Bizarre Fan Theories Examined is a segment that takes some of the most unusual fan theories from across the internet and analyzes them based on the evidence.
This post may contain spoilers for The Lord of the Rings books and movies.
I first ran across this theory a few years ago on a Lord of the Rings fan forum. It’s one of those theories that sounds completely crazy, but that has a surprising amount of circumstantial evidence to back it up. I mean, obviously the books don’t directly support it or it wouldn’t be a “bizarre fan theory.” And we’re unlikely to get any sort of Word of God statement on this one because as far as I can tell, Tolkien never addressed it and he’s been deceased for decades. Most people seem to dismiss this theory out of hand, but I like to chew it over from time to time … partly because I think it would be an interesting detail thematically.
We know that Frodo’s parents drowned in a boating accident on the Brandywine River when Frodo was just a wee little hobbit. There were unconfirmed rumors of foul play. We also know that Gollum was looking for the ring for most of the time between losing it and meeting up with Frodo and Sam in The Two Towers. The only things that Gollum had to go on in his search were Bilbo’s name and the name of the Shire. Gandalf mentions that Gollum searched for Bilbo, travelling westward, but turning back at the “Great River” for reasons that are unclear.
The theory goes that Gollum tracked Bilbo as far as the Brandywine River on the outskirts of the Shire. There, he found Frodo’s parents. Perhaps Gollum could have mistaken Frodo’s father Drogo for Bilbo at a distance. Perhaps Gollum realized that Drogo and Bilbo were different people, but reasoned that he could use one Baggins find out the whereabouts of another Baggins. Either way, Gollum attacked Drogo and Primula as they were boating on the Brandywine and both were killed (probably drowned) in the ensuing struggle.
First, there is what we know of Gollum himself. We know that Gollum was very much capable of murder, particularly when it came to the ring, because he had already murdered his friend Deagol to get it. And despite the numerous second chances that our heroes give him, I can’t see any indication that Gollum has changed much over the years in this regard. He certainly seems ready to kill Bilbo when he realizes that Bilbo has his ring (and even before then, honestly). He plots to kill Frodo and Sam on numerous occasions in order to get the ring.
Further, the death of Frodo’s parents shares a certain eerie similarity to the murder of Deagol. We know that Frodo’s parents were killed in or near a major river while boating. Deagol was probably murdered while fishing on the Gladden River – at least, we know that he found the ring while fishing in the river with Smeagol (Gollum) and Smeagol seems to have murdered him shortly afterwards. Gollum is associated with water and swimming rather often in The Lord of the Rings. When Gandalf explains Gollum’s history, he tells Frodo that Gollum’s people were “of hobbit-kind,” but differed from most modern hobbits in that they loved the river and water. Gollum is certainly comfortable in rivers – so much so that he manages to follow the Fellowship when they take to boats by floating behind them on a log. This is a pretty remarkable feat when you stop to think on it – the Fellowship travel by boat for roughly ten days (they leave Lorien on February 16th and are attacked by orcs on February 26th). It is pretty amazing to think that anyone would be able to follow a group of people traveling by boat on a large river by floating on a log for ten days.
We also know that Gollum was probably capable of overpowering two unsuspecting hobbits who would have almost certainly been unarmed. Gollum is described as being surprisingly strong and very sneaky. Frodo and Sam together were only able to overpower an unarmed Gollum because they had swords – and Frodo and Sam were, by this point, hobbits who had spent most of the proceeding months facing great dangers and hardships. Drogo and Primula Baggins would have been two untrained and unarmed hobbits who had likely never left the Shire.
There’s also the oddness of the other hobbits even suggesting foul play when it comes to the deaths of Drogo and Primula. The thing is this: murder is unusual for hobbits. They’ve managed to live in the Shire for right around 1400 years and the only battle of any note prior to the start of the books was the Battle of Greenfields in 1147 which was goblins versus hobbits. This means that the hobbits had managed to live together for a period of 1400 years without waging battle on one another. Even more remarkably, when Frodo returns to the Shire at the end of the trilogy, he remarks that “no hobbit has ever killed another hobbit on purpose in the Shire and it is not to begin now.”
In fact, the only hobbit who is confirmed to have killed another hobbit in the books is Gollum who we know killed Deagol (Tolkien implies in a letter that one of Pippin’s sisters might have killed an elderly relative, but we won’t get into that). So why would it even occur to the hobbits that Frodo’s parents might have murdered one another? I mean, this could just be meant to show that the Shire is a small community that is prone to gossip and wild tales. But even if the Shire loves gossip, it seems odd for such a peace-loving people to assume murder unless there was some evidence of it.
Now would probably be a good time to look at the scene from The Fellowship of The Ring which discusses the death of Frodo’s parents:
’Well, so they say,’ said the Gaffer. ’You see: Mr. Drogo, he married poor Miss Primula Brandybuck. She was our Mr. Bilbo’s cousin on the mother’s side (her mother being the youngest of the Old Took’s daughters); and Mr. Drogo was his second cousin. So Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way, as the saying is, if you follow me. And Mr. Drogo was staying at Brandy Hall with his father-in-law, old Master Gorbadoc, as he often did after his marriage (him being partial to his vittles, and old Gorbadoc keeping a mighty generous table); and he went out boating on the Brandywine River; and he and his wife were drownded, and poor Mr. Frodo only a child and all.’
‘I’ve heard they went on the water after dinner in the moonlight,’ said Old Noakes, ’and it was Drogo’s weight that sunk the boat.’
’And I heard she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him,’ said Sandyman, the Hobbiton miller.
But again, I have to wonder what made the hobbits think of murder? Could there have been signs of a struggle? Marks on the bodies? Even if there were signs that Drogo and Primula were murdered, what would make the hobbits conclude that they had murdered one another rather than been killed by some passing Big Person? The hobbits are usually much more suspicious of outsiders than of one another, after all. Perhaps there were bruises that only could have been made by hobbit-sized hands?
And yeah, I’m starting to get pretty far into conjecture here, so I’ll just move on to the final point of evidence: Gandalf’s description of Gollum’s movements after Bilbo took the ring in The Hobbit.
‘Then why didn’t he track Bilbo further?’ asked Frodo. ‘Why didn’t he come to the Shire?’
‘Ah,’ said Gandalf, ‘now we come to it. I think Gollum tried to. He set out and came back westward, as far as the Great River. But then he turned aside. He was not daunted by the distance, I am sure. No, something else drew him away. So my friends think, those that hunted him for me.’
So, not only do we know that Gollum set out westward to hunt for Bilbo, we also know that he turned aside when he reached the “Great River.” Could this refer to the Brandywine, which we know is a large river? Could Gollum have believed that he had found the bearer of the ring in Drogo Baggins, killed him, and, not finding the ring, searched elsewhere or just given up the search for awhile? Or perhaps something else turned him away as Gandalf suggests. We know that Rangers patrolled the borders of the Shire, keeping out nasty things. Gandalf suggests that Gollum made his way to Mordor after turning aside; perhaps he realized that he would need help in order to retrieve his precious.
Interestingly, the timeline in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings indicates that Gollum reached Mordor and became acquainted with Shelob in 2980 – the same year that Drogo and Primula died. Some have pointed to this as a piece of evidence that shows that Gollum couldn’t have been anywhere near the Shire in 2980. How could Gollum have been in both the Shire and Mordor in the same year? Well, Frodo’s journey shows us that it is perfectly possible for a hobbit to walk from the Shire to Mordor in the space of a year. The hobbits set out from the Shire in September of 3018 and Frodo encounters Shelob on March 12, 3019; roughly six months later (the ring is destroyed on March 25th). Although Frodo and Same travel part of the distance by boat, they also pause for roughly a month in Lothlorien, for several months in Rivendell, they have to turn around and take different routes at Caradras and again at the Black Gate, and of course they run into any amount of trouble and conflict along the way.
On the Other Hand …
Probably the most compelling counterargument to this theory is that the “Great River” that Gandalf references is almost certainly the Anduin rather than the Brandywine. Look, everything in Tolkien’s works has about a hundred names and all, but according to Tolkien Gateway (usually a reliable source for these types of things), the Anduin was referred to as “The Great River of Wilderland” in Rivendell and the Shire and simply the “Great River” in Gondor. I could find no indication that the Brandywine was ever referred to as the “Great River” although it does seem to be a river of considerable size. It is noteworthy that in the part of the world where the Brandywine flows, they don’t simply call the Anduin the “Great River” but the “Great River of the Wilderland.” I suppose that this could be to distinguish it from another great river, such as the Brandywine, but I still think it more likely that “Great River” in this context refers to the Anduin. If the river where Gollum turned aside was the Anduin, then it seems that he never made it anywhere near the Shire and thus could not have killed Frodo’s parents.
The timeline also doesn’t sync up as well as it first seems. It indicates Gollum left the Mountains and began to search for Bilbo in 2944, roughly three years after Bilbo took the ring. Then, there’s an entry in 2951 that states “Gollum turns toward Mordor.” We don’t get an entry for Gollum again until 2980 (over thirty years later) when Gollum reaches Mordor and becomes acquainted with Shelob. The sequencing here seems to indicate that Gollum was traveling towards Mordor for the entire period between 2951 and 2980 and thus wouldn’t have been in the Shire in 2980 when Frodo’s parents were murdered.
And, honestly, the whole theory feels a little loose to me. When you boil it down, it mostly rests on the idea that a character who is a known murderer and who is good in water must have murdered two characters who were involved in a boating accident because it happened on a river. It’s not exactly conclusive.
A Note On Gandalf’s Knowledge
One thing that some people have wondered is why Gandalf wouldn’t have mentioned that Gollum murdered Frodo’s parents when he relayed Gollum’s long, tortured history to Frodo. He certainly seems to have uncovered a great deal of very specific information about Gollum’s history. I would just point out that Gandalf is being a bit … cagey during this entire conversation.
Gandalf doesn’t often lie, but he doesn’t often share all of his knowledge either. So, it is quite possible that Gandalf knew or suspected that Gollum killed Frodo’s parents, but didn’t tell Frodo. He could have done this for a variety of reasons – he didn’t want to speculate about a theory that he wasn’t sure of, for example. Or perhaps he just didn’t wish to bring it up at a time when he was also placing the very heavy burden of knowledge of the ring onto Frodo’s shoulders.
And the thing you have to remember about The Lord of the Rings is that there’s this whole conceit built into the book where what we are reading is supposedly sourced from “The Red Book of Westmarch,” or Frodo’s own accounting of the Fellowship’s journey. This means that everything that happens in The Lord of the Rings are things that either happened to Frodo, that he was told, or that he inferred. It also means that there may be things going on in the story that Frodo doesn’t realize are going on, but that a reader can infer. Gandalf might know things that even the “narrator”doesn’t know. Things such as Gollum being the killer of Frodo’s parents, for example.
If True, Does The Theory Change Anything?
Perhaps surprisingly, this theory doesn’t alter my view of the characters involved all that significantly. Regardless of the truth or falsity of it, I think that Frodo probably doesn’t think that Gollum killed his parents. Therefore, this theory doesn’t cast Frodo’s character in a dramatically different light. Frodo showed Gollum mercy over and over again and while this is an extraordinary act, it is anyone’s guess whether he’d have done the same if he’d thought that Gollum killed his parents.
Likewise, it doesn’t really make me either more or less sympathetic to Gollum. We already knew that Gollum was a murderer. We already knew that he would do anything to get the Ring. Yeah, it might make Gollum’s general badness feel a little more personal if we knew that he killed the protagonist’s parents, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter my understanding of the character.
The one thing that that I think it does do is play into the thematic element of fate or what you might more simply call “things working out” which runs through The Lord of the Rings. That is, there is the vague suggestion in The Lord of the Rings that there’s some higher power directing things and that characters’ actions will come back around to affect their lives in unexpected ways. You might even call it “karma,” although that’s not the term that Tolkien would have used. Bilbo and Frodo both spared Gollum’s life and that meant that the ring was destroyed. There’s a certain type of cosmic justice in that. And I think that there is a certain type of cosmic justice in Gollum killing Frodo’s parents, being spared by Frodo, and ultimately meeting his end not at Frodo’s hand, but as a consequence of betraying Frodo.
I’m going to file this one under “possible, but not probable.” The theory was somewhat dubious to begin with and the fact that it doesn’t quite mesh with the timeline gives cause for a healthy dose of skepticism. There’s still just enough wiggle room that it might be true, however. We might interpret the books in such a way that “Great River” refers to the Brandywine in this instance. We might suppose that Gollum walked all the way from the Shire to Mordor in a year. We might make excuses for why Gandalf wouldn’t have known this piece of information or why he wouldn’t have mentioned it to Frodo. But often the simplest explanation hits closest to the truth and this theory gets increasingly convoluted the more you look at it. I find it to be an intriguing idea, but it’s a little too speculative to adopt wholesale.
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