Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Heroism-- Mortals and their Deeds

We discussed at length in class on Monday the nature of the hero in the Lord of the Rings, and the different ways in which love inspires or reinforces true heroism. However, we did not really discuss in any depth the differences between the mortality of Hobbits and Men, and the role which this difference might make to their respective forms of heroism.
            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.   

--Mattias Darrow


  1. I agree that there should be a distinction between our conceptions of the way men interact with the world and the way hobbits interact with the world; however, I am wary of ascribing this difference to lineage of community. While it is true that Frodo and Sam, (Indeed all the hobbits) constantly reference the Shire and reminisce about their time there, this is not much different from any other character in the fellowship. Boromir is quick to talk about the splendor of Minas Tirith and the stalwartness of the men of Gondor. Even Legolas and Gimli reference their homes with pride and longing. If anything, pride in community and lineage is a universal phenomena among the characters in the Lord of the Rings.

    And yet the elven towers to the west remain unclimbed by the hobbits. There is a difference between the heroism of men and hobbits, but it cannot be reduced to what each race values. It is tempting to ascribe the difference to the fate relegated to them by Illuvatar. The men are supposed to be ambitious and shape their own destiny and the hobbits... well this is where that way of thinking breaks down. The hobbits are descendants of men, and, in fact, share in that destiny.

    To me, it seems to be a matter of duty. The hobbits do not have an obligation to the rest of Middle Earth, while the men of Gondor and Arnor were tasked with guarding against the forces of Sauron. Without a goal to strive for, the hobbits can be content with the status quo, and I think this phenomena extends to all facets of hobbit culture. They did not need to be anything, at least until Bilbo found the Ring. Men, on the other hand, needed to evolve and change and strive in order to fight Sauron. Their ambition is a manifestation of their need to seek new ways to fight.

    -Nick Carter

  2. I wonder if the Hobbits’ view of death would be better characterized as lacking a certain gravitas, rather than being radically different from that of Men. You’re right to point out that Hobbits aren’t given much of a chance to express themselves in matters of morality, and your move from morality to lineage is a promising one. All the same, I don’t think it’s incoherant to imagine that, in the comfort of their burrows and (in all likelihood) whilst smoking a pipe, Hobbits are inclined to let their minds wander and contemplate the great Unknown that awaits all mortal beings (origins of their particular mortality notwithstanding) after this life. I realize that bringing up the movies is a bit of a faux pas in this class, but all the same I should point out that Peter Jackson agrees: the brief Gandalf-Pippin dialogue amid the chaos of the battle for Minas Tirith is one of the third film’s more poignant moments, and features a hobbit who very clearly struggles to cope with his own finitude in much the same way as mankind. Mankind’s apprehension of mortality may necessitate a sort of frenetic ambition which Hobbits seem to lack but, short of accessing the innermost musings of a Hobbits, we can’t be certain that Hobbits don’t share the same fundamental anxieties which drive us to ask what comes next—and then prepare ourselves accordingly.

    -H. Glick

  3. I think you raise an excellent question, one that we most definitely should have talked about more in class. Why don't we know more about what Hobbits think about death, if the whole point of the legendarium is precisely to explore the tension between death and immortality? I think that you are right, too, to point to the Hobbits' interest in lineage and genealogy as in part the answer to what they may think. It occurs to me that Hobbit genealogies, even more so than Men's and certainly more than Elves', are concerned with abundance: lots and lots of children, intermarriages, relationships. Elves tended to have relatively few children, as do the Men in the stories, but Hobbits (particularly Hobbits like Sam) had dozens (okay, a baker's dozen).

    @Hans: Ah, yes, that scene. It is problematic for me because Pippin asks what comes after death and Gandalf in effect describes the shores of Valinor--and yet, Hobbits most certainly do not go to the Halls of Mandos, nor do Hobbits other than Ring-bearers sail West. Which leaves us still somewhat in the dark about what real Hobbits think about death!


  4. Perhaps an even further investigation into this question may also require us asking what role the hobbits play in Arda after death. You’ve pointed out that, for Men, mortality imposes a limit, and thus demands that they strive for great deeds in life, maximizing their span. But in what way do they maximize it? What do these deeds do? It is important to recognize that Men are in fact the agents of change in Arda. These deeds, therefore, largely play out as the divine purpose of Men: to act to change Arda.

    Now we come to Hobbits, who by complete contrast seem entirely static in their unmarred patch of Arda, the Shire. Static, that is, until that perfect piece of Earth is threatened by the dominion and corruption of the Ring. I find it striking that it is the Ring coming to the Shire that prompts Frodo and Sam to take on a role usually bestowed upon Men, to become the greatest agents of change in LOTR. Furthermore, the hobbits do not hesitate to share their desire to return to the Shire and preserve it throughout their journey. Perhaps then we have come across at least a description of what the role of hobbits is; they are not wholly agent of change like Men, nor do they comprehend or appreciate the deep and underlying beauty of Arda like Elves. However, they do live within Arda perfected, and when the prospect of its ruin comes upon them, they do more than anyone to ensure its preservation. Perhaps this can illuminate in some regard what mortality means to them. Hobbits don’t have the same gravitas to their lives as Men; their home requires no grand deeds to reshape it like Gondor does, but simply maintenance, perhaps yet another thing that makes Sam the gardener, a preserver of the Shire, among LOTR’s most noble and wholesome characters.

    What then does this say about their mortality? Perhaps, as Professor Brown pointed out, it has something to do with the abundance of their offspring. In their span of life, they have two great things that should be done: preserve the Shire and produce offspring who will do the same. Perhaps the abundance of offspring is ultimately recognition that, in the death of a hobbit, Arda loses one of its “curators”, if you will, and that as an invaluable patch of the Arda, a hobbit must ensure its continued protection through the continuation of the line.

    Max L.

  5. I don't think Tolkien gives us enough material upon which to definitiely describe either the purpose of hobbits in relation to humans or the relative similarity or disparity of their fates after death. What we do know is that they are both mortal and neither really knows what happens to them after death. Aside from the four main hobbits, we do not have any sense of how hobbits faced the prospect of death under ordinary circumstances. So all we really have to go on is how they view life.

    In the legendarium, the heroism that you refer to among men is lagely rooted in martial prowess, kingdom building, and dramatic quests in which life and limb is risked. Heroism is defined as risking death or treading the line of mortality. Hobbits simply don't have this view of how to live life. In fact their generally uncurious nature and aversion to adventure reject such dramatic actions as a desireable or laudable thing.

    However, one should not then assume that hobbits placed no value on heroism or great deeds in connection with their lineage. Rather we need to try to understand what their definition of a great deed is. Growing the best pipe weed in the West Farthing or brewing a vintage lager that is sought after for years might be truly laudable deeds as opposed to leading a grat army to victory.

    So, heroism/great deeds and an insular society are not mutually exclusive depending on how define the former. In this regard, I don't think hobbits are much different than humans in wanting achieve greatness within their lifetime. Their measure of greatness, because of their lifestyle, are just not on the same operatic scale as the Numenoreans. Instead it is more rooted in how it effects the Shire and other hobbits as opposed to the fate of Middle Earth itself.

    -Jason A Banks

  6. I quite like Nick’s line of thinking on this question, in considering that maybe there isn’t necessarily a grand fundamental difference between men and hobbits, and that their views on heroism, life, and death are all simply the products of their living situation. The hobbits, far removed from the wars and heroics of men and elves, have no need to consider such affairs, and can instead afford to focus on gardening, brewing, and other hobbit matters. To some extent, I liken this to Mattias’s idea of hobbits being an unfallen race, and feel that to a great degree, they may embody this quality among mortals, being most closely akin to Adam and Eve pre-Tree of Knowledge of all the races (which also may explain the importance of having epic bundles of babies – the whole “be fruitful” deal!)
    However, it’s also clear that hobbits, removed from such circumstances, are more than capable of some thrilling heroics. But hobbits do not view heroism like men do. They do not fight for honor, or valor, and I doubt that they have particularly strong inclinations to do so; instead they fight because there was a need which they are trying to fill. I believe this feeling towards heroism is equally a product of the hobbits living situation as their proclivity towards doing heroic things: not having a culture where large heroic actions were performed often, they don’t feel the need to puff themselves up about it. I also feel that it explains, to some degree the difference in the romantic vs. folk hero which was mentioned in the Flieger article: the hobbits resemble folk heroes because their culture more closely resembles that of the people who told folk tales in our world, just as the human culture resembles that of those who told lofty tales of heroism.


  7. You raise an interesting point that I never thought might matter. The Hobbits do not generally worry about death, among the many other worldly things they ignore. Only when actually thrown at the brink of destruction, as we see with the four hobbits from The Lord of the Rings, is there any consideration that they may not return to their beautiful peaceful home. On that note, it seems that the hobbits care more about not returning to the Shire than actually dying. This helps reinforce what you discuss about hobbits and their lineage. What matters most to them are their secluded lives of ignorant bliss. Family trees mostly determine how their lives play out. The adventure that Frodo embarks on was not meant to happen to hobbits and the journey wore on him, ultimately corrupting his soul.

    However, I do have a slight critique of your view of Men. You say that they are pushed to be heroic and accomplish magnificent things because death is constantly looming over them. What quickly came to mind was, aren’t we Men as well, in our current age? Why don’t we all accomplish great things or even make the effort? We remain mortal and yet most people find no incentive to make an impact in the short time we have. I just think that the motivations of different Men are a little more complicated.

    Alex Allen