#41: Frodo Baggins Dreams of Hobbit Helmets
J.R.R. Tolkien, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, C.L. Clark.
I hope your summer is off to a good start! We had a milder than usual spring here in the Phoenix area, with plenty of rain and even a superbloom throughout my part of the Sonoran Desert, offering a slow onramp into these summer months where the heat gets increasingly intense. But we’re now properly in it, with temperatures in the high 90s and low 100s and hotter heat to come, which means I’ve slid into my summer schedule, where I get up very early in order to run and exercise while I still can. Before moving out here, I was never that much of a morning person, but the transition has been good for me: in an ideal world, I like to write from breakfast to lunch, and that span of time is a lot longer on these hot summer days where I’m up early and not rushing off to teach.
Which is all to say that I’ve been making good progress on my novel rewrites, as well as some of my other summer projects. One of those projects—rereading The Lord of the Rings, which I’ve been itching to do for a while now—was the inspiration for this month’s newsletter. The essay below is something I wrote a few years ago for a talk I gave but never published, so I’m glad to be able to share it here. I hope you enjoy it!
As always, I hope your writing is going well, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Be safe, be kind, and have fun with your reading and writing!
What I’m Reading:
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. I loved Adjei-Brenyah’s collection Friday Black—especially the story “The Finkelstein 5,” which I’ve taught a few times in recent years—so I’d been anticipating his debut novel for a long time. Set in a near-future where the privatized prison system now televises death matches where prisoner-gladiators try to survive long enough to win their freedom, it’s a smart, moving novel that often aims to make you feel at least as complicit as the audiences who watch these events. It’s also an admirably activist novel, one that asks you to imagine how this world and ours might be made different: "Remember that just because something is, doesn’t mean it can’t change,” one character says, as she takes the field for what might be the last time. “And just because you haven’t seen something before, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. They call this a freeing ground. So who’s going to be freed?"
The Faithless by C.L. Clark. Clark’s first novel The Unbroken was one of my favorite recent fantasy novels, and I think I may have enjoyed this sequel even more. One thing I love about Clark’s writing is how fast-paced her storytelling is, which happens in part because her protagonists always move through the story with heat, powered by immediate anger, lust, ambition, vengeance, etc. They never wander into a scene, only charge. It's fun, and a lesson for other writers. Both books have complex plots, but the way we’re moved through them is entirely protagonist-powered: protagonists act, cause trouble, act again, cause trouble, act again, etc. Occasionally they stop to doubt! Best way out of doubting? More action! I love it, and I’ve been thinking about how to do more of this in my own work.
#41: Frodo Baggins Dreams of Hobbit Helmets
As I said above, one of my self-assigned summer projects is to reread The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I believe I haven’t read in full in twenty years. (I’ve revisited The Hobbit more recently, but even that was back in 2012, according to my reading log.) I read the trilogy probably a half-dozen times as a kid and as a teenager, and then once again in my early twenties, when I took a Tolkien class at the community college I attended, the same semester that the film of Return of the King came out. (I fondly remember skipping class at least once to instead play the Return of the King video game with a friend, which we justified as still covering the material…)
In any case, it’s always good to return to early literary loves. Whenever I do, I’m always surprised how much I remember nearly verbatim, but of course the earliest books you love sink deep into your brain. But I’m also always excited to apply my more experienced reader’s brain to the tale at hand: there’s so much you miss when you’re younger, both in the text itself and in its references and allusions.
Rereading The Fellowship of the Ring, I was also reminded of the follow craft talk I wrote for an AWP panel about new terms some of us professors had coined to teach particular concepts to our creative writing students. I thought it might be fun to share that talk here, which is about a particular pet peeve of mine that I see everywhere (and which I’ve of course still indulged in once or twice myself), which I call Frodoing.
My talk was titled “Frodo Baggins Dreams of Hobbit Helmets,” and was delivered at AWP 2017. It’s been mildly edited but is more or less as it was then. Enjoy!
Consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Consider the hobbit itself, starring creature of most of the adventures contained within these books.
Consider the hobbits as their creator J.R.R. Tolkien once described them, in a letter to his American publisher:
I picture a fairly human figure… fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and 'elvish'; hair short and curling (brown). The feet from the ankles down, covered with brown hairy fur. Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waistcoat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; a dark green hood and cloak (belonging to a dwarf).
Consider these hobbits’s famous love for eating. Consider their mealtimes, strictly enforced at home: Breakfast. Second breakfast. Elevenses. Lunch. Afternoon tea. Dinner. Supper.
Consider the seeming unsuitability for battle of these gentle folk: these people who Tolkien’s humans call halflings do not at first seem particularly well suited to violence in either body or spirit, although a few of them do eventually distinguish themselves in battle.
Consider their chosen footwear, which is to say: consider how they do not wear footwear.
Consider how they also do not normally wear armor or helmets.
But they should. Of course they should. Middle-Earth is a dangerous place for a hobbit to go traveling, especially if Tolkien's the one planning the itinerary.
Now let’s consider Tolkien, a writer most famous for his sprawling fantasy epic, a tale of hungry hobbits surely but also of kings and armies and great battles of good men (and elves and dwarves) against hordes of evil orcs and other nasties.
A writer whose scenes are as likely (or perhaps more likely) to break into song than into battle, but who nonetheless had to write a number of fight scenes due to the nature of the tale he was set on telling.
A writer who, I'd argue, wrote compelling fight scenes but seemed in a hurry to get through most of them, perhaps because he didn't particularly like writing violence. (Which is fine! Certainly it’s better to dislike violence than to wallow in it.)
So here we have this great writer, who perhaps because he didn’t always know how to get out of a fight scene as quickly as he desired, frequently made his escape by rendering one of his beloved hobbits unconscious. A brute force solution to a particularly common problem. Surely there must be a better way.
But here’s the thing.
My student writers love this move, at least when they’re the ones doing it.
So do many famous novelists and screenwriters, some of whom dole out head wounds and concussions at a pace that would make the NFL blush. When these writers can't find their way out of a particularly intense scene—a battle, a car crash, a fist fight, a drug experience—they often deliver a nonfatal head wound or some other consciousness-obliterator to their point of view character, which brings the scene to an abrupt end. Only rarely is permanent damage done to the poor skull or brain of the protagonist, and all it takes to move forward is a little bandaid of exposition on the other side to tell us what happened while our protagonist was out.
In workshop, I've taken to calling this Frodoing.
Frodoing is the art of giving your POV character a Hobbit-sized blow to the skull for no other reason than so a scene can come to a swift end. Most often this allows the writer to cut away directly, although sometimes it just allows some other action to occur off the page while the Frodoed person lies nearby, dreaming their concussed dreams.
Our poor wounded hobbits, who only want seven square meals a day and to take the One Ring to Mordor. Our poor readers, who wish only to have a book’s most exciting scenes ended without such cheats.
It’s probably time for me give some examples from the text, so that you don't think I'm being unfairly hard on the talented Professor Tolkien.
To begin, there’s the time in Fellowship when the ringwraiths catch up with the hobbits and Aragorn at Weathertop on their way to Rivendell. Here Frodo faints at the moment of his being stabbed by the wicked knife of one of the ringwraiths:
At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy. A shrill cry rang out in the night; and he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder. Even as he swooned he caught, as through a swirling mist, a glimpse of Strider leaping out of the darkness with a flaming brand of wood in either hand. With a last effort Frodo, dropping his sword, slipped the Ring from his finger and closed his right hand tight upon it.
Thus ends the chapter! The next one begins with Frodo coming to, “clutching the Ring desperately” and “lying by the fire, which was now piled high and burning brightly.” “What has happened? Where is the pale king?” asks Frodo, leading Sam to deliver the necessary exposition about how the fight with the ringwraiths came to an end.
Later, in a battle against orcs and a massive cave troll in the mines of Moria, Frodo is again knocked out in battle, this time by a spear to the side, a particularly odd way of being rendered unconscious. Again, this ends the battle, with Aragorn picking up his ragdolled friend and carrying him out of the room toward the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, where other trouble awaits.
As Fellowship ends and The Two Towers opens, another band of orcs attacks the splintering Fellowship, leading to Frodo and Sam's departure, Boromir’s death, and Merry and Pippin's capture. Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli don’t know exactly what happened, but Tolkien soon flashes forward, switching to Pippin's point of view as the hobbit awakes from a concussion—and "a dark and troubling dream"—to relate Boromir's last moments, which led to the aforementioned head trauma and capture:
Boromir had come leaping through the trees. He had made them fight. He slew many of them and the rest fled. But they had not gone far on the way back when they were attacked again, by a hundred Orcs at least, some of them very large, and they shot a rain of arrows: always at Boromir. Boromir had blown his great horn till the woods rang, and at first the Orcs had been dismayed and had drawn back; but when no answer but the echoes came, they had attacked more fiercely than ever. Pippin did not remember much more. His last memory was of Boromir leaning against a tree, plucking out an arrow; then darkness fell suddenly.
See how Tolkien skips having to actually show Boromir's death in scene, or to work through the messy mechanics of kidnapping hobbits? (Note: As I said above, I wrote this essay a few years ago, and only lightly revised it today. But this morning, when I reached the end of my Fellowship reread, I was shocked to find the actual fight not in the text—perhaps because it’s so vividly rendered in Peter Jackson’s adaptation, which I’ve seen more often than I’ve read the novels.)
Another! At the conclusion of Book Five of Return of the King, there is a great battle at the Black Gate of Mordor, with Pippin fighting bravely alongside the Armies of Men:
The first assault crashed into them. The orcs hindered by the mires that lay before the hills halted and poured their arrows into the defending ranks. But through them there came striding up, roaring like beasts, a great company of hill-trolls out of Gorgoroth. Taller and broader than Men they were, and they were clad only in close-fitting mesh of horny scales, or maybe that was their hideous hide; but they bore round bucklers huge and black and wielded heavy hammers in their knotted hands. Reckless they sprang into the pools and waded across, bellowing as they came. Like a storm they broke upon the line of the men of Gondor, and beat upon helm and head, and arm and shield, as smiths hewing the hot bending iron. At Pippin’s side Beregond was stunned and overborne, and he fell; and the great troll-chief that smote him down bent over him, reaching out a clutching claw; for these fell creatures would bite the throats of those that they threw down.
Then Pippin stabbed upwards, and the written blade of Westernesse pierced through the hide and went deep into the vitals of the troll, and his black blood came gushing out. He toppled forward and came crashing down like a falling rock, burying those beneath him. Blackness and stench and crushing pain came upon Pippin, and his mind fell away into a great darkness.
‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And then even as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above: ‘The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!’
For one moment more Pippin’s thought hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came in his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’ And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.
Can't you just feel Tolkien not wanting to write that scene where the Eagles actually come and start fighting and everything gets even harder to get right on the page? Instead: Goodnight, Pippin! We’ll tell you what happened when you wake up.
Sam too takes his knocks during the climax of The Return of the King. When he and Frodo reach the Crack of Doom, Frodo at last does what Sam's long feared his master might: Frodo claims the ring for himself and refuses to throw his precious treasure into the fire.
What's Sam to do, when Frodo says, "I have come. But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine"?
Nothing much, it turns out:
Sam gasped, but he had no chance to cry out, for at that moment many things happened. Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside, striking his head against the stony floor, as a dark shape sprang over him. He lay still and for a moment all went black.
I wonder what happens next?
I think that’s enough picking on Tolkien for now. He is, after all, one of my very favorite writers of all time, and in any case he’s hardly alone in his choice of tactic.
The reason so many novelists and screenwriters escape their scenes by Frodoing their characters is probably not because they are lazy or bad writers, but because transitions are challenging to write. (There’s also the fact that in real life we almost never exit our dramas as cleanly as people do in books and films.) Almost nothing appeals to the stumped writer more than a clean jump into a new section or new chapter. All that white space is right there for the taking, on the other side of which anything might again be possible. It’s so tempting to get there as fast as one can, especially while still stuck in the muck of a scene-in-progress, with all its chaos and struggle.
One way to get into that white space is with a cut to black, and sometimes, for some reason, we feel our characters have to suffer the same blackout in order to get us there.
Think back to the times you might have Frodoed your own characters in a rush to escape your own scenes. Think how hard it was to think of some other way to get out.
Now think how, if you, like me, had just made a public stance against such transitions, you might find it even more difficult to make your own escape, the next time you’ve backed yourself into a similar corner.
A corner where you don't have: Darkness falls suddenly. Or: His eyes saw no more. Or: For a moment all went black.
It's hard a place to be, and a hard place to flee.
Sometimes, sometimes: all you can do is just stop.
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed (a New York Times Notable book) was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.