I’m a Tolkien nerd. For over twenty years, since first reading The Hobbit, I haven’t been able to get enough of Middle Earth. I’m proud of this. Tolkien’s work has molded and shaped who I am today, in all the best ways.
I could fill twenty blogs with posts about Middle Earth every day for a year and still have
stuff to talk about, but for my first foray into Tolkien blogging I’m going to write about one my favorite parts from The Lord of the Rings – the fox passage.
Now, for anyone unfamiliar with holy trilogy, or for those who have only seen the movies, there are a couple things to cover before diving into the exact piece I want to talk about – this will help to understand why the fox passage is unique and interesting.
It’s important to recognize that J.R.R. Tolkien was very heavily influenced by folklore and mythology. He, in fact, began his approach to creating Middle Earth with the intent to create a sort of ‘Mythology for England’.
I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own … Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story… which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.” – Letter #131, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
It is with this perspective in mind, that it should be understood: Middle Earth is written to be our earth.
I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century and still in use) of midden-erd > middel-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumenē, the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell). The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by the enchantment of distance in time.” – Letter #183, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
So when you read The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings, they could be read as being works of ancient myth that Tolkien found and translated to English for us – think: Tolkien the Historian and Anthropologist vs. Tolkien the Fiction Writer.
When we discuss The Lord of the Rings, the ‘ancient text’ that Tolkien the Historian worked from is The Red Book of Westmarch. This is the book that Bilbo and Frodo (then later: Sam, Merry, and Pippin, and…others) wrote themselves. It is to be understood that Frodo is the principal author of The Lord of the Rings.
That said, everything that was written in The Lord of the Rings follows a certain scheme: what was written was either the first-hand or second-hand account of someone that was actually present to experience the events of the story. It is written in a third person omniscient POV, but the perspective almost always follows one of the central protagonists.
This is where the fox passage comes in. Here it is in all it’s lustrous glory:
They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.
‘Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it. – The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 3: Three Is Company
The first thing that sticks out when I read this passage is that we are suddenly experiencing the thoughts of a wild animal. It’s weird, it’s different. While The Hobbit has some more fantastical elements like this, the Lord of the Rings generally does not.
Then, thinking about it a little deeper, the oddity continues. This is the single point, in the entire trilogy, where we are suddenly seeing things from the perspective of a being that is an outsider to the parties directly involved in the story. Think about that and remember, we are reading something that supposedly was taken as first- or second-hand accounts, penned down by Frodo. Nobody interviewed the fox, the thing just disappears after this scene and is never brought up again. It fits with the third-person omniscient POV kinda, but definitely not with the concept of Tolkien the Historian. If The Lord of the Rings is an historical account of events, then the fox passage is the single piece of ‘fiction’ within that history.
So at what point was it added, and by who? There are a couple of possibilities for its existence, each having their own potential impacts and intentions for its inclusion. Everything I’ve written to this point I’ve tried to approach as factually as possible, but from here I get to speculate a little bit.
If Frodo is the perpetrator, what could his reasons be for adding this passage? In this case, the passage echos Frodo’s own thoughts as he was about to step into the unknown. I like to think that if Frodo wrote this passage, it’s as an homage to his uncle Bilbo, who definitely took such liberties when writing There and Back Again (The Hobbit). It would serve, in this case, as a passing of the torch. As Frodo and company leave the shire, he’s saying “we’re leaving the familiar and straying into something new”. The finality of that last sentence really nails this for me: “He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.” Indeed he didn’t, the rest of the book is not a place for him or any of his animal friends.
It’s also possible that someone added it later down the line, but before Tolkien the Historian got it. After Frodo finished his work on The Red Book, the idea is that it was passed down and transcribed many times. The first actual copy of the book was brought to Aragorn by Pippin later in his life – this is the copy that Tolkien the Historian found and translated for us. Once that copy was brought to Minis Tirith, quite a few hands touched it, likely adding and changing things along the way. One of these unknown scribes could have added the fox passage. I can’t imagine any reason they would have done this, unless for flight of fancy or to add their personal feelings about the oddness of Hobbits leaving the shire. An interesting side note about this possibility is that this ‘addition’ would have taken place many years after Frodo finished his work on the Red Book. This would imply that even then, so many years later, Hobbits sleeping under trees and traveling from home was still out of the ordinary. This is a comforting thought, as it also implies a continued peaceful seclusion for Hobbit-folk.
Lastly, if the fox passage wasn’t added by Frodo, another hobbit, or a man of Gondor, then it must have been added by Tolkien the Historian. Why would he do this? I have no idea, to be honest. He would have had no contemporaneous opinion of Hobbit behavior, so there wouldn’t be a whole lot of meaning to the addition. When everything else is translated so faithfully as scholarly material, it simply doesn’t add up that Tolkien the Historian would have added this piece.
Personally, I like to think that Frodo added it himself. The passage being his own work has a certain emotional value to it that isn’t present otherwise.
No matter what, the fox passage is a very unique and interesting part of The Lord of the Rings. What do you think? Are there perspectives or implications that I have missed? Within the scope of The Red Book of Westmarch, who do you think is responsible for this bizarre, fun little passage? Let me know in the comments, thanks for reading!