the hero of his story, to the point where he sets in motion almost everything that happens in it: if he had stayed home the status quo would have remained almost entirely unchanged. Frodo, on the other hand, has no choice: war is coming, whether he wants it or not -- but when he does get to choose, his choice is motivated by duty, not adventure, and his experiences are largely mundane, made up more of slogging through mud than colorful adventures. That's not a hero's story, it's a soldier's.

As for why Tolkien chose to make The Lord of the Rings a soldier's story rather than a hero's, there are a number of possible answers. He may simply have been a more mature writer, or he may have been freed by the success of The Hobbit to choose a more unconventional narrative. As well, much of The Lord of the Rings was written while a war was going on -- a war in which one of Tolkien's sons was serving.

Tolkien had himself been a soldier in World War I, where he saw action at the Somme and was returned to England afterwards due to "shell shock" (what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder), the symptoms of which are quite like Frodo's condition after returning to the Shire. Though Tolkien seems to have recovered more or less fully, he surely remembered the effect the war had had on him, and likely knew others for whom the effect was longer-lasting. It seems likely that when writing a much more serious and personal novel, one about a war that he saw, as he did the war he had served in, as "for all the evil of our own side with large view [one of] good against evil", he would have felt it dishonest to gloss over the pain and sacrifice he knew so well by casting it as a hero's story. 

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