|Strider - Citadel Miniatures 1985|
Chapter 10 of The Fellowship of the Ring
In this chapter, the hobbits sheltering at the Prancing Pony get some unexpected help from Strider, a grungy ranger. As Strider enters the story, so does one of the great challenges that faced Tolkien as he wrote the trilogy: Strider is more interesting than Frodo Baggins, the hero of the story.
Indeed, The Lord of the Rings is filled with characters more interesting than Frodo; Strider is just the most striking example. Like all good characters, the ranger is marred by contradictions, the most important being his confidence and self-doubt. My own view is that Tolkien himself was more intrigued by Strider than he ever was by Frodo. This idea hit me when I noticed when Tolkien described these characters. The moment Strider comes into the tale, we're given a sketch of him:
Suddenly Forodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man sitting in the shadows near the wall... His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he waore a hood that overshadowed his face, but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.It's a vivid description -- both Frodo and the reader instantly want to know more. But what is truly remarkable is that only later in this sequence, Tolkien offers us his first description of what Frodo looks like. And it is not even a direct description... rather Mr. Barley Butterbur is reporting on Gandalf's instructions on how to identify Frodo:
"...I was given a description that fits you well enough, if I may say so... A stout little fellow with red cheeks," said Mr. Butterbur solemly. Pippin chuckled, but Sam looked indignant. "That won't help you much; it goes for most hobbits, Barley, he says to me... But this one is taller than some and fairer than most, and he has a cleft in his chin: perky chap with a bright eye. Begging your pardon, but he said it, not me."It's not a particularly vivid description (tall, fair and a cleft chin) but it is still news to me. That is to say, Tolkien waited until Chapter 10 to draw us a picture of Frodo.
Tolkien's decision to withhold a description of Frodo makes a certain amount of sense. First of all, the story (at least up to this point) has chiefly been told from Frodo's perspective, so his own appearance wouldn't be remarkable to him. Second, Frodo is a bit of a cipher -- a character deliberately cast without strong features so that it's easy for the reader to see him or herself in Frodo's shoes.
But the vagueness of Frodo's character sets up a tension that will run through the course of the book -- Frodo is the center of the story but not the center of attention. Indeed, there's a centrifugal force in the book, that diverts the reader's affections to more peripheral characters with deeper histories, more pungent personalities and greater abilities... characters like Strider, Gandalf, Legolas (or even Sam or Eowyen). The challenge for Tolkien is to keep the story coherent while still allowing these characters to shine.
In my view, this centrifugal tension is one of the things that makes The Lord of the Rings so good, since it adds complexity and texture to the structure of the story, qualities that are often missing from books that keep the focus solely on the main character. And by diverting our attention from Frodo, Tolkien is able to sometimes surprise us with the depth of the hobbit's character. As Gandalf later says about Frodo, "There is more about you than meets the eye." We'll start stumbling upon some of these surprises as Frodo (and Strider) now start their venture into the wilderness.
To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 11. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 9 here.
[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "At the Prancing Pony" Acrylic on Board (1976).]