'...and so, of course, not true.'
After so many years of reading, discussing, and thinking and writing about The Lord of the Rings, I find that many of my “ah-ha” moments now come from a single bit of text, or one line of dialogue, that strikes me in a way it hasn't before. You may have noticed this if you've read very many of these essays - or even if you've only looked at their titles.
I've always loved Merry's “It was a compliment and so, of course, not true,” as a great example of hobbit banter. It ranks high on my list of top 10 comeback lines (nothing could beat Frodo's, “I won't. Never. But I may forgive you.”) But could it be more than that?
As usual when discussing one of these individual lines, I'm not claiming that Tolkien meant it to be something more - although that's certainly possible. As someone who's dabbled in fiction writing myself, I know how a character can do something that's, well, in character, without the author consciously planning it. And Tolkien's characters are so fully realized that I have no doubt this happened to him frequently (we know from his letters that it did happen, but we don't know how often).
The evidence points to Merry being Frodo's best friend at the time Bilbo leaves. Considering Frodo's years at Brandy Hall, that would make perfect sense. I'm not the only one who has reflected on the possibility that, as two “only children,” they might even have had an older/younger brother relationship. Merry would have been a child when Frodo moved to Bag End, but the story certainly indicates that they remained close. And, although Merry was just entering his tweens at the time of the Party, he had already shown himself to be responsible enough that Frodo felt he could handle things on his own for awhile. He probably could have, if it hadn't been for the S-B's.
The exchange that leads directly to Merry's comment is straightforward. Lobelia says to Frodo, “You're no Baggins. You... you're a Brandybuck.” After Frodo shuts the door on her, he turns to Merry (whose last name Tolkien helpfully supplies at that point in case we missed it earlier) and says, “That was an insult, if you like,” referring to being called a Brandybuck. Merry's response, however, is about being a Brandybuck, which takes things a notch deeper. It's not unusual for hobbit banter to shift things like this, especially with someone who's as good at it as Merry is. It seems to me that Merry chooses to respond not just to Lobelia's “you're a Brandybuck” but to what led into it:
Why didn't you go, too? You don't belong here. You're not a Baggins...
I have the feeling that at that moment Frodo would have liked nothing better than to obey her. He's not the Mr. Baggins of Bag End at this point, but a very young hobbit who's just come of age and, in essence, has just been orphaned for the second time. The fact that Lobelia's earlier translation of “indisposed” as “hiding” isn't too far off the mark says a lot - Frodo's not having an easy time of it (and we all know what he's fiddling with in his pocket...). He'd offered to go with Bilbo, and even though that offer had been refused, it could still have seemed attractive.
In a society where everything is tallied in terms of family relationship, as it is in the Shire, Frodo's position has been somewhat in question since his parents died, some 20 years earlier. After 12 years with Bilbo, it's still being questioned (and being gossiped about, as we know from overhearing the earlier conversation at the Ivy Bush). This is the first day Frodo hasn't had Bilbo there to act as a buffer. The new Mr. Baggins of Bag End has a decision to make: since he can't follow Bilbo, he can either stand his ground when confronted and claim the inheritance Bilbo wanted him to have, or he can pack up his things and ride back with Merry to a place where he'll be welcomed instead of attacked, even though there's no real future for him there. And Merry's perceptive enough to understand this. As much as he would have liked to have Frodo around, he's having none of it - a true friend, indeed.
What's Merry responding to?
“You don't belong here.” Not true.
“You're no Baggins.” Not true.
“You're a Brandybuck.” A compliment and so, of course, not true.
If Frodo's not a Brandybuck he has to be something else, and a Baggins is the only choice left. You belong right here, Merry's response seems to say, and you know it.
We find out later that the concerned observation of Frodo that led to the Conspiracy began as soon as Bilbo left. I wouldn't be surprised if this scene - possibly this very bit of dialogue - shows us its beginning.
The background on this page is made from the plaque hanging on the wall of the study in Bag End in LotR-RotK.
Copyright 2007 by Trudy G. Shaw
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