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  • Little Nell and Frodo the Halfling
  • Dale Nelson (bio)

Dickens an influence on Tolkien? This may seem unlikely. That medieval literature contributed lavishly to the formation of Tolkien's imagination is accepted by everyone; that he was influenced by fantasists such as Rider Haggard is also accepted. But Dickens?

Before getting down to cases, we may consider a little literary history. The novels of Dickens have been part of the mental furniture of Anglophones for a century and a half, but it seems that, today, it's often the novels from the second half (1852-1870) of Dickens's career, such as Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, and Bleak House, that are read, while earlier works have fallen out of favor. Dickens truly was a popular author well into the twentieth century, but now he is a "classic," and the custodians of the classics—the professors and high-school teachers—seem to favor the books mentioned above. (It may be that the very early Oliver Twist is also widely read as a "college prep" book, since it is a relatively short Dickens novel with a strong narrative pull.)

It seems likely that The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, and the subject of this note, The Old Curiosity Shop, are not much read any more in North America or the United Kingdom; but these (and Oliver Twist) were prominent in the "popular Dickens" of former days: Dickens was famous for his melodramatic plots and loved for his characters, and most of the Dickensian characters who were famous—who were people who could be mentioned in conversation or articles without requiring explanation, such as Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, Wackford Squeers (the brutal headmaster of Dotheboys Hall), the hypocritical Pecknsiff and the hilarious, grotesque Mrs. Gamp—were from these early books, including Oliver Twist (Fagin, Sykes and Nancy).1 In the decades when Dickens' novels were read for enjoyment rather than as set books for schools, these early books—plus David Copperfield—seem to have been the popular favorites. Except for Copperfield (1849-50), they were published from 1836-1844.

We do not have the record of Tolkien's reading that scholars could wish. However, it is possible that Tolkien's conception of the weary Frodo, "bound" to a whining, undependable, addicted and dangerous Gollum, making his way across the blighted landscape of Mordor whilst being [End Page 245] pursued by an implacable enemy, sustained only by water and meager portions of Elvish lembas, owes something to the principal character and action of The Old Curiosity Shop.

When the hideous dwarf Quilp seizes orphan Nell's bankrupt grandfather's shop, the child and her elderly relative set out as furtive pilgrims hoping to find a new home somewhere far from London. Nell, who is in early adolescence and whose vulnerability is emphasized, wishes to escape Quilp, who has unwholesome designs on her. She is bound (by blood and affection) to make an appalling journey with an unlovable person who brings her into dangerous situations because of his obsessive passion for what is not his (namely, the money he longs to win by gambling). Similarly, Frodo, hungry, weakened by his Nazgûl-knife wound and his inner struggle against the Ring he bears, must travel cross-country into unknown, ever-worsening locales, while eluding the Black Riders, the screeching Nazgûl, and other agents of Sauron, and is forced by circumstances to retain Gollum's company despite Gollum's spitefulness, unreliability, lust for the Ring, and capacity for betrayal. (There is no counterpart in Dickens's novel to Samwise, Frodo's faithful companion.) Toiling through devastated regions, Frodo and Nell can only dream of trees and green fields.

After having suffered much from hunger and exposure, Nell and her grandfather, in rags, arrive at an unnamed industrial town—Birmingham or Manchester. They are destitute, afraid, and forced to double back on their tracks. The language below, from chapters 44 and 45, recalls Tolkien's descriptions of Frodo and Sam making their way through Sauron's accursed realm—and, incidentally, Saruman's heavy industry at Orthanc.

…the tall chimneys vomiting forth a black vapour, which hung in a dense...