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?


Of Songs, Dreams & the Ring

In the Christian tradition and particularly the Roman Catholic rite song has always played an important role in worship and prayer. Song was and is popularly believed to be the most potent form of prayer; the most moving and most likely to be heard by God. This does not discount other forms of prayer, but song has a very special place in the Catholic faith and mass. Reading about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry brings this great tradition to mind and reminds me in many ways of the monastic tradition, where almost all prayer was conducted by means of song. It makes for an interesting interpretation of Tom, doesn’t it?

But then there’s Old Man Willow, who Tom says is “a mighty singer.” Here the similarities, obviously, fail. Yet there still remains the truth that there is some mysterious power in song, and that power is infectious, as is seen in the hobbits.

Before going to bed, Goldberry gives the hobbits this warning:
“Heed no nightly noises! For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top.”

When the hobbits go to sleep that night, Frodo, Pippin and Merry dream. They dream vivid, terrifying dreams of such vividness that they are compelled to search for truth in them upon waking. All three dreams devolve into nightmarish fantasy, usually focusing on past horrors.

Yet there is one unique dream: that of Frodo. His dream, at least at first, is a true dream. We and he don’t know it yet, but he is seeing Gandalf’s escape from Isengard, which occured eight days prior to the night at Bombadil’s house. In all cases then, the hobbits see the past in some manner. Yet Frodo’s is the true past. Why?

There are two possiblities: either it is the effect of the Ring’s power or it is the effect of grace or eucatastrophe. Either works, but it is evident that another power is at work.

In preparing this post I had another thought I found to be quite intriguing. Only the hobbits who were affected by Old Man Willow dream. Sam did not. Sam fought off the effects of Old Man Willow’s singing and remained free of his power. Frodo, Pippin and Merry all fell asleep under his song and succumbed to his mechanations. And recall, Tom Bombadil admitted Old Man Willow is a mighty singer. It may be a slight stretch, but could the dreams have originated from Old Man Willow? It also seems suspect that Goldberry and Tom knew they would dream and have nightmares. Does this indicate some lasting hold of the Willow’s or just the haunted aura of the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs?

“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.

Frodo and the hold of the Ring

The hold of the Ring on Frodo appears to be an obvious relationship.  Yet, like the hold of the Ring on Bilbo, the Ring’s effects require some study.  In the movie, the passage of time is not clear in the beginning of the film.  Between the long expected party, and Frodo’s quest, seventeen years pass, making Frodo fifty years old.  This is not a coincidence.  Bilbo, leaving for the quest to Erebor, was also fifty years old.  By this time, Frodo is beginning to feel the desire to adventure and see the world.  As with Bilbo, it is important to study the effects of the Ring in the beginning of the Lord of the Rings.  It is crucial to understanding the full scope and consequence of the future plot.

When Gandalf returns to the Shire, knowing now the danger of the Ring, he performs the final test: fire.  He asks Frodo for the Ring.  Frodo complies, but with apparent reluctance.  Then, suddenly, Gandalf casts the Ring into the embers of Frodo’s fire.  Frodo’s response is immediate distress; he rushes to get the tongs and fish the Ring out.  Gandalf has to restrain him.  The Ring’s hold is already quite strong, Frodo wishes no hurt to the Ring, and does not seem capable of it.

Gandalf explains the history of the Ring and the danger to the Shire to Frodo.  The final solution is reached: the Ring must be destroyed.  This a crucial moment in the tale, one that was unwittingly dropped from the film.  At this moment, Frodo proposes to destroy the Ring himself, to take a hammer to it perhaps.  Gandalf encourages him.  So Frodo pulls out the Ring and looks at it.  He is drawn by its beauty and preciousness.  He had removed the Ring with the intent of throwing it into the hottest section of his fire.  But now he could not without great struggle.  He has to forcefully make himself remember and believe all that Gandalf has told him.  This is important.  Just moments ago, he had been totally  convinced, enough so to make the initial decision to do away with the Ring.  But the Ring protects itself. 

With an extreme effort, Frodo finally moves to cast the Ring in the fire.  And what happens?  Somehow both his hand and the Ring end up back in his pocket. 

It doesn’t matter that neither hammer or fire would have consumed the Ring.  What matters is Frodo’s intent.  He is resolved to destroy the Ring, at first.  Then, through some outer force, he doubts himself and doubts Gandalf’s wisdom.  Frodo reasserts himself, however, and harnesses his will to destroy the Ring.  But he doesn’t succeed.  The Ring and his own attachment to it, on some subconscious level change his gesture to return the Ring to his pocket.

This moment is of utmost importance.  Hobbits, according to Gandalf and the wise, are quite resilient to the power of the Ring.  And yet, after little use, the Ring appears to have complete hold over Frodo.  This explains and brings new meaning to all subsequent scenes of the Lord of the Rings.  It is not to say that Frodo is weak, or that he never can defy the Ring or turn its power to his own use.  However, it is obvious that the Ring’s power over Frodo is more far reaching than most would suspect.

Think on it.

Frodo is sent on a quest to destroy the One Ring.  That is his goal.  What is the Ring’s goal?  To return to Sauron.  For a time, the purpose of the Ring and the purpose of Frodo coinside.  But remember, as Frodo penetrates Mordor and comes closer to his goal, the burden and power of the Ring increase.  It now truly begins to fight Frodo’s quest.  How can Frodo ever have been expected to destroy the Ring, when he cannot even cast it into a fire?  And, more importantly, how can Gandalf, being cognizant of this failure, still have hope?  This scene, from the very beginning, calls the entire quest into question and doubt.  How may the Ring be destroyed? 

It is this scene, more than any other, that begins to establish the themes of hope and grace.  They often grow out of hopelessness.  This moment makes the final eucatastrophe potent and meaningful.

Bilbo and the Hold of the Ring

How strong is the Ring’s hold?  This question doesn’t have a clear answer, and it appears Tolkien worked on this very issue continuously throughout the writing of Lord of the Rings. 

At times the Ring appears to be a sentient entity, capable of thought and planning.  In the Hobbit, and later explained in Lord of the Rings, the Ring apparently chooses  to leave Gollum.  Somehow the Ring is able to sense the renewed rise of Sauron in the outside world and see that the only way to become reunited is to leave Gollum and the caves.  But can this really be true?  If this were so, wouldn’t the Ring have chosen anyone other than Bilbo?  So the Ring’s power has set limits.  This moment could even be interpreted as a moment of Eucatastrophe.  By chance, Bilbo is knocked down the right tunnel and happens to place his hand directly on the Ring.  Also by chance he figures out the workings of the Ring to escape Gollum.  Now this second element could be the first touch of the Ring on Bilbo to ensure its own escape from Gollum and as a consequence also saving Bilbo.

However, the reader can still question the foresight and sentience of the Ring.  In leaving Gollum, it sets up a whole chain of events which would have led to its recovery.  Gollum, following Bilbo, eventually finds out his true name and where he comes from: Bilbo Baggins from the Shire.  In time he finds himself drawn to Mordor, where he is captured and questioned.  The Nazgul have returned to power and soon leave Minas Morgul to abduct Bilbo and retrieve the Ring.  All this is set in motion solely by the Ring’s “choice” to leave Gollum.  Is this just fate?  Or, by some contrivance, is the Ring actually able to orchestrate these events?  One has to remember that Sauron poured much of his own power and essence into the Ring.  It isn’t that much of stretch to assume that the Ring, as a consequence, has its own agenda or is in some manner still controlled by Sauron.

And yet this plan is foiled.  How?  By the will of single Hobbit.

Bilbo is not a central figure in the Lord of the Rings.  Yet, while always off stage, he is one of the truest heroes in the tale.  Unlike Borromir, unlike Frodo, unlike Gollum, only he and Sam are able to escape the Ring’s hold.  If he could not, if he had kept the Ring, if he had succumbed, the quest would have failed before it began.  Sauron would have returned.

It is obvious upon reading “The Long Expected Party” that the Ring has a true and strong hold on Bilbo.  It is an obvious struggle for him to relinquish it to Frodo.  The whole purpose of the party and giving away so many and so lavish gifts was solely to make the giving of the Ring easier.  This fails.

After Bilbo’s “joke,” Bilbo returns to Bag End, places the Ring in envelope and then puts it back in his pocket.  No more is  said.  It appears to be an automatic, reflexive action.  When asked about the Ring, at first Bilbo is confused by this act, then rationalizes it.  The Ring should be mine, he thinks.  Yet when we think about this action, it truly seems to be foreign; as if an outside force, without Bilbo’s awareness, molds his actions to its needs.  Then, being confronted with this action, Bilbo makes it his own and proclaims his right to the Ring.  Is this outburst his own true feelings against Gandalf, or a manifestation of the Ring’s hold?  I would claim both.  Remember the Ring of the drafts: the Ring gains power over Bilbo as a memento of his travels.  He is now set on leaving the Shire and reliving those adventures.  Why would he leave his most precious heirloom behind?

Consider Bilbo, he has none of the knowledge or superstition of Gandalf to make him fear the Ring.  He is confused by Gandalf’s focus on it.  This confusion grows into anger and jealousy.  While this is a reasonable reaction, it is logical to see the Ring’s effect here as well, amplifying his feelings.  It is also possible that this jealousy increases the power of the Ring’s hold on Bilbo.

Yet out of Bilbo’s trust for Gandalf, and his unflappable innocence and humor, Bilbo holds true to his original decision.  He takes out the envelope and makes to put it on the mantel.  The motion is jerky and forced, as if made against some will.  He cannot complete the gesture, dropping the envelope on the floor.  Gandalf immediately scoops it up and places it on the mantel.  This sets off a moment of extreme anger in Bilbo, possibly the last vestiges of the Ring’s direct hold.  Then, almost as suddenly, Bilbo returns to his carefree, happy state the reader remembers from the end of the Hobbit.  He is free.  While the Ring still has some hold over him, Bilbo will never be ruled by it again. 

It almost never mentioned, but in this Bilbo becomes one of the most important figures in the Lord of the Rings.  He is, in fact, a hero.

The Ring of the Drafts

I have been reading The Return of the Shadow, the first book of the History of the Lord of the Rings sequence, and I’ve found an interesting tidbit. 

When he began to write, Tolkien did not have a clear conception of where his tale would lead.  And remember, at that point Gollum had seriously offered the ring as a prize to Bilbo.  The ring was not yet the Ring.  But it was getting there.

In the early drafts, the Ring is just the last ring beyond Sauron’s control.  It is most precious to him for some reason, but far from being the ‘One Ring,’ the ‘Ruling Ring’ it was to become.  What is most interesting to me is the mechanisms by which the Ring functions at this point. 

The Ring gains power over the bearer based upon the use it is put to.  Using it for escape or jest is permissible, but stealing or killing would give it power over the bearer, even to the point of making him a wraith.  This is why the pity of Bilbo is so important.  Had he not had pity on Gollum, he would have become a wraith fully under the power of the Ring.  This also lends itself easily to explain why Bilbo was able to pass the Ring on to Frodo (or Bingo), as well as why he was never greatly affected by the Ring.

While in some ways the Ring seems to have less power, it is more devious.  It takes hold of Bilbo through his feeling of sentiment.  Here is the souvenir of his great adventure.  For Frodo it is his great inheritance from Bilbo, it becomes the object of his love for Bilbo after he leaves.  And through these sentiments of attachment the Ring begins to take hold.

Gollum is not Smeagol at this point in the drafts, but Digol.  Interesting, right?  He merely finds the Ring; no yet beginning his ownership with murder.  Instead, he uses the Ring to steal and spy on his family.  These perfidious acts allow the Ring to bear heavily on him. 

Obviously this conception of how the Ring works did not last overtly through to the final book.  But it is interesting to consider how it remains.  The pity of Bilbo and subsequently the pity of Frodo are the key points in the book.  It may be Frodo’s pity for Gollum rather than hatred that saved Frodo from complete domination by the Ring.  More importantly, this pity is the reason why the Ring was destroyed, otherwise it would not have happened. 

And Gollum, here I may stretch things a bit too far, but I’ve come up with an intriguing application.  In the final version, Smeagol kills Deagol to gain the Ring.  He begins his ownership with murder and crime.  But what of his original name, “Digol,” awfully close to Deagol, right?  In a sense, in gaining the Ring and in killing Deagol, Gollum kills a part of himself.  He loses Smeagol and any love or hobbitness he once had.  He becomes the animated embodiment of the Ring.  He is “My Precious.”