Friday 8 February 2013

Tolkien nods: The saga of Trotter's feet


In reading The History of Middle Earth, and the early drafts of Lord of the Rings, there are some 'cold sweat moments' when you realize how horribly wrong it all might have gone - or perhaps it is just that a genius needs to make mistakes en route to a masterpiece.

Many of these relate to the character called Trotter - a friend of Gandalf whom the hobbits met at the Prancing Pony in Bree and who guides them to Rivendell.


Trotter eventually became the noble Numenorean heir to the throne of Gondor and Arnor we know as Aragorn - but he began as a brown skinned hobbit who wore wooden shoes.

The wooden shoes - whose clopping sound on the road explains the nickname of 'trotter' - seem (for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom) to have been taken by Tolkien as an immovable necessity to the story, and he expended considerable ingenuity in devising explanations for why a hobbit should be wearing clogs...


These matters come to a head in the draft chapter for the Council of Elrond (page 401 of The Return of the Shadow - volume 6 of The History of Middle Earth) :

Gandalf spoke long, making clear to those who did not already know the tale in full the ancient history of the Ring, and the reasons why the Dark Lord so greatly desired it.

Bilbo then gave  an account of the finding of the Ring in the cave of the Misty Mountains, and Trotter described his search for Gollum that he had made with Gandalf's help, and told of his perilous adventures in Mordor. 

Thus it was that Frodo learned how Trotter had tracked Gollum as he wandered southwards, through Fangorn Forest, and past the Dead Marshes, until he had himself been caught and imprisoned by the Dark Lord.

'Ever since I have worn shoes,' said Trotter with a shudder, and though he said no more Frodo knew he had been tortured and his feet hurt in some way...  

[Reference 20]


Well, all this is bad. After all this build-up about the clogs we get the phrase 'Hurt in some way...

Lame, one might say


But worse is yet to come.

The real, twenty-four carat cold sweat moment comes in Reference 20, where Christopher Tolkien reveals:

My father bracketed the passage from 'Ever since I have worn shoes' to 'hurt in some way', and wrote in the margin (with a query) that it should be revealed later that Trotter had wooden feet.

Go back and read that last sentence again...


Clogs would have been bad enough; but instead of the noble Aragorn, we very nearly had a mahogany-footed halfling.

Phew! (Wipes brow with large spotted handkerchief.)



Deniz Bevan said...

I remember the first time I read this, I was so shocked! On rereads now, and I've reached the fifth book. Can't wait to reach the Lord of the Rings bits and be surprised all over again :-)

Deniz Bevan said...

Still, it's fun to be able to see Tolkien's writing process!

Bruce Charlton said...

I suppose it was thing like the changes in Trotter where we most clearly see the 'Hobbit sequel' evolving into the Lord of the Rings.

Poppop said...

Well, an ancient Shire proverb went something like: "it is better to have mahogany feet than to have feet of clay"

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - Wise words. (Sounds rather like one of those "Confucius he say..." jokes from the 1970s.)

Serhei said...

Coming back to this rather old blog post, I suppose I have some sympathy for Tolkien and I can see why he hung on to this rather contrived character for so long. Because he is a fellow-hobbit, Frodo's group will implicitly trust him in an unfamiliar location, completely side-stepping the "wait, why should we trust this hobo we met in a pub?" squirming that Tolkien's final story has to deftly work through. As for the prosthetics, a twist reveal that Trotter's feet had been cut off must have seemed like an impactful and sudden way to drive home that the hobbits' adventure in Lord of the Rings was turning out to be a lot more dire and nasty than Bilbo's had been.

Of course, someone successfully concealing a prosthetic is hard to write plausibly, the choice of prosthetic is certainly jarring and overall it feels like a case of Tolkien's Great War impressions failing to translate to the commonly accepted technology levels of Middle-Earth.

But, my main concern with Trotter's character actually relates more to the stuff above the feet....

To my mind, having a Shire Bounder (or whoever Trotter would be in Shire or Bree society), who has essentially graduated to experienced Ranger status & prowess, volunteer to do the thankless task of chasing Gollum halfway across Middle-Earth because Gandalf wants to check up on concerning loose ends from the Smaug affair, retroactively undermines the notion that Bilbo's adventure is in any way un-hobbit-like or unusual or that the Shire was only concerned with its own affairs. In fact, if hobbits are part of the recruiting-pool for the Rangers of Arnor, and some of them are willing and able to take long-distance missions that have nothing to do with immediate concerns of Shire defence, then Gandalf's decision to ignore that recruiting-pool and con an only slightly-Tookish country bachelor into joining Thorin's party becomes strange for completely different reasons than the ones Tolkien intended.

On the other hand, it's notable that Thorin's dwarves hadn't outright dismissed the notion that a hobbit would make a competent adventurer & burglar... they only started to develop doubts on actually meeting Bilbo. Either they were largely ignorant of what hobbits are like and took Gandalf's word at face value, or there would have been at least minimal precedent that some hobbits could, under some circumstances, be usefully hired as burglars and/or adventurers and/or mercenaries.

On the other other hand, even if we suppose that was the case, Tolkien's drafts have Trotter's mahogany feet filling Ranger boots that end up being given not to some regular adventurer, but Aragorn.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Serhei; "retroactively undermines the notion that Bilbo's adventure is in any way un-hobbit-like or unusual "

Well, Bilbo was not meant to be utterly unique in that resepct - even in the Hobbit (reinforced in LotR Prologue) there are said to be Tooks who went off into the wild, to sea etc - and at one point Trotter was intended to be one of these.

I think that by the time the concept of Numenor, Arnor etc had emerged, Trotter was already a man rather than a hobbit - but I'd have to check on that... I find it hard to keep track of the sequence of developments in my memory.

"Tolkien's drafts have Trotter's mahogany feet filling Ranger boots " - Ha! Very good.