In all the vast tapestry that is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one character clearly qualifies, amongst the array of masterfully drawn characters that there are, to be the ‘protagonist’: Frodo Baggins. But in truth we are not told very much about Frodo directly. He’s not described in any detail until Barliman Butterbur reads in Gandalf’s letter that he is ‘taller than some and fairer than most, and he has a cleft in his chin: perky chap with a bright eye’. Hobbit-like in terms of stoutness at the beginning, he becomes thin and drawn after the ardours of his journey, which is really no more than we could expect. In other words, we don’t get much of a picture of him externally. Internally, psychologically, there’s not much to go on either: we get odd clues, though, that Frodo is or has been no saint.
Given that Tolkien’s epic grew out of an invented language, it might be wise to look for further intimations about his character in his name: the name Frodo Baggins, Tolkien tells us, is an English translation of his Westron name Maura Labingi. Maura in the invented Westron language has the element maur, meaning ‘wise, experienced’ -using his technique of relating invented languages to actual languages, Tolkien equated this with the Germanic element fród, ‘wise by experience’. In the Elvish Sindarin tongue, Frodo’s name was Iorhael (‘old-wise’).
While we can see that Frodo becomes wiser through his ordeals, why should we consider him somehow innately wise? And what is it that makes a hobbit from the Shire not only undertake the quest of the age, but see it through despite overwhelming odds -‘At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. “I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”’ Of course on one level Tolkien is telling us a tale and Frodo, as a hobbit, makes a perfect narrative vehicle. But as a character, is there anything that we can put our finger on about Frodo that might explain what he does and why he succeeds? What is Frodo’s deepest, innermost motivation?
The first clue comes when we find out a little about his background. Frodo, the child of the respectable Drogo Baggins and Primula Brandybuck, is born on 22 September of S.R. 1368. While he is still a child, his parents die in a boating accident. Loss of parents is an almost universal qualification to be a protagonist, but in this case it’s not just a death -it’s a death by water, that element most feared by hobbits (‘few Hobbits had ever seen or sailed upon the Sea, and fewer still had ever returned to report it. Most Hobbits regarded even rivers and small boats with deep misgivings, and not many of them could swim.’) And then Frodo goes to live in Brandy Hall with his mother’s relatives, the Brandybucks, growing up under the guardianship of the Master of Buckland Rorimac ‘Goldfather’ Brandybuck, his uncle. At this point he has suffered not only in that he has become an orphan, but that he has been compelled to live far from his birthplace (in relative terms) in the ‘strange’ Eastfarthing: he had been ‘left an orphan and stranded, as you might say, among those queer Bucklanders, being brought up anyhow in Brandy Hall. A regular warren, by all accounts. Old Master Gorbadoc never had fewer than a couple of hundred relations in the place.’
So, bereaved and uprooted, Frodo grows up in an environment in which we can safely surmise he didn’t get enough attention. We discover that he was troublesome in his youth: he was once caught stealing mushrooms from Farmer Maggot, who in return thrashed him and set his three dogs to chase him from Bamfurlong to Bucklebury Ferry. Virtually a juvenile delinquent in hobbit terms.
Then comes the big event in Frodo’s young life, the one which will have an impact upon him for the rest of it, and the one that effectively determines the future of Middle earth: his uncle Bilbo adopts him and takes him in to live at Bag End, Bilbo's home in Hobbiton. Why does Uncle Bilbo choose Frodo as a ward? We can suppose that it had something to do with the fact that they shared a birthday; we can surmise that Bilbo took pity on what was probably a forlorn youth with a streak of mischief about him. Not the first time that Bilbo’s pity played a part in the destiny of the world: his decision to spare Gollum when he acquired the One Ring, coupled with the decision to adopt Frodo, together ensured that the two players who would save Middle earth were in place to do so when the time came at the Cracks of Doom.
Purely from Frodo’s point of view, though, Bilbo’s adoption of him is a godsend: not only does he receive the attention he had missed from departed parents, his Uncle Bilbo teaches him to read, tells him stories of the past, even gives him some instruction in the Elvish tongue. Bilbo even takes his young cousin to see the Elves that wandered about in and out of the Shire at that time. Suddenly, what was likely a fairly miserable and bewildering existence in the large halls of Buckland becomes an enchanted and wonderful life.
Frodo and Bilbo are comfortably well off until T.A. 3001, when Bilbo, having made Frodo his heir, decides to throw an enormous party to celebrate his 111th birthday, and Frodo's 33rd, the date of Frodo's coming of age. As we all know, Bilbo uses this party to dramatically depart from the Shire. Frodo, though he knew the plan, is left feeling forlorn again in an echo of his earlier parental loss. But at least he is left with Bag End to live in, and not displaced again.
Except that he is. Gandalf informs him that, among other things, Frodo has inherited Bilbo's magic ring. This is the thing which will not only uproot him again, it will transform him.
It’s a long time before the displacement occurs. Frodo gets to enjoy Bag End and the life of a well-to-do hobbit for many years before he, taking advice from father-figure Gandalf, reluctantly sells the property and again moves east into Buckland in what must seem to him on some level to be personal history repeating itself. But, while the journey to Crickhollow is just the beginning of a larger movement that Frodo must undertake due to the demands of the plot, we can begin to piece together the character motivation drawing Frodo out of the Shire: it’s a desire to see Bilbo once more, the hobbit who ‘rescued’ him, that drives him at this stage. ‘“Yes,” answered Frodo. “I would rather see him than all the towers and palaces in the world”’ he says later.
He’s pursued by Black Riders, of course, and so moves on hurriedly through fear. Perhaps he would have procrastinated and even turned back had not the Nazgul made their appearance. But inwardly what pulls him along is the desire to be reunited with the most stable person in his life, his uncle, the one who determined that he would not wander into a life of dissipation and mischief but achieve joy and contentment.
Many of the adventures he has on the way to Rivendell are just that: adventures, escapades, experiences which arise naturally out of the dangerous circumstances of the tale. These are the linear mechanisms which power all stories along, as is explained in great detail in the book How Stories Really Work. We cannot expect to find much evidence of psychological motivations in a hobbit fleeing for his life from ghostly figures on the open road. But once we get to the haven of Rivendell, Frodo, wounded and almost lost on the journey, has a chance to heal and to put what has happened so far into perspective. It’s at the Council of Elrond that we hear all about the other narratives connected to the One Ring, and here Frodo literally takes a back seat as a character and simply listens. In Rivendell, he is touchingly reunited with his Uncle Bilbo and to all intents and purposes it appears that his part in the story might well be over. Certainly from the point of view of any inner motivation that we can glean, it is a time of closure:
`Dear Bilbo!' said Frodo sleepily. `I wonder where he is. I wish he was here and could hear all about it. It would have made him laugh, The cow jumped over the Moon! And the poor old troll!'
With that he fell fast asleep. Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, `a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or storytelling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all'. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness. As the evening drew on, Frodo woke up again, and he found that he no longer felt in need of rest or sleep, but had a mind for food and drink, and probably for singing and story-telling afterwards. He got out of bed and discovered that his arm was already nearly as useful again as it ever had been. He found laid ready clean garments of green cloth that fitted him excellently. Looking in a mirror he was startled to see a much thinner reflection of himself than he remembered: it looked remarkably like the young nephew of Bilbo who used to go tramping with his uncle in the Shire; but the eyes looked out at him thoughtfully.
`Yes, you have seen a thing or two since you last peeped out of a looking-glass,' he said to his reflection. 'But now for a merry meeting!' He stretched out his arms and whistled a tune.
Frodo finds Bilbo, whom he hasn't seen in 17 years. Despite the fact that the One Ring comes between them slightly, the two hobbits enjoy talking about Bilbo's works on lore and the Shire, and from Frodo’s point of view he gets to relive the most pleasurable moments of his life:
There they sat for some while, looking through the window at the bright stars above the steep-climbing woods, and talking softly. They spoke no more of the small news of the Shire far away, nor of the dark shadows and perils that encompassed them, but of the fair things they had seen in the world together, of the Elves, of the stars, of trees, and the gentle fall of the bright year in the woods.
What happens next, from the point of view of Frodo as a character, is therefore most surprising: in the midst of the great Council of Elrond, having heard the tale of thousands of years of epic adventures, Frodo, the once-forlorn but now content hobbit from the Shire, volunteers to take on the apparently hopeless Quest to destroy the Ring. What could possibly be motivating him to do this?
There are two suppositions that come to mind: one is in the way Tolkien describes the moment when Frodo steps forward:
A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.
`I will take the Ring,' he said, `though I do not know the way.'
In other words, Frodo is moved by a power beyond himself and his own desires to become a hero, outside expected self-based motivations, driven by altruism or even Providence. And that may well be the case, in a world such as Tolkien constructed. But there is another possible explanation, and it comes in an interchange just before the above passage, from the moment when Bilbo stands up and offers to do the deed himself:
'Very well, very well, Master Elrond!' said Bilbo suddenly. 'Say no more! It is plain enough what you are pointing at. Bilbo the silly hobbit started this affair, and Bilbo had better finish it, or himself. I was very comfortable here, and getting on with my book. If you want to know, I am just writing an ending for it. I had thought of putting: and he lived happily ever afterwards to the end of his days. It is a good ending, and none the worse for having been used before. Now I shall have to alter that: it does not look like coming true; and anyway there will evidently have to be several more chapters, if I live to write them. It is a frightful nuisance. When ought I to start? '
Boromir looked in surprise at Bilbo, but the laughter died on his lips when he saw that all the others regarded the old hobbit with grave respect. Only Glóin smiled, but his smile came from old memories.
`Of course, my dear Bilbo,' said Gandalf. `If you had really started this affair, you might be expected to finish it. But you know well enough now that starting is too great a claim for any, and that only a small part is played in great deeds by any hero. You need not bow! Though the word was meant, and we do not doubt that under jest you are making a valiant offer. But one beyond your strength, Bilbo. You cannot take this thing back. It has passed on. If you need my advice any longer, I should say that your part is ended, unless as a recorder. Finish your book, and leave the ending unaltered! There is still hope for it. But get ready to write a sequel, when they come back.'
Bilbo laughed. `I have never known you give me pleasant advice before.' he said. `As all your unpleasant advice has been good, I wonder if this advice is not bad. Still, I don't suppose I have the strength or luck left to deal with the Ring. It has grown, and I have not. But tell me: what do you mean by they?'
`The messengers who are sent with the Ring.'
`Exactly! And who are they to be? That seems to me what this Council has to decide, and all that it has to decide. Elves may thrive on speech alone, and Dwarves endure great weariness; but I am only an old hobbit, and I miss my meal at noon. Can't you think of some names now? Or put it off till after dinner?'
It is Frodo’s obligation to Bilbo that comes into play here: he sees that it was Bilbo’s vital discovery of the Ring that has set this tale in motion, and that he is the heir of Bilbo, and that Bilbo is making a serious offer to take on the burden himself. So, while he might feel as if ‘he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken’ and while as a character he is content to live with Bilbo in Rivendell -‘An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart’- his sense of duty takes over and in this way he fulfils his own destiny.
How he manages it has again much to do with Bilbo. The quest has virtually ground to a halt in the Emyn Muil when Gollum appears. It is that entrance by the other hobbit spared or rescued by Bilbo that prompts Frodo to new life. By taking Gollum as his guide, he finds his way, albeit treacherously, into Mordor and with Gollum’s misguided assistance, he accomplishes the Quest. Having taken on his uncle’s burden, Frodo also tries to take on his uncle’s compassion and pity and underlying trust. It is his Bilbo-like faith in Gollum which sees him through, despite appearances. Even Gollum’s betrayal of Frodo and Sam to Shelob the spider, who stings Frodo, doesn’t alter Frodo’s determination to fulfil his obligation.
Only this localised motivation makes sense, pyschologically. A small, inexperienced hobbit from the Shire could not be expected to be driven by a desire to save the whole world, unless driven by Providence. But by a desire to do as his uncle would wish? A desire to give back through duty what he had received through kindness? That is appropriate. Yes, that desire takes him to the end of the earth and through agonies, wounds and ordeals beyond anything he might have expected, but its honesty and simplicity matches his hobbit nature.
Of course, Frodo is the Ring-bearer and throughout the trilogy is tempted by the Ring -the chief character to be so tempted and so persistently. The nature of this temptation also shows that his primary impulse was to do his duty, because in almost every case, the Ring urges Frodo to abandon his duty, ranging from avoiding neighbours like the Sackville-Bagginses (‘She had already nearly curdled me. Honestly, I nearly tried on Bilbo’s ring. I longed to disappear’) to the critical moment at the summit of Amon Hen:
And suddenly he felt the Eye. There was an eye in the Dark Tower that did not sleep. He knew that it had become aware of his gaze. A fierce eager will was there. It leaped towards him; almost like a finger he felt it, searching for him. Very soon it would nail him down, know just exactly where he was. Amon Lhaw it touched. It glanced upon Tol Brandir he threw himself from the seat, crouching, covering his head with his grey hood.
He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there‚ came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring! The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented.
Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger.
Free to choose, he chooses duty.