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Refusing the Call: A Tale Rewritten

I have been wondering for some time now how to talk about the weirdly autumnal note that sounds so often and so clearly in America these days. Through the babble and clatter, the seven or eight television screens yelling from the walls of every restaurant you pass and all the rest of it, there comes a tone and a mood that reminds me of wind among bare branches and dry leaves crackling underfoot:  as though even the people who insist most loudly that it’s all onward and upward from here don’t believe it any more, and those for whom the old optimism stopped being more than a soothing shibboleth a long time ago are hunching their shoulders, shutting their eyes tight, and hoping that things can still hold together for just a little while longer.

It’s not just that American politicians and pundits are insisting at the top of their lungs that the United States can threaten Russia with natural gas surpluses that don’t exist, though that’s admittedly a very bad sign all by itself. It’s that this orgy of self-congratulatory nonsense appears in the news right next to reports that oil and gas companies are slashing their investments in the fracking technology and shale leases that were supposed to produce those imaginary surpluses, having lost a great deal of money pursuing the shale oil mirage, while Russia and Iran pursue a trade deal that will make US sanctions against Iran all but irrelevant, and China is quietly making arrangements to conduct its trade with Europe in yuan rather than dollars. Strong nations in control of their own destinies, it’s fair to note, don’t respond to challenges on this scale by plunging their heads quite so enthusiastically into the sands of self-deception.

To shift temporal metaphors a bit, the long day of national delusion that dawned back in 1980, when Ronald Reagan famously and fatuously proclaimed “it’s morning in America,” is drawing on rapidly toward dusk, and most Americans are hopelessly unprepared for the coming of night.  They’re unprepared in practical terms, that is, for an era in which the five per cent of us who live in the United States will no longer dispose of a quarter of the world’s energy supply and a third of its raw materials and industrial products, and in which what currently counts as a normal American lifestyle will soon be no more than a fading memory for the vast majority.  They’re just as unprepared, though,  for the psychological and emotional costs of that shattering transformation—not least because the change isn’t being imposed on them at random by an indifferent universe, but comes as the inevitable consequence of their own collective choices in decades not that long past.

The hard fact that most people in this country are trying not to remember is this:  in the years right after Reagan’s election, a vast number of Americans enthusiastically turned their backs on the promising steps toward sustainability that had been taken in the previous decade, abandoned the ideals they’d been praising to the skies up to that time, and cashed in their grandchildrens’ future so that they didn’t have to give up the extravagance and waste that defined their familiar and comfortable lifestyles. As a direct result, the nonrenewable resources that might have supported the transition to a sustainable future went instead to fuel one last orgy of wretched excess.  Now, though, the party is over, the bill is due, and the consequences of that disastrous decision have become a massive though almost wholly unmentionable factor in our nation’s culture and collective psychology.

A great many of the more disturbing features of contemporary American life, I’m convinced, can’t be understood unless America’s thirty-year vacation from reality is taken into account. A sixth of the US population is currently on antidepressant medications, and since maybe half of Americans can’t afford to get medication at all, the total number of Americans who are clinically depressed is likely a good deal higher than prescription figures suggest. The sort of bizarre delusions that used to count as evidence of serious mental illness—baroque conspiracy theories thickly frosted with shrill claims of persecution, fantasies of imminent mass death as punishment for humanity’s sins, and so on—have become part of the common currency of American folk belief. For that matter, what does our pop culture’s frankly necrophiliac obsession with vampires amount to but an attempt, thinly veiled in the most transparent of symbolism, to insist that it really is okay to victimize future generations for centuries down the line in order to prolong one’s own existence?

Mythic and legends such as this can be remarkably subtle barometers of the collective psyche. The transformation that turned the vampire from just another spooky Eastern European folktale into a massive pop culture presence in industrial North America has quite a bit to say about the unspoken ideas and emotions moving through the crawlspaces of our collective life. In the same way, it’s anything but an accident that the myth of the heroic quest has become so pervasive a presence in the modern industrial world that Joseph Campbell could simply label it “the monomyth,” the basic form of myth as such. In any sense other than a wholly parochial one, of course, he was quite wrong—the wild diversity of the world’s mythic stories can’t be forced into any one narrative pattern—but if we look only at popular culture in the modern industrial world, he’s almost right.

The story of the callow nobody who answers the call to adventure, goes off into the unknown, accomplishes some grand task, and returns transformed, to transform his surroundings in turn, is firmly welded into place in the imagination of our age. You’ll find it at the center of J.R.R. Tolkien’s great  works of fantasy, in the most forgettable products of the modern entertainment industry, and everything in between and all around. Yet there’s a curious blind spot in all this: we hear plenty about those who answer the call to adventure, and nothing at all about those who refuse it. Those latter don’t offer much of a plot engine for an adventure story, granted, but such a tale could make for a gripping psychological study—and one that has some uncomfortably familiar features.

With that in mind, with an apology in the direction of Tolkien’s ghost, and with another to those of my readers who aren’t lifelong Tolkien buffs with a head full of Middle-earth trivia—yes, I used to sign school yearbooks in fluent Elvish—I’d like to suggest a brief visit to an alternate Middle-earth:  one in which Frodo Baggins, facing the final crisis of the Third Age and the need to leave behind everything he knew and loved in order to take the Ring to Mount Doom, crumpled instead, with a cry of “I can’t, Gandalf, I just can’t.” Perhaps you’ll join me in a quiet corner of The Green Dragon, the best inn in Bywater, take a mug of ale from the buxom hobbit barmaid, and talk about old Frodo, who lived until recently just up the road and across the bridge in Hobbiton.

You’ve heard about the magic ring he had, the one that he inherited from his uncle Bilbo, the one that Gandalf the wizard wanted him to go off and destroy? That was thirty years ago, and most folk in the Shire have heard rumors about it by now. Yes, it’s quite true; Frodo was supposed to leave the Shire and go off on an adventure, as Bilbo did before him, and couldn’t bring himself to do it. He had plenty of reasons to stay home, to be sure.  He was tolerably well off and quite comfortable, all his friends and connections were here, and the journey would have been difficult and dangerous. Nor was there any certainty of success—quite the contrary, it’s entirely possible that he might have perished somewhere in the wild lands, or been caught by the Dark Lord’s servants, or what have you.

So he refused, and when Gandalf tried to talk to him about it, he threw the old wizard out of Bag End and slammed the round green door in his face. Have you ever seen someone in a fight who knows that he’s in the wrong, and knows that everyone else knows it, and that knowledge just makes him even more angry and stubborn?  That was Frodo just then. Friends of mine watched the whole thing, or as much of it as could be seen from the garden outside, and it was not a pleasant spectacle. 

It’s what happened thereafter, though, that bears recalling. I’m quite sure that if Frodo had shown the least sign of leaving the Shire and going on the quest, Sauron would have sent Black Riders after him in a fine hurry, and there’s no telling what else might have come boiling up out of Mordor.  It’s by no means impossible that the Dark Lord might have panicked, and launched a hasty, ill-advised assault on Gondor right away. For all I know, that may have been what Gandalf had in mind, tricking the Dark Lord into overreacting before he’d gathered his full strength, and before Gondor and Rohan had been thoroughly weakened from within.

Still, once Sauron’s spies brought him word that Frodo had refused to embark on the quest, the Dark Lord knew that he had a good deal less to fear, and that he could afford to take his time. Ever since then, there have been plenty of servants of Mordor in and around the Shire, and a Black Rider or two keeping watch nearby, but nothing obvious or direct, nothing that might rouse whatever courage Frodo might have had left or  convince him that he had to flee for his life. Sauron was willing to be patient—patient and cruel. I’m quite sure he knew perfectly well what the rest of Frodo’s life would be like.

So Gandalf went away, and Frodo stayed in Bag End, and for years thereafter it seemed as though the whole business had been no more than a mistake. The news that came up the Greenway from the southern lands was no worse than before; Gondor still stood firm, and though there was said to be some kind of trouble in Rohan, well, that was only to be expected now and then.  Frodo even took to joking about how gullible he’d been to believe all those alarmist claims that Gandalf had made. Sauron was still safely cooped up in Mordor, and all seemed right with Middle-earth.

Of course part of that was simply that Frodo had gotten even wealthier and more comfortable than he’d been before. He patched up his relationship with the Sackville-Bagginses, and he invested a good deal of his money in Sandyman’s mill in Hobbiton, which paid off handsomely. He no longer spent time with many of his younger friends by then, partly because they had their own opinions about what he should have done, and partly because he had business connections with some of the wealthiest hobbits in the Shire, and wanted to build on those. He no longer took long walks around the Shire, as he’d done before, and he gave up visiting elves and dwarves when he stopped speaking to Gandalf.

But of course the rumors and news from the southern lands slowly but surely turned to the worse, as the Dark Lord gathered his power and tightened his grip on the western lands a little at a time. I recall when Rohan fell to Saruman’s goblin armies.  That was a shock for a great many folk, here in the Shire and elsewhere.  Soon thereafter, though, Frodo was claiming that after all, Saruman wasn’t Sauron, and Rohan wasn’t that important, and for all anyone knew, the wizard and the Dark Lord might well end up at each other’s throats and spare the rest of us.

Still, it was around that time that Frodo stopped joking about Gandalf’s warnings, and got angry if anyone mentioned them in his hearing. It was around that same time, too, that he started insisting loudly and often that someone would surely stop Sauron. One day it was the elves:  after all, they had three rings of power, and could surely overwhelm the forces of Mordor if they chose to. Another day, the dwarves would do it, or Saruman, or the men of Gondor, or the Valar in the uttermost West. There were so many alternatives!  His friends very quickly learned to nod and agree with him, for he would lose his temper and start shouting at them if they disagreed or even asked questions.

When Lorien was destroyed, that was another shock. It was after that, as I recall, that Frodo started hinting darkly that the elves didn’t seem to be doing anything with their three rings of power to stop Sauron, and maybe they weren’t as opposed to him as they claimed. He came up with any number of theories about this or that elvish conspiracy. The first troubles were starting to affect the Shire by then, of course, and his investments were beginning to lose money; it was probably inevitable that he would start claiming that the conspiracy was aimed in part against hobbits, against the Shire, or against him in particular—especially the latter. They wanted his ring, of course. That played a larger and larger role in his talk as the years passed.

I don’t recall hearing of any particular change in his thinking when word came that Minas Tirith had been taken by the Dark Lord’s armies, but it wasn’t much later that a great many elves came hurrying along the East Road through the Shire, and a few months after that, word came that Rivendell had fallen. That was not merely a shock, but a blow; Frodo had grown up hearing his uncle’s stories about Rivendell and the elves and half-elves who lived there. There was a time after that news came that some of us briefly wondered if old Frodo might actually find it in himself to do the thing he’d refused to do all those years before.

But of course he did nothing of the kind, not even when the troubles here in the Shire began to bite more and more deeply, when goblins started raiding the borders of the North Farthing and the Buckland had to be abandoned to the Old Forest. No, he started insisting to anyone who would listen that Middle-earth was doomed, that there was no hope left in elves or dying Númenor, that Sauron’s final victory would surely come before—oh, I forget what the date was; it was some year or other not too far from now. He spent hours reading through books of lore, making long lists of reasons why the Dark Lord’s triumph was surely at hand. Why did he do that? Why, for the same reason that drove him to each of his other excuses in turn: to prove to himself that his decision to refuse the quest hadn’t been the terrible mistake he knew perfectly well it had been.

And then, of course, the Ring betrayed him, as it betrayed Gollum and Isildur before him. He came home late at night, after drinking himself half under the table at the Ivy Bush, and discovered that the Ring was nowhere to be found. After searching Bag End in a frantic state, he ran out the door and down the road toward Bywater shouting “My precious! My precious!” He was weeping and running blindly in the night, and when he got to the bridge he stumbled; over he went into the water, and that was the end of him. They found his body in a weir downstream the next morning.

The worst of it is that right up to the end, right up to the hour the Ring left him, he still could have embarked on the quest.  It would have been a different journey, and quite possibly a harder one.  With Rivendell gone, he would have had to go west rather than east, across the Far Downs to Cirdan at the Grey Havens, where you’ll find most of the high-elves who still remain in Middle-earth. From there, with such companions as might have joined him, he would have had to go north and then eastward through Arnor, past the ruins of Annuminas and Lake Evendim, to the dales of the Misty Mountains, and then across by one of the northern passes: a hard and risky journey, but by no means impossible, for with no more need to hinder travel between Rivendell and Lorien, the Dark Lord’s watch on the mountains has grown slack.

Beyond the mountains, the wood-elves still dwell in the northern reaches of Mirkwood, along with refugees from Lorien and the last of the Beornings.  He could have gotten shelter and help there, and boats to travel down the River Running into the heart of Wilderland.  From there his way would have led by foot to the poorly guarded northern borders of Mordor—when has Sauron ever had to face a threat from that quarter?  So you see that it could have been done. It could still be done, if someone were willing to do it. Even though so much of what could have been saved thirty years ago has been lost, even though Minas Tirith, Edoras, Lorien and Rivendell have fallen and the line of the kings of Gondor is no more, it would still be worth doing; there would still be many things that could be saved.

Nor would such a journey have to be made alone. Though Aragorn son of Arathorn was slain in the last defense of Rivendell, there are still Rangers to be found in Cirdan’s realm and the old lands of Arnor; there are elf-warriors who hope to avenge the blood shed at Rivendell, and dwarves from the Blue Mountains who have their own ancient grudges against the Dark Lord. The last free Rohirrim retreated to Minhiriath after Éomer fell at Helm’s Deep, and still war against King Grima, while Gondor west of the river Gilrain clings to a tenuous independence and would rise up against Sauron at need. Would those and the elves of Lindon be enough? No one can say; there are no certainties in this business, except for the one Frodo chose—the certainty that doing nothing will guarantee Sauron’s victory.

And there might even still be a wizard to join such a quest. In fact, there would certainly be one—the very last of them, as far as I know. Gandalf perished when Lorien fell, I am sorry to say, and as for Saruman, the last anyone saw of him, he was screaming in terror as two Ringwraiths dragged him through the door of the Dark Tower; his double-dealing was never likely to bring him to a good end. The chief of the Ringwraiths rules in Isengard now. Still, there was a third in these western lands: fool and bird-tamer, Saruman called him, having never quite managed to notice that knowledge of the ways of nature and the friendship of birds and beasts might have considerable value in the last need of Middle-earth. Radagast is his name; yes, that would be me.

Why am I telling you all this?  Well, you are old Frodo’s youngest cousin, are you not? Very nearly the only one of his relatives with enough of the wild Tookish blood in you to matter, or so I am told. It was just a month ago that you and two of your friends were walking in the woods, and you spoke with quite a bit of anger about how the older generation of hobbits had decided to huddle in their holes until the darkness falls—those were your very words, I believe. How did I know that? Why, a little bird told me—a wren, to be precise, a very clever and helpful little fellow, who runs errands for me from time to time when I visit this part of Middle-earth. If you meant what you said then, there is still hope.

And the Ring? No, it was not lost, or not for long. It slipped from its chain and fell from old Frodo’s pocket as he stumbled home that last night, and a field mouse spotted it. I had briefed all the animals and birds around Hobbiton, of course, and so she knew what to do; she dragged the Ring into thick grass, and when dawn came, caught the attention of a jay, who took it and hid it high up in a tree. I had to trade quite a collection of sparkling things for it! But here it is, in this envelope, waiting for someone to take up the quest that Frodo refused. The choice is yours, my dear hobbit. What will you do?

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