Transformation Beyond the Shire: Thresholds and Liminal Spaces in The Fellowship of the Ring

Transformation Beyond the Shire: Thresholds and Liminal Spaces in The Fellowship of the Ring

About the author:

I have now graduated Dawson College to study at Concordia University. I did my DEC in the ALC Languages program, in which I focused on Spanish. When inspired, I enjoy exploring and connecting themes through creative writing. I also really enjoy expressive arts like dance, art, and music, which give me even more means of telling stories.

As I read through the Lord of the Rings, I was quite inspired by the rich array of images, symbols, and quotes. It was a fascinating discovery to delve into Tolkien’s world, where his use of language created elaborate scenes and complex meanings.


Transformation Beyond the Shire: Thresholds and Liminal Spaces in The Fellowship of the Ring

By Anneliese Zwaagstra

for The Lord of the Rings with Prof. Rebecca Million


All it takes is stepping forward, just moving beyond that threshold to find oneself in places of discovery and growth. In Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo Baggins’ first steps outside the Shire mean leaving everything behind to discover important realities about the unknown world and himself.  As Frodo crosses various thresholds, J.R.R. Tolkien demonstrates not only how each one brings Frodo farther on his journey, but also how they mark stages of his personal growth and reflect the types of transformation that take place. These transformations can be seen by looking at three particular thresholds: the Hedge, the Old Forest, and Rivendell.

The first major threshold of Frodo’s journey is the Hedge dividing the Shire from a world completely unknown to him. Following a preliminary point in the archetype of “the hero’s Journey,” Frodo and his friends’ crossing of this threshold marks the beginning of Frodo’s journey away from all that is familiar, as that of anyone starting to reckon with and assume a bigger role in the larger world. At this point in the story, Frodo has come to see that the Shire is no longer as safe as it once seemed, and he must set out to bring the Ring, which seems to draw danger, away to Rivendell.  For the first time, Frodo actually confronts the foreign environment outside the Shire and his own uncertain feelings about it. Tolkien draws attention to this transition in Merry’s declaration: “You have left the Shire, and are now outside, and on the edge of the Old Forest” (Tolkien 124). He also reveals Frodo’s misgivings by describing the sound of the hedge gate closing behind them as “ominous” (124). Furthermore, in his quest on behalf of the Hobbits, Frodo takes on a role reflecting that of this specific hedge. Merry tells the story of how the trees of the Old Forest “do not like strangers” and “long ago … attacked the Hedge” (124). This hedge stood between Hobbiton, an image of benevolent nature, and the trees, malevolent nature, as a barrier over which the trees had to lean. Similarly, Frodo represents the Hobbits in their innocence as he ventures out of the Shire to confront threatening darkness.

Upon leaving the Hedge, Frodo and his friends enter the Old Forest. This liminal space introduces Frodo to both the dangers and beauties of the outside world, bringing him away from his innocence and closer to experience. Not only does Frodo’s experience in the Forest cause him to face both wonder and fear, but things Frodo learns about the forest also increase his awareness of an older and bigger world than he has known. Passing through, Frodo and his friends witness the trees’ ambivalent nature as they close in on and open up the Hobbits’ path. The trees also draw the Hobbits in wonder to the enticing charm of an old willow. Tolkien describes the Forest as a living place with experience of its own. As Merry informs the group, “Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on … than things are in the Shire” (124). It is through Tom Bombadil’s account of this experience that Frodo is given another glimpse of hard life—including “the evil [and] good things, things friendly [and] unfriendly, cruel [and] kind things”—beyond his simple Shire (147). As the Hobbits hear these things, the narrator says “they [begin] to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home” (147). Already so shortly after his first steps into the unknown, Frodo is having his eyes opened to the smallness of his part compared to the vast history and complex events of Middle Earth. Through Frodo’s own observations and challenges in the Old Forest and through what he is taught by its story, one sees Frodo moving more and more out of innocence to experience.

The Old Forest’s nature also reflects a specific understanding Frodo gains about the world. The Forest holds a grudge from being damaged by Hobbits and it is bitter. These sentiments begin as relatively new concepts for Frodo, who responds, “Revenge?”, when first told of the Dark Power’s motives (53). This innocence is replaced with broader awareness when he learns about the Forest’s “hatred of…destroyers and usurpers [and its] malice” (147). These characteristics of the Old Forest become defining elements of Frodo’s growth through this liminal space.

By the time Frodo finally reaches Rivendell, the place he thought would be his destination, he has been severely wounded. He narrowly escapes devastating consequences from this wound, and wakes up in Rivendell. In this liminal space, Frodo is shown a source of beauty to offset the terror of evil in the world. He also reflects on how his venture into the unknown has already affected him and must consider his position within the bigger picture, with which he is becoming more and more involved.

While the Old Forest presents Frodo with glimpses of the world’s beauty and darkness, Rivendell also gives Frodo his first clear experience of the wider world’s beauty and remaining security. From his first moments alert in the Elven city, Frodo feels “comfortable and peaceful” (245). He is also given the hope that, though danger is real, there are still strongholds of peace and those who will not simply submit when threatened. The Elves are proof of this, in that, “in Rivendell, there live still some of [the Dark Lord’s] chief foes” who will “[never] listen to him or serve him” (247). Rivendell provides a relieving contrast to the discouraging trials Frodo has faced and the corruption he has witnessed.

Frodo notices differences in himself as soon as he recovers enough to get out of bed. When he looks into a mirror, he sees “a much thinner reflection of himself than he remembered” (252). Not only has his journey taken a toll on his body, but his eyes reflect an inner change as well. Following the previous observation, he notes that his eyes “looked out at him thoughtfully” and remarks that they have, meaning he had, “seen a thing or two” since the Shire (252). One can discern he was not referring to an appreciated experience, as he follows his remark with the contrast of a “merry meeting” and “[whistles] a tune” (252). These observations in Rivendell mark Frodo’s realization of his own transformation and awareness of the cost of growing up.

The fact that Frodo is not aware of the moment he passes into Rivendell is unlike his crossing of the earlier thresholds. He wakes up to discover where he is and how he has changed. This is an effective device applied by Tolkien in this hero’s journey as he depicts an important reality of growing up: one does not usually notice one’s own growth until after it has occurred.

Frodo’s accepting to continue his Quest demonstrates the growth of his character. After facing the harsh realities of the unknown, rather than the adventure he once dreamed of, Frodo is only dissuaded from venturing out again. As he tells Gandalf, “[S]o far my only thought has been to get [to Rivendell]; and I hope I shan’t have to go any further. It is very pleasant just to rest. I have had a month of exile and adventure, and I find that has been as much as I want” (247). Yet, when it becomes clear that the Ring must go on to be destroyed, Frodo volunteers to carry it. Despite the “overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace”, he speaks up “with an effort” and says, “I will take the Ring, […] though I do not know the way” (303). This self-sacrifice is a key sign that Frodo’s journey has indeed already grown him up, both in understanding the Quest’s importance and bravely pursuing it, with awareness of its dangers, for the greater good.

Frodo’s visible transformation at Rivendell is comparable to the magical quality of the Elven haven. As Rivendell is an enchanted place where “[time] doesn’t seem to pass”, Frodo also seems to be taking on a more surreal quality, particularly since wraiths wounded him (259). Just outside Rivendell, he “was beginning to fade” into another world, due to his wound, and Gandalf notices “a faint change, just a hint of…transparency, about [Frodo],” even after he is cured (250). It appears that Frodo is becoming gradually removed; similar to how Rivendell is a haven of rest from the natural world.

It can be seen that, through various physical transitions, Frodo Baggins is also undergoing character development with the experiences these transitions bring. Moreover, the settings of these transitions give further insight into what traits Frodo develops. Tolkien effectively presents, with Frodo’s progress, elements to be considered about one’s own journey from the innocence of childhood to adulthood and how to face its challenges. There is difficulty and ugliness with the unknowns in the real world, but there is beauty and strength too which, if realized, help one face the darkness.


 Works Cited

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring, New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.

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