Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: Strider

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).]


  1. I just found this site and it looks great. I'll be back. I enjoyed the LOTR commentary and I'm looking forward to more. The miniatures are superb. I happen to be a fellow Torontonian and I play Star Fleet Battles or Federation Commander with 3 others every Thursday at our Friendly Local Gaming Store. It's probably not your cup of tea but if you ever feel like dropping by to say hello please do. Keep up the good work. Sebastian

    1. Thanks Sebastian! I'm always happy to hear about another Toronto gamer.
      I've never played SFB but have always been intrigued about it. It would be fun to stop by and see your game. Where to you play?

    2. We play at Dueling Grounds in the Bloor-Lansdowne area--(1193 Bloor St. West). There are 4 of us. Two playing SFB and two of us playing the more accessible Federation Commander. All of us are intrigued with miniatures so if you drop by bring along some to show off. We have been meeting every Thursday for the past year. We gather at the Pizza Pizza on the corner at about 6pm then head next door to the Dueling Grounds basement at about 7. We are meeting on the 17th of December but we are taking a break for the Christmas week. Cheers and thanks again for the blog.

    3. I will definitely join you -- but I think it will have to be after the holidays -- I'm tied up at a Xmas party this Thursday. I checked out your blog... the pictures of your game look great.

  2. Very nice. I like how you've worked earth-tones into the boots/tunic/cloak. Fits Tolkien's "travel-stained" description perfectly.

  3. Nice post and beautiful figure sir!

  4. Thanks everyone! I'm happy you liked the Strider model. I realized as I compared my paint-scheme with Tolkien's description that I sort of went my own way, at least with respect to a "dark green" cloak. In any case, I love that sculpt of Strider... I think it really captures him.

  5. Top paintjob. Like the touches of white/grey in the hair. I think that depiction (Goodwin?) is later than the first meeting at the Prancing Pony else his sword would be still broken. Perhaps the model is Aragorn after having received the cloak from Galadriels handmaidens, which would have been grey.

    The interplay between Sam and Aragorn in this chapter is priceless. Sam goes from being openly skeptical to jaw-gaping awestruck after the revelation of true identity, although he recovers his wits later. And we have Aragorn asking permission from Sam - although I think most adaptations have this as a kind of joke, it says something about Aragorns kingliness in serving the lowest. We've also got to start wondering about how scary evil these Nazgul really aren't with their being fooled by bedsheets and doormats.

    1. I love the characterization of Sam during this chapter. He really comes into his own.

      And I agree completely about the Nazgul. They sort of alternate between terrifying foes and fragile wimps... it's a rich topic and something that I want to write about in the future. However, in that attack on the inn, I think it's possible that it was carried out by Bill Ferny and the Southron spy, at the instigation of the Ringwraith. I'd be interested in hearing other's views on this... the text just isn't clear to me.