Dispossession in Tolkien’s Works
A number of medieval adventure stories use the trope of the dispossessed noble youth known as the ‘male Cinderella’ as he dynamic that drives the story. The trope occurs in two narrative poems Tolkien certainly knew because he borrowed from them. In King Horn and Bevis of Hampton noble youths are disinherited by force, enslaved, and they have to learn to fight in order to win back their lands, and their ladies. Although direct force is not employed to disinherit Aragorn in LotR he is nevertheless the dispossessed youth who has to learn his trade as warrior in distant lands before he can win back lands, and his lady. He comes from a long line of the dispossessed and we hear incidental details of his heritage throughout the story, most often in the form of references to ‘the heir of Isildur’. But dispossession and the need to develop the skills of the warrior are aspects of the characterisation of Turin in The Children of Hurin and other versions of this story in the legendarium.
The ‘male Cinderalla’ motif is only the most obvious form of dispossession in Tolkien’s works, and the term may be extended to include loss of all kinds. If we focus just on LotR, virtually every character, except Tom Bombadil, is dispossessed in some way. Most notably, Frodo suffers a form of dispossession when he loses his parents, although Tolkien never explores the obvious emotional consequences. The Gaffer has been dispossessed when Sam sees him ‘going down the Hill with his bits of things on a barrow’, and the road to Bywater is dispossessed of its trees, symbolising the threat of lost identity that reaches out to include Sam even in the haven of Lothlorien. The dear and the familiar are intrinsic to identity, and thus their loss in any form puts that identity at risk.
Barliman Butterbur in Bree is temporarily dispossessed – losing control of his inn when the Black Riders attack. They, however, are living symbols of dispossession having lost their lives and their wills, wilfully, to Sauron. The plot of the entire story turns, of course, on the consequences of Gollum having been dispossessed of the Ring. So the theme of dispossession in LotR takes various forms involving various consequences, but all individual instances focus towards the inevitability of loss.
The situation with Gollum alerts us to another level of dispossession. The terms suggests that an individual has lost or been deprived of something or someone, and Gollum has been deprived because he ‘lost’ the Ring and Bilbo took it. In the case of the Ring, dispossession seems to be a positively good thing, because it seems capable of ‘possessing’ as much as being possessed.
So there is in LotR a differentiation between ‘unwilled’ and ‘willed’ dispossession as Bilbo decides to pass the Ring on, more or less willingly, as part of Frodo’s inheritance. Frodo accepts it before developing the intention of relinquishing it himself when confronted by its history, and the Council of Elrond. By his willing acceptance of the need to relinquish this ‘possessing’ possession he loses possession not just of Bag End, but of the comfortable (if rather boring) life with which he had had been content.
We could add further examples of ‘willed dispossession’ such as Pippin’s relinquishing of the Elven brooch. In this instance the theme is reiterated on a different scale. We should also perhaps add in Elrond’s and Galadriel’s acts of ‘willed dispossession’ as they acknowledge that the Ring must be destroyed but in the process accept the loss of everything they have created in Middle-earth. This, then, is a crucial aspect of dispossession as loss is rarely limited to one thing and appears to be thematically linked to physical displacement.
The puzzle seems to me to be that with so many kinds of dispossession and the inevitable sense of loss, grief and torment, explicit or implicit, in every loss that we hear about, how is it that LotR maintains such a hold over us? There are of course many more reasons than those linked to dispossession, but I would like to suggest how I think the theme works on us.
Leaving aside the psychoanalytic theorising that would see the theme of dispossession as being intimately linked to Tolkien’s own profound loss when he and his brother were orphaned as children and the (for us) unresolved emotional dimensions to this which Tolkien avoids in his work, there are other reasons why we may be drawn back again and again to the story.
(1) Part of its attraction is that it starts in familiar territory. As Tim said recently, Worcestershire and Warwickshire are the Shire, but we can look out of any car or coach or train window anywhere in the English countryside and recognise the views of the Shire in the small fields, copses, and little rivers. But the Shire with all its pastoral familiarity is not immune from many kinds of dispossession and loss. If that is so, are we not relieved by a sense of catharsis as the inevitable losses that haunt our own lives with indistinct fears are realised, in extreme forms sometimes, and displaced onto the characters? As they cope, we are reassured and comforted.
(2) If the notion of catharsis seems inappropriate to the story, we may note that Tolkien’s forms of dispossession and loss are not all resolved in the ways he would have known from his medieval sources, and his theory of eucatastrophe does not hold in all circumstances. When Aragorn wins back his inheritance with his sword and with wider alliances, this is very much the medieval pattern, but the dispossession of other characters in different ways does not seem to fit this.
(3) To borrow another observation from a previous meeting, When Eileen and Mike were both remarking on the opening up of potential, it seems to me that this is what follows almost every instance of dispossession in LotR, and this often happens in the context of new ‘alliances’. The instance Mike and Eileen were considering was the breaking of the fellowship, and how the loss of leadership led Pippin to develop his potential while Merry was incapacitated, although Merry developed his own potential later. Similarly, Aragorn, being ‘dispossessed’ of Gandalf’s leadership, and fearing the inheritance of the role, became the leader of a smaller ‘alliance’ which comprised himself, Gimli and Legolas, which in turn gave rise to the greater alliance between Aragorn and Eomer.
I would argue then that the pattern of ‘dispossession’, including loss, displacement, and ‘willed dispossession’, is thematic throughout the book, but as Tolkien shows, out of loss, grief and pain new relationships are formed and hidden potential released. In this way he shows us that dispossession is not something to fear because when approached with courage it can be enabling and empowering.