As I proceeded through Book VI – the second part of The Return of the King and the last book of The Lord of the Rings – I found I wanted to talk about ‘doublets’ and their place in the epic fantasy for this latest post in my Talking Tolkien series.
I don’t of course mean ‘doublet’ in the Elizabethan sense of an item of clothing worn by a courtier, though the derivation from the French doublé meaning doubled or folded over has some bearing. Nor do I mean its common usage in textual criticism as “two different narrative accounts of the same actual event.”
Instead I mean to use it to indicate, in a general sense, individuals who share some characteristics and who may follow a parallel path in the narrative. They are a little like narrative twins (almost but not quite as in Shakespeare’s plots) whose responses to finding themselves in similar situations may converge or diverge at significant points. It’ll be more helpful now if I give the instances I’m thinking of.
It was Randel Helms who in the 1970s opened my eyes to many of the themes and patterns in Tolkien’s Middle-earth fiction, in particular The Lord of the Rings. Several chapters in Tolkien’s World (1974) focused on how the author not only structured his epic but also placed key characters in relationships with others that revealed much about their motivations and elements of their psychological make-up. It is those close relationships that I suggest make them doublets.
In chapter 5 (‘Tolkien’s world. The structure and aesthetic of The Lord of the Rings‘) Helms shows how much of the narrative involves pairs of hobbits – Frodo and Sam, and Merry and Pippin. Of the six ‘books’ that make up the novel, Book I principally focuses on “the preliminary adventure of the four hobbits” while Book II “presents the parallel adventures of the Nine Walkers” who make up the Fellowship in the first volume (1976:83).
In The Two Towers however, Books III and IV feature the further adventures of hobbit pairs: Book IV “is, in a sense, Frodo and Sam’s version of Merry and Pippin’s adventure in Book III” (89): in alternate books Tolkien narrates one pair crossing Rohan and entering Fanghorn, the other crossing the Dead Marshes and Ithilien before entering Mordor. I discussed this, the ‘interlace’ aspect of Tolkien’s narrative technique, in a previous post.
Then we come to Book V, which “presents two parallel plotlines – Merry’s and Pippin’s – each of whom swears fealty to a king (Pippin to Denethor, Merry to Théoden) and each of whom through his loyalty saves the life of the king’s child [sic] (Merry, Éowyn, and Pippin, Faramir), after which, most properly, Faramir and Éowyn marry” (92). Despite his misleading inaccuracies – Denethor is of course a steward, not a king, and Éowyn is the king’s niece, not daughter – Helms’ main insights here are what alerted me to Tolkien’s use of doublets, pairs of individuals whose roles and actions have them working together, working in parallel, or even acting in opposition to each other.
So, in addition to Merry and Pippin being first in partnership and then separately taking on similar roles – to the extent that in my first few reads of LOTR I found them virtually indistinguishable – we have other doublets, a few of which will be worth pointing out here.
Deagol and Sméagol. These are the pair who, once upon a time, quarrelled and fought each other for possession of the Ring, Gollum’s “birthday present”. Even though Sméagol won out, he retained Déagol as a kind of twin interior personality within his Gollum persona, debating with himself about whether loyalty to Frodo counted for more than his desire for his Precious, or not. (Interestingly, in Book VI Sam also has an inner dialogue with himself, debating about the Ring as Frodo lies exhausted on the approach to Mount Doom.)
Théoden and Denethor. Both are rulers, one of Rohan, the other of Gondor; one is under the influence of Saruman (through the wiles of Gríma Wormtongue) while the other thinks he’s on a par with Sauron through the palantír in his possession, though he is not. Both are prone to indecisiveness when their citadel – Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith – is assaulted; Gandalf and Aragorn are able to rally Théoden but Denethor proves to be beyond any reasoned argument from Gandalf.
Boromir and Faramir. The Gondor brothers are counterparts of the Rohan siblings Éomer and Éowyn: the first of each doublet is initially seen by their ruler as a proactive warrior, the second as lesser in worth. Though Éomer falls out of favour with his uncle Théoden for a while, Boromir remains the apple of Denethor’s eye up to his death at Nen Hithoel. Subsequently Éowyn joins the army relieving Gondor against Théoden’s wishes, though she later is hurt when she kills the Nazgûl; while Faramir is sent out against impossible odds and nearly dies in the attempt. Again, the various doublets can be compared as well as contrasted.
Frodo and Sam. Frodo forms part of at least two Odd Couple doublets in the course of the epic. The first is with his gardener Samwise, whose role seems to serve (as it were) as batman to Frodo’s officer, a pair seen as socially unequal but bound together in a kind of symbiotic relationship, one which some have characterised as at least homosocial or even homoerotic (Saxey 2005:124-137). Though their personalities are very different both become Ring Bearers, Sam briefly when Frodo is incapacitated by Shelob’s sting, Frodo for most of the epic’s course.
In fact it’s interesting that as Frodo’s will and strength dip towards a nadir Sam’s rise to their zenith, meaning that we see Sam almost as the true hero of the epic. His is the last word, “Well, I’m back!” echoing the subtitle of The Hobbit: ‘There and Back Again.’
Another relationship conforming to the ‘Odd Couple’ trope – what’s defined as a friendly and sometimes romantic relationship between completely different people – is that between Frodo and Gollum. Both are alike in a number of ways: each is a Ring Bearer, though its tenure is more willingly undertaken by Gollum than Frodo, both become possessed by it (as shown by their respective mental and physical struggles at the Crack of Doom), and both have a role to play in their curious master-servant relationship. In fact Gollum almost usurps Sam’s role, which partly explains Sam’s antipathy to the creature he calls at various times Slinker or Stinker.
The Frodo-Sam-Gollum triad grouping is thus the antithesis of any Odd Couple pairing, but there is one more Odd Couple I ought to refer to: Saruman and Gríma Wormtongue. This, the distorted mirror image of Frodo and Gollum’s relationship, has Sharkey (as Saruman is later known) having no ‘ruth’ or pity on Gríma, unlike Frodo with Sméagol, but bearing the same role as master over servant. That Wormtongue turns on Saruman with a knife, as Gollum turns with his teeth on Frodo at the Cracks of Doom, derives from a different emotion – a whipped-dog hatred rather than overwhelming greed. Despite all Frodo of course extends the same hand of pity towards Saruman as he did towards Gollum, despite Sam’s frequent urgings to do the opposite.
We come now to the doublets that either fail because they involve unequal and opposite individuals or succeed despite their differences. Gandalf and Saruman are both powerful wizards but we see their trajectories going in opposite directions: in fact Gandalf the Grey takes on Saruman the White’s figurative mantle, throwing aside his Stormcrow epithet as the bringer of bad news and bringing Saruman low. Meanwhile the Saruman and Sauron doublet was never going to work because Saruman overreached himself by thinking (like Denethor) that while in Orthanc he was as powerful or as able as Sauron in Barad-dûr. Gandalf wasn’t in the least tempted to join Saruman in forming a pact with Sauron.
The more equal pairing in terms of force of will was between Aragorn and Sauron, when Aragon reveals himself to Sauron in Saruman’s Orthanc palantír and survives, indeed thrives. Perhaps the most unlikely pairing was that of Legolas and Gimli, Elf and Dwarf, not only in terms of stature and race but also in terms of culture: but, as Gandalf might have said, opposites often attract, and their rivalry was friendly, strengthening their bond.
Of a different order were the pairings between Éowyn and Faramir, between Arwen and Aragorn, and eventually between Rose Cotton and Sam. But these pairings (the term ‘doublet’ feels inapplicable here) which occur at the end of LOTR are perhaps Tolkien’s way of expressing, in almost alchemical symbolism, resolution through marriage – or rather marriages.
I propose however that ‘doublet’, in the sense of doubled or folded, does apply to the earlier examples cited, namely instances of two characters who complement each other in some fashion or are in effect two sides of the same coin. Though not doppelgängers their contemporaneous existences set up almost anomalous ripples in the action, precipitating situations and outcomes that wouldn’t have otherwise come to be but which, in Tolkien’s narrative, are ultimately necessary for the resolution.
- Robert Eaglestone. 2005. Reading The Lord of the Rings. New Writings on Tolkien’s Classic. Continuum.
- Randel Helms. 1974. Tolkien’s World. Panther Books, 1976.
- Esther Saxey. ‘Homoeroticism’, in Eaglestone, 2005:124-137.
- J R R Tolkien. 1954-5. The Lord of the Rings. HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.