Welcome, as always!
In this post, we want to consider the idea of adventure. Usually, we think of this as an event or series of events, things which happen. This is certainly the way Bilbo sees it in the first chapter of The Hobbit, when Gandalf appears and all Bilbo thinks he wants to do is to sit, smoke, and read his mail, saying to the wizard: “nasty, disturbing uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them!”
But what does Bilbo really know of adventure?
Imagine (and what a wonderful word that is), that you live down the hill from Bilbo, in the Shire in the quiet time, long after the wolves had come over the frozen Brandywine and some time before the Black Riders appear. This is a contented backwater of Middle-Earth and Bilbo mirrors this in his strong anti-adventure reactions.
With the world seemingly so safe and day-to-day (not that there aren’t the usual human–or hobbit–tussles—think of the Sackville-Baggins and their plans and jealousies) is there anything to suggest—beyond the idea that they are “nasty, disturbing uncomfortable things”–what real knowledge of adventure might exist in the Shire?
Sam suggests, in the second chapter of The Lord of the Rings, that at least he has some understanding beyond a vague sense that adventure is nasty when he says, “I heard a deal that I didn’t rightly understand, about an enemy, and rings, and Mr. Bilbo, sir, and dragons and a fiery mountain, and—and Elves, sir. I listened because I couldn’t help myself, if you know what I mean. Lor bless me, sir, but I do love tales of that sort. And I believe them too…”
Adventure, to Sam, then, isn’t a thing, but a story, and a believable one, too. It’s a story which he and Frodo talk about much later in the narrative, when they are about to encounter the treachery of Smeagol, Shelob, and the terrible march into Mordor and Sam has now realized that he and his master are in a story, too.
“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo” Sam says, in one of the most profound moments for us in all of Tolkien, “adventures I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say.”
So now we see a kind of equation, which (beginning with Bilbo) might read:
(Nasty, disturbing) thing = adventure = story (Sam’s addition)
But Sam, the second half of his first name now being truer than he knows, continues his definition:
“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.”
And here, with words and expressions like “paths” and “turning back” we can add another step to our equation:
(Nasty, disturbing) thing = adventure = story = going somewhere
There are, of course, folk and fairy tales where adventure comes to the protagonist, but it seems to us that when we began to run through the big stories, stories like the Odyssey, the Ramayana, and Beowulf, the narrative is mostly laid outside the world of home—Odysseus is coming home, but the bulk of the story takes place otherwhere, Rama and his wife and brother are in the forest, far from the palace when their adventure begins, and Beowulf has come from southern Sweden to Denmark to help King Hrothgar with a pest-control problem. And there are, of course, Frodo and Sam, who have traveled, mostly on foot, all the way from home in that safe-seeming Shire.
So, imagine that adventure can mean Somewhere Else, and that that place needs to be traveled through (or at least traveled to) for it to be an adventure, and for it to make the transition from adventure to story. For Sam, the choice to travel to and through adventure seems all-important. As he says of those who turn back:
“And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you; at least, not to folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things alright, though not quite the same—like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in.”
These, then, are the possible consequences of going to (and through) Somewhere Else: on the one hand, you may come back and, if you do, you may find things have changed, but are survivable, as Bilbo does when he returns to find himself considered dead and his house and goods up for auction. On the other hand, you may not come back—and yet may still be part of “the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind.”
There is, of course, a paradox here: by Sam’s definition, it’s only by not turning back that one is in an adventure and a successful story, but a successful story (meaning, to Sam, a memorable one) may not ultimately be a successful adventure: what’s good for the listener/reader may not be good for those traveling to or in Somewhere Else.
Somewhere Else, itself, can be like any place in fiction: seas, mountains, forests, Middle Earth has them all and much of the story is about the simple act of marching along those many long miles, where the only quality necessary for heroic behavior seems to be persistence and, for Sam, and for us as readers, this becomes an heroic quality in itself—the ability to keep going, no matter what, a quality which is tested to the extreme degree in that last trek through the worst landscape of all, Mordor, half volcanic wilderness, half industrial wasteland. The landscape almost becomes another character here, a geographic Sauron who opposes those who would destroy his ring and through it, him. This, in turn, presents us with the idea that, just as characters good and bad give a story life, so do surroundings and the more complex the surroundings, might we see the greater the power of that life to make the story one that “stays in the mind”?
We’ll end this here, but, at the same time, we’ll add a “teaser” for our next. Sam and Frodo talk about adventures from the viewpoint of people who have read or heard them, all the while being inside an adventure themselves, as they—Sam in particular—acknowledge:
“Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards.”
And yet there is an authorial fiction here: when they talk about being in a story, they mean that, through all the consequences of the Ring, their lives have been significantly altered and they have been “landed” in the current narrative. We know that they are, in fact, completely fictitious characters literally put into the story and that it only exists because the author has chosen to locate them there. All around them is a narrative which they cannot hear, as well as a listener whom they cannot see but who sees them and records every word and act, and this is just as true for Homer as it is for Tolkien. If Sam and Frodo went to Mount Doom without that listener, but didn’t return to set down what happened, as we’re told they did, what story would there be, even though they didn’t turn back and therefore should have been part of a story that “stays in the mind”?
More on that next time.
Thanks as ever for reading!