Contemplating Mathoms and Possession

Tolkien begins The Lord of the Rings in a very particular way. The “Long Expected Party” serves two purposes: to reference the “Unexpected Party” of The Hobbit and to establish one of the central themes of the novel.

The first chapter of The Hobbit functions as an introduction on many levels. Readers are presented with the figure of Bilbo and the staid, comfortable life of hobbits, seemingly an inauspicious start to an adventure novel. Bilbo is also subjected to a long series of introductions, both literally and figuratively. This chapter marks the beginning of his transformation, one which is largely completed by “The Long Expected Party.”

The first chapter of The Lord of the Rings describes the combined birthday celebrations of Bilbo and Frodo. The primary purpose of this party, as Bilbo finally admits to Gandalf, is to “give away lots of birthday presents, and somehow make it easier to give [the Ring] away at the same time” (LotR 34). The shadow of the Ring lies over the entire chapter and should color all preceding festivities. But this brings up the rather curious nature of Hobbit birthday customs: in place of receiving gifts, they give them.

Hobbits give presents to their guests on their birthday; usually items of little worth and often simply mathoms. Tolkien defines mathoms as items for which a hobbit “[has] no…use for, but [is] unwilling to throw away” (LotR 5). Mathoms accumulate quickly, as “in Hobbiton and Bywater every day… [is] somebody’s birthday…so every hobbit… [has] a fair chance of at least one present…a week” (LotR 27). More often than not, these gifts simply end up gathering dust or in Michel Delving (the mathom house). Another common use for mathoms is re-gifting, often making the full circuit of the Shire. This act must be the customary practice as Bilbo is particularly noteworthy for keeping “those that he received” (LotR 37).

In the case of this particular party, however, the gifts are exceedingly good, from Dale and the Mountain. They are exquisite, intricate, possibly even magical; and definitely something to be treasured. So extraordinary are these gifts that there are even some guests who pass through the line multiple times so as to receive more than one.

Bilbo’s gifts stem from a true spirit of generosity and giving of oneself. He even admits that he has spent the last of his reward from the Quest for Erebor in order to give so lavishly. Celebrating the Christmas season, this message is particularly poignant. In this hobbit tradition, the true nature of generosity and a proper disposition towards possessions is shown. Granted there are those who return, grasping for more, but generally the practice shows a desire to share joy and love rather than material goods.

There is much more to be seen under the surface, however, and is even explicitly shown in the hobbits. Possession has a dual nature, both positive and negative. It is this dual nature which Tolkien explores as the central theme of The Lord of the Rings.

The dual nature of the word possession is immediately recognizable. According the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word is defined as “the act of having or taking into control…something owned…domination by something” ( The term originates from Latin roots meaning “occupancy…to have in one’s control,” meanings which take on a much more sinister meaning in the modern usage ( In his capacity as both linguist and philologist, Tolkien definitely was aware of this word’s apparent duplicity.

There is a danger in possession. Eventually one always has to ask, who possesses whom? This is one of the root themes of Tolkien’s work, not only in The Lord of the Rings, but throughout the entire Lengendarium.

“The Long Expected Party” is a study in the nature of possession. The reader is shown the generous, fun, and rather care-free attitude of the hobbits towards gifts. At the same time, they’re shown the dark (though certainly not as dark as these matters will become) underbelly with both the ‘returning customers’ at the gate and the establishment of Michel Delving (hoarding). Possession of another kind is evident even in the gorging at the day long feast.

All of this acts as the prelude to the climax of the chapter: Bilbo’s struggle to relinquish the Ring. The Ring is shown to be both the precious possession and the ultimate possessor. It has the power to change the personality and even affect the actions of the possessed. Bilbo’s anger and unwitting struggles to place the Ring’s envelope on the mantel are proof of this. He may attribute these actions to himself, but these are the clues which totally unnerve Gandalf, and set him on the course towards discovering the true nature of Bilbo’s ring.

This is one of the most important themes of the book, if not the most critical to its fullest understanding. In the dual nature of this singular word, the reader is constantly confronted by one question: is the Ring acting on the world? Is it a passive bystander? Or is it subtly twisting the actions, desires, and passions of those around it to achieve its own ends?


Meeting Tolkien

Happy Hobbit Day!  Today we celebrate the birthdays of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  And yesterday we also had the “birthday” of sorts of The Hobbit itself.  I recently read another post of other people’s memory of their first exposure to Tolkien and his lasting effects on their lives, which got me to thinking.

And so I discovered that after all these years, I have misplaced when I first “met” Tolkien.  In sixth grade we had to read selections from various classics: The Odyssey, Beowulf, Robin Hood, and ultimately The Hobbit.  At the time we only read “Riddles in the Dark,” and afterwards I largely forgot about Hobbits and Middle Earth.

One of my sisters read The Hobbit, but she did not like it.  She was confused by it, and fell prey to what I describe in “The Problem with Fantasy.”   And so, for many years, I avoided the book.  I read a lot, and was always looking for more, but I was guilty of the same fears (though second hand) and so I always put off reading The Hobbit, saying I’d get to it later.  In a sense, reading The Hobbit for the first time became a reluctant goal of mine.  If only I had remembered the first taste of “Riddles in the Dark” maybe I’d have started my “adventure” sooner.

I first read The Hobbit in full for my ninth grade English class; we had to do monthly reports, but were allowed to choose from a list what we wanted to read.  TH was on that list, and so I took the plunge and never looked back.

I’ll be honest; the “love affair” didn’t start immediately.  For much of the first two thirds of the book, I just felt it was okay, with brief moments of greatness.  But then I reached “Flies and Spiders” and I was caught fast.  I couldn’t finish the book fast enough.  And afterwards, I couldn’t wait until I’d read it again.

I have my English teacher at the time to thank for my further “enslavement.”  After reading my paper, seeing what I had read, she mentioned off hand that there was a sequel, and that I’d probably like that as well.  Before this point in my life, I never really bought books; I always took them out from the library.  The Lord of the Rings was the first major book purchase I ever made: a one volume, paperback edition that was worth a whole month’s allowance at the time.  And so I began my adventure anew.  I had reached the Old Forest with Frodo and Co. when I came down with pneumonia…I was sick as a dog…and I remember trying to trudge through LotR.

When I finally had some functioning brain cells, but still was too sick to return to school, then I flew.  In the first year after reading TH and LotR, I read TH twice and LotR three more times.  Throughout high school, I would read LotR another two times, until it got to the point that my poor paperback copy had to be glued back together practically every time I opened it.  During this time I was also introduced to the Silmarillion, which as a lover of history, I also loved.

These three books, along with a few others, became like close friends to me (and still are) and each re-read was a new visit, a new adventure.  Unbeknownst to me, I was harvesting the fruit of applicability.

After high school, I continued to re-read TH, LotR and S, but I began to branch out to read Tolkien’s other work; mainly Unfinished Tales, Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wooton Major.  I was hooked, and I wanted everything Tolkien I could get my hands on.  This, of course, also meant that I was once a fan of the movies, seeing them all multiple times in theaters and on DVD.  As time went on, and the newness and excitement of the movies wore off, I began to see what I had not before:  the movies are nothing but a pale shadow of the master work which inspired them and lack the core of the written work: its implicit applicability.

And so my desire to discuss and interpret both movies and the books began.  I had no friends who had read the book, but they still suffered through many of my rants and “great” applications.  One day it just clicked, and Wandering Paths was born.  I’ve been writing about Tolkien’s work ever since, searching for new and interesting applications and insights and hopefully inspiring others to actively read and re-read Tolkien.

I’d like to believe, through it all, that I’ve been following the directive of Tolkien in his lecture “The Monsters and the Critics.”  I try to approach his work as a complete entity, like a piece of history or as stipulated by Tolkien, a written record of past adventures.  It is the tower described in Tolkien’s allegory, and it is my wish to discover and reveal the manifold vistas from that tower.  Part of the wonder of reading Tolkien, particularly re-reading Tolkien, and reading critical analyses is the new perspective it brings to his work, it is constantly made new.


In Review: Rob Inglis reads The Hobbit

The Hobbit, audio book by Rob Inglis I have a slight prejudice against audio books because, like movies, they can be used as a replacement to the book.  It is in some ways unavoidable given the convenience of the audio book, both because it frees you up to do other things as well as allowing “shallow” listening.

And so, I approached The Hobbit audio book with some trepidation.  I did not want to replace the experience of reading the book, or encourage myself to be a passive listener.  Even with these misgivings, I decided to take the plunge.

And I must say, it was a great decision!

I whole-heartedly recommend listening to The Hobbit!  This was an experience I will never forget and look forward to repeating.  The reason why is simple.  The Hobbit began on the back of an examination booklet Tolkien was grading, we all know that.  But ultimately, the birth of the tale was oral in nature: bedtime stories Tolkein told his children.  This accounts for the childlike tone of the story…but also accounts, I believe, for the nature of the prose.

Listening to The Hobbit felt like experiencing the book as it is meant to be.  Reading the book, it is almost impossible to grasp the oral and conversational quality of the prose.  Being that The Hobbit is Bilbo’s own diary, this mode makes sense.  All the asides, all the conversational exposition fit like a glove, once told aloud.  It is almost like listening to Bilbo himself, and I could begin to see how he may color events and interpret things in different ways, not always actually true.

I think listening to The Hobbit allows you to approach it from a different angle, and see things you wouldn’t in words on paper.  However, after this experience, I look forward to reading the book again, in hopes that this time, primed with this knowledge, I will see Bilbo shine through.  I have never truly been able to approach The Hobbit as a diary, I know it is supposed to be, but it never quite clicked.  But presented orally, it is as if Bilbo has invited you over for tea for a long yarn.

The nature of Courage and Hobbits

It is said repeatedly throughout Tolkien’s works in Middle Earth that hobbits are a hard and courageous lot in spite of their plump and peaceful ways. There is a core of hardness at the center of each hobbit, which with significant hardship will bloom into a courage and strength to be reckoned with.

But what is courage? Is it only a personality trait; a description of the nature of one’s actions? That seems a bit too simplistic, and I think “Fog on the Barrow-Downs” has something very powerful to say about the full meaning of having courage. Courage is not a simple word, a noun, an adjective about a person. It is not just a concept, a passive tag to identify what we do. In some ways it is a being unto itself, and ultimately boils down to one word: obligation.

When trapped by the Barrow-Wight, Frodo feels the intense draw of the Ring; it wants to escape and return to its master. It cannot be trapped and incorporated into the Wight’s horde. And so it puts tremendous pressure on Frodo to place the ring on his finger and escape. Now it can be argued that this is nothing to do with the ring and everything to do with Frodo’s fear. But I think his attempts to rationalize this potential action and his compulsive groping for the ring are evidence that the ring is very much active in Frodo’s thoughts and judgment.

One thing and one thing only pulls Frodo out of this temptation: courage. Courage is not about lack of fear or surmounting it. It is about obligation; knowing what is right and though the consequences and obstacles may be difficult and fearful, doing it anyways. And so, though disoriented and weak from his contact with the wight, Frodo strikes back, cuts off the wight’s hand and sings for Tom Bombadil.

Friendly Trust

Trust (noun): charge, custody, or care

To Trust (verb): to permit to remain or go somewhere or to do something without fear of consequences

What does it mean to trust someone?  And is trust healthy?  Can it be in error, yet this still be a possitive outcome? 

These three questions are at the core of “A Conspiracy Unmasked.”  Frodo’s idea of trust follows the definition of the verb above.  He expects to be let alone to follow his own path and keep his own secrets.  His trust is a personal trust; that of one who feels responsible and unwilling to draw others into his misfortune.  His trust is the trust of non-interferance, not the true trust of friendship. 

The conspiracy, however, embodies the noun of trust.  Friends are entrusted with the care of each other.  To look after one another and support each other in all circumstances.  Though misguided, Frodo in large part also follows this definition.  He believes he is caring for the safety and innocence of his friends by keeping them in the dark and preventing them from joining him.  The conspiracy’s spying on Frodo is a literal betrayal of Frodo’s trust, a betrayal of his privacy and an accusation against his ability to care for himself.  This may seem a great betrayal, a sign of an utter lack of trust, but it is not.  It is the firm espousal of Friendly Trust, which closely relates to the noun’s definition. 

It is a grey area.   But I think one of the main points of this chapter is to reveal the nature of true friendship.  Not passing friendships and acquaintances, but true life-long friendships.  In these, part of the role of the friend is to look out for the other, even if that means guarding them from themself.   This is a truth that even Frodo comes to realize, which is evident in his quick and unresisting acceptance of Pippin and Merry into his quest. 

This is a pivotal moment in the book in terms of characterization.  Here we see the true depth of friendship and love between the four (five including Fatty) hobbits and the lengths they will go to look out for one another.  And this is before any of the character growth at the core of the tale!  It also is great evidence of the real cunning and intelligence of hobbits, if they choose to use it.  Up until this point intelligence was a largely ignored or even scorned aspect of hobbit life.  One has only to think of how the hobbits thought of Bilbo. 

I’d like to use this opportunity to compare this vignette to the moment of meeting in the film adaption.  In the film Merry and Pippin appear out of nowhere, run into Frodo and Sam, fall down a cliff and almost a split second later decide to go with Frodo.  From the long expected party we get a pair of miscreants, and pretty stupid/immature ones at that.  The only purpose I can see here is speed, nothing else can be gained here.  Instead, a great jewel of characterisation is lost and cast aside.

They Should have done their Homework

Of all the television networks you would think that the History Channel would be most conscientious in preparing their specials. This is not the case, as demonstrated by last night’s “Clash of the Gods: The Lord of the Rings.” The show falls prey to the commonest of pitfalls: allegory. Not only that, but their analysis is severely reductionist, and omits key points necessary to an understanding of Tolkien or his work.  I regret the time I spent watching it, but felt compelled to comment. 

The show lists precedent after precedent as the true source for the Ring, Gandalf, the Hobbit and many elements of Tolkien’s writing. While it is true that Tolkien read, taught, and was inspired by these works this by no means implies a one to one relationship. The one saving grace here was an aside, by one of their experts: Tolkien had the unique ability to combine elements of pagan and Christian mythology.

One example of “Clash’s” narrow interpretation is the orcs. They claim the orcs are representative of capitalism. Yes, it fits…but it is too narrow a focus. There are no one to ones in Tolkien. Or if so, it is not quite so specific. Tolkien was suspicious of most technology and industry, seeing how they came to dominate the landscape and destroy natural England. Orcs are the embodiment of those who delight in machines and wanton destruction. They represent the evils of Modernity, no matter the economic or political credo.  Yet this is just one interpretation I see (see Evil or Not), one application.  The wonder of LotR, and its staying power, lies in its use of applicability in place of allegory.  The opinions of “Clash” are valid, but they are mere applications, not the source or the meaning.  Herein lies the power.  In place of the all-powerful author, controlling meaning and intent, we have the all powerful reader, free to find numerous and unique meanings upon each reading and each time.  I understand the desire to interpret and condense, but the lack of any mention of applicability, (but the very noticeable mention of allegory a few times) is troublesome…when the author went to such pains to express his ideology within the pages of the book itself! 

Through all the discussion of source materials, they never mention the true impetus of the story and the reason Tolkien actually admits: language. Very little time is spent on Tolkien’s invention of language, which he claimed is the progenitor of all myth. The Silmarillion and his subsequent writings, all stem from Tolkien’s creation of elvish. He not only desired an English mythology, but to discover the world of his languages.

In the end the biggest flaw is one so crucial to an understanding of Tolkien, and his understanding of Christian providence, that I cannot believe it was never mentioned. Not only that, but it was blatantly ignored! This concept is eucatastrophe; the sudden entrance of Grace, which saves all from despair. In the show, they remark on how “contrary to his Christian beliefs” it is that Frodo does not conquer the Ring and destroy it…that he does not succeed. That a “good” character succumbs, and the “evil” (Gollum) succeeds in his place through evil designs. This is blatantly wrong. Tolkien believed in Eucatastrophe, taking his cues from the greatest moment of Eucatastrophe in history: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord. This  moment in the narrative depicts Man’s reliance on providence. Gollum succeeds in regaining the Ring. He accidentally falls into the Cracks of Doom. The destruction of the Ring is no success on any character’s part, it is apparent chance; miracle. And this is central to both Tolkien’s myth-making and theology.

“Get off the Road…Quick!”

One of the most iconic and suspenseful scenes in the Fellowship of the Ring film is the moment on the road when Frodo realizes something comes.  A Ringwraith comes, and the hobbits hide beneath a log.  It sniffs and comes extremely close to discovering them.  Frodo finds the desire to put on the Ring irresistible.  This is the viewers first real encounter with the ringwraiths.  It is the first true moment of danger for the Hobbits.  But there remains a mystery at its heart.

How does Frodo know to leave the road?

Now if we return to the book, initially Sam hears a horse or a pony coming up the road behind them.  Frodo wonders if it might be Gandalf, finally catching up with them.  Yet a nagging suspiscion tells him it is not and that he should hide from whoever comes.  He claims “I would rather not be seen on the road-by anyone.  I am sick of my doings being noticed and disscussed.”  Even as this desire to hide overwealms him, curiousity blooms in him as well. 

How much of this is natural emotion?  How much of this is the Ring’s meddling?

Gandalf once explained to Frodo that the Ring gives power to the bearer according to his stature.  Is this an example of the Ring  being bent to Frodo’s will or Frodo being bent to the Ring’s will?  In the first suposition, the Ring allows Frodo to sense danger to himself; a warning of a threat.  In the second suposition, the fear is just Frodo’s nerves, and the curiousity the work of the Ring to allow it to be found. 

In this encounter, and worse in the second, the Ring’s power, or the aura of the wraith, impose on Frodo enormous pressure to put on the Ring.  Is it the Ring?  Or is the Wraith?  The Ring was created by Sauron to control all others.  The Ringwraiths are in Sauron’s power.  The Ring calls to them, being a depository of Sauron’s power.  Or, in the opposing viewpoint, as the wraiths are servent’s of Sauron, they are calling to the Ring, they are drawn to its presence. 

The second time the hobbits run into a wraith, Frodo purposefully hides close to the road, in little cover, so as to get a close look at the wraith.  Yet, is this just strong curiousity, or some insidious influence of the Ring.  In this instance, the shadows are not enough.  Frodo is almost found.  Only the passing elves save him.

In both encounters, some deep instinct instills in Frodo the desire to hide.  Instinctually, he knows danger comes with little physical evidence.  This appears to be a manifestation of Frodo’s power through the Ring.  On some level, and this is more obviously true as the narrative continues, Frodo is able to control and command the power of the Ring.  The question is if this is the first manifestation.