First Steps on the Road

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

First Steps on the Road
The first three mansions

Bilbo and Frodo Baggins are unusual epic fantasy heroes in many ways. One is their age. Fifty is middle-aged even for a hobbit, and both of them are at least visibly settled into life when they first leave the Shire. Bilbo discovers he's less settled than he thought he was when Gandalf manages to awaken his Tookishness. Frodo grows restless and wonders what lies beyond the borders of his maps. Some critics peg both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as "coming of age stories," but the two Bagginses had come of age long before their adventures begin, and I believe there's something else going on.

Youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged.
- G.K. Chesterton
The difference is made more clear by the presence of Shire residents who do experience the events in LotR as a coming-of-age: Merry, Pippin, and Sam. They're much younger than Frodo, of course, but more importantly they mature, learn some lessons through experience, and come out at the end prepared to take up their adult lives as respected members of the community. That's not what happens to the Bagginses. Bilbo is changed by his adventures in a way we can't really call "growing up," and loses most of the community's respect because of it. He becomes someone who's happier living among Elves than Hobbits. He becomes a scholar and, of all things, a poet. His final earthly reward, Tolkien says in a letter, is the experience of "pure Elvishness" he'll have in the West. Frodo, of course, never really comes back to the life he left; he's changed, too, although in a very different way. Instead of losing the respect of the community as Bilbo did, he gives it away - to Sam. In a profound way, the Quest is the fulfillment of his adult life, not the beginning of it.

So if The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings aren't coming-of-age stories for the Baggins characters, what are they? Mid-life crises? Perhaps, in a way, although the types of changes they go through can happen at any time in life. Because of their adherence to "what would really happen," their stories can be looked at in many different ways. Among these is seeing them as the results of being called on a spiritual journey. Even the fact that their respective Roads are so different from each other rings true to what most of us have seen of real life spiritual journeys.

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.
- Flannery O'Connor
Bilbo's seems to be primarily one of spiritual awakening. As far as we know, before he leaves the Shire he's never spoken to an elf or learned anything of Middle-earth beyond the basically non-spiritual life led by most hobbits. What he brings back to the Shire includes an awareness of the Valar and a familiarity with the "old stories" that tell of their involvement with Middle-earth. Since, within Tolkien's secondary creation, we know that Bilbo translated everything that ended up in The Silmarillion, his spiritual awareness eventually included even Ilúvatar. We might compare Bilbo's Road to that of someone who discovers Christ while living within a basically secular society. Most of that society considers him "cracked" afterward, but a few of the people he evangelizes listen and believe.

One of those, of course, is Frodo. He doesn't need to take a physical journey to discover the Valar and Elvish spirituality, because he's learned about them from Bilbo. He's perhaps the only hobbit in the Shire who would have spontaneously called on the help of Elbereth when in danger; even Sam refers to the name as "what the Elves say," rather than understanding its power.
So, in a way, Frodo's spiritual journey begins with what was passed on to him from Bilbo and goes from there. The spiritual aspect of the relationship between Bilbo and Frodo works better, I think, because of Tolkien's decision while writing LotR to not make them biological father and son. As Gandalf says, Bilbo literally chose his heir, so it's likely that he would have chosen one with whom he resonated spiritually - one of those who listened and believed - even though he had no idea at the time how important that would be.

Teresa of Avila says that the first three mansions are about preparation. The work that takes place in them can be accomplished by the person through natural means (although, of course, none of it is done without God's grace). By the time Frodo receives his vocation as Ring-bearer, he has already spent time in these mansions.

In the first mansions, the person learns self-knowledge and humility, which are really the same thing. Tolkien says that part of what saved Frodo from complete destruction on the Quest was that he started it with humility, knowing himself to be unequal to the task. Frodo tells Gandalf, "...but I have so little of any of these things" (strength, heart and wits). But he doesn't use false humility as an excuse for avoiding his calling.

The second mansions involve seeking out good books, good companionship, and the words of wise people. Frodo's choices for "wise people" include Bilbo and Gandalf, and probably Elves (we don't know with certainty that he visits Elves after Bilbo leaves, but it seems likely). He not only profits from Bilbo's love and generosity, but also learns from them. He carries the Ring unused for seventeen years at Gandalf's advice and trusts Gandalf's counsel whenever he receives it. We don't know what books he reads, except for part of Bilbo's memoirs, but we're told that he received Bilbo's books when Bilbo left Bag End and we can assume Bilbo left him books with some wisdom in them. The good companionship Frodo chooses also includes his friends - friends who love him enough to share deadly danger with him rather than allow him to face it alone.

In talking about the third mansions, Teresa says the person's life has become well ordered. Most of the Shire inhabitants might find it difficult to call Frodo's life "well ordered," considering his wandering alone under the stars and possibly visiting with Elves, but it's certainly in line with being a student of Bilbo and Gandalf. From what we know, even his night-time wanderings don't keep him from carrying out his duties as the Mr. Baggins of Bag End, and he even enjoys doing so. Teresa also describes a person at this stage as being disposed toward charity for others. Frodo continues Bilbo's pattern of respect toward servants and seems to follow his example of keeping Bag Shot Row as a place for people who need somewhere to live, rather than people who can afford to pay a high rent. From the love his friends have for him, it's pretty safe to say that he must have loved them. A specific example of his growth in love over the years is his statement to Gandalf that he used to think an invasion of dragons would be good for the Shire and its inhabitants; by the time he leaves Bag End that youthful self-righteousness has been replaced by the desire to do whatever he can to protect it - and them.  

That day in Bag End when Frodo decides to keep and guard the Ring and leave the Shire permanently, he starts off on his own spiritual Road instead of continuing to follow Bilbo's. His experience of being called is very different from Bilbo's, and it grew more different as Tolkien rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the first few chapters of LotR searching for the story that needed to be told. In its first version, the departure from Bag End is the beginning of an adventurous lark, and danger shows up only after the hobbits are on their way. Bingo (as Frodo was then called) had no higher purpose in leaving the Shire than getting away from a life he considered boring. If the plot had remained that way, I'd probably go along with those who call it a coming-of-age story, even though Bingo/Frodo was in his 70's in some of those early drafts.

The Frodo Tolkien finally discovered is beyond "larks". He's restless, certainly, and wondering what lies beyond the borders of his still-limited life. And he has a desire to follow Bilbo, whom he misses greatly. But Frodo's already had to do some growing up that Bingo hasn't, since Bingo originally begins his existence as Bilbo's biological son, rather than being orphaned as an adolescent and left to somehow forge his own identity. Frodo is 21 when he's adopted by Bilbo: not an adult in hobbit terms, but old enough to make a personal choice of whom he's going to follow. He's Bilbo's disciple rather than his son, receiving 12 years of instruction from his mentor. Then he has 17 years of living out that instruction in the familiar surroundings of the Shire before he's asked to leave them.