Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Nothing Wrong with Wanting to be a Hobbit

When I was younger, I used to play an online computer game called Shadowmere, which at one time had a relatively large player base. In this game, the user will begin a kingdom of a particular race such as orcs, trolls, dwarves, humans, halflings, high elves, dark elves, wood elves, or even options such as deities. Over weeks to months, the player would run his or her kingdom and do battle, steal from, or help other players of similar score. One of the main influences upon the design of the game was the influence of Tolkien’s Legendarium upon the selection and the characteristics of the races. It was the elves with the strong troops and the excellent scholars, who I would always play. I never wanted to play as the halflings, despite their excellent thieves and spies.
At the beginning of our class, the question was posed as to who would like to be a Hobbit. My initial reaction was that this was a rather silly question. Of course, no one would want to be a Hobbit. However, I was given some pause at the number of people, who had raised their hands to indicate their preference for the Hobbit life. Over the course of the lecture, as I mused on the question somewhat, and I came to (the unusual) conclusion that my instinctive reaction was totally incorrect. This blog post will be devoted to instructing readers as to why it makes sense to want to be a Hobbit.
Initially, I can see why I thought that being a Hobbit would be undesirable because being a Hobbit does admittedly have some drawbacks compared to being a member of another race. For instance, the Hobbits are oblivious to the rest of Tolkien’s legendarium, and they live a sheltered life away from the rest of the epic events of Middle-Earth. Furthermore, the Hobbits are often the comic characters, which I sometimes saw as meaning that they did not merit being taken seriously. In terms of behavior, Shippey summarizes that Hobbits are plain, greedy, frequently embarrassing, and distrustful of outsiders (Shippey 78). While the elves suffer from a form of stagnation in their societies, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings left me with the distinct impression that the society of Hobbits was stagnant in that there was little innovation and development. Individuals seemed to live out their lives without their society making progress. In addition, in terms of physical characteristics, I’m a runner, but Hobbits are described as generally fat and smokers, which I find unappealing (Fellowship 7; 9). Even worse, Tolkien writes that Hobbits have little interest in scholarly study outside of compiling genealogies (Fellowship 3). Yes, I can see why I did not find the idea of being a Hobbit appealing at first.
Nonetheless, I believe that my older impressions of Hobbits were overly harsh because I now realize that Hobbits illustrate many characteristics and virtues that are central to the human condition. For example, although Hobbits seem to always need a push out the door in order to do great things, it is easy to forget the human tendency to procrastinate. Essentially, people often do not act until pushed. In terms of Hobbit pettiness and their tendency to be embarrassing, we all have our moments in which we are petty and embarrassing, and these moments often pertain to informal venues in our own life, which correspond to the homely world of the Hobbits in the Shire. It is also important to remember that Tolkien describes Hobbits as speaking the language of men in the distant past (Fellowship 2). As we have discussed, Tolkien uses language to establish kinship, so Hobbits are aligned most closely with men in Middle-Earth. As a people, the Hobbits are described as ancient, nimble, good-natured, merry, and hard to daunt (Fellowship 1-2; 6). Hobbits also display generosity in frequently giving presents to many others as tokens of goodwill (Fellowship 28). These are all positive human characteristics.
To answer my own criticism that Hobbit society does not display much progress, I think that since Hobbit society is portrayed as so homey and idyllic, there is no need for rapid progress. Hobbit society is not stagnant so much as it is a paradise, which can be upset by vulgar introduction of industry that can be used towards destructive ends. Hobbits are stagnant in an intellectual way in that there is no mention of Hobbit philosophers, but it is possible that they are living an enjoying life more than many of the elves, who are vulnerable to the tendency to fade into stagnation and tire of long life. It is also significant that Hobbits are mortal and are meant to die like humans, but the elves are meant for immortality because it is the natural nature of each of them.
In addition, to understand why it is not bad to be a Hobbit, one must understand the origins of Hobbits. In brief, the Shire and the Hobbits can be described as a portrait of the English in their country. Shippey asserts, “Tolkien’s new equation of fantasy with reality comes over most strongly in his map, account, and history of ‘the Shire,’ an extended ‘Little Kingdom’… transplanted to Middle-Earth. The easiest way to describe it is to say that the Shire is ‘calqued’ on England” (Shippey 77). ‘Calquing’ is used by Shippey to describe a linguistic process of translating the elements of a compound word to make a new word in a different language that is indebted to the original word. While the derived word does not sound like the original, the influence is clear (Shippey 77). In other words, Tolkien created a society that can be thought of as an imagining of a society like England in Middle-Earth. In terms of the development of the Shire, Shippey writes, “Thus historically, the Shire is like/unlike England. The Hobbits are like/unlike English people. Hobbits live in the Shire as the English live in England, but like the English they come from somewhere else … Both groups have forgotten this fact” (Shippey 77). Shippey’s position is easy to hold when one sees parallels between the British and the Hobbits such as the integration of tribes after settling their land and the derivation of names of locations in the Shire from names of locations around Tolkien (Shippey 78). Hence, the Hobbits in the Shire are not a precise imagining of English men and women in Middle-Earth, but the Hobbits are a representation of the important characteristics that distinguish the rural English men and women such as the adaptability of English young men to the dire situations they faced in the trenches of WWI. Although Hobbits are more human than men in a homey, unheroic way, Tolkien subcreates them in Middle-Earth with the potential to do extraordinary things. Thus, the hobbits become instruments of Eru’s hands in disposal of the One Ring, which was a task that was destined for the ring bearers Frodo, Sam, Bilbo, and Gollum to complete.
In addition, I believe that Hobbits are portrayed in the most flattering light when one considers Sam and Merry as exemplary Hobbits that are matured by their journeys in a way that parallels children becoming adults. Both Merry and Sam find a world that gives them a push to self-improvement. As Bradley points, out Merry’s helps into old forest and his assistance with bringing ponies for the journey marks Merry as a good child figure in the early quest, but Merry discovers the world on his journey (Bradley 79-80; 82). Eventually, moved by love Merry finds a father figure in Théoden, and Merry states, “as a father you [Théoden King] shall be to me” (King 39). Upon the death of Théoden and the return of the Hobbits to the Shire, Bradley notes that Merry and Pippin have become embodiments of  the good in Aragorn, Théoden, Gandalf, and Denethor (82 Bradley). Thus, Sam, Frodo, Pippin, and Merry are described as “Fearless Hobbits,” and Merry is the one who articulates the command, “Raise the Shire!” in resistance to the tyranny they observe (King 309; 310).
In addition, in Sam was have another character, who grows from a mere comic relief to a character that embodies some of the best human virtues. Because Sam accompanies Frodo out of love rather than out of commitment to a quest, Bradley asserts that Sam and Frodo have an idealized friendship based on platonic love (Bradley 90). Sam’s service to Frodo is marked with constant self-sacrifice and loyalty to his duty, which is like a war bond. Sam’s compassion for Frodo even grows in the heat of Mordor as Frodo weakens (Bradley 88). Moreover, Sam faces despair with bravery as he contemplates his possible doom, which Denethor was unable to do (Bradley 88). Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Sam is wise with the ring in that he sees the temptation of the One Ring and does not let himself be deceived into thinking that he can use it, and he immediately returns it to Frodo when it is requested, which shows remarkable self-mastery given the power of the ring. Back in the Shire, Sam rebuilds and helps to govern the Shire, and he reflects Aragorn’s renewed leadership of Gondor as mentioned in class. Now, the servant has elevated himself to become the leader. In addition, his marriage to Rosie Cotton and his numerous children reflect the cultivation of subcreation of life in Middle-Earth just as he cultivates the new gardens of the Shire. While Elves have immortality, Hobbits and men have a sort of immortality in genealogy by their kinship and relations to each other.
To sum up, the Hobbits of the Shire are a reflection of the homely characteristics in men in a fairytale world. If we keep this in mind, we realize that it is very important that humans and hobbits should live according to their natures. The Hobbits reflect the human capacity for growth when outside of the home, which is a reflection of the growth that people experience on journeys through life. While I might have secretly wished to been an elven lord while playing Shadowmere, I realize that immortality as a biologically living being is not in accordance with human nature. In this light, desiring to be elven seems to be an unnatural desire. Therefore, it is more natural for me as a human to desire to be a Hobbit than it is to be an elf. In many ways, we can attain the best characteristics that we see in Hobbits, while the human are fascinated with Elves because they have unattainable superhuman immortality, strength, art, and dexterity. However, this fascination might actually be unhealthy because those characteristics are arguably incompatible with our human natures when taken to such extremes. We should all be trying to emulate the self-sacrifice and growth of Hobbits such as Sam and Merry. We should want to be the best that Hobbits can be.
-Andrew Wong

Bibliography

            Bradley, Marrion Zimmer. “Men, Halflings, and Hero Worship.” In Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, ed. Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. 122-144.
            Fleiger, Verlyn. “Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero.” In Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, ed. Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. 122-144.
Shippey, T. A., The Road to Middle-Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Random House, 1994.
Tolkien, The Return of the King. New York: Random House, 1994.

6 comments:

  1. Haha! I'm glad we converted you (or, rather, that you converted yourself). Although to be honest, I think your reasons for wanting to be a hobbit are far more virtuous than mine (which are mostly the same reasons you originally didn't want to be a hobbit --being reclusive and lazy and all that).

    LP

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  2. Ditto: I am happy to hear that you have changed your mind about wanting to be a Hobbit! In my experience (based on the costumes that people wear to the Happening), more people on average want to be Elves, but perhaps this will change this year now that we understand hobbits better! But I do wonder whether you might still not prefer to be a Man (e.g. of Gondor or Rohan). I agree that Hobbits compare favorably to Elves as mortals to immortals, but what about Hobbits as compared with Men?

    RLFB

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  3. Yes, I find Hobbits most interesting in comparison to both Elves and Men. I see Hobbits and their nascent human society as the happy middle. Elves represent Art; and Men, Power. Hobbits, however, are willing to manipulate Nature, but do so without a lust for Power. Tolkien said in one of his Letters that Sam is the ideal hobbit. He is a gardener. A gardener uses tools to manipulate Nature, but does so without the intention of dominating it; rather he manipulates Nature in a way that allows it to flourish. Thus Hobbits are the middle ground. For instance, the Elves will ally themselves with a river, and can call upon a river (as in the Battle of the Ford) without seeking total control of it. Saruman (who I think acts a Man because if his continual quest for Power), in contrast, dams a river, seeking to totally control and manipulate it to his needs, making the land barren in the process. The nature of Hobbits is such that one of them would never go so far as to make an alliance with a river, nor dam it either.

    A hobbit is willing to use tools and go so far as to make a Mill, but will not use machines. Power is best represented by machines. Machines, we know, are completely absent from the Shire. Machines are really tools detached from the wielder. They promote inactivity, because they reduce the labor of the laborer. They also promote slavery, because they represent the total domination of one’s will on an object to do a certain task(in this way Sauron’s servants may even be considered machines; and of course the Ring is THE Machine). Machines are a corruption of tools. So Hobbits don’t use them. They make products that are produced through hard labor and toil: beer, pipe-weed, crops: Things you use tools to make. Unlike Men, they enjoy crafting, but not subjugating. This is why Sam the Gardener is the ideal hobbit.

    This analysis of the Hobbit-nature parallels their mortality. Just as they do not seek to completely dominate Nature, they do not seek to be Masters over Death, as Men do; nor is Life a burden for them, as it is for Elves. Because of their natures, Hobbits seem incapable of true despair in the face of Death. Like the Elves, they resent change. Yet they are quick to change, to abandon the plow for an ax, to defend their Lives. The true middle ground.

    PS: Sam the Gardener; Jesus the Carpenter…hmmm….

    S. Diaz

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  4. Yes, hobbits do recall the English countryside, through their simplicity, pettiness and dullness, and of course they may show deep resources of character and dignity. It’s hard to imagine hobbits not living by their nature, whatever it may be. Sam is the greatest example of this, but Frodo shows how hard it can be. At the same time these reservoirs of noble action are only revealed outside the Shire – a fact that echoes the idea that heroism is somehow about testing the limits of experience, which means, for a mortal, bringing him/her to the edge of mortality. But you point out something else that strikes me in a particular way, and that touches on the idea of immortality. While hobbits may not have philosophers, they do have storytellers, and stories are far more ancient than the things we dignify by the name of philosophy. In fact, to follow the witness of LOTR, it is because of this association that we receive the story in the first place, in the Red Book of Westmarch. I don’t know if elves are necessarily outside the human compass. Human cultural achievement, which is what the elves seem to me to represent, often strikes at something immortal, and I think of elven immortality as almost a consequence of this. But this immortality belongs no less, therefore, to the hobbits, who have found a story-craft that will produce – in what we now read – what the ancient bards sought: a monument that will last eternity (apologies to Horace).
    JCT

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  5. I am of the same mind as S. Diaz above. When I think of the roles and actions of the societies within Middle Earth, it does seem that hobbits lie between the elves and men in terms of their relationships with nature, creation and the home. I am especially moved by the hobbit/home relationship, as is exemplified by the walking song early in our star hobbits’ journey. Tolkien writes of the hobbits, “They began to hum softly, as hobbits have a way of doing as they walk along, especially when they are drawing near to home at night” (LotR 77). The hobbit songs are demonstrations of the tendency hobbits have to leaning towards being artistic sub-creators (like elves). However, the practical subject matter of many songs seems to lean towards the somewhat more pragmatic nature of men. Tolkien continues: “With most hobbits is it a supper-song or a bed-song; but these hobbits hummed a walking-song” (77). The importance of the home to the hobbits is apparent in the lyrics of the walking-song, and yet the lyrics depict their intention to carry along on their journey (though bed is, of course the final desired destination). These lyrics even portray an interest in exploring land yet untraveled by anyone, which suggests a propensity of hobbits to not merely wish to stay home. They simply have a respectable and understandable love of the place from which they come, which has as of yet kept them safe, warm and well-rested. Granted the hobbits of the Fellowship might be considered extraordinary cases as hobbits are concerned, but then again, hobbits really are amazing creatures...

    -AlKl

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  6. Like the authors of the other comments, I will also defend Hobbits and their virtues and add to your reasons for conversion. My favorite characteristic of Hobbits is that they love beautiful things and good-tilled earth, and have a respect and understanding of the earth unlike the other creatures of Middle Earth. The Party Tree and the tree growing through the roof of Bag End are favorite landmarks of Hobbiton and are loved for their beauty. Hobbits are gardeners, and while they can control nature, they do not possess it.

    This is also a characteristic of Elves, but their relationship with nature is different. While they certainly appreciate the beauty of nature, they are not as pastoral as Hobbits - they don't "live off the land," and therefore do not have the same kind of loving and appreciative relationship with nature as the Hobbits do.

    To me, this is the most charming aspect of the Hobbits, and it speaks to a more simple lifestyle and love of the earth than Men. The Hobbits, though simple, are lovers of beauty.

    -MEH

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