Hobbits and Heroes

Hobbits value, or rather love, “peace and quiet and good tilled earth” (Tolkien, The Fellowship 1). They, with their “mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking” (2) delight in and value simple pleasures, never fighting amongst themselves in a “warlike” manner (5). They behave as Tolkien’s readers, and he speaks directly to this fact when describing these “burrowing, hole-dwelling” (Foster 257) creatures in the prolog to The Lord of the Rings.

It is plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement Hobbits are relatives of ours: far nearer to us than Elves, or even than Dwarves. Of old, they spoke the languages of Men, after their own fashion, and liked and disliked much the same things as Men did. But what exactly our relationship is can no longer be discovered (The Fellowship 2).

Here lies the crux of hobbits, their characterization as a distant cousin of readers; consider the inclusive pronouns “ours” and “us” particularly. Hobbits, with their frivolity and pettiness resemble people in the lives of readers, if not the readers themselves. Tolkien based the home of hobbits, the Shire, “more or less [on] a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee” (Garth, “Sam” np.) to further align this species with Englishmen, readers in the primary world. He also meant to make heroes out of them. In their humility, passion for the quotidian, and a firm connection to the earth (they walk without shoes), hobbits maintain a strength and will to persevere against dire odds, not unlike the soldiers in World War I. Both dismantled the traditional idea of hero previously defined by Greek and Roman mythology and epics (especially those of the Germanic variety espousing “Northern courage”).

The “modern literary hero” rests on the literary perception of “modern,” meaning after World War I (1914-1918) and involving “a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases…of Western culture” (Abrams 167). Epics, mythology, and literature at large, stand as some of the “traditional bases.” Studying Greek and Latin works at King Edward’s School as well as focusing on Classics and comparative philology at Oxford provided Tolkien with a superb knowledge of Western culture’s bedrock texts (Garth, “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien” 2-3). Tolkien had knowledge enough of the action hero archetype (so pervasive in epics) to do as Abrams suggests: he modernized the hero, radically breaking (167) or rather uprooting this archetype to plant a new hero, a hobbit.

Tolkien’s service in WWI factored into his definition of hobbits as modern literary heroes. He saw his battalion decimated, took part in the battle of the Somme, and lost all but one of his close friends by 1918 (Garth, “Tolkien” 2-3). Tolkien recalled his experience in the war enough to allude to WWI soldiers in his translation of Beowulf (another example of the “traditional bases”), providing the following commentary: “Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them” (Tolkien, “Beowulf” 113). Certainly a hero “is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance” (Abrams 77), but WWI showcased the psychological wreckage of an entire generation of young men caused by action in the war. Focusing on the soldier as a subjectively complex, thinking individual changed the idea of war as well as the hero. This focus made the hero modern by undercutting traditional heroes like Achilles, Aeneas, and Beowulf. Philosopher and classicist, Angie Hobbs, summarizing Plato and attempting to formally modernize the hero, sees passion as a replacement for the traditional martial valor in the characterization of heroes (Bragg). The modern hero, then, would maintain a greatness of soul, the refusal to submit, and a calm, strong endurance of misfortune (Bragg).

The four central hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, exemplify all three of these characteristics and deserve the title as passionate modern heroes. To Tolkien, WWI was an “utter stupid waste” and a “moral and spiritual” detriment “to those who have [had] to endure it” (Garth, “Writing” 3). But, soldiers endured the “animal horror,” serving passionately for their family, brotherhood, and nation (Garth, “Tolkien” 2-3) just as Sam served Frodo; the hobbits (collectively), Middle-earth. Sam proves to be the best example out of the hobbits for characterizing them as heroes, for he stands as a “reflexion” of Tolkien’s WWI batmen rolled into one (Garth, “Sam” np.). His dedication and perseverance baffles readers as he says to Frodo, “I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, which I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me” (The Fellowship 85). Sam formally addresses Frodo here (in his typical fashion), and tells of an unseen need to keep going—Sam maintains a greatness of soul by coming to terms with his needs; he refuses to submit and return to the Shire after seeing the elves, and though not presently obvious, his calm but strong endurance of misfortune comes out later during his and Frodo’s perilous journey to Mordor. He satisfies all the aforesaid criteria while lacking any epic, privileged background. He has no expectations, making his actions even more heroic.

In Moria, the traditional hero, Aragorn, cries the name of his ancestor, “Elendil!” (The Fellowship 322), while the modern hero, Frodo, cries the name of his home, “The Shire!” (316). Their values differ here—Aragorn thinks of his expectations, thrust upon him by his epic background, and Frodo thinks of his home like any common reader would. A chink in this hypothesis, of the hobbits as modern heroes without any grandiose beginnings resides Frodo, Merry, and Pippin being upper class. Frodo came into wealth through his uncle, Bilbo, Merry is the Master of Buckland’s son (Foster 331), and Pippin is the “thirty-second Thain of the Shire (14-64) and a Counsellor of the North-kingdom (14-64)” (Foster 401). Their priviledged backgrounds, however, do not factor into how they see themselves, and they, unlike other members of the Company, do not introduce themselves as “Frodo son of Drogo” (The Fellowship 316). Still, Sam serves as the prime example of the modern literary hero. He is merely a gardener, but his loyalty and steadfastness endure to the end.

All the other members of the Company or Fellowship come from royal, celebrated, or privileged genealogical roots whereas the hobbits seem less concerned with the upper echelon, resembling the origins of modern day readers. For instance, Aragorn descends from Númenórean prince Isildur [and is his heir (The Fellowship 241)]; he remains the last Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North (Foster 122). He may have been introduced as a “grim” Ranger in a pub (The Fellowship 153), but his history distances him from readers—because of his background, heroic deeds expected of him, and even his elevated diction make him inaccessible. As a member of the Dúnedain, he “knew and spoke an Elvish tongue,” which he often infused into his speech (“Appendix F” 1102). The elves appear even more distant than Aragorn: they are wholly divine beings. Prince of the Woodland Realm (Foster 140) and sole elf of the Company, Legolas exclaims the English word “Alas! Alas!” at the Council of Elrond to announce his highly formal introduction (The Fellowship 248). Gimli, son of Glóin (Foster 208) has a similar introduction: an antiquated exchange of axioms with Elrond (The Fellowship 274) marks his first stretch of dialogue, removing him, establishing his diction as higher than the hobbits. The Common Speech, as adopted by hobbits, was used “freely and carelessly,” but “the more learned among them had still at their command a more formal language when occasion required” (“Appendix F” 1104). Indeed, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin shy away from such elevated diction (except when addressing Elves), contrary to epic convention, and their lexicons feature simpler terms and a heavy use of contractions (The Fellowship 48, 273, 276, 90) that parallel modern, colloquial English. They talk like Tolkien’s readers.

From these ideas, crafting a generalization like, “Most accessible, modern literary heroes have values, behavior, and speech pattern like humans,” demands accompanying and relevant premises to characterize it as a cogent argument. Consider the following premises: Hobbits are accessible to the reader; Hobbits are modern literary heroes; Hobbits have values, behavior, and speech patterns like humans. Rearranging these premises as the above essay does yield the cogent argumentative pattern as defined by Richard Feldman in Reason and Argument (86):

  1. x is an A. (Hobbits are accessible to the reader)
  2. x is a B. (Hobbits are modern literary heroes)
  3. Most ABs are Cs (Most accessible, modern literary heroes have  values, behavior, and speech pattern like humans)
  1. x is C. (Hobbits have values, behavior, and speech patterns like humans)

Some paragraphs adjust some wording to expound upon the premises and provide linguistic flourishes for aesthetics, but the generalization remains that hobbits are accessible, modern literary heroes (with passion, etc.) because they value, like and dislike “the same things,” eat and drink “the same things,” and speak the same way as readers (The Fellowship 2). The hobbits provide hope for the humble and self-conscious, illustrating that even the smallest individuals can perform truly epic feats in the face of peril.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College, 1999. Print.

Bragg, Melvyn, prod. “Heroism.” In Our Time. BBC Radio 4. London, England, 6 May 2004. Radio. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y282

Feldman, Richard. Reason and Argument. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. Print.

Foster, Robert. The Complete Guide to Middle-earth: From the Hobbit to The Silmarillion. New York: Ballantine, 1979. Print.

Garth, John. “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 1892-1973.” Handout. 11 July 2016.

Garth, John. “Sam Gamgee and Tolkien’s Batmen.” John Garth. Beverly Rogers, Carol C Harter Black Mountain Institute, UNLV, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 July 2016. https://johngarth.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/sam-gamgee-and-tolkiens-batmen/

Garth, John. “World War I and Tolkien.” Handout. 15 July 2016.

Garth, John. “World War I Writing and Disenchantment.” Handout. 15 July 2016.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Appendix F.” The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston, NY: Mariner, 2012. 1101-112. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Beowulf: A Verse Translation: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Daniel Donoghue. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2002. 102-30. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Mariner /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.