Both Men and Hobbits are among the mortal of Middle Earth—and yet there is a readily perceptible difference between the ways in which each views their death. Men, as we know, were given death as a gift from God, and it is a defining part of their role in the history of the world. It is their doom to leave the world forever after only a brief time spent upon it. Through the shadow and workings of Morgoth, this came to be feared rather than rejoiced, but even if this were not the case, the ‘doom’ of Men would nonetheless be apprehended as a limit: a natural limit on life, on ability, on the achievable, and therefore, ultimately, a challenge.
Mortality, then, as a defining characteristic of Men, plays out in their heroism as the challenge to achieve such acts as they can within their natural limit. This may sound obvious, but it is the key to understanding the difference between an action and a heroic deed in the lives of Men. The attempt to stretch the limit of death as far as possible, to achieve the greatest things possible, and most of all, to invest as much of the limited resource of life as possible into these acts is to attempt heroism. The limit, therefore, defines the heroism and allows it to inspire awe. This is why valor for Elves must be something more akin to etiquette, where for Men it is literally a matter of life and death.
Hobbits, as begins to become apparent, are a different case entirely. Being excluded from the old tales, we know not whence their mortality proceeds, but we can see clearly that they apprehend it in a different manner from Men. Where Men define their lives by the fact that they must die, Hobbits seem to have no such inclination. The key, once again, is in the apprehension. Where Men apprehend their Mortality as a limit and a challenge, Hobbits apprehend their mortality—how?
This is a difficult question to answer, especially because we only have a few instances of Hobbits face with their mortality directly, and those are the ‘exceptional’ cases of Bilbo, and the Hobbits of the Fellowship. There are also the passing references to the heroism of Bandobras ‘Bull-Roarer’ Took, but they do not really serve as a true example since they are used mainly to point out the rareness of Hobbit-Heroism at the time of the Lord of the Rings. Even Bilbo, when faced with his age at the beginning of the Fellowship, desires only that he see the Mountains again—but then he is already an uncommonly old Hobbit and a very uncommonly heroic one.
Some more common specimens we might draw on are the Sackville-Bagginses, whose one goal within their span is to gain Bag-End, and in Otho’s case perhaps, as is referred to in Letter 214, to become the head of two Hobbit families and become Otho Baggins-Sackville-Baggins. This may seem unduly petty, but it bears on the elaborate interest that Hobbits have in lineage and heritage. Indeed, how can this interest be seen otherwise than as a complicated societal response to mortality? We must be careful, however, for in this respect Hobbits are similar to Men, who hold their lineage in just as much if not more esteem. The difference is that the lineage of Men serves to connect Men to the deeds of their forbears, and therefore to add to them dignity, honor, and ultimately a greater urge to heroism. In Hobbits, however, the interest in lineage seems to have become almost entirely divorced from deed.
And yet it remains a matter of upmost importance in Hobbit culture. Why should this be? Is it that Hobbits are incompletely conceived and actually lack the motive that would explain their behavior? Or does it have to do with the fact that Hobbits at large seem an unfallen people (since their fall seems to figure individually, by encounter with the ring: Smeagol, Bilbo, Frodo &c)?
I have gone and asked larger questions than I am capable of answering, and yet I feel the truth is near. For while Hobbits are obsessed with their own familial record, the fact that lineal deeds are practically absent is equivalent to saying that their lineage has no bearing on the world at large and is only applicable within the Hobbit community. Indeed, the Shire is exceedingly insular, having nothing to do with the world at large. We discussed that this might be a necessary narrative device, but even as such, it might serve to be a defining characteristic of the Hobbit’s apprehension of Mortality as necessarily community oriented. Were the shire populated by Men, it would be impossible that the towers in the west would remain unclimbed—this is Man’s apprehension of mortality as a challenge. However, for Hobbits the elf towers have no significance on their community and therefore no place in their legacy. All that matters is the Shire—their as yet unspoiled paradise. The heroism of the Hobbits of the Fellowship can be seen to spring from this, from their love of their community in its insular form, an attempt to keep it from falling.