Title: Ring-bearers, Aging and Life in Aman
Topic: How would living in Aman effect the hobbits’ aging process?
Author's Notes: This essay started as a response to this thread topic on the SF-Fandom forums, so you can blame Michael Martinez, RobRoy, Alvin Eriol and the other boys over there for getting me going in this direction in the first place. My 'quick' response soon grew too long for a simple post, so I decided to turn it into an essay instead. This is my first essay in years, so be kind. :)
Word Count: 5,114
Ring-bearers, Aging and Life in Aman
At the end of The Lord of the Rings (LotR), J.R.R. Tolkien shows us a hero’s decline. Frodo Baggins, inheritor of the One Ring and entrusted with its destruction, did the impossible in delivering the Ring to Mount Doom, where it was destroyed, along with its previous owner Gollum. In order to see this deed through, Frodo spent the length of the Quest fighting the Ring’s temptations and deceits, which grew stronger the closer the Ring came to the place of its birth. In the process, he drained his own will and life force to save the Shire and all of Middle-earth. He was so damaged by his trials that he could not find healing in Middle-earth and so was granted by the Wise passage into Aman, where it was hoped his pains might lessen and eventually heal before his death.
Frodo’s cousin, Bilbo, was also granted permission to enter Aman. As finder of the Ring, he unwittingly served as its keeper and protector for sixty years. During that time, he seemed not to age at all, though he felt within himself a sort of stretching, as he described it to the wizard Gandalf. The Ring was ever on his mind, so that he worried about it constantly. Though Bilbo was reluctant to do so, he followed Gandalf’s counsel in giving up the Ring. This act, more than any other, was what ultimately allowed him access into Aman, both to keep Frodo company as well as for his own sake.
Frodo and Bilbo were the first mortals to be permitted into Aman, a land merely glimpsed by the reader during one of Frodo’s dreams while in the house of Tom Bombadil:
“But either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.”1
This description was repeated nearly word for word at the end of the book when Frodo and Bilbo sail into the West.
Before they sail, however, Frodo indicated that Samwise Gamgee, his companion on the Quest and a Ring-bearer as well, might also one day make the journey. Near the end of the Tale of Years, found in Appendix B, this appears to be the case. In 1482, after the death of his wife, Rose, Sam was said to have “passed the Towers, and went to the Grey Havens, and passed over Sea, last of the Ring-bearers,”2 according to his firstborn, Elanor the Fair.
Given that during his time as Mayor, Sam had written a law that any who sailed over Sea in view of a witness was to be considered as giving up all properties, titles and rights for inheritance purposes3, then it can be assumed that Elanor indeed did witness this event.
What happens after the sailing of the Hobbit Ring-bearers is a mystery. Tolkien tells us nothing of their time in Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle of the Elves that lays within sight of Valinor in Aman. Without any form of substantial canon on the matter, this leaves more than a few question marks among readers. It is a time period that fan fiction writers have explored with earnestness. With so little information to go by, there seems to be endless possibilities, always culminating in Frodo and Sam happily reunited in Aman. But is this a real possibility or mere wishful thinking? Would they be able to endure to see Legolas and Gimli arrive decades later? How long would Bilbo, who had already lived well beyond his years thanks to the One Ring, have been there to help Frodo with the transition?
Sprinkled throughout LotR, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Letters) and The Silmarillion (TS) are hints and clues of what life for a mortal would be like in Aman and just how long the hobbits would be able to live there.
The Lifespan of a Hobbit
In the footnote to Letter 131, Tolkien writes, “The view is taken … that each ‘Kind’ has a natural span, integral to its biological and spiritual nature. This cannot really be increased qualitatively or quantitatively…”4
In other words, disregarding for the moment certain outside influences, a Hobbit can only live for as long as a Hobbit’s natural lifespan permits. It is quite common for Hobbits to live past one-hundred years of age, and the oldest living Hobbit in record, Gerontius Took, also known as the Old Took, lived to be 130.5
In order to determine what Frodo’s natural lifespan might have been had the Ring never come to him, and he had been allowed to live out his life in peace in the Shire, an examination of the family trees provided in Appendix C is essential. Tolkien does not give us the year of death for all the Hobbits on the family trees, but with the ones he does provide, a rough estimate can be calculated. Bilbo’s age, which was elongated due to the influence of the Ring, is not considered in these calculations. Also not to be counted are Lotho Sackville-Baggins, Drogo Baggins and Primula Brandybuck Baggins, as their deaths are known to be untimely. One can also make the same case for Hobbits who are noted to have died in the Shire-Reckoning 1311 and 1312, as these are the years of and directly following the Fell Winter2, but without confirmation, one must assume that deaths recorded in these years are natural in origin. There are also a handful of Hobbits who died in their eighties, but without confirmation or notation of accident or illness, one must assume these deaths natural as well. In regards to the Old Took, whose exceptionally long years are an anomaly among Hobbit-kind, but still of natural influence so far as we know, the calculations are made both with and without his data.
The Baggins family tree lists the birth and death years of fourteen of Frodo’s relatives. Frodo’s first cousin twice-removed, Bungo Baggins, lived the shortest life at 80 years, and his aunt Dora the longest at 104 years, the average of which is 92 years. The average lifespan of all the Bagginses who are counted on this tree is 95.4 years. The mean, being the ages most oft repeated, are 90 and 96. The median, that being the number that falls in the middle of all ages if listed in ascending order, is 96.
In the Brandybuck family tree, Tolkien gives us the birth and death years of ten countable Brandybucks. Frodo’s first cousin Merimac died the youngest at 88 years, and his uncle Rorimac lived the longest at 106 years, the average of which is 97. The average lifespan for all Brandybucks counted is 97.7 years, the mean are 99 and 102, and the median is 99.
The Took family tree is by far the most telling, giving the reader a list of twenty-four Hobbits whose birth and death years are known. Due to the long lifespan of Frodo’s great-grandfather Gerontius, the calculations from this tree can get complicated. There is a twenty-six year difference between Gerontius and Frodo’s second longest-living Took relative, his uncle Isembold, who lived to the respectable age of 104. Frodo’s aunt Belladonna died the youngest at 82. Frodo’s uncles Isembard and Hildibrand are the other two of his relations who passed away in their eighties, both at the age of 85. So while the Took family tree gives Frodo his longest-living relative, it also gives him the most relatives to have died before the age of 90.
When looking at Frodo’s longest-living and shortest-living relatives amongst the Tooks, the averages between the two are 93 years of age without Gerontius, and 109 years with him. The average age of all Tooks without Gerontius is 97.7 years, and with Gerontius only 99.04 years, a difference of 1.34 years. The mean remains the same at 102, as does the median at 100.
Looking at Frodo’s direct lines of descent, these being his grandparents, great-grandparents and so on, the numbers get a slight boost. There are fourteen Hobbits between these lines, none of whom died before their nineties. In fact, his great-grandfather Largo Baggins died the youngest at 92, and, after Gerontius, his grandfather Gorbadoc Brandybuck lived the longest at 103, an average of which is 97.5 years. The average of youngest and oldest with Gerontius jumps to eleventy-one, or 111 years. The average lifespan of all of Frodo’s direct relatives is 98.7 without and 103.3 with Gerontius. The mean and median remain the same as the Took family tree, at 102 and 100 respectively.
There is one more family tree that may be considered: the Bolgers of Budgeford. First published in The Peoples of Middle-earth (PoME) and later included in the amended 50th Anniversary edition of LotR, there may be doubts about the accuracy of this tree. Both Fredegar’s and Estella’s birth years in the final tree given in PoME are different than they are in the Took family tree.6 There is evidence that Tolkien meant to include both the Bolger and Boffin trees in LotR all along, but he was not able to finalize them in time for the printing of The Return of the King (RotK), and so they were abandoned and omitted until the printing of the 50th Anniversary edition.
An examination of this tree as published in the 50th Anniversary edition add nine more relatives whose ages are known, three of whom are in Frodo’s direct line of descent. The numbers fall very much in the same realm as the Baggins, Brandybuck and Took family trees, and the three additional direct relatives do not change the numbers in Frodo’s direct line in any significant way.
By examining the family trees it can be determined that, barring injury or illness, and assuming a life without the One Ring’s influences or the demands of the Quest, Frodo could have lived anywhere from his early nineties to early one-hundreds, or even Bilbo’s age of special magnificence, 111, if he were so lucky at to share his great-grandfather Gerontius’s longevity.
Frodo was nearing his fifty-third birthday when he set sail with Bilbo. Another sixty-three years passed before Sam made the journey into the West, which would make Frodo, if he was still alive at that time, 116 years of age and well beyond even his most-optimistically expected lifespan.
The One Ring and the Elongation of Mortal Life
However, Frodo was no ordinary Hobbit. Through his cousin Bilbo and the creature Gollum, he inherited the One Ring and carried it for over seventeen years. Bilbo carried the Ring for over sixty years, and Gollum possessed it for nearly 500 years. If it is true that each Kind has a natural lifespan that cannot be increased, how then is Bilbo’s and Gollum’s remarkable longevity to be explained, and how does this ultimately effect Frodo’s expectations for a longer than usual lifespan?
The first half of this answer comes from Bilbo himself. After his Birthday Party, he tells Gandalf that he has grown stretched and thinned, “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”7 So too are Bilbo’s years. The amount of years (butter) doesn’t change but are instead stretched over more time (bread) than they are meant to be. Time continues to tick by, but the aging process is slowed to a veritable crawl. Gandalf explains it to Frodo as such: “A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness.”8
It is made clear that it is the Ring that is responsible for Bilbo’s long years, a point emphasized by the Ring’s previous owner Gollum who, as a creature of Hobbit-kind, should have passed away centuries earlier. It is also clear that this stretching process begins as soon as one comes into possession of the One Ring. Bilbo, at 111, was described as having “prolonged vigor. … Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. An ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark.”7 The same is observed of Frodo after he gains possession of the Ring at his coming-of-age at thirty-three: “As time wore on, people began to notice that Frodo also showed signs of good ‘preservation’: outwardly he retained the appearance of a robust and energetic hobbit just out of his tweens.”8
What is not so clear is how this stretching process effects the lifespan once the Ring is no longer in the owner’s possession, much less once it is ultimately destroyed. Through Gandalf, the reader is told that these effects will eventually wear off. Indeed, once Bilbo gave up the Ring, “he felt better at once.”8 Gandalf then goes on to say that as Bilbo held the Ring for years and used it, though not for malice, “it might take a while for the influence to wear off [and] he might live on for years, quite happily: just stop as he was when he parted with it.”8
From this, it would appear that the Ring would continue to elongate Bilbo’s lifespan even after Bilbo gave the Ring over to Frodo. Yet Bilbo felt better, no longer stretched and weary, almost at once. Later, when Frodo and his friends arrived in Rivendell with the Ring, Bilbo was described as still quite lively. He spent his time writing his book, translating Elven lore and making up songs, which he sings to the Elves at night.9 He stayed up late to talk with Frodo and yet was wide awake early the next morning for the council meeting. During this meeting, he told his story of acquiring the Ring and when he came to the telling of his contest with Gollum, “he did not omit a single riddle.”10 He had an impressive share of energy and cognitive ability for a hobbit of 128 years. Of his physical appearance, the reader was told almost nothing, except in Boromir’s brief observation of him during the council as an “old hobbit”10 which surely he was. If the Ring’s influence had begun to wear off as soon as Bilbo disposed of it, then this process appears to be a slow one.
However, one year later, after the Ring’s destruction: Bilbo was described as “very old, but peaceful, and sleepy.”11 He was further described as staying mostly in his room, except for meals, and sleeping a lot. In fact it seemed he could barely stay awake. He even forgot that he had already given Sting and his mithril coat to Frodo, and so gave them to Frodo again. This is in vast contrast to the hobbit who mocked Elrond for pretending to wake him up in the Hall of Fire the night before the council meeting. It would appear that in six month’s time, counting from the date of the Ring’s destruction, Bilbo had grown exceedingly elderly and frail. The reader was warned of this when Frodo voiced his concern to Arwen that Bilbo did not accompany the rest of Elrond’s household to Gondor. Arwen’s reply was simple but harrowing:
“Do you wonder at that, Ring-bearer? ... For you know the power of that thing which is now destroyed; and all that was done by that power is now passing away. But your kinsman possessed this thing longer than you. He is ancient in years now, according to his kind; and he awaits you, for he will not again make any long journey save one.”11
If it is true that the Ring stops the aging process, then Bilbo was essentially still fifty years-old when he gave the Ring into Frodo’s keeping. If it is likewise true that the aging process begins again upon giving up the Ring, then Bilbo would in effect be the equivalent of sixty-seven years of age in body at the Council of Elrond. From his behavior, this is easily believed. Yet once the Ring was destroyed, the situation changed radically. Bilbo essentially aged sixty years in six months, but if by the mere fact of giving up the Ring it was no longer affecting his aging process, then Bilbo should still be the equivalent of a middle-aged Hobbit. It appears then that the Ring continued to effect those who once bore it, even at great distances, and would continue to do so until its ultimate destruction.
The only other living Ring-bearer that might be able to confirm this unfortunately does little to solve the riddle. The reader is never given a birth year for Gollum, or Sméagol, so his age upon acquiring the Ring is unknown. He could have been twenty or thirty, or he could have been fifty or eighty. Given that his grandmother was still alive when Déagol found the Ring, one can assume that Sméagol was closer to twenty or thirty, and so essentially frozen at that age the entire time he possessed the Ring. What is known is that Gollum endured another seventy-eight years after losing the Ring. If one supposes, as in the example with Bilbo above, that Gollum began to age normally again as soon as the Ring abandoned him, he would have been the equivalent of ninety-eight to one-hundred-and-eight by the time of the Quest, an age at which most creatures of Hobbit-kind are passing away naturally.
Gollum’s physical appearance in The Hobbit (TH) and LotR does little to help the reader. Tolkien says nothing of what Sméagol might have looked like before the Ring came to him. When Gollum is first introduced to the reader, deep in the caves of the Misty Mountains, he is already ancient: “a small slimy creature… with large feet… two big round pale eyes in his thin face… [and] long fingers as quick as thinking.”12 The other creatures that live deep down in the mountains are described with similar large round eyes, so that it would appear upon first reading that it was living in the darkness of the cave, and the lack of reliable well-rounded meals, that caused Gollum to have this appearance. Only later, when Tolkien introduced the Ringwraiths, former Kings of Men, does the reader understand that the Ring itself likely effected this physical transformation in Gollum. At what point the Ring began to affect this transformation, and how much it was aided by Gollum’s surroundings and dietary habits, if it was aided at all, is unknown. If the years without the Ring aged Gollum at all, it is difficult to tell by the time Frodo and Sam come upon him in the Emyn Muil, at which point Gollum is starved, depraved and desperate, driven solely by his desire for the Ring. Whether this is the result of living seventy-eight years without the Ring, of living hundreds of years with the Ring and in the pits of the caves, or just the naturally aged (and hungered) version of his kind, there is simply no telling.
The reader must rely on Gollum’s behavior to determine if he had aged during his separation from the Ring, or if he continued to be influenced, and so his aging stalled, simply by the mere existence of the Ring. Granted, there are some sprightly ninety-eight to one-hundred-and-eight year-olds, and Gollum’s hard life molded him into a creature capable of sustaining himself on little sustenance and under extreme conditions. If Gollum truly was the equivalent of an aged and frail hobbit by the time of the Quest, would he be able to endure torture at Sauron's hand, climb up and down nearly-vertical mountain cliffs with little sign of exhaustion, and still possess the strength to strangle and tackle a thirty-seven year-old hobbit more than double his weight?
It could be plausible, but it's far more likely that the Ring was still stretching him, just as it was doing to Bilbo. After all, Gollum’s link to the Ring was strong. He held it for hundreds of years and at first used it often and with malicious intent, terrorizing his village for seven years before his grandmother cast him out. Only by the end did he use it only for hunting orcs. Therefore, the Ring was still able to effect him after losing it, even over such a great distance. As with Bilbo, this link was only severed with the destruction of the Ring, at which time those 450-plus years would have come roaring to catch up with him in an instant.
From this, it can be concluded that simply giving up the Ring is not enough to cease its influence over those who once bore it. The natural aging process did not begin again for Bilbo after giving up the Ring. If he felt better instantly, it was only from no longer being guardian of the Ring; it was no longer his burden to worry about. He continued to linger in his fifty year-old body until after the Ring was destroyed, at which time his lost seventy-seven years caught up, and caught up quickly. The same too went for Gollum. How much longer he would have lived after the Ring’s destruction is hard to say. Gollum himself appeared to know he would not last long without it, stating he would “die into dust”13 if the Ring went into the Fire. As such, his form of death was actually a mercy, for he would not have lived much longer without the Ring and that time, whether it be minutes, hours or days, would have been pure anguish to him.
Frodo’s natural aging process was stopped for only seventeen years and he would still be quite young by Hobbit standards at the Ring’s destruction. Even so, aging seventeen years in a handful of months could not be easy for him, especially as he was already so worn and weak from the trials he endured on the Quest. By the time of his sailing, his body’s aging process would have long since caught up with his years, making invalid any arguments that the Ring’s ability to elongate one’s life somehow allowed him to live long enough in Aman for Sam’s sailing.
The Ring-bearers in Aman
Without the Ring to extend their lives, and their natural lifespans against them to survive for Sam’s sailing, there is the desire amongst fan fiction writers to impose the Blessed Realms’s supposed magical qualities onto the Ring-bearers. Some writers even go so far as to allow the hobbits to age in reverse, or even have them living long enough to see Legolas and Gimli arrive in the Undying Lands 220 years after Frodo and Bilbo made their sailing. Unfortunately, these magical qualities simply do not exist. The nicknames for Aman are perhaps to blame for this misunderstanding, as even the Númenóreans made this same mistake.
When Sauron at last convinced Ar-Pharazon to assault Valinor, he did so with the promise that upon reaching the Blessed Realm, the Númenóreans would be granted not just the extended lifespans gifted to them, but immortality. “This was a delusion of course, a Satanic lie. For as emissaries from the Valar clearly inform him, the Blessed Realm does not confer immortality. The land is blessed because the Blessed dwell there, not vice versa, and the Valar are immortal by right and nature, while Men are mortal by right and nature.”14
There is a further reason for the Númenóreans to be weary of reaching those Blessed shores. Not only does the land not confer immortality, but for mortals, it actually diminishes their lifespan. As Tolkien explains it in Letter 131: “[The Númenóreans] must not set foot on ‘immortal’ lands, and so become enarmoured of an immortality..., which was against their law, ... and which their nature could not in fact endure.”4 The Elves warned Ar-Pharazon so: “[W]ere you so to voyage ... to Aman, the Blessed Realm, little would it profit you. For ... there you would but wither and grow weary the sooner, as moths in a light too strong and steadfast.”15
By the time of the Ring-bearers’ sailing, Bilbo had already outlived his natural lifespan, and Frodo was still considered middle-age at fifty-three. Without the Ring to extend their lives, they would in fact die sooner than they would have if they had remained in Middle-earth. Bilbo would almost certainly perish as soon as they arrived at Tol Erreseä, perhaps surviving only long enough to see some of the island and to see Frodo settled. Any hope that Frodo might be able to reach the optimistic eleventy-one years made possible for him by his lineage becomes that much more difficult to achieve in Aman, and even that respectable age would be three years shy of Sam’s arrival.
Some readers may find hope in the fact that while the hobbits “cannot abide for ever... they can and will ‘die’ – of free will, and leave the world [emphasis added].”16 This is not to be confused, however, with the extended lifespans that were granted to the Númenóreans. The hobbits were given no such gift; being allowed to dwell in the Blessed Realm, where all other mortals had previously been denied living, so that they might find healing and peace before departing the world would be gift enough in the eyes of the Valar. So while the hobbits could choose when to die, they could not put it off indefinitely or use this choice to expand their lives beyond the years given them by their nature.
The question then becomes would Frodo willingly prolong his life on the chance that Sam might sail to Aman? First, he never promised to wait, nor did he ever tell Sam that they might meet again there. A close reading of “The Grey Havens” reveals that he merely promised Sam the opportunity to sail, but even this isn’t definite. “Your time may come [emphasis added]”17 is the precise quote. Frodo had not foreseen Sam’s sailing, nor was he guaranteed that Sam will choose to do so. Sam could as easily have passed before his wife or chosen to remain in Middle-earth with his family. For Frodo to linger beyond his years on a promise never extended nor expected would be folly, especially considering the consequences:
“The view is taken... that each ‘Kind’ has a natural span... This cannot really be increased qualitatively or quantitatively; so that prolongation in time is like stretching a wire out ever tauter, or ‘spreading butter ever thinner’ – it becomes an intolerable torment.”4
In other words, living in Aman beyond one’s natural lifespan has the same effect as bearing the One Ring. As these were the very wounds that Frodo was granted passage to Aman from which to heal, it would be poor repayment of the Valar’s mercy to not only willingly subject himself to that torment again but to commit the same sins of pride and disobedience as the Black Númenóreans did when they attempted to sail on Valinor.
Nearly all fan fiction writers in the LotR fandom, this author included, yearn for the happy ending that Tolkien could not give the readers: Frodo healed and reunited with Sam in the Undying Lands. One of Tolkien’s major themes is the importance of hope beyond endurance and the necessity to keep oneself from despairing even when all seems lost.
Given this, it must be noted that there is a small hope for a reunion, for there is still to be considered Gerontius Took. While the chance is minimal that Frodo would have inherited his great-grandfather’s long-lived genes, the chance does still exist. There is also the possibility that since the Ring-bearers were residing in Tol Erresëa rather than Valinor itself, the stress of living in Aman may not have affected them quite as severely as it would have otherwise. Combined, these two possibilities, however slim, could have allowed Frodo to survive long enough naturally to see Sam’s arrival, but not much longer beyond that, and certainly not long enough to witness the Last Ship’s arrival with the last of the Fellowship on board.
However, the reunion scenario has little support in the canon and post-humous publishings. Perhaps the most telling of all the citations given is the one not given: nowhere does Tolkien explicitly say that such a reunion ever occurred nor does he imply that one was possible. The far more likely outcome would be that Sam would arrive to find that Frodo had already passed. That Sam would live out the rest of his days in a world alone would be more in keeping with the man who lost so many friends to the ravages of war.
Ring-bearers, Aging and Life in Aman
Chapter End Notes:
1 – LotR: FotR, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”
2 – LotR: RotK, Appendix B
3 – Letters, No. 214
4 – Letters, No. 131
5 – LotR: RotK, Appendix C
6 – PoME, “The Family Trees”
7 – LotR: FotR, “A Long-Expected Party”
8 – LotR: FotR, “Shadows of the Past”
9 – LotR: FotR, “Many Meetings”
10 – LotR: FotR, “Council of Elrond”
11 – LotR: RotK, “Many Partings”
12 – TH, “Riddles in the Dark”
13 - LotR: RotK: “Mount Doom”
14 – Letters, No. 156
15 – TS, “Akallabêth”
16 - Letters, No. 154
17 - LotR: RotK, “The Grey Havens”