A Lament for Fatty Bolger

Thoughts on the Hero’s Journey when we'd rather stay home

When Frodo Baggins left the Shire for his epic quest to take the One Ring to Mordor and destroy it in the fire of Mount Doom, he took three friends with him and left one behind. The first three friends—Samwise, Merry and Pippin—are deservedly famous and well-loved major characters in The Lord of the Rings, but Fatty Bolger is routinely ignored in most retellings (he didn’t even make it into the movie version). And for good reason: Fatty Bolger is the friend who stayed behind.

One frequently discussed concept in the Blue Ocean community is what Joseph Campbell described as the hero’s journey. Campbell identified the hero’s journey as one of the great archetypal, transcultural myths. Notably two other prominent scholars of myth, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, carefully wove and rewove large and small scale iterations of archetypal pattern into their work, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The hero’s journey is a useful lens for examining our own lives and decisions. It can be helpful and encouraging—if more than a little scary and/or challenging—to ask how we might have opportunities to embark on large and small hero’s journeys of our own.

The hero’s journey contains quite a few elements, but I have found two of them to be particularly useful. First is the distinction between the ordinary world, where the hero understand the rules and enjoys at least a marginal degree of safety, and the special world, where the journey takes place. The ordinary world is home, hearth and comfort. In The Lord of the Rings it is represented by the Shire. The hero's journey demands that the protagonist leave the ordinary world and enter the special word where the rules are unclear, the terrain is unknown and dragons (literal or figurative) lurk. This special world is, in many ways, more vivid than the ordinary world. If the dangers are greater, so too are the rewards. And it is only in the special world that the protagonist can actually become a hero, passing through ordeals and adventures that ultimately allow the hero to return with a boon for the ordinary world. Following this pattern, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin all go on their own hero’s journeys, which begin when they leave the Shire and enter the dark forest—a forest Fatty Bolger is too afraid to enter.

The threshold guardian is a second element of the hero’s journey. The threshold guardian is a plot element (it could be a person, a monster, an event or some other danger) which stands in the way of the hero entering the special world, but often ends up pressuring the hero into it. In The Lord of the Rings, Ringwraiths come to the Shire seeking to kill Frodo. Ultimately, they accelerate his departure from the ordinary world, as he flees the Shire to escape them. In our lives, threshold guardians can take any number of shapes: work pressures, personal relationships, movies, books, warnings or public events. All can work to keep us in our ordinary world while simultaneously providing pressure that may end up pushing us out.

Frodo and his companions’ last stop before their planned exit of the Shire is Crickhollow. They arrive, after evading the Ringwraiths, and find Fatty Bolger waiting for them. When they sit down to eat, Frodo is shocked—and gratified—to learn that his friends have discovered his secret plan to leave with Sam, and Merry and Pippin intend to go with them. Pippin explains to Frodo:

You must go—and therefore we must, too. Merry and I are coming with you. Sam is an excellent fellow, and would jump down a dragon’s throat to save you, if he did not trip over his own feet; but you will need more than one companion in your dangerous adventure.

Merry and Pippin understand the risks nearly as well as Frodo and Sam. Yet they are determined to accompany them, both for the sake of their friendship and because they realize the gravity of the quest.

After some discussion, Frodo decides that they must leave immediately, and secretly, by sneaking into the Old Forestwhich is rumored to be haunted and dangerousrather than wait until morning to travel by the high road. Here Fatty (Fredegar), speaks up.

“Well, do as you think best!”  said Fredegar. “I am more afraid of the Old Forest than of anything I know about: the stories about it are a nightmare; but my vote hardly counts as I am not going on the journey. Still, I am very glad someone is stopping behind, who can tell Gandalf what you have done, when he turns up, as I am sure he will before long.”

The narrator then comments on Fatty’s decision.

Fond as he was of Frodo, Fatty Bolger had no desire to leave the Shire, nor to see what lay outside it. His family came from the East-farthing, from Budgeford in Bridgefields in fact, but he had never been over the Brandywine Bridge. His task, according to the original plans of the conspirators, was to stay behind and deal with inquisitive folk, and to keep up as long as possible the pretence that Mr. Baggins was still living at Crickhollow. He had even brought along some old clothes of Frodo’s to help him in playing the part. They little thought how dangerous that part might prove.

There are three elements in Fatty’s choice that I find particularly challenging. First, Fatty chose not to go with Frodo because he liked his ordinary world. Second, he was not especially curious about the special world; in fact, the dangers of the special world (as represented in his mind by the Old Forest) frightened him. Third, Fatty justifies his decision to stay behind by pointing out the useful things remaining allows him to accomplish.

These reasons are challenging to me because they represent the strongest powers of the ordinary world. I know that my resistance to my own sense of calling has most often been due to the the lure of comfort combined with the fear of the unknown, bolstered by my capacity to justify continuing in the ordinary world. My regular job may not be all that rewarding, true, but it isn’t horrible either; many days it is downright pleasant. And I know some unfortunate stories about regular folk like me who tried something different and came to a bad end. Besides, if I stick with this job it will help me to build character and I will be able to feed my family; those things are important.
Some analyses might see forces like these as their own sort of threshold guardians, and there is probably something to that. But they aren’t the dramatic, identifiable sorts of guardians we might expect. These forces are subtler. In The Lord of the Rings, the Shire isn’t a villain, and the desire to enjoy it isn’t evil. Fatty, like Merry and Pippin, is under no compelling moral requirement to go with Frodo and Sam. In fact, in ordinary world terms, Fatty is willing to make a significant sacrifice of time and effort to support his friend. The danger of these forces isn’t that they are bad or evil; their danger lies in the fact that they are good.

In my experience, the call to embark on a hero’s journey is rarely fraught with the overtones of morality and responsibility that Frodo faces. He knows from the start that the quest is his moral responsibility, and his acceptance is noble. But I identify more with Merry, Pippin and Fatty. When I hear the call to adventure, it seems less a choice between good and evil and more a choice between two goods, one risky, the other more comfortable. Fatty was free to go with Frodo or to stay. Frodo doesn’t feel betrayed by Fatty’s choice, and Fatty’s justifications for staying are valid. And, as it turns out, Fatty is even able to do some good in the Shire by raising the alarm and saving members of his community from the Ringwraiths.

What is most tragic about Fatty Bolger is that he is not a villain at all. He is fundamentally a good person who merely passes up his opportunity for a greater life, for what Jesus called the abundant life. And make no mistake, Tolkien is clear that Fatty misses out. Fatty’s final appearance comes in the last book of the trilogy. When the company of Hobbits returns to the Shire, they find it conquered and corrupted by the evil wizard Saruman. They are obliged to reclaim the Shire before restoring and rebuilding itsomething they would not even have been able to attempt had they not become heroes on their journey. Only after the fighting is done and evil is defeated does Tolkien bring Fatty back into the narrative:

The clearing up certainly needed a lot of work, but it took less time than Sam had feared. The day after the battle Frodo rode into Michel Delving and released the prisoners from the Lockholes. One of the first that they found was poor Fredegar Bolger, Fatty no longer. He had been taken when the ruffians smoked out a band of rebels that he led from their hidings up in the Brockenbores by the hills of Scary.

 “You would have done better to come with us after all, poor old Fredegar!” said Pippin, as they carried him out too weak to walk.

He opened an eye and tried gallantly to smile. “Who’s this young giant with the loud voice?” he whispered. “Not little Pippin! What’s your size in hats now?”

Tolkien could hardly be more clear. In choosing the ordinary world, Fatty not only missed out on the opportunity to have a vital, abundant life, he also failed to secure the very thing he stayed home to protect. The last paragraph is, to me, heartbreaking. Pippin, Fatty’s foil, has grown taller, stronger and healthier during his sojourn in the special world, while Fatty has shrunk, starved and been imprisoned. His story parallels Lot’s in the book of Genesis.

Lot is the nephew of the archetypal biblical hero Abraham. Like Fatty, Lot isn’t mentioned nearly as often as his more famous uncle. In Genesis, he travels with Abraham until their respective flocks and herds became too large to graze together. Abraham decides they should split up and go their separate ways. Being a good uncle, Abraham lets Lot choose the region he will use for pasture, and Lot choses the easier, less dangerous, territory. In the years that follow this separation Abraham ends up saving Lot’s life twice, while Lot ends up losing everything but his children. It seems that the major insight the hero’s journey has for times of decision is that refusing the journey risks losing the very things we want to preserve.

This dynamic reminds me of a principle I first ran across in C.S. Lewis’s essay First and Second Things:

The longer I looked into it the more I came to suspect that I was perceiving a universal law. . . . The woman who makes a dog the centre her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. . . . Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made.

Or put more succinctly:

Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth “thrown in”: aim at Earth and you will get neither.

My lament for Fredegar Bolger, and for the Fatty Bolger in myself and in all of us, is that he missed out on the piercing joy of abundant life, not because he was bad or evil, not because he was immoral, but because he chose the lesser good over the greater. How often do we choose Fatty’s way over the hero’s journey, and what have we missed out on as a result? Our shrinking back deserves lament, not condemnation—and, if we are wise, our lament will help us to make a better choice next time. Fatty Bolger isn’t a hero and he isn’t a villain; he is merely a tragic character. I want my life to be more than that.

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