A few weeks ago I decided to listen to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, foundational, Lord of the Rings trilogy on audio book. It was probably my third time reading the books, and probably my second listening to them. I was first exposed to the series when I was about five or six, when my parents decided to read me the entire series, from the Hobbit to the Return of the King. Other than providing me with my own personal bogeyman, Gollum, I loved these books and every time I reread them I learn to appreciate them in some new light.
As a child I remember being obsessed with the hobbits, wanting to name my cats Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I think this was mostly because I was roughly hobbit-sized at this point, and I enjoyed the idea of someone who was as small as I was having such extraordinary adventures. However, when I got older, I started to become frustrated with my furry-footed friends. When I reread the books as a teenager I was entranced by the human and elf characters, particularly admiring Strider and his considerable mystique. I attribute this mostly to teenage foolishness and Viggo Mortensen.
Re-reading the books again though, or I suppose re-listening to them, I found myself understanding the appeal of the hobbits more and more. Perhaps it’s because I’m older and a bit more realistic now, but I empathized more with the Hobbits than any of the other characters. While I admire the brooding and sword-swinging Aragorn with his dark and mysterious past, I accepted a long time ago that I no longer think about becoming him. As a mild-mannered suburban 20-something, I don’t think I’ll ever have that “Man With No Name” charm. Without this character to empathize with, I looked more towards the hobbits.
I think that the most common complaint levied at the Fellowship of the Ring is that there is an awful lot of walking for not a lot of action. I used to joke with my friends that the formula was fairly simple: eat, walk, eat, walk, nap, eat, walk, eat, sleep, next goddamn chapter. Yet as the hobbits begin their slow but steady descent into a complicated and dangerous world from their carefully sheltered lives, we start to see them change and develop. Each of them begins to find their limits and their courage in small ways, and it is this courage that they will rely on throughout the books.
The appeal of the hobbits, ultimately, is their status as everyman characters. They are thrust out of their quiet little lives of comfort and good food and beer and thrown into conflicts and situations that they do not understand. As the reader we are constantly reminded of how small and powerless these characters seem and how powerless they sometimes feel. They are tiny little people attempting to make an impact upon a large and overpowering world. At a time when the state of the world can seem distressing, that is a mentality that I can understand.
It is almost cliché to compare the Lord of the Rings to Tolkien’s experiences in World War I, and is a source of controversy for some. Yet while listening to the books, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons. Although some leapt at the chance of adventure and excitement, they often found a result much darker than what they imagined. In the trenches of an immense global conflict, fighting for reasons you probably don’t fully understand, it must be hard not to feel terribly small and weak. There’s also this paragraph, spoken by Sam when he first sees a man die:
“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much… He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”
The true genius of Tolkien’s writing is that the hobbits are intended to be our reference-point for the larger world that they inhabit. Although other characters like Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are given chapters as the point of view character, they seem much more two-dimensional than our hobbit heroes. They are portrayed in the kind of epic, heroic perspective that we might expect of an epic such as Beowulf. The emphasis is placed upon the character’s heroic achievements and derring-do, with little effort to make them more relatable. These characters, giants in our protagonist’s eyes, are unquestionably inspiring and heroic but can seem shockingly one-note.
When we see Aragorn confront Uruk-hai and smote them with his bright sword Narsil, we are confident that he will triumph over his foe. This is thrilling to read about, but it pales in comparison to the kind of tension that we feel when one of the hobbits faces similar opponents. When Sam charges, almost suicidal, to save Frodo from the giant spider Shelob we feel the foolishness of his efforts. Shelob is ancient and powerful, and there is no chance that Sam can defeat her. Yet still, he dashes forward, and through luck and courage manages to gravely wound her. This demonstrates the tremendous dignity of these characters, who prove themselves to be unfailingly courageous and stalwart.
For example, Frodo accepts the burden of the ring without fully understand what his journey will mean for him and his friends join with him out of solidarity, despite the fact that they are clueless about the physical and spiritual dangers. Sam even comments, barely a few weeks into their proper journey with the Fellowship, that he thought they ought to start seeing “that fiery mountain about now.” Yet despite this when they are given every chance to turn back and choose to give up on their quest, they all refuse. To them their minor contribution seems insignificant and unimportant, but the men and elves who encounter them are shocked and impressed by their courage.
One of the best examples of this is Merry, who feels compelled in The Return of the King to fight in the great war even though he does not want to. He knows that all of his friends have gone on to fight and he can’t stand the thought of not being able to do his part. He repeats again and again that he feels like a burden and that all he wants to do is help somehow. In the end his contribution is not nearly as small as he imagined, crippling the Witch King so that Eowyn can deliver the fatal blow. His bravery and courage stand out in even sharper relief because he is such a small player in this game.
The other Hobbits show similar fortitude but, of course, none more so than Tolkien’s true hero Samwise Gamgee. It has been stressed time and again by better writers than I, but Samwise Gamgee is the epitome of hobbit bravery. Frodo is the most noble and, as Faramir observes, “elf-like” of the hobbits. He stands apart as their leader and their superior in many ways. Frodo achieves great things and his part in the story is arguably the most important. His achievement is high and noble, but Sam’s is simpler, more difficult, and greater. Frodo chooses to destroy the One Ring and Sam resolves to help his master to do his duty, no matter what.
There is a beautiful moment in The Return of the King, when Sam finally realizes what destroying the ring will mean. They have been running out of provisions for weeks, and the final push to Mount Doom is a battle against thirst and malnutrition. Seeing that there is no way for them to survive, and that they will destroy this evil only to starve in the middle of a blasted, wasted realm, Sam gives in to despair. He resents his foolish quest and his ridiculous loyalty and all of the times that he could have turned back and gone home.
But faced with his own doom he manages to find a kind of stoic resolve to carry him through, despite the misery ahead of him.
“To his surprise he seemed tired but lighter, and his head seemed clear again. No more debates disturbed his mind. He knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them. His will was set, and only death would break it.”
As Sam described Faramir, he shows his character, “the very highest.”
There was one more part of the Lord of the Rings that I don’t believe that I ever fully understood until I reread the books, the Scouring of the Shire. The four companions do all that they can to protect their home in the Shire, which was blissfully untouched before they left. However, when they return to it, they find themselves in an almost Orwellian nightmare. The shire has been ravaged and stripped, and the hobbits have been forced into a kind of dystopian society where resources are controlled and the people oppressed.
So the four travelers return and demonstrate what they have learned in their adventures. Mustering their courage they take a stand against the oppressive society and root the evil out of their home. Undeterred by the larger, brutish, men they make their stand and Merry and Pippin even miraculously muster a makeshift militia of Hobbits to fight. They have, strange as it may seem, become the heroes of the story. They are the Aragorn and Eomer of their race, the “great ones,” as Gandalf calls them.
When they finally rid the Shire of Saruman, (Whom I plan to write about next week) they have not only saved their home but also removed a considerable evil from Middle Earth. They have done what not even Gandalf could do. Then they slip quietly back into a simple, comfortable, domestic life. The book ends with Sam returning home, having his child laid upon his lap and telling his wife, “Well, I’m back.”
In a way, Tolkien’s depiction of the epic feats of Aragorn and the other larger-than life heroes are almost a kind of critique. The characters are richly constructed and eloquently described, but they are always seen from a kind of distance. Tolkien’s sympathies are forever with the quiet nobility of the hobbits. He shows small people living small lives who demonstrate that they can show immense courage when called upon to do so. Although there is great romance in the larger-than-life kings and heroes, the people that make all the difference are the ordinary folk who do what they feel is right. Whereas most fantasy ignores or criticizes this, Tolkien chooses to glorify it.
To me this is the most beautiful thing about The Lord of the Rings. It sets itself up as a story of kings and monsters, and heroes of epic proportion. Yet ultimately it is about small people and small acts of courage who do their best to make an impact upon a much larger world. It is romantic to fancy myself Aragorn. But I think I would be happy to be cut from the same cloth as Merry, Pippin, Frodo, or Sam. I would count myself lucky to be have the courage and decency to stand before unconquerable odds and choose to do the right thing.