Wednesday 14 June 2023

Frodo's dream of the Elf Tower, in Crickhollow

Eventually [Frodo] fell into a vague dream, in which he seemed to be looking out of a high window over a dark sea of tangled trees. Down below among the roots there was the sound of creatures crawling and snuffling. He felt sure they would smell him out sooner or later. Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not the leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over to him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.

Frodo's dream in the house at Crickhollow, the third night of the quest; from A Conspiracy Unmasked in The Fellowship of the Ring


For long I was puzzled by the above dream, because it does not correspond to anything that happens in The Lord of the Rings. 

A partial answer was provided by the analysis of Frodo's dreams in Verlyn Flieger's A Question of Time

From studying The Treason of Isengard volume in The History of Middle Earth; it turns-out that Frodo's Crickhollow dream is a revised version of a dream that, in an earlier draft, accurately and literally referred to Gandalf being besieged by the Black Riders in one of the three Elf Towers that lie to the west of The Shire; from the tops of which Shire hobbits believe that the sea can be seen. 

Later revisions leading to the published dream in The Fellowship of the Ring, had Gandalf held captive by Saruman on the tower of Orthanc (i.e. not an Elf Tower). And, during the night following the Crickhollow dream (the first sleep in the House of Tom Bombadil) Frodo accurately saw Gandalf's rescue from Orthanc by Gwaihir the eagle - a correct vision of an event remote in space, and also in time; since the rescue had happened some eight nights earlier than this dream. 

But why did Tolkien retain this dream for the published text, after plot revisions had made it obsolete and without reference to real events of the story? And why was Frodo's accurate clairvoyance delayed by more than a week? 

There are two possible kinds of question and answer to why: the first asks what was Tolkien's actual and conscious motivation and suggests a possible answer; while the second is to ask what makes inferential sense in terms of the logic of the story - even though Tolkien might not have been aware of it at the time of writing. 

Flieger's explanation refers to the first of these questions - it is a speculation as to why Tolkein might consciously have preserved the Elf Tower dream. She says the published dream functions mainly as an effective "mood piece", characteristic of Frodo, and one that establishes him as A Dreamer - often previsionary, or able to see other times and places - within the rest of the story. 

But I believe that more can be said. Frodo only becomes A Dreamer after Gildor named him Elf Friend

This naming can be seen to have had a lasting and transformative effect on Frodo - giving him elvish qualities and attributes that were immediately apparent; first to Goldberry, then to others able to discern such things in the later story.   

However, it can further be suggested that the elvish ("magical") transformation was something that built-up over a period of time

Thus the first night after being named Elf Friend, Frodo dreamed the Elf Tower dream - which was a real things, but an event that never happened. 

The second night's dream (in the house of Tom Bombadil) was an impressively accurate dream, but several days late. 

The third night's dream - which happened during the second night at Tom Bombadil's - was again accurate, but even more impressive; because it was a prevision of Frodo's arrival in the undying lands some time after the narrative of The Lord of the Rings has ended - presumably at Elvenhome (the Lonely Isle of Eressea).  

Therefore, my suggestion as to Tolkien's unconscious (not deliberately-intended), but perhaps implicit, reason for including the inaccurate Elf Tower dream; could be understood as depicting stages en route to Frodo becoming a full Elf Friend, and a fully-fledged Dreamer. 


William Wright (WW) said...

Perhaps another way of looking at these dreams is that they were not intended to be future-oriented at all.

Starting first from the latter dream at Tom Bombadil's house, when Frodo dreamt of the singing, and the rolling back of the curtain to see the far green country, he is not (primarily) dreaming of his future sailing to Eressea or Valinor, but rather is re-experiencing or remembering a prior voyage. Yes, events at the end of the book fulfill this dream, but this may simply be an example of a future event patterned after the past.

Working backward, regarding his dream of the Elf Tower/ Elostirion, this likely is also based on a remembrance and desire... Tolkien states that prior to this dream, the sound of the sea had often troubled Frodo's dreams, even though he had never seen it. Those dreams and this one - where Frodo wants to climb the Tower so he can once again see the Land where he came from - paint Frodo as having that same desire and sea-longing as all High-Elves exhibit. It is important to note that Frodo's sea dreams would have pre-dated any encounter with Gildor.

What I am suggesting here is that if one views these dreams as not future-oriented but as past, one might learn a little bit more about Frodo himself.

And to be even more specific (why not at this point?), viewing things in this way, and piecing together other clues and references, one might arrive at the idea that Frodo is potentially Earendil himself, called on once again on an errand to rescue Elves and Men.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - I do not believe this could be what Tolkien himself intended or meant, because it violates the fundamental cosmology of his work. For instance, Hobbits are essentially Men - and do not reincarnate, or live cyclically, but leave the circles of this world at death.

There are exceptions, I acknowledge (eg. Tuor becomes an elf, perhaps - one of the Eldar).

But more likely is that Tolkien was using some of the Time ideas of JW Dunne - which he discussed with CS Lewis in the Inklings (Lewis references Dunne in the Dark Tower), references in the Notion Club Papers, and which Flieger also finds traces of, through Lord of the Rings.

However; it is not so much what Dunne actually believed, as what Tolkien made of him!

And Tolkien was indeed fascinated by some versions of a kind of reincarnation - as in The Lost Road, as well as NCPs and elsewhere. There was clearly a sense in which Tolkien took reincarnation very seriously indeed! So in that broader, extra-Legendarium sense - you may be onto something!

William Wright (WW) said...

As Earendil, Frodo would not have been a hobbit yet, so I don't see any issues with the fundamental cosmology, as you understand it to be, on reincarnation. However, in full transparency, I take Tolkien to have actually been Frodo (and thus, by extension, Earendil in this idea), so, there is that much bigger can of worms to also unpack in relation to reincarnation, the nature of reality, etc...

This biggest issue I had to resolve with Earendil-Frodo was actually Earendil's ban from returning. It's not a small one, but everything else fits so nicely I thought there might be some kind of work around. The best I can come up with at this time is that when Pharazon broke the world in the second age, literally severing the connection between Heaven and Earth, the conditions of the ban may have expired, or at least a loophole may have been created that allowed Eru and the Valar to send Earendil if it was needed.

My guess is that the Valar judged Earendil as the best person to carry on the errand of the ring, and everything else had been prepared a long time in advance for that purpose, including the creation and placement of the Hobbit race for Earendil and other great beings such that would be known as Pippen, Merry, and Sam to be born as, since hobbits, in general (at least certain families of them), seem to have exhibited more resistance to the ring than other races, likely due in part to something about their bodies.

Both Gandalf and Tom Bombadil's interest in and proximity to hobbits, as well as Aragorn and the Rangers protection of them, I think indicates they had some awareness of hobbits' intended part in the plan prior to it being formalized in Elrond's council.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - I have to say that I find this scheme rather devalues what I feel to be the deepest values of LotR - I find that such a vision of God's workings diminishes the actuality of individual struggles and choices.

William Wright (WW) said...

Bruce - I am not sure what assumptions you are making in saying this idea diminishes individual struggle and choice, but I actually find it to do the opposite. Earendil would have been an active participant in the creation of these plans, ultimately having to make the choice to be born as a hobbit, leaving his home, forgetting everything, knowing he would encounter difficulty and hardship, and that there was a real chance of failure both individually for him, as well as collectively for the plan. It would have taken faith and courage to make that choice.

And plans continue to change and adapt as they meet reality on the ground and come up against the choices of others. The inclusion of Boromir in the Fellowship is a good example of this. The Valar seem to have intended that Faramir should have been the one to go as part of their overall designs, but Boromir and Denethor chose otherwise. This had very significant impact on Frodo, obviously. We don't know what tale would have been written had it been Faramir as intended, but it still nevertheless all worked out for Good, despite (and maybe also because of) the choices of some going against intended plans.

In summary, choice and struggle are still at the heart of how I see this story unfolding.

Anonymous said...

I have largely (too largely?) never yet tried to brood over the LotR dreams... Thanks for this nudge or spur!

Some more-or-less thinking aloud, immediately after catching up with this post:

Could one aspect of Frodo's Crickhollow dream relate to his imprisonment in the tower by Orcs after being poisoned by Shelob (the "high window" and "creatures [...] snuffling")? And following on from this, crossing Mordor ("the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath") pursued by Gollum ("crawling and snuffling")? With "a noise of thunder" relating to Tolkien's discussion of "Crack of Doom" - and the "struggle up the ridge towards the tower" to the ascent of Mount Doom? The "tall white tower" and the sound and possibility of seeing the Sea being a glimpse of what would follow success in destroying the Ring?

In this context, the Orcish taking Sam for an Elf warrior in the tower springs to mind in connection with your attention to Elvish qualities and (degrees of?) being an Elf Friend.

Something I have lately been trying to pay attention to is Frodo's experiences in Shelob's Lair - of the light "as though Eärendil had himself come down [...] with the last Silmaril on his brow" and of its seeming "that another voice spoke through his". Whose voice is that - might that be - since it addresses Eärendil? All of this has got me wondering about 'coinherence'. Someone else's voice interpenetrating Frodo's (Galadriel's? Celeborn's? or - ?), but perhaps also indeed Eärendil somehow himself come down.

I also wonder if there is any connection between Frodo's Crickhollow dream and Tolkien's tower and sea imagery in 'Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics'? And if, on some level, both may be allusively 'answering' Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach' with its "darkling plain" and its pretension that "now I only hear" the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating" of "The sea of faith"?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I also thought of Gollum's snuffling at the root of the tree in Lothlorien - but here the snufflers are clearly plural, creature-s - which I think excludes Gollum.

My first idea was that Tolkien might be thinking in terms of an "alternative history" - something that might have happened in the LotR plot, but did not - to which Frodo was gaining clairvoyant access... An 'alternative timeline' sort of thing.

But, on consideration, this does not seem like a Tolkien theme (maybe I've been reading too much Philip K Dick lately!) .

William Wright (WW) said...

@DLD - my belief is that Frodo is hearing Eonwe as he is speaking those words in Shelob's lair. This is a voice and words he would have heard before, carrying that same light, as he was welcomed by Eonwe into Valinor in the distant past as Earendil.

In the earliest drafts of Earendil's voyage/ story, it was he that slew (or at least defeated/ escaped from) Ungoliant. So there is a parallelism here - as Earendil, it was Ungoliant that he confronted... as Frodo, it was Ungoliant's offspring Shelob.

Eonwe's welcome would have come to Earendil after he had passed through and defeated the darkness of Ungoliant, which is perhaps why these words and this voice come into his own mouth now as Frodo- a distant memory of who we was and that he had passed through worse than this, and a blessing that he will do so again.

Shelob's own encounter with Frodo and the light may have brought to her mind both the fact that this light was what used to defeat her mother (my speculation), and that its bearer was the one who did it, at least at some level of awareness. This recognition first caused the doubt that made her turn away from her prey for the first time ever, and then fueled the special rage which she fixated on Frodo to the complete exclusion of even acknowledging Sam's presence.

Anonymous said...


Thanks! Might the snuffling include both Nazgûl and Gollum? Thinking of the Mirror of Galadriel, after reading your post, I also got wondering if there was some 'alternative' or 'open' aspect to Frodo's dream as prophetic but neither minutely specific or 'deterministic' in just how it would be realized.


Thanks! I will have to attend to Eonwe more! I have been 'working back' to Shelob's Lair from the last sketchy bits of The Notion Club Papers wondering who is saying 'Eala Earendel' and how it fits in with the poem often attributed to Cynewulf in the Exeter Book - and with LotR and earlier Middle-earth and Númenórean history (there seems a lot of interesting play in The Notion Club Paper drafts with the backgrounds of poems which 'end up' in the Exeter Book).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...


I may be misunderstanding the suggestion, but, isn't Earendil still fully alive doing his astonishing work at the end of the Third Age?

That would leave open the possibility of some kind of 'coinherent' interaction between Earendil and Frodo.

Listening to Andy Serkis's LotR audiobook earlier today, I was struck by the report in the seventh-last paragraph of "The Council of Elrond" that Frodo "wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice."

Whatever the explanation, that is a striking passage. Pauline's Doppelgänger to John Struther in Williams's Descent into Hell comes to mind, as well as once again the idea of some kind of 'coinherent' interaction between Earendil and Frodo.

David Llewellyn Dodds