THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) – Chapter 2 – The Quest

A drawing by Tolkien (c) 2004 Royal Mail

It is often the case with romances that a quest appears to be the organizing pattern of the narrative. One of the best-known medieval examples is the quest for the Sancgreal in the Arthurian Romances. It also seems a common feature that the quest-pattern should be limited to romances. As a matter of
fact heroic literature is preoccupied with more down-to-earth matters. Since the main concern of the hero is to go down to posterity i.e. leave in the minds of the living people an image of courage and unfailing virtue – virtue being in this case proportional to the adherence to the heroic code of honor and not at all the Ten Commandments – the Old English. heroic poetry rather puts the emphasis on war, the duties of the Germanic comitatus, the patching up of blood feuds with impossible marriages, the problems of man in front of his lot (wyrd) and the shame of the warrior unfaithful to his lord. In this sense heroic poetry can be said to be more true-to-life than romances.

It is the lot of the Germanic warrior to concentrate on one word : “overcome”. Overcome fear in order to appear as a courageous soldier, overcome temptation to remain submitted to one’s lord, overcome the enemy to save one’s tribe, overcome evil to gain the right to a high renown after death. Be it physically or intellectually, victory was the stimulating principle of the life of a warrior. The alternative between  victory by physical strength or by wise strategy is best illustrated in Beowulf‘s three progressive assaults. Young Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands. Grendel’s mother, which dwells at the bottom of a lake, must be killed by a magical sword. The third. assault against a fire-breathing dragon necessitates a special shield capable of protecting Beowulf from the flames. Beowulf, helped by Wiglaf, is victorious but dies. I should rather have written “is victorious and dies” since a heroic warrior knows he is doomed to violent death; it is moreover his greatest achievement to die with an “undefeated spirit”. Anyway, as a traditional hero, he must die on the battlefield or as a result of his encounter with the enemy – in this case: the dragons. It is a necessary condition for him to deserve his place in the Valhalla even if the Valhalla has disappeared from christianized Old English poetry. Beowulf ends thus a successful career completed by an unavoidable death.

Another feature of the hero is his “transparency” as a character. One could conclude that the heroic achievement is external : the hero is judged in his status according to “deeds” giving evidence of his courage. Whatever the fear felt or the inner cowardice of the character, what matters is the external appearance of heroic virtue. Such an interpretation, reducing heroism to a “look” in the modern meaning of the word, is based on a corrupt(ed) reading of Old English poetry. Modern writings are indeed full of characters whose appearance inside the tale contrasts with their real feelings or inner life. This was not true in the early medieval literature.

What I mean by “transparency” is precisely that heroes are supposed to have an inner life corresponding to their external appearance. More than that, the medieval poets were not at all concerned with psychological matters. Their characters are meant to be courageous when they act courageously. The inner conflicts between fear and courage are directly conveyed into actions illustrating the choice made by the hero. Moreover a good character is mainly thoroughly good, courageous and strong, whereas the traitor is presented as thoroughly perverse.

Romances on the contrary are not so much concerned with the public image of the hero for its own sake. The innovations in concern brought by the romance-writers are of two kinds. On the one hand, the eschatological struggle between Light and Darkness, God and the Devil in which the hero takes part as a herald of Good is no more set on a war-background involving armies and wide battlefields or dragons embodying all the Evil of the world. The battlefield in romances is symbolically reduced to the protagonist himself, inside of whom the actual struggle takes place. While the heroic hero takes part in a battle,the action in romances is located inside the protagonist which is used as a microcosm reflecting human experience. This conclusion is drawn in accordance with Brewer’s interpretation of the tale as the total mind of the protagonist. He in fact means by this that, since the protagonist and the other characters in the narrative are aspects of the protagonist’s mind, the story itself is the summing up of these aspects of the total mind. The various events are in fact illustrations of the various conflicts occurring in the mind of the maturing protagonist, romances being often, according to Brewer, stories of maturation. The tale is consequently seen as dynamic, the evolution of the protagonist being its organizing and stimulating principle. I mean by dynamic that the parameters determining the construction of the tale at its beginning are altered during its course and different at the end. Let us take for example the Green Knight: he is a terrible father-figure at the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, forcing young Gawain out of childhood, represented by the Court of King Arthur, I already explained that; it appears, however, at the end. that the character that served as a temptator throughout the tale, as a confessor during the rationalization scene and the Green Knight himself are but one and the same person : Bertilak of the High Desert. More than that, this character is himself the victim of Morgan the Fay. It is in this sense that I used the words “altered parameters”, characterization being one of these parameters; So much for the first innovation made by the romance-writers.

The second is actually a corollary of the first. Since man and his experience are at the centre of the preoccupations of the romantic tale, it is logical that romances should be concerned with the humanity of the hero, refusing to reduce him to a courageous warrior in front of his lot. The heroic rules that were at the centre of the heroic “casuistry” are hence questioned. in romances. Benson (quoted by Brian Stone) says that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the “story of the perennial conflict between ideal codes and human limitations”. I shall also try in this chapter to explain how Frodo’s humanity is illustrated in The Lord of the Rings, my general purpose remaining, however, to show why this tale is not a romance.

As has often been said in this study, a quest constitutes the leading-thread of the narrative. Frodo left the Shire in order to destroy the One Ring in the Fires of Orodruin. This ring he inherited from his uncle Bilbo then retired at Rivendell, the dwelling of Master Elrond Half-Elven. It is Gandalf the Grey, a wizard, who proposed the quest to Frodo. Elrond has also chosen eight companions among the Free Peoples…

…to accompany the Ring-Bearer on the Quest of Mount Doom. They were : Gandalf, Aragorn, Dúnadan of the North, and Boromír, Prince of Gondor (for men); Legolas, son of King Thranduíl (for the Elves); Gimlí, son of Glöin (for the Dwarves); and three Hobbíts – Meriadoc, Peregrin, Samwíse.

Together they leave to Orodruin. Gandalf disappears in the Mines of Moria and Aragorn has consequently to reveal his true name – he had so far been known as Strider – and his rank: he is the True Pretender. Arrived to the Rauras Falls, they have a little rest. Time enough for Boromir to succumb to the power of the Ring, try to steal it and die repentant under the blows of Orcs that attacked the fellowship. So far for the handle of the forked quest.

“Forked quest” means here that from that point in the story two different courses of the narrative are to be taken into account. On the one side, the major part of the Fellowship (Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Pippin and Merry), who follows a heroic evolution as I shall try to make clear further, and, on the other, Frodo and Sam, who achieve the romance part of the tale. This chapter is thus an amplification of my conclusion to the chapter devoted to Brewer’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings. I hope to have shown that Brewer’s statement that Tolkien’s book is a romance of maturation applies only to the part of the narrative devoted to Frodo.

In the Arthurian tales centered on the Sancgreal, various members of the same community are on a similar quest: Percival, Galahad, Lancelot and others try to discover the Grail Castle. The similarity between the multiple quest in the Morte d’Arthur and in The Lord of the Rings is not an evidence of the romanticity of Tolkien’s work. As a matter of fact Malory’s “Noble tale of the Sancgreal“ (book XIII) is not one as a narrative, it is rather a series of smaller romances each devoted to a questing character. Hence a possibly misleading paralelism between the two books. In addition to that, Brewer considered The Lord of the Rings as the romance of Frodo exclusively, the other characters being splits of the protagonist or related figures.

However, the early mention of the conditions of the quest corresponds to the traditional pattern of romances. Gawain leaves Arthur’s Hall to seek the Green Knight, who will return the blow Gawain inflicted him. The bargain between Gawain and the Green Knight is settled in the tale as early’ as line 282 (the whole romance being 2530 lines long):

So I crave in this court a Christmas game,
For is is Yuletide and New Year, and young men abound here.
If any in this household is so hardy in spirit,
Of such mettlesome mind and so madly rash
As to strike a strong blow in return for another,
I shall offer to him this fine axe freely;
This axe, which is heavy enough, to handle as he please.
And I shall bide the first blow, as bare as I sit here.
If some intrepid man is tempted to try what I suggest,
Let him leap towards me and lay hold of this weapon,
Acquiring clear possession of it, no claim from me ensuing.
Then shall I stand up to his stroke, quite still on this floor –
So long as I shall have leave to launch a return blow
Unchecked.
Yet he shall have a year
And a day’s reprieve, I direct.
Now hasten and let me hear
Who answers, to what effect.

In Peredur ab Evrawc, Peredur (Percival) is told before leaving his mother the various recommendations that will determine his further behaviour in the tale

Va, dit-elle,tout droit ä la cour d’Arthur, là ou sont les hommes les meilleurs, les plus généreux et les plus vaillants. Ou tu verras une église, récite ton Pater auprès d’elle. Quelque part que tu voies nourriture et boisson, si tu en as besoin et qu’on ait pas assez de courtoisie ni de bonté pour t’en faire part, prends toi-même. Si tu entends des cris, vas de ce côté; il n’y a pas de cri plus caractéristique que celui d’une femme. Si tu vois de beaux joyaux, prends et donne à autrui, et tu acquérras aussi réputation. Si tu vois une belle femme, fais-lui la cour, quand même elle ne voudrait pas de toi, elle t’en estimera meilleur et plus puissant qu’auparavant.

It seems thus that the rules of the game have to be settled before the game opens. In The Lord of the Rings, the opening spell is not an exception

Three Rings for the Elven-Kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-Lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the land of Mordor where Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the land of Mordor where Shadows lie.

It has been evoked in the chapter devoted to the Ring that Frodo’s quest, as opposed to Percival’s or Galahad’s, was in some sense a negative quest, at least an ambivalent one. Frodo indeed does not leave home in order to seek something, he possesses the object. of the quest from the beginning of the tale: the ring inherited from Bilbo. The actual aim of his quest is moreover destruction and not discovery. This reversed quest-motive is due to the nature of the object of the quest itself. On the one hand, the Grail is a Christian symbol of sanctity, it stands on the side of Good and of God:

Le Graal représente à la fois, et substantiellement, le Christ mort pour les hommes, le vase de la Sainte Cène (c’est-à-dire, la Grâce divine accordée par le Christ à ses disciples), et enfin le calice de la messe, contenant le sang réel du Sauveur. La table sur laquelle repose le vase est donc,selon ces trois plans, la pierre du Saint-Sépulcre, la table des Douze Apôtres, et enfin l’autel ou se célèbre le sacrifice quotidien. Ces trois réalités, la Crucifixion, la Gène, l’Eucharistie, sont inséparables et la cérémonie du Graal est leur révélation, donnant dans la Communion la connaissance de la personne  du Christ et la participation à son Sacrifice Salvateur. (Dds, p. 482-483)

Its origin seems however to be rather pagan:

Le Saint Graal de la littérature médiévale européenne est l’héritier sinon le continuateur de deux talismans de la religion celtique pré-chrétienne : le chaudron du Dagda et la coupe de souveraineté. (Dds, p. 482)

In its symbolical function, the Grail could in fact fit with all religions:

Le Graal c’est la lumière spirituelle, qui n’a que faire des dogmes. Mais on ne peut s’en approcher qu’au prix d’une longue recherche et de douloureux efforts de dépassement de soi-même. (BMC, p. 286)

The quest of the Grail is thus purely spiritual. Though it is actualized in adventures and secular peregrinations, it is in fact a spiritual research inside one’s soul: the questing hero tries to achieve the interiority of faith, the mystical relationship between lnimself and God. It is in this context that
Brekilien properly describes it as “n’ayant que faire des dogmes”.  Mysticism requires individuality : the mystic follows his own path refusing the too well-beaconed highway to God that church is. The quest of the Grail is thus a positive interior quest of something – in this case the Grail- which reflects an ideal state-of-soul that one has to achieve.

On the other hand the ring is obviously not standing for any personal achievement. On the contrary, it embodies the forces of Evil threatening the moral integrity of the questing hobbit. As I wrote in another chapter, the Ring, borne out of Evil, represents the lust for power to which any of us might succumb. The hobbits are described by Tolkien in the prologue as

an unobtrusive but very ancient people,… they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favorite haunt… They were a merry folk. They dressed in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green;… And laugh they did, and eat, and drank, often and heartily, being fond of simple jests at all times, and of six meals a day (when they could get them).

The author gives us a picture of a sensible innocence, uncorrupted by the lust for power (“sensible” meaning here that their innocence has nothing to do with that of God’s Lamb: Hobbits enjoy food and drink and sometimes quarrel; their innocence is a rather temperated one). Evil, embodied by the Ring, has thus to come from outside the Shire. The moral integrity is here a
starting point rather than an achievement. Hence the necessary destruction of the Ring as a means to protect innocence from corruption. In the Morte d’Arthur, the case of Lancelot illustrates very well my point here. Lancelot’s quest ends on a meagre satisfaction: he is allowed to see the Grail very briefly, in a dream. The reason for that failure is his corrupted soul, i.e. his love for Guinevere, his lord’s wife. The two quests are thus totally reversed:  whereas finding the Grail means achieving personal sanctity, an interior connection with God, the destruction of the Ring means preventing the original innocence of the protagonist and his fellow-hobbits from being spoiled by corruption.

Another aspect of the quest that could serve as a point of comparison is its ending: is success necessary and what should be the meaning of a failure ? I already alluded to the difference of attitude in front of the quest to be performed between Gawain and Frodo. Gawain left the court as a daring youth (“what should man do but dare ?” SGGK, l.565) whereas Frodo felt “very small, and very uprooted, and well-desperate” (p. 76). The contrast between Gawain’s self-confidence and Frodo’s sense of doom led me to say that Frodo’s fears denoted a rather heroic mood. Any romance reader indeed knows that there must be a happy ending. Though Gawain makes a mistake, he is not beheaded by the Green Knight and he is allowed to go back – repentant – to his lord’s court in order to tell the other knights of the Round Table of his fault. Gawain’s failure is turned into a good moral lesson. The same for Lancelot: lacking virginity, he cannot reach the Grail Castle and only’ sees the object of his quest “half wakynge and slepyng” (MMAE, p.158). As a squire comments :

I dare ryght wel saye
sayed the squyer that he dwelleth in some dedely synne wherof he was never confessid (MMAE, p. 160)

Lancelot, however, does not seem to mind his limited success :

Mais voilà que le visionnaire s’estime satisfait et content de lui. (MMAE, p. 30-31)

Failures of the protagonist are thus minimized in romances in order to provide a happy ending :

& Yf I may not spede
I shall retorne ageyne as he that maye not be ageynst the wil of our
Lord Ihesu Cryste (MMAE, p. 144)

In point of fact they are even more meaningful than success would have been : a failing hero is made human, identification is made easier and the tale the more effective.

Frodo on the contrary illustrates heroic fatalism as if he knew from the very beginning that heroic tales often conclude on the death of the hero – though glorious. His failure is moreover not at all tempered by a posteriori considerations. Although his quest is successful – the Ring is destroyed – Frodo once succumbed to the power of Sauron and, without the providential intervention of Smeagol, he would have turned towards Darkness and Sauron. He says to Sam Gamgee after Gollum’s death:

But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.

In spite of the joy provided by the saving of the Shire, Frodo has changed:

One evening Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange. He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away. “What’s the matter, Mr Frodo ?” said Sam. “I am wounded”, he answered, ”wounded; it will never really heal.”

Fatality is thus the feeling that prevails in his mind. This is once more a feature that does not fit with the definition of the traditional romantic hero. As a matter of fact the further we analyse the various characteristics of Tolkien’s book, the less it is possible to classify his references: Frodo is a questing character (thus romantic) having a rather heroic mood.

Genuinely romantic and corresponding to Brewer’s theory is however the progression of his quest. Tolkien organized various “rites of passage” on his way to Orodruin: doors, gates, tunnels, bridges, crossing of waters are by nature places that imply a passage. Symbolically they are also meaningful, e.g.

La porte symbolise le lieu de passage entre deux états, entre deux mondes, entre le connu et l’inconnu, la lumière et les ténèbres, le trésor et le dénuement. La porte ouvre sur un mystère. Mais elle a une valeur  dynamique, psychologique; car non seulement elle indique un passage, mais elle invite à la franchir. (DdS, p. 779)

Be it on purpose or unconsciously Tolkien provided the Fellowship with many of these “passages”. Before leaving the Shire, the Hobbits had to cross the Brandywine river on a ferry. Crossing a river is not an image limited to Tolkien: in ancient China, the “just married” pairs had to cross the river in Spring, it meant a real crossing of the seasons, the year, from the Yin to the Yang; is was moreover a rite of purification (DdS, p. 449-450). Acheron, Phlegeton, Cocyte, Styx and Lethe are the names of the rivers of Hell, they were to be crossed by the damned souls (DdS, id.). I shall, however, not go into too far fetched interpretations of Tolkien’s rites of passage. We cannot know anyway whether he meant them as such (i.e. symbolically) or if the various crossings simply meant stages in a travel – I mean that Tolkien could have used these “steps” as devices in order to render the spatial translation necessary to a picaresque narrative (the more you cross rivers and go through gates and tunnels, the further you are from home).

Beside the symbolical use and the technical one, there is another possibility: Tolkien, impregnated with medieval literature, could have noticed the many “passages” that appear in romances and heroic tales, and simply have reproduced the pattern in The Lord of the Rings without exploring its deeper meaning. The last alternative should, however, be a kind of an insult to Tolkien’s cleverness and keen knowledge of the functioning of medieval stories, and, be it the case, I should rather consider that professor Tolkien purposely ignored the analysis proposed by psychoanalysts as Yung and others, probably because he hated excessive interpretation. It. could nevertheless be possible that the identification of Tolkien with medieval poets was nearly complete. These ancient story-tellers obviously did not know about Brewer’s analysis of symbolical tales, and, instinctively, reproduced patterns in their creations, or rather re-creations, not modifying the inner meaning of the story they tried to re-tell. The function of many medieval story-tellers actually consisted in giving to a traditional motive a version “adequate to itself and the audience” (as Brewer explains in his Symbolic Stories). Brewer writes:

While the same given story may have differing verbal realizations, each version must be regarded as adequate to itself… each version has its own validity, its own character, just as different members of the same family, though sharing similar characteristics, each have their own individuality. Each version must be judged in itself, as well as being an emanation of a general entity. (BBS)

The basic story, or let us say the basic pattern, could be compared to an apple pie, the poet being the cook who determines the portion of sugar, flour and butter according to the taste of his guests. There is indeed a basic recipe but one may use brown sugar instead of white sugar, add some cinnamon or whatever. In this sense the various crossings or passages could have appeared to the poet as necessary ingredients for a consistent and relevant tale, without revealing their archetypal meaning (since not objectivized). So much for the possible “innocence of Tolkien as a story-teller.

At the border of the Shire is also a forest. Jung interpreted the forest as the representation of the unconscious, the attitude of the protagonist in front of it determining whether he lived in harmony with his deepest self or on the contrary feared to be faced with his inner tensions. Reactions can thus be varied and the forest can be experienced as unfriendly or protective:

D’autres poètes sont plus sensibles au mystère ambivalent de la forêt, qui est génératrice â la fois d’angoisse et de sérénité, d’oppression et de sympathie, comme toutes les puissantes manifestations de la vie. (DdS, p. 455)

My point is here to mention a series of “passages” in the tale, offering diverse possible interpretations but without deciding on their validity. I am no psychoanalyst and cruelly lack the cleverness of Dr Brewer, so that, as I suggested in the introduction, my work had better be considered as a guide to various doors and windows, all of them being possible approaches to Tolkien’s work, to be opened by others than myself. The reader should feel as Alice in the hall :

There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every doors, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was to get out again.(LCAW, p. 27)

Yet, I shall have the lack of humility to try to direct the reader’s eyes towards the “little three-legged table, all made of solid glass” and the “tiny golden key” (id.). It would be my greatest achievement to give enough clues for the reader to discover the little door behind the low curtain. End of the digression.

It is thus necessary to mention the various forests that appear in The Lord of the Rings, each being differently experienced by Frodo. The Old Forest at the border of the Shire is a dark one, “stories” are told about it. An interesting passage is this :

“Are the stories about it true ?” asked Pippin. “I don’t know what stories you mean”, Merry answered, “If you mean the old bogey stories Fatty’s nurse used to tell him, about Goblins and Wolves and things of that sort, I should say no. At any rate I don’t believe them. But the Forest is queer. Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire… But at night things can be most alarming… I thought all the trees were […]


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