Consider Frodo Baggins …
As comfortable middle age approaches, he’s broadly minding his own business, apart from the desire to perhaps go on a few more foreign holidays. Sure, he’s a little eccentric, and keeps a more eclectic circle of friends and acquaintances than many. But fundamentally a ‘nice, well-spoken gentle-hobbit‘, as Gaffer Gamgee might say. Looking forward to not much more than another 50-60 years of smoking his pipe on the doorstep of Bag End; hiking through the Shire at night; writing; and keeping out of the way of those dreadful oiks, the Sackville-Bagginses.
Adventures? No thank you.
All is well, until that meddling magician, Gandalf arrives …
… to propel him into the spotlight through nothing more than an accident of birth. The bastard.
Accidents of birth. They come up quite often in class, not least when I hear things I don’t much like from students. Intolerant things, I mean, that we all need to challenge: quasi-racist; sexist, or boorishly ill-informed opinions about other cultures, groups, or lives. Example? I’ve been known to ask students what religion they would be had they been born in Iraq, and/or what they personally did to choose to be born in the UK, or to have wealthy parents. Not least in a relatively affluent and parochial part of the country, individual self-congratulation on achievements they had no control over really affects empathy for others: as literature is such an enabler of empathy, perhaps that’s why I bump up against things I feel I have to confront – like the student a few years ago who described child slave labour in the fashion trade as a ‘win-win’ situation for her and the workers …
It’s less than a week ago that I riffed on Malvolio’s (or should that be Maria’s?) glorious triple riff on greatness (aptly enough Shakespeare’s great at triple measures – think ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen‘, too). I thought I’d finished with those who’d had greatness thrust upon them, until Jane Dunn ushered the poor sods back on stage in her interesting and comprehensive book:
“IN UNSTABLE TIMES, with no clear successor to the throne, royal blood was a doubtful blessing. More often it was an inheritance filled with suspense, that suddenly could prove fatal. Suspicion, imprisonment, banishment, death, all were common companions for those with a share in the royal bloodline. Attempts at manipulation through marriage alliances and implication in the conspiracies of others were the occupational hazards that attended them. Even for the chief claimant to the throne, with rewards as overwhelming as the dangers, there was still no safety in blood. In her tortuous journey to the crown, Elizabeth had suffered from all these adversities. Even as she sat upon her throne she was never secure and was to inflict on a number of other blood relations the same constraints and threats that she herself had endured with dread.”
“Modest characters valuing an unmolested life were filled with foreboding as the searchlight of succession ranged over their family trees”
When you look at the history of the British Monarchy, the really ‘interesting’, chaotic stuff always seems to boil down to one of two things: either too few heirs (step forward Elizabeth), or too many (I’m thinking Edward III here).
One of the most frightening things for me is the notion that however unambitious you were in Elizabethan times, however low you kept your profile, however obviously unqualified for the big role you were (although the latter would have been attractive to those wanting to be the power behind the throne), greatness, or the potential thereof and the accompanying dangers, could strike out of the blue, like a golf course bolt of lightning on a summer’s day.
On the one hand, you have malcontents wanting to use you as a figurehead for their rebellions. Then, from the opposite direction you have the baleful ‘eye of Sauron’ that is Elizabeth’s jealous gaze.
That’s it – from now on, those hapless victims will forever be “Frodos”, in my book … and like I recently said, if that’s what greatness entails, you can keep it.
[a] Jane Dunn, Elizabeth and Mary, (London: Harper Perennial, 2003)
[b] Shakespeare quotations taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org