The Courage of an Ordinary Hobbit

As you may know, I rather enjoyed The Lord of the Rings films despite my occasional (albeit entirely reasonable) criticism of certain aspects. However, one of the things I especially didn’t enjoy was the way the they effectively made Frodo appear… well, weak might be one way to put it. From the removal of his heroically-defiant moment at The Flight to the Ford to the time he was duped by Gollum into sending Sam home on The Stairs of Cirith Ungol, the film version of Frodo is often soft and victim-like.

    Though the words are not used,
I can’t help but see one of my favorite recurring themes in this passage —
the difference between
hope and despair.

Perhaps it’s for the best, then, that Jackson and crew chose not to include the Barrows in their adaptation. One of my favorite moments in Book One of the Lord of the Rings is an example of Frodo’s tremendous courage and strength. He has been captured by a Barrow-wight, and he now lay underground, on a cold stone, unsure of where his friends are.

“But though his fear was so great that it seemed to be part of the very darkness that was round him, he found himself as he lay thinking about Bilbo Baggins and his stories, of their jogging along together in the lanes of the Shire and talking about roads and adventures. There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither very fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey.”

Here, we are reminded of the “seed of courage” in hobbits that we are first told about in the Prologue:

“Nonetheless, ease and peace had left this people still curiously tough. They were, if it came to it, difficult to daunt or to kill….  they were doughty [brave, persistent] at bay.”

But here, Frodo isn’t a simple hobbit-farmer defending his animals from a wolf by throwing a stone — he is faced with a terror far beyond anything he might previously had imagined (even if it pales in comparison to some of the things he would later face). Though the words are not used, I can’t help but see one of my favorite recurring themes in this passage — the difference between hope and despair. Despair would be the result of the final words of the paragraph — feeling “limp like a helpless prey”. But, though he is certain in his own mind that he has “come to the end of his adventure”, his thoughts — of Bilbo and the Shire — nevertheless give him hope. He was hardened, stiffening, as if for a final spring. This is courage even beyond the scope of the hobbity courage described in the Prologue — I mean, who could imagine Fatty Bolger or Lotho Sackville-Baggins “stiffening, as if for a final spring”? Still, it’s not a surprise to everyone — even Gandalf thought that Frodo was “the best hobbit in the Shire”, a hobbit of outstanding character.

He then sees his friends, sleeping or dead, in white garments, wearing gold, with a sword across their necks. So what happens next? Well… poetry happens next, of course.

Suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable. The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered. Frodo was chilled to the marrow. After a while the song became clearer, and with dread in his heart he perceived that it had changed into an incantation:

Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land.

Now, if you want to make me feel “chilled to the marrow”, bury me underground, then read poetry to me. (“Oh freddled gruntbuggly / Thy micturations are to me / As plurdled gabbleblotchits / On a lurgid bee.”) Forgive my sidetrack, but yes… I still struggle with verse. And Tolkien is far, far better than Vogon poetry, I know. Anyway, back to my point.

At first Frodo felt as if he had indeed been turned into stone by the incantation. Then a wild thought of escape came to him. He wondered if he put on the Ring, whether the Barrow-wight would miss him, and he might find some way out. He thought of himself running free over the grass, grieving for Merry, and Sam, and Pippin, but free and alive himself. Gandalf would admit that there had been nothing else he could do.

The instinct for self-preservation is indeed a strong one. Abandoning one’s friends to save oneself does not seem so unreasonable when faced with such a dire set of circumstances, after all — and justifying it to oneself is easy enough (“Gandalf would admit…”).

Another brief aside: when I did my solo episode on the influence of WWI on Tolkien, I discussed shell-shock and how it was similar to what we saw in those soldiers accompanying Aragorn in the chapter, The Black Gate Opens:  “…so deep the horror that lay on them that some of the host were unmanned, and they could neither walk nor ride further north.” They simply were unable to continue — frozen, ‘unmanned’. Similarly, the effect on the citizens of Gondor from the screams of the Nazgûl reminds one of this influence. Now, as then, I am not suggesting these are allegorical — or even a very close analogy — but Frodo’s thought process here seems similar. Frozen in place, experiencing complete terror, the drive for self-preservation kicks in.

But, no — he doesn’t abandon his mates. He does his duty.

But the courage that had been awakened in him was now too strong: he could not leave his friends so easily. He wavered, groping in his pocket, and then fought with himself again; and as he did so the arm crept nearer. Suddenly resolve hardened in him, and he seized a short sword that lay beside him, and kneeling he stooped low over the bodies of his companions. With what strength he had he hewed at the crawling arm near the wrist, and the hand broke off; but at the same moment the sword splintered up to the hilt. There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling noise.

Even now, he has to fight temptation — the Ring seems to be calling to him (‘wavered, groping in his pocket’). But then we see another hardening — resolve. Instead of fleeing to run “free over the grass”, he uses all his strength to hack at the disembodied arm.

After this, admittedly, he still had to call for Tom Bombadil to save the day (with more poetry, of course!) — his courage and strength spent, and certainly unable to escape the barrow from the inside. But, as Tom doesn’t seem to come unless called, Frodo’s actions bought him the time he needed to remember Tom and his call.

Courage. Resolve. Strength in the face of death. No despair. No hopelessness. No circumstance is yet dire enough to cause such thoughts in our brave hobbit.

10 thoughts on “The Courage of an Ordinary Hobbit

  1. Alan, I couldn’t agree with you more about how the films made Frodo into Gollum’s fool, which is not what happens in the book at all. Frodo is far from perfect, but he is strong and brave, or he wouldn’t have resisted the Ring until the Cracks of Doom. We also see each of the hobbits in turn have a moment similar to Frodo’s in the Barrow. Pippin’s efforts to leave a trail for Strider, Legolas, and Gimli to follow; Merry’s refusal to yield to terror on the fields of Pelennor, which saves Eowyn and dooms the Witch-king; and Sam’s two choices in the pass of Cirith Ungol, the choice to leave his master when he is sure he is dead, and his choice to rescue him when he discovers he is not, both of which choices are right despite his guilt over the first.

    Thanks for writing this.

    • You are absolutely right, of course, Tom — those moments are each worthy of some exploration and I rather suspect we’ll see that theme of unexpected bravery show up a few times when Shawn and I finally get to The Lord of the Rings in the podcast. One expects a warrior like Boromir to be brave… or a king like Théoden… or even the future king Aragorn. But it’s moments like these that remind us of Tolkien’s own words about the Hobbits: “There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow.” Just a seed… but it’s all that is required. 🙂

  2. It’s one of my most favourite moments in The Lord of the Rings. The way Frodo finds that courage and refuses to give up in a rather desperate situation is amazing. It’s interesting how such challenges prepare him for facing something more terrible as the journey progresses, and he’s definitely learning his lessons along the way.

    • It’s that first genuinely HUGE step of growth — earlier, in the life and death situation of Merry and Pippin caught by Old Man Willow, he ended up running along the path “without any clear idea of why he did so”, crying “help! help! help!”. It’s a gigantic step to go from that to the moment in the Barrows.

  3. Regarding fear and courage in hobbits, indeed in many things, I come back to this;
    “A sound, too, began to throb in his ears, a sort of bubbling like the noise of a large pot galloping on the fire, mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring. This grew to the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.
    It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. he fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”
    It’s the fear that our imagination magnifies that we have to overcome, though there be giants and we be grasshoppers in their sight.

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