A Defence of Frodo - The Weight of Invisible Illnesses
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
SPOILER WARNING: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers, and Return of the King books and extended edition films.
Lord of the Rings is an enduring epic that has captured the attention of generations of fantasy readers. It certainly holds a special place in my life. I was only four-years-old when the Fellowship of the Ring was released, but that didn't stop me from seeing all three films (and the eventual Hobbit movies) in theatres, usually on opening weekend. Sure, there were many parts I watched from the protection of my Dad's lap, but overall I loved the movies. I loved the characters. I loved the fantastical elements of the story. I loved the themes of good and evil, right and wrong.
It is now my Dad and I's yearly Christmas tradition to re-watch all the movies over the holiday break. Each time I watch them, I feel I discover a new element that I hadn't considered before that makes me fall in love with the series all over again. Today, I want to take a deep dive into the arc of one particular character - Frodo Baggins.
One thing that the fandom tends to agree on is that Samwise is a hero.
There also tends to be a prevailing thought that, in comparison, Frodo comes off as very weak in the films. Fans often suggest that he is whiny and that he honestly kinda sucks. At least, that's the attitude I had until my last few rewatches when I viewed the film from a new perspective.
First, I learned that the characters of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee were informed by Tolkein's own experiences fighting in the First World War. Tolkien explains that he found himself in a high-ranking position because of his noble standing in Britain, despite the fact that many of his less-wealthy compatriots were equally or more competent or qualified than he was. Tolkien wanted to portray this dynamic in the relationship between Samwise, the gardener, and a hero in his own right, and Frodo, who is given the title of Ring Bearer because of his family ties.
The second change in my perspective came from struggling with severe clinical depression. In reflecting on my own lived experiences, Frodo's struggles made eminent sense to me, and Mr. Baggins' accomplishments seemed more heroic to me than ever, though he may have fallen short of the end goal on his own.
For today's Deep Dive, I would like to come to the defence of Frodo Baggins, specifically reflecting on my own experiences with depression.
I want to start by noting that I firmly do not believe that Tolkien intended to use the ring as an allegory for mental health. It is quite clear that the ring represents power and its ability to corrupt those who wield it. No one desires a mental illness or would consider such a malady precious to them, nor would anyone kill to gain a mental illness. Instead, I am comparing what it means to carry a burden no one else can see or feel, but that you struggle with and feel incapacitated by nonetheless.
I would also like to preface that the parallels I will draw here are based solely on my own experiences with chronic depression. I do not presume to speak for all persons struggling with mental illness as everyone experiences symptoms differently. I also know that many other invisible illnesses follow the same trends. Depression, as well as any mental or invisible illness, can be difficult to understand for those who have never experienced it. For more insight into what depression can feel like, I can direct you to the poetry of Sabrina Benaim, found on youtube here. I also found the beginning of the song "Next Right Thing" from the Frozen 2 soundtrack to give a surprisingly accurate portrayal. You can give it a listen here! Of course, if you have a little more time, Season 2, Episode 9 of the show One Day At A Time is hands down going away the most accurate depiction of depression I have ever seen, but that is a discussion for another time.
Specifically, for our conversation today, I want to focus on the themes of darkness, weight, and numbness. For me, depression manifests as something physically weighing me down, too heavy for me to lift. So, when it comes time for me to go to the bathroom, get water or food, change clothes, or even the herculean task of going to school or work, I can't. Because the world itself is too heavy, and I'm not strong enough to lift it off me enough to get myself out of bed, and I begin to feel drained quickly when I do. This weight, for me, is coupled with a sense of numbness. Whatever the world is asking of me - emails, my job, replying to my friends, brushing my hair - it is too much, and I stop feeling able to care if it gets done or if there are consequences. In counterpart to this numbness comes the side effect of rumination. Brains that aren't healthy like to dwell and circle around problems of their own creation. Often this means wallowing in feelings of shame and guilt, though it can sometimes manifest as resentment to the world and to others. What is comfortable, and brings relief, is darkness and the ability to lie down and succumb to it. To pull the shutters tight against the sun and the outside world, to stay in bed, and to try and sleep to escape the refrain of "you are bad, the world is bad, everything is bad." Then, of course, there is the sadness, the trademark of depression. Less sadness, per se, but the feeling that you will never be happy again, that everything is lost and hopeless. That you'd be better to give up.
We know that Frodo struggles with feelings of grief and pain from the Morgul wound he sustains on Weathertop, as well as from the stress of the journey and the loss of members of the Fellowship. These feelings all compound Frodo's struggles with the Ring.
Tolkein frequently refers to the ring and Frodo's responsibility as Ring Bearer as a "burden." It is called a burden at multiple points by multiple characters, usually when Frodo wishes the ring was not something he had to bear or when other characters are pitying his responsibility. This wording is deliberate. The other characters do not and cannot understand what Frodo is going through, but they know it is something terrible that they would never wish to experience. They know that it means Frodo needs help and extra care. Mental, invisible, and chronic illness can also readily be described as a burden. One that no one else can take, that they may not understand, but that they want to help and support nonetheless.
Because we are not privy to the inner struggles of Frodo's mind, especially in the films, this burden is communicated to us through one key image: weight. In Peter Jackson's take on Fellowship of the Ring, we see the ring given a physicality to its presence. When Bilbo finally has the courage to let go of the ring and leave it with Gandalf, he drops it to the ground. The ring doesn't bounce or tink when it falls; it lands flat with a heavy thud. When Frodo wears it around his neck, we see the angry, raw marks where the ring has been pulling him down and chafing at him. In trying to give a physical form to an invisible burden, the creators gave it weight, something that is common in my experience of Depression, along with many others.
The ring plagues Frodo. He cannot sleep. He cannot eat. He becomes despondent. When Frodo gazes into the Mirror of Galadriel, we learn that he has been ruminating. He sees in his mind's eye his failure, the burning of the Shire, the destruction of Middle Earth, and the Death of his friends. He is spiralling around negative thoughts that convince him of his failure. These are all symptoms of depression, and it takes a great deal of strength and energy to keep going when you are fighting your own mind and your own conviction of failure.
It is in Return of the King that we begin to see Frodo's numbness. Please consider this quote:
“No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien,The Return of the King
A common side effect of mental, invisible, and chronic illnesses is that once you live with them for long enough, they become comfortable, and it becomes difficult to remember what life was like before. For my experience with Depression, at the very worst of it was a sense of hopelessness that made it impossible to remember what it was like to be happy, what it felt like to do the things you love, or even what the things you love are anymore. This feeling is reflected exactly in Frodo's sentiment of being naked in the dark while all else fades.
In response to this burden, Frodo resolves to break from the Fellowship. He wants to protect them from what is to come and himself from the harm they may do him. This, too, is a common experience of mental illness. Self-isolation is the desire to lock down and stop connecting with people. It happens for many reasons, but the main ones are a desire for self-protection from the emotional harm others may do us or to protect others from seeing our own rapid decline, believing that pushing them away will keep them safer and happier in the long run. But like many who have had these experiences, Frodo learns that he cannot do this alone. He needs help.
This is where Samwise comes in. Soft, supportive Samwise Gamgee. For every heroic action Samwise takes to support Frodo, I want to draw attention to a particular passage from the Fellowship of the Ring, where Frodo is separating from the fellowship:
“Safely on my way.'
'Safely!' said Sam. 'All alone and without me to help you? I couldn't have a borne it, it'd have been the death of me.'
' It would be the death of you to come with me, Sam,' said Frodo,' and I could not borne that.'
'Not as certain as being left behind,' said Sam.
'But I am going to Mordor.'
'I know that well enough, Mr. Frodo. Of course you are. And I'm coming with you.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien,The Lord of the Rings
This passage reveals a very crucial detail. Samwise is aware that Frodo needs support to make it to Mordor, but moreover, Samwise alone could not have carried the ring any better than Frodo could. The task of fighting an invisible and unrelenting force in one's own mind is utterly different than fighting Orcs or Men or Gollum. One just looks more heroic because it is more obvious and more cinematic.
I am fortunate that I had my own Samwises to help me through the worst of it, my ex and my parents. Tasks that felt impossible to me were easy for my ex. And what they couldn't actively do for me would try and support me in any way they could.
Let's look at one of Samwise Gamgee's most heroic moments - the moment he lifts Frodo and carries him up the side of Mount Doom. In my life, my ex has on numerous occasions expressed that they wished there was something they could do or say that would make it better. That there was a magic ShamWow that could suck the sadness away. But there isn't. My partner couldn't carry the weight of this mental illness for me. But my support systems could carry the things that make the world too heavy, including me when my bones feel they have turned to lead. I can't tell you how many times this scene has played out in my own apartment - when every part of me is too heavy, and I have no strength left to get out of bed and my partner scoops me up, carries me into the living room, and brushes my hair for me. Because they can't carry my depression, but they can carry me.
When we see Samwise scoop up Frodo in this scene, six-year-old Katie proclaims - wow! How weak is Frodo! He can't even climb a mountain, but this guy can do it while carrying him and the ring! Now, I can see the truth - the weight of the ring is known only to the bearer, and to the bearer, it is insurmountable. The strength of Sam to physically lift his friend, while heroic in every right, is incomparable to the strength required to carry an inner burden, whether that be the weight of mental and invisible illness or the weight of the evil power of a dark lord.
There is one last quote I would like to draw your attention to:
“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand...there is no going back. There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”
As with any chronic, mental, or invisible illness, there is an after. There is a point where the worst of the burden has subsided, and you can begin to find a semblance of normalcy again. But that after is not a return to the normal of before. To poorly paraphrase Taylor Swift, it is a period where the old version of your self-identity has died, and you are left to cobble together a new existence, one that is not the same, but still good, and forever touched by this pain and grief. This is something we see clearly in Frodo's story. He doesn't get to return to the Shire and resume his own life. He returns changed with new outlooks, new understanding, and new pain. He gets a happy ending, but not the one he would have wanted for himself at the outset of the story.
It is easy to proclaim that Frodo is weak. Compared to our other heroes, he constantly needs help, he has a negligible kill count, and in the end, it is only through intervention that he accomplishes his task. But Frodo is strong and brave. It is just that his struggles are neither cinematic nor the kind we have come to expect from our heroes. His fight is quiet and invisible.
So when we take this understanding and empathy and reflect on our day to day world, I want to call attention to those carrying the burden of mental, invisible, and chronic illness. Their stories never end with tossing their illness into a volcano and then saving the world. In fact, they are largely ignored and forgotten. But, as Tolkien has written, "deeds will not be less valuable because they are unpraised." These are courageous and heroic stories. It takes strength to go on every day while fighting an invisible evil force. Somedays, we don't win. But the strength and courage to try and keep trying is worth celebrating.
Until next time: think critically, reflect, and keep reading!