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 Sam—also 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.
[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).