Empathy for Frodo

Discussion in 'Questions for Narnion' started by Milthaliel, Feb 15, 2017.

  1. Milthaliel

    Milthaliel Member

    In last night's discussion, I got the impression that many people felt Frodo didn't handle Gandalf’s news well. Not that you (Prof) were "beating" on Frodo for his reaction, but I felt a little of this in the tone of some of the chat discussions. I'm not saying he didn't react poorly, but I don't see anything wrong with that, either, and I just wanted to say a little in defense of Frodo, and of Tolkien's decisions.

    I think it's easy to fall into criticizing Frodo during this section. Especially when we're reading very closely and looking at individual passages, which has the effect of drawing out the timeline of the scene. I have been guilty of glossing over this area and thinking, “Jeez, Frodo, you mad? Chill out!”

    But I think we would do well to remember that last night, the wisest, strongest, bravest person Frodo knows told him, "I need to talk to you about something, but it's too horrible to discuss after dark. G’night!" Then, after what was certainly a sound and restful night's sleep (ha ha), Frodo is told that his beloved relative and benefactor has been in possession (for decades) of an evil ring that was designed by the most terrifying being he's ever heard of, and the ring consumes souls over time. "By the way, your soul is being consumed as we speak. Oh that slimy, glowy-eyed creature that got you into this mess by trying to eat your surrogate father? You should feel sorry for him. He's got a lot in common with you."

    Can we really blame Frodo for reacting with shock, vehement denial and anger? It's easy for us, from the comfort of our own chairs and our knowledge of what happens in the end, to look at Frodo's reaction and say, he should be more sympathetic to Sméagol. Why doesn't he trust Gandalf's words? Shouldn't he be comforted that Destiny wants him to have the Ring? Some Other Power is working in his favor, right? But I think, if this were written in the same tone as The Hobbit, this would be the narrator's cue to give us a gentle reality check. After all, Bilbo's dealing with a lot less when he gets thirteen drop-in visitors, and might have to go without cake. But we're still invited to sympathize with him. "And what would you do, if an uninvited dwarf came and hung his things up in your hall without a word of explanation?"

    In the same vein, I think a more personable LOTR narrator would take this time to say, "Perhaps you think Frodo's behaving badly? But remember, he has to deal with all this awful news on the spur of a very awkward moment. I don’t suppose you would have done half as well yourselves in his place."

    In addition to empathizing with Frodo's reaction, I think Tolkien's decision to write him this way is genius. It would be easy enough for Tolkien to show Frodo heave a heavy sigh, then hold his head high and declare with dignity that he will take the challenge Fate has bestowed upon him. It would have been believable in the context of fantasy, even for a hobbit. After all, we already know that this hobbit has been raised by Mad Baggins, and is not your average hobbit. C’mon, he walks around under the moonlight and talks to Elves, after all! I would believe such a reaction, but I would also immediately know - Frodo is fundamentally different from me. Reluctant, but honorable acceptance of a terrifying, soul-consuming burden? That's how I would WANT to behave right away, but I know me better than that. Frodo is a character to be admired and looked up to as a shining example. But he’s not “normal” – he’s already a hero.

    Instead, we get a person who recoils from the horrifying news, shoots down attempts to gain sympathy for an enemy (Gollum), and gets almost irrational in his attempts to deny and try to hide from the truth. I am drawn into Tolkien’s sub-creation fully, because even though there are dragons and giant spiders and immortal Elves, there are also people like me living there. I can point to times in my life, and I'm sure others can, when a hard truth was told to me and I wanted nothing more than to escape. Death of a loved one, betrayal by a close friend, personal mistake/failing. My gut reaction is to deny the news, resent the messenger, possibly attack their credibility, and struggle as hard as possible to get back to a place before I heard the truth. Just like Frodo!

    His violent denial makes his decision to protect his home by leaving it, possibly forever, even more poignant. As I follow Frodo through his journey, I can see him grow from that moment, and know that if he could start out like me - cringing from and/or shouting down unpleasant truths, then I could end up like him - willing to walk directly into the "valley of the shadow of Death" (if you will) for what I think is right. It’s a powerful message, and Tolkien does a masterful job presenting it.
  2. If I were Frodo, the mere mention that the Dark Lord of Middle-Earth was searching for an object that would allow him to dominate all the land - let alone that said object was in my position - I'd spend the rest of the day whimpering in a corner, unable to utter anything more coherent than the occasional "Struck by lightning! Struck by lightning!"

    All things considered, I think he takes the bad news remarkably well.
    Milthaliel likes this.
  3. Tarlonniel's post this morning about "relatability" put me back in mind of this discussion - and I can't believe it's taken me this long to make the connection. I remember in one of the recent classes, Corey brought up the frequent criticism of Lord of the Rings that "none of the characters are relatable" (meaning ones like Gandalf, Aragorn, the Elves, etc.), and Corey pushed back by saying, in essence, "relatability is not the point." But Tarlonniel's point is that it's desirable for some characters to be relatable to the readers.

    And sure enough, here we were, back in February, praising Frodo's depiction for its' relatability! Looks like you can have it both ways, after all.
    Milthaliel likes this.

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