Friday, May 27, 2011

Hobbits and Worship

I really struggled with the question of how the Lord of Rings teaches us about worship because Iluvatar is not explicitly present in it. So, how is it possible for it to be a work that exemplifies worship if the recipient of that worship is not there?

As I mulled over this question more and more, I kept being drawn back to two specific quotes. One was from letter 183, which were Tolkien’s notes to W.H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King. Tolkien writes, “In The Lord of the Rings the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour.” The other was what Sam said to Frodo in The Two Towers:

Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes no past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on (IV, Chpt. 8).

I think it’s fairly fitting too, to discuss worship after we spent some time talking about the hobbits (was that intentional, Professor Fulton?) because as I pondered over these quotes and the topic of worship, I came to the thought that even though Iluvatar is not directly present in The Lord of the Rings, perhaps one way worship is exhibited is how the hobbits come to understand themselves in terms of the “bigger picture.”

If I could bring in something from outside of class, John Piper, a Christian pastor, once wrote that worship is “magnifying God” – part of which includes us understanding ourselves in the proper light and knowing our place within creation and with respect to the Creator. For the hobbits in particular – as exemplified by Sam’s quote when he and Frodo are on the Stairs at Cirith Ungol – the Lord of the Rings is their journey to understanding themselves in the context of a larger world.

In the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring, as a people, the hobbits are focused on themselves. We see this from the very first chapter: they are focused on Bilbo’s party and the prospect of splendid food and presents. Indeed, when the Gaffer and other hobbits gather in The Ivy Bush, the Gaffer tells the other hobbits of what he reminds Sam: “Elves and Dragons! Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you” (I, Chapter 1). This viewpoint that the Gaffer holds seems indicative of the hobbits’ approach to the “outside” world – and confirms the brief background history we get of them in the Prologue. They have withdrawn from the whole of Middle-Earth and primarily concern themselves with only their own history (hence, their great love of genealogies and “dark” family stories) and their own going-ons.

But Frodo and Sam (and Merry and Pippin) leave insular Hobbiton and go out into that very wide world – Middle-Earth itself and find themselves part of a history that they did not even know about. When they meet Tom Bombadil, who tells them stories of the Old Forest and Barow-wights, and arrive at Rivendell and hear about the whole history behind the Ring and the wars of the past, they begin to get a greater glimpse of the world of which they are a part. And yet though they feel small, this does not prevent Frodo from stepping forth and accepting the responsibility as Ring-bearer. By the end of the Return of the King, each one of them – Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin – understand better the world at large and how they fit into it. They know their right place with in it and are not concerned only about themselves and the events in Hobbiton.

The hobbits’ understanding of how they fit into the world contrasts with how Melkor does not understand himself correctly. In the beginning of the Silmarillion when Melkor first brings discord to the music, he does not understand – or rather, chooses to deviate from – his role as under Iluvatar, the Creator and Sovereign over his creation. Rather than being content with his role, Melkor “sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself” (Silmarillion, 16). Before he reveals to the Ainur the vision of their music, Iluvatar tells Melkor, “…no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (Silmarillion, 17). In contrast to the four hobbits, who discover their role and begin to understand how they fit into the whole history of Middle-Earth and beyond, Melkor does not understand his “proper” role. He desires to magnify himself and in doing so, not worship Iluvatar as Iluvatar deserves. While Frodo and Sam (and Merry and Pippin) never encounter Iluvatar directly or make explicit mention of him, they do come to a right realization of their place and role in history and Middle-Earth. And perhaps that in itself can be considered as worship of Iluvatar – even though he is not present, the hobbits recognize their smallness, and at the same time their significance, within the created world.

V. Lau


  1. I very much like your comment about Melkor seeking to magnify himself rather than magnify Iluvatar because it really expresses and condenses down your analysis of one recognizing one's place in the world. For some reason, I really like the word "magnifying," perhaps because it really exemplifies for me Melkor's attempts at control. He defined himself in his own mind and instead of looking at his surroundings or perceiving the ideas and desires of others, he attempted to project into the world what he wanted, even if that overrode what was already there.

    This all goes back to the concepts of creation and sub-creation, I think, since Melkor was attempting to create the world from himself (which I'm not sure if this is an attempt at pure creation or incredibly limited and twisted sub-creation) instead of allowing himself to be affected by his surroundings (in his case the song of Iluvatar) and then mold himself and sub-create within the world around him, as the hobbits do.

    J. Trudeau

  2. Great point – by drawing together two ends of Middle-earth’s history, you’ve demonstrated what I think Tolkien would certainly identify as one of the key take-away concepts from his opus – respecting one’s position in the cosmos, particularly with regards to nature, while still understanding one’s powers to glorify creation through action. As we’ve discussed Tolkien’s religious inflection in depth, the question of “worship” for hobbits has been one I’ve thought about as well. Through their journeys, and the personal developments each undergoes throughout, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin do, in some senses, exemplify the virtuous balance that you describe. But what about the rest of hobbit-kind? Reading the stories, we get at least a shade of the religious practices of Elves and Men; within the supplemental histories, these are somewhat expanded. Yet apart from certain songs mentioning the sun, moon, and other specters of the larger Valarin religious system, the worship practice of hobbits remains obscure. We know they are certainly not an abstinent or an ascetic people, and that they tend to be flawed, if usually in a charming manner. It is this very enjoyment of life that seems to define their moral code – the reciprocal gift-giving on birthdays, the love and tending of the land. Very few hobbits have, or want, the opportunity to gain the perspective, and the wisdom that comes with it, that our four exceptional heroes do.

    - J. Wetherell

  3. Oops, forgot to sign my name.

    I wrote this post!


  4. I find it interesting that it is worship, exposure to stories, and exposure to Arda on the journey that makes Bilbo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam grow. (Frodo grew in a way, but he was maimed by the journey.) These hobbits that went out into the world to experience it, and they participated in the subcreation. The prologue states that Hobbits love the ground, and their love of it is shown by their barefooted-ness. Hobbits should love all of Arda, but they have succumbed to the temptation to fence themselves in. By venturing out, Bilbo, Merry, Pippin, Sam, and Frodo are the hobbits most in conformity with their nature. Interestingly, their experiences in Middle-Earth can be viewed as worship, and it is this worship that causes them to grow. This is an excellent example of the benefits of worship as a response to the question posed in class as to whether we get any return from worship.
    Within their natures, these Hobbits increase in their power, and appreciate better the glory of the world and their own Shire all the more.

    To answer J. Wetherell, I would say that we have to hope that the other Hobbits were led to a greater understanding of the world in the Fourth Age. Thus, perhaps this is Bilbo’s motivation for writing. However, unfortunately, we know from the prologue that today the Hobbits are hard to find due to their evasiveness and their fear of men, so eventually, they fence themselves in again.

    -Andrew Wong

  5. This was a great post. I particularly like thinking of the difference in the hobbits before and after their journey. When they come back, they’re living in a larger world. They have to become conscious of the land and people outside of their borders, and this knowledge amounts to knowledge of God’s creation. It’s reminiscent of Leaf by Niggle. Another way Frodo and Bilbo both participate in the journey and subcreation is in their act of retelling the journey. There and Back Again is basically providing a history of what happened during the end of the Third Age from firsthand sources. Much of what it is that volume would have been lost had it been kept inside. By sharing their stories with those who weren’t there, they share in their new knowledge of Arda- Ilúvatar’s creation.


  6. I really liked to focus on hobbits here, too. After we talked about worship, it seemed the me that they are the best way for us to enter the religious aspect of Lord of the Rings. Like us, they don't have this background in the religion of Arda that Men and Elves do. Their journey through Middle-Earth and their deepening understanding of all of Iluvatar's mirrors ours, I think.

    This also may be the most important act of worship, this journey of discovery that hobbits embark on. Tolkien discussed in his letters that gaining knowledge of God and, of course, using that knowledge in worship, is an incredibly important part of religious life. As the hobbits spread their knowledge of the world throughout the Shire, most prominently in the keeping of the Red Book, you could say that they are spreading knowledge of Eru, or at least his creation, through the Shire, and these are their great acts of worship.


  7. I think you make a great point here that goodness and reverence is as much about accepting and embracing one’s role and place in creation as it is praising God. Or, to be more nuanced, I think that embracing one’s place in creation is the same as praising God; a different side of the same coin.

    This can be clearly seen in the nature of evil in the Lord of the Rings. Melkor and Sauron refuse their august roles in Eru’s divine vision, instead seeking to usurp divine honor for themselves. Melkor’s “creation” (or, rather, “perversion”), the Orcs, are brought into the world without Eru’s consent. Since they have no place in God’s vision, they are manifestly and irredeemably evil.

    Meanwhile, men and elves for the most part accept their parts, both large and small, and thus are largely good. A few, like Denethor and Grima aim for higher stations against the will of the proper authorities and institutions; thus, they are evil too.

    I think that you make a really interesting point that by isolating themselves the Hobbits are, to some extent, renouncing their role in the world, and thus becoming ‘further’ from God. Seen in this light, the return of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippen can be seen as a religious event, which may ultimately bring all Hobbits closer to God.

    Although, this argument that the Hobbits are becoming more worldly seems strangely undermined by King Elessar’s proclamation that no men shall be allowed to enter the Shire. Prohibiting men from even entering the Shire seems harsh and strange. I mean by this logic would Gandalf have never been allowed in the Shire in the first place? Did anyone else find this weird?


  8. In other words, as Augustine might put it, the hobbits are converted, that is, brought to understand their place in the history of creation and redemption. Exactly! Likewise, the reason that Melkor (a.k.a. Satan) falls is that he does not understand his place but tries to set himself up in opposition to the whole. I agree with the above comments: beautifully put!


  9. Tolkien’s legendarium seems to parallel the Bible and our own history in that God was very directly active in the world before, but that has tapered off over time so that no one ever seems to witness miracles or hear the voice of God anymore. Or is just that, when they do, we call them crazy? Or is it that God is still speaking and we’re all missing it? But I digress. The world of the Third Age seems to be closer to our primary reality in that God is always in it whether we realize it or not; that God is always acting, that miracles are always occurring, and it is up to us to recognize them as such. Kind of like Sam recognizing the significance of Frodo carrying the Light of Eärendil! I think you make an excellent point about the Light and the way the hobbits realize their place in Eä. In a way, it seems like this is one of the coincidental, accidental results of their quest: to realize their part in the world and the great events that shape it, thereby understanding both their importance and their vast, cosmic unimportance. I like to believe this is why the hobbits remain so humble despite their amazing endeavors!

    You make an excellent comparison with Melkor here. Melkor (like Lucifer) wanted to be, and eventually thought he was, greater than God/Eru and so challenged his authority; his greatest sin was pride. This comparison illustrates really well the importance of the humility of the hobbits. It is their humble, unambitious natures that make them the only ones able to take on the quest of the Ring.


  10. You make an excellent point about the place of hobbits in relation to the idea of worship and divinity in Lord of the Rings. I think the idea can be expanded, however, to look at how the hobbits not only embody the ideal attitude one might have towards Iluvatar, but also embody a kind of divine citizenship, characterized by their innocence and, to a degree, their ignorant bliss. You discuss how the hobbits , when confronted with the big, bad world, recognize their place and, as a result, are able to give Iluvatar the respect that is due to him by not trying to be more than they are. The same attitude, however is present in the Shire. The hobbits are content with everything they have, and, with the exception of the Sackville-Baggins, there are very few times when hobbits exhibit greed, or any desire to be more than they are. Hobbits, in a sense, respect their place in the world, and are completely comfortable with the lot presented to them by Iluvatar. They do not fiddle with his creation in the same way that Men, Orcs, dwarves and maybe even elves might. Hobbits, in their innocence, do nothing more than enjoy the fruits of creation, which, given your analysis of praising Iluvatar, also works as a form of praise and respect.

    Ro Ca

  11. I really like the idea of humility, and accepting one's place in the cosmos as being a form of worship. However, I feel like complications may arise when we extrapolate to our world. The hobbits do not have the overt structures of religion such as churches and ministers therefore their implicit worship through their recognition of their place in the cosmos is their primary means of worship. However, would Tolkien be comfortable with the assertion that any who lives his life here, in the primary reality, with humility would be worshipping? In our world where the structures of religion exist (and these were structures that Tolkien subscribed to) is it enough to simply accept one's place in the cosmos or must one overtly praise God's creation through the church?
    I suppose this confusion arises from something many people on this blog have struggled with; How do we glean 'lessons' of religion from a book that is religious but does not contain an explicit religion?

    R Rao