Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Has the Shire been saved?

            So I’d like to poke at a nagging thought I had after discussion. We discussed the borderline allegorical status of Sam and Frodo’s ‘last gasp’ across Mordor to Mount Doom—their kind of ‘penitential pilgrimage’ on behalf of Middle-Earth and of the Hobbits of the Shire—likening them to Christ. Frodo and Sam are not themselves great sinners, but instead journey and suffer for the salvation of all. Further, we talked about why Hobbits specifically in some ways needed to be the vehicles for that pilgrimage. Mainly, we discussed that good old rustic Hobbit ignorance—how they lack respect for and appreciation of the world around them, within and beyond the Shire, as well as any custom of worship or praise of that world. Tolkien expresses that if there is a purpose in life, it is praise of the creator (Letter no. 310, p. 400)[i]. With no sense of “God, and His sole right to divine honor” (Letter no. 183, p. 243), and of the praise that is deserved by his creation, the Hobbits’ lives are in some way meaningless and they are failing to achieve their purpose as an embodied part of creation.

            So we said that part of the purpose of having Hobbits as the ultimate pilgrims across Mordor as the final two of the Fellowship (as well as, perhaps, the purpose of Merry and Pippin’s own journeys, through Fangorn and to Rohan and to Gondor) is to in part repair this ignorance among Hobbits. More than just an understanding of what exists beyond the borders of the Shire, the Hobbits of the Fellowship—especially Frodo and Samalso arguably begin to join this community of worship and praise that exists in Middle-Earth. Frodo is aware of feeling “strangely rustic and untutored” when he must reply to Faramir that Hobbits have no custom akin to that of the Men of Gondor, who “look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be” (LotR p. 676). Sam and Frodo also join the Elves’ tradition in invoking Elbereth throughout their journey, and though they do not even fully understand the act or what they are saying, they understand the power of such an invocation and of faith in its power.[ii]

            So, we said they eventually serve to save the Shire—in the sense of salvation, here from ignorance. Allegory! But I don’t know that they’re actually totally successful. Sam is “pained to notice how little honor [Frodo] had in his own country,” for example, once Frodo resigned as Deputy Mayor and “dropped quietly out of all the doings of the Shire” (LotR, p. 1025). Further, after the Third Age, though Tolkien notes that the “greater families” of Hobbits were “concerned with the events in the Kingdom at large” (LotR, p. 14) overall the records and books kept “were of less interest to Shire-folk, though more important for larger history” (LotR, p. 15). So are the Hobbits truly sufficiently aware and worshipful of the world around them and beyond their borders? I'm skeptical.

            This isn’t to totally damn the reading that sees a penitential pilgrimage in the chapter of Mount Doom. I find it compelling. I note Tolkien’s excitement, implied in his inclusion of this anecdote in his letter (Letter no. 328, p. 413), of the ‘unbeliever’ who felt a spirituality inherent in the Lord of the Rings universe that is not inaccessible to him.[iii] (Compare this to how some in our class feel C. S. Lewis’ works sometimes are too explicit an allegory to be accessible, for example.) Tolkien’s works are not meant to be a perfect allegory, and noting the ways in which this reading of the story is an imperfect match for Christ does not make the reading invalid. However, I guess I mostly just wanted to raise this question I had regarding such a reading. What are we to make of the story, if perhaps the Hobbits of the Fellowship come closer to achieving their purpose or meaning of their life, but not so the Shire-folk at large? I thus also wanted to raise another reason, then, that Hobbits might be the most apt choice to send into Mordor, one outside of the story and more related to the connection between Hobbits and those who read Tolkien (and less damning of the poor cheery Shire-folk). 

            Hobbits are in some ways the race most recognizable to the readers—we touched on as much when in discussion we paraphrased Tolkien’s advice to his son Michael (Letter no. 250, p. 339) as, effectively, ‘go receive Communion every day among Hobbit-like peoples.’ Hobbits (and perhaps even Sam more than Frodo) are most like many of us readers, in part because of their low place on “whole hierarchy of styles” or literary modes Tolkien incorporates in his work (Shippey 211). So perhaps then here, too, is some part of the importance of sending the Hobbits beyond the Shire, and maybe even in to Mordor? Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are cured of their ignorance while still retaining their Hobbit-ness. Frodo may realtively quickly leave Middle-Earth, but he leaves behind the Red Book to express his own awakening to the world beyond as well as to preserve that knowledge and hopefully instruct. Sam, Merry, and Pippin become far more tangibly productive and restorative members of Hobbit society, also without divorcing themselves from the world beyond the Shire.

            Hobbits at large may in some ways still be largely asleep,[iv] but they are not entirely ignorant or unappreciative, and some descendants of the Hobbits of the Fellowship work to keep the information recorded and remembered (see again note [ii]). Thus we the readers are not lost, though we may not say praises every day and so lack the kind of knowing focusing of our spirituality that Tolkien recommends to his sons. Our ignorance, our forgetting sometimes to be glad of creation (whether we praise a Creator for it or not), is neither incurable nor unforgivable. Nor, I think, must we lose sight of the Hobbit part of our selves in order to embrace a kind of faith and knowledge of God according to that Hobbit part’s capacity.

 - IMS

[i] “So it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks.”
[ii] The Thain’s Book—that is, Pippin’s copy of the original Red Book, made at Aragorn’s request and brought to Gondor—“received much annotation, and many corrections, especially of names, words, and quotations in the Elvish languages” upon reaching Minas Tirith (LotR, p. 15). This copy was in turn copied, “probably at the request of the great-grandson of Peregrin,” to be kept at Great Smials in the Shire (LotR, p. 14). This is all from “Note on the Shire Records”—I point to it because I think it’s notable that Frodo didn’t have a perfect knowledge of what he was quoting in Elvish (I take this to include the many invocations of Elbereth). Sam surely did not understand either, and presumably Frodo had to consult him and his memory for his experiences with Shelob/Cirith Ungol for the Red Book.
[iii] Specifically, this “unbeliever” saw in the LotR “a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like a light from an invisible lamp.”
[iv] Tangent: In my impulse to compare ignorance to feeling “asleep,” I feel I should just mention the Horn-cry of Buckland: “Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake! Fire, Foes! Awake!” (LotR, p. 1007). Additionally, we may recall that Frodo felt himself to be falling back asleep upon the departure of Gandalf and the Hobbits’ nearing the Shire (LotR, p. 997).


  1. I think that the question you raise as to whether the hobbits of the Shire have really become part of the real world is a good one. For one thing the nature of the hobbits has certainly not been changed by the conflict, they remain happy and oblivious. However, it is also true that they have entered the real world more so than before the four hobbits left. The hobbits unfortunately get a taste of the real world when the Shire is essentially occupied by Saruman, during which they have to raise a hobbit army to repel the invaders. At the end of the conflict it was Merry who stated that it was in therefore in the Shire that the War of the Ring ended, indicating that they did in fact take part in the war. Yet beyond that they do for the most part remain isolated and are largely unaware of what else exists, except for the fact that afterwards they have a great mallorn tree planted by Sam.

    However, if, as you point out, the point of the hobbits making the journey is to atone for their ignorance and the ignorance is not being solved, then perhaps Tolkien is not really aiming at making an allegory after all. As we discussed in class this is perhaps the closest he ever came having an element of his story be allegorical, but in this regard I think you give evidence that it might not fit completely.


  2. I too agree with your point that the hobbits acting as a salvation allegory doesn’t quite work. In some ways, as you point out, the Shire does become slightly enlightened. The members of the fellowship become fully enlightened to the world. The last battle takes place in the Shire of all places, thanks to Sauron. The descendants of the fellowship try to keep the knowledge of the outside world alive for the other hobbits in the generations to come. But most of the hobbits return to their previous lives as soon as the danger passes.

    That they do so also is not portrayed as being a bad thing. Instead I would argue that the return of the shire, the saving of the shire, as it is often phrased in the chapter, is considered a good thing. After all, how can saving something be considered bad? If Frodo, in particular, went on a Christ like journey for the salvation of the hobbits from their own ignorance, sloth, etc. should not the Shire therefor change as you pointed out? At the very least, even if it doesn’t change, shouldn’t the return to the previous state of affairs, to sin, be portrayed in a negative light?


  3. While I agree that if Sam and Frodo are read as going on a pilgrimage to redeem the Hobbits then it must be asked if they are, I believe that the Hobbits are redeemed and the Shire is saved. The Hobbits weren’t just not looking West, they were almost completely cut off form the outside world. Hobbits were concerned only with Hobbits; even those that lived among “big people” in Bree tended to self segregate and form their own sub-community. Most of the people whom the Hobbits encounter outside the Shire do not even know that Hobbits are real. Hobbits are essentially locking their doors and saying, well it doesn’t affect me. After events of the Lord of The Rings, the Hobbits have been brought into relation with the outside world. Through the travels and exploits of Merry, Pippin, Frodo, and Sam, many of the other peoples are aware that Hobbits and the Shire exist. Also through the actions of the Fellowship the Northern Kingdom of Arnor was re-founded by Aragorn and the Shire was incorporated in it. The Shire itself would have had to become more aware of the outside world through increased travel as a result of their integration into the kingdom. The Hobbits accepted that they are a part of and have a stake in the world
    - Makenzie

  4. Yes, I agree that there's something slippery about what we are supposed to think about Hobbits at the end. How do we actually gauge the success of this pilgrimage to end the ignorance of Hobbits and actively engage them in participation in the created world? I particularly like how you have pointed us to the attitudes towards records, history, and the heroes of the Fellowship in hobbit culture after the scouring of the Shire (how can something “of less interest” to the authors be “important for larger history”?) I also like your reading of hobbits as a bridge between us and the story—we only have it because of the actions and records of hobbits!

    Something that came to mind as I read your analysis of “hobbitness” after the return to the Shire—what do you make of Pippin and Merry's increased stature? Does it make them more or less hobbity, to have a physical reminder of their journey etched into their persons?


  5. I think that in one sense the Shire, and therefore the Hobbits, are saved. When Saruman and Wormtongue come to the Shire, the Hobbits have to realize that there is more to the world beyond the Shire. Furthermore, they realize that at least some of the people in the world want to hurt them. This alone would start to make the Hobbits realize they should pay attention to the rest of the world. Then, in the Scourging of the Shire, the Hobbits themselves save the Shire. It is important that they are led by the Hobbits of the Fellowship. First of all, this means the Shire is literally saved. It has been taken over by Saruman, and then the Hobbits overthrow him. More importantly, they realize because of the intervention of the Hobbits from the Fellowship, that there must be something worthwhile about going into the rest of the world. I can’t help but think that the Tale of the Battle of Bywater would be told for generations in the Shire. In this Tale, the fact that the leaders of the Hobbits had traveled in the wider world would not be left out. Thus, through the actions of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, Hobbits come to see the importance of the rest of the world. I think this acts to save them because they are more aware of the rest of the world than they were before Frodo left to destroy the ring. This does not mean that they are more aware of Eru, so that would seem to remain problematic for them.

  6. This is a great posts, that touches on a lot of the thoughts I was left with after this discussion! Because I also had some nagging doubts, and I'm still not comfortable with this reading of the story.

    I'm still confused on a couple points. First, if the Hobbits are a sort of stand-in for modern society and its decadence, and they're also the Everyman we as readers can connect to, what does that mean about modern society? Have we all lost direction? Tolkien certainly seems to think so in several of his letters, but he also talks about American cosmopolitanism as a kind of infection spreading across the globe. How then are we to turn ourselves toward the rest of the world, worship the Creator, and retain some bit of Hobbit-ness all at the same time? I'm not expecting this allegory to hold up perfectly, but it seems awfully contradictory to me.

    I'm also unsure about the idea that the Hobbits are 'saving,' in the sense of salvation, Middle-earth from all evil. I think the whole point of the Scourging of the Shire is to demonstrate that we can never eliminate evil from the world, and that we must constantly fight it in order to prevent its domination. In a lot of ways, I think that's what the Hobbits (and readers) need to learn-- to fight evil even when it's far away, because it will eventually come home to them. But it's important that this happens even after Frodo and Sam destroy the Ring, because it means that it's not the destruction of the Ring per se that saves the Shire. It's the Scourging that finally does it.