Welcome, dear readers, as always—and don’t be weirded-out by the hyperliterary title. We’ve been thinking about an odd moment in The Lord of the Rings, a moment when two of the main characters seem to possess the ability, at least for that moment, to step away from the story, and to see themselves as characters, which is one way in which metatextuality, meaning “outside the text”, works. (For a useful definition, see this LINK.)
It’s a passage in The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”. Sam and Frodo are pausing before Gollum leads them through a passageway which will bring them into Mordor. They have a meal, then talk about where they’re about to go and Sam says:
“…And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as 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.”
Because Tolkien was writing this after the Great War, we might imagine that, at one level, he’s reflecting upon the war fever which captured Great Britain in the early days of the conflict, with its recruiting posters and popular art depictions like these—
and its masses of volunteers crowding recruitment offices.
This was all before the grim reality of trench warfare
and casualties beyond anyone’s pre-war comprehension
dampened that early enthusiasm, leading to a realistic cynicism mostly quietly expressed,
although soldiers could sometimes express their opinion of the war vocally—see this LINK for some of that vocalizing.
What Sam says next seems to agree with this:
“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.”
So, “adventures” now, to Sam, are no longer “a kind of sport” which “wonderful folk” seek out, but rather something which just happens to people—in fact, people like Sam and Frodo. And, just like Sam and Frodo, “…I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.”
The consequences of rejecting those chances are obvious: “And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on…”
And Sam’s sense of the consequences of “just going on” is very realistic: “—and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, 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!”
So far, then, we might see this as the clear thinking of someone who believed in those 1914 posters and came to learn otherwise. Sam continues, however, and here’s where that metatextuality comes in:
“I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”
We know that Sam has long been fascinated by tales of elves and dragons. As Gaffer Gamgee says:
“Crazy about stories of the old days, he is, and he listens to all of Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)
The Gaffer’s last remark suggests that not only has Sam heard tales, but he may even have read them. We think that it should be no surprise, then, that, when put into a situation far beyond the usual, Sam might believe that it’s not just daily life, but, in fact, a “tale”. And so he asks, “…what sort…?”
To which Frodo replies:
“I wonder…But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
In Sam and Frodo’s case, they clearly don’t and can’t know, but, although they don’t know their fate (although we think that Frodo has an idea, saying “Our part will end later—or sooner.”), they both believe that they are in a tale, as Sam says:
“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.”
This is ironic, of course, as we know that this very story is drawn as Tolkien-as-editor says in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, from The Red Book of Westmarch (see “Note on the Shire Records”), a volume jointly written by Bilbo and Frodo and perhaps completed by Sam himself (see The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”).
There is also, to our minds, as we said, something odd about this view of themselves and their situation. In general, characters in epic stories—just as Frodo says—are unaware that they are in them. Achilles never turns to Patroclus in the Iliad and asks, “I wonder how this epic will end?” nor does Beowulf spend time discussing just what sort of tale he and Wiglaf have gotten themselves into. (You can see a touch of metatextuality in the Game of Thrones series, however, when one of its evilest characters, Ramsay Bolton, can say, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”)
Frodo takes the idea of their being characters one step farther when he then suggests indirectly that their story is actually in the hands of its readers:
“…We’re going on a bit too fast. You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’ “
As in his earlier remark, that “Our part will end later—or sooner”, we see that Frodo imagines that they’re already in such a bad place that a young audience will want to stop the story.
This then leads us to a question as odd to us as their view of themselves as already-fictional characters in a tale: if dad listens and agrees, closing the book, what will happen to Frodo and Sam then?
Thanks, as ever, for reading and