Size Matters

by Varda, with responses

I am collecting the Lord of the Rings chess set, and recently I got one of the 'white pawns', and it was Frodo.

I was quite taken aback to find Frodo classed as just a pawn. He is equal hero with Aragorn in the book. In my book, he is the absolute hero (sorry, A wink ) But the back row of figures in the set are all tall characters in the book, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Theoden, and the front row, the pawns, are all short, Gimli, Frodo and Eowen sitting down. So poor Frodo was relegated to pawn because he was short. 

In the book, Pippin says he feels like a pawn in a chess game, because he is being treated like 'baggage'. Merry too becomes indignant when Theoden tells him he is too heavy for any rider to 'bear him as a burden'. But these are characters who are taken as unimportant because they are, well, small. But in fact they are only small in size, in deeds they change the course of events. As Galadriel says; even the smallest person can change the world.

Er....not in this chess set; here, size is everything.

Response by Linaewen:

An excellent point!

Maybe the game of chess bears that point out a bit, though. A pawn is as capable as any other piece in taking out a queen or putting a king in check, if given the opportunity. And a pawn is not always noticed as easily as those bigger pieces that swoop about the board looking tall and powerful and get targeted by the enemy pieces.

Kind of like hobbits!

Response by Primula:

And who would ever think to discover that a true hero, a savior of Middle-earth, could come from such a lowly place as among the pawns? Surely the Wise would presume he would be found among the Kings of old... and thus miss him when he slips past them!

It might be more appropriate this way... I am also mindful of how he went back to wearing his regular clothing and quietly faded away from Shire social life afterwards - no keeping him up on a pedestal, even if he were not short.

Response by Lithilien Quicksilver:

Perfect analogy, imho, Lin. Small yet deceptively powerful, in a completely humble fashion. That fits Frodo to a "t", if I may say so.

Reply by Varda:

Thanks folks, and Lith and Lin it is true that a humble pawn can, in the right circumstances, prove a formidable foe.

Sadly however, mostly in chess you sacrifice a pawn to win something greater. Chess manuals never talk about 'sacrificing a knight' or a queen, but they give away lowly pawns all the time.

That is something I have wondered about; Tolkien was a lowly soldier in the Great War, just about the last where ordinary soldiers were regarded as pawns to be sacrificed, 'cannon fodder' as the term came to be. Just throwing countless lives at some daft objective seemed to be the order of battle, and the 'back line' of the chessboard, the monarchs and generals survived, but the pawns did not.

Yet when Tolkien came to write The Lord of The Rings, he said that a pair of small quiet feet, stealing into Mordor could achieve what armies could not. Where did he get this belief? No other First Wold War writer, that is any who actually were in the trenches, thought like this. Robert Graves write about the horrible futility of it and Siegfried Sassoon called the pawns the 'unremembered dead', despite all the memorials.

Under all the horrible mistakes of strategy was the top brass and their idea that the life of a common soldier wasn't worth very much. There was a nasty class thing going on. And Tolkien maintains the class system; nobility matters in The Lord of The Rings; Eowyn is keenly aware that she is a 'daughter of kings' and Denethor can't stand the idea that the Stewards should yield up their rule to a 'ragged wanderer' from a house 'long bereft of lordship'

Pawns, however noble, must stay in their place; when Sam speaks before Frodo in Ithilien, Faramir, who strikes the reader as far less class-conscious than his father, tells him sharply 'don't speak before your master!'

So it is really a bit of a miracle that Frodo is the central hero at all, and one wonders was Tolkien a bit bemused by the character he had created. There are bits of Everyman in him, bits of Beowulf, bits even of Hamlet, all wrapped up in a comfortably English homeliness, wry humour and endless common sense, a love of the countryside, a nice pipe and good but plain food, and great learning that he keeps well hidden. A bit like that other typically English hero, James Bond, his very ordinariness is a cloak for extraordinary powers. Frodo saying 'I am Frodo Baggins of the Shire....' is a bit like saying 'My name is Bond...James Bond....''

James Who? Tolkien loved that typically English disdain for ostentation; when Frodo the Ringbearer meets Aragorn the heir to the throne of Gondor, they are just Mister Underhill meeting Strider the ranger out of the wilds. A veritable convocation of pawns.

Response by Icarus:

If you're talking about the Noble Collection chess set, then I am doubly upset about the Hobbits as pawns bit, because there are actually two of each of them in order to fill out the full line. That definitely doesn't fit... though it does allow for both you and Lin/Lith to be correct: Sacrifice the pawn... we have a Frodo clone available anyway! If it's a different set, please let me know where I can see it, or post pictures. I love the LOTR chess sets!

However, on a couple of the more generic chess sets, they got it a little better in that Frodo is a bishop.

Personally, I think Frodo should be the King... slow in movement, but capable... and if you lose him, you lose the game! Of course, the argument could be made that Sam could pick up the ring (or anyone from the Fellowship earlier in the story), but I think that would be why Sam should be the Queen... quite possibly the most important piece, but you don't necessarily lose if you lose him... her... him... whatever ;-).

I do like Lith's and Lin's explanation, though. Definitely does mark well the Hobbit/pawn correlation.

Varda, I've always wondered how Tolkien managed to come out of the trenches with any kind of positive thought about the common man. There are many bits that ARE easy to see coming from that (dislike of metal and machinery, etc.), but not that one. Maybe it's just part of the English ingrained acceptance of royalty and nobility?

I just thought of this, so it might make sense or not: I see a parallel here with our own American 'royalty'... the movie star. Even though we see more and more how low-down and nasty, or just plain stupid many of them can be... the majority of us common-folk still wish we could be them, or even just meet them. And that's only a couple of generations old, so I would guess that scores of generations would make it even more a part of the psyche.

Reply by Varda:

I don't think this is a Noble product, if you want to look at the figures, I think this link will take you to the site;

The figures are pretty much the same as that LOTR die cast collection, most of which I have. But the chess figures are mounted on heavy plinths with baize underneath, so they feel like chess pieces. They actually look better in the hand, the detail is very good, the expressions are just right. I just love the White Castle piece, Osgiliath, and its opposite, Barad-dur.

No, there is only one Frodo in this set, and he is a pawn. So are the other three hobbits and the rest of the pawns are Eowyn, Faramir and a Gondorian soldier. I think the last will be Eomer.

I would have thought Frodo should be the king too, but Aragorn is also indispensible, as he is the only one who can succeed as king of Gondor. Also, who would be Queen to Frodo's king? Galadriel? Hmm, you have that old size difference again. ;-)

I think when you look hard, you can see the elements of the trenches that Tolkien did put in the book, the blasted land of Mordor ('pits, pits pits' ) could be the shell holes and trenches of the Western Front. Also, poor JRR spent most of his war in hospital, as he got some kind of fever which recurred and he was invalided out several times. He did not actually spend that much time in the fighting zone. Luckily.

I suppose he also belonged to a class that believed in doing ones duty, and prided itself on doing it however bad things got. I think things got a bit worse for Sassoon and Graves, but how can you quantify that kind of experience?

Yes the British love of the royals does a bit resemble the American love of stars. But the problem with British class consciousness is it runs down through the whole society, it is not just the royal family. Everyone is desperate to stay that bit above the poor folks just a few thousand a year below them. The most ferocious snobs are in the middle classes.

The Sackville-Bagginses were probably Tolkien's comment on them!

Response by Celedor:

Somebody at a theater showing ROTK agreed with you. A little boy kept bugging his father throughout the film about things he didn't understand, and one of the last things was, "Wait, [Aragorn] gets to be King? Dad, why doesn't Frodo get to be King? He should be King."

(That little boy is probably a 6' teenager by now... )

Response by Icarus:

Definitely not Noble Collection. That set is much better... and much, much more expensive! (especially with overseas shipping and the pound/dollar problem ;-)) Beautiful pieces and board, though! Thanks for sharing!

BTW, according the website, Eomer is one of the nights. I forget who the last pawn is, though.

I think some of you are so gender-traditional! ;-) I still think Sam would be Frodo's Queen (and not because of the nassty thoughtss people keep having... just because that's the way it worked!)

I definitely see a lot of the trenches in Mordor (and even just outside of Bree... I'll bet there were some BUGS out there in France!), but I'm just surprised at the things we don't find... lack of hope and disgust with one's superiors and so on.

Finally, the British class struggle always makes me think of the BritCom 'Keeping Up Appearances'... especially the 4' x 6' 'country home' they get (that show had a number of funny moments if you're into the BBC comedies).

Reply by Varda:

Thanks, Icarus. I will go out on my day buoyed up by the thought of Queen Sam. :-P

Yes it is a nice set, and the cost is spread out over a few months. One thing however that is pretty tacky is the board. It looks good in pictures but in the flesh, as it were, it is horrible and plasticky. I think I will just lop off the sides and leave the plain chequered board with the figures.

Take up less room, too, might leave space for the light-up Minas Tirith.

Yes I know, I need help, lots of help.....

Response by Doctor Gamgee:

My guess would have been that Tolkein's theology would have allowed these things to occur, and given him hope that Mankind might find hope. (Christ was sacrificed like a pawn, as it were) That and he was a writer. Afterall, in my non-writing mind (though I compose music) it is the ideas tha literature carries that makes it great, and one can always hope that these ideas may change the world for the better. At least in my feeble mind, it is the difference between Literature (LOTR) and HP (Stories) -- one has great ideas that changes the way people perceive the world, the other just fills the time to while away the hours, entertaining as they are.

But Frodo has too much sense to be King. Hobbits don't seem to need kings, as that type of "lording over" others would be against their good Hobbit-Sense. Mayors were elected, not entitled as kings are, and it is based on merit, not kinship. At least in Hobbiton if not the real world *wink* . Lotho would want to be king, and that is no life for a Baggins of Hobbiton (He was a Sackville-Baggins, I recall).

But I'm sure that there are others whose ideas are clearer than mine, so I will sit quietly and await them.

Response by Erech the Undead

Interesting analysis. The virtue and decency found in ''everyman'' Frodo does seem to be a metaphor for the common Brit-- lives of quiet desperation and all that-- though I would ask an obvious question: does Frodo represent a kind of idealisation of these qualities; a rare hobbit, who would be an equally rare human being?...It's not as though there were hundreds of Frodo's running around, ready to exhibit total self-sacrifice in Frodo's place, if Frodo fell...

Reply by Varda:

You are perfectly right, Frodo is perhaps typical of hobbits in his likes and dislikes, his dress and temperament and homely good nature. But in other ways, he us utterly exceptional; he has learning far beyond any other hobbit that ever lived. He is a friend of Elves and knows some of their language. He is not afraid to wander and set off on a great journey; as he says to Gandalf;
'I have sometimes thought of going away, ...a series of adventures like Bilbo's,or better..'
...whereas most hobbits won't go beyond the next hill. Gandalf believes that Frodo is the greatest of his race, and he proves it.

But sometimes it is only in the exceptional that the typical is seen. Frodo is head and shoulders above his kind, but he loves his land and their people, as he says to Gandalf;
'I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable; I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold even if my feet cannot stand there again.'

Somewhere, there is an England. Or an Ireland. This is powerful stuff; it has sustained the exiled people of many countries over the centuries and it bears out not just that Frodo loves the Shire, but that it is so deeply a part of him that he will be happy if it survives, even if he does not. I dare to suggest that many of Tolkien's comrades on the Western Front, who knew it was unlikely that they would ever see home again, felt like that about England. Perhaps Tolkien drew on that. And in the portrait he created he gives us not a typical hobbit, perhaps, but someone who embodies what is best in hobbits and captures the soul of the Shire.

You say; 'It's not as though there were hundreds of Frodo's running round, ready to exhibit total self-sacrifice in Frodo's place, if Frodo fell...'

But Erech that is just what does happen; Sam takes the Ring when he thinks Frodo is dead. And he says those very words, 'that is why Frodo was given companions, so the quest might be carried on if anything happened to him'

And Sam, although no way as accomplished or clever as Frodo, bears the Ring too, and has the strength and self-control to hand it back. So we must conclude that Frodo was not the only hobbit to be able to bear the Ring. Three bore it, Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, without doing evil or succumbing to it (we will omit Mount Doom for the sake of present argument *wink* )