In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. (p.1)
In these lines, J.R.R. Tolkien gives us our first sight of Middle Earth, the fantasy land he created in The Hobbit. His description of the home of his hobbit protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, marks the beginning of two epic voyages that would inform the next half century of fantasy writing. Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937, and went on to write his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, which was first published in 1954. The latter was adapted into a critically acclaimed trilogy of movies, directed by Peter Jackson and released in the early 2000s. The movies alone earned $2,991 billion, and the books sold more than 150 million copies around the world (Moore, 2020). Tolkien's final addition to the series was The Silmarillion, published posthumously by his son in 1977, and based on his notes and manuscripts. (Moore, 2020). Together, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion create a complex fantasy world made up of a rich tapestry of stories, poetry, maps, invented beings, and fictional languages.
Middle Earth, the world in which the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place has become a kind of blueprint for epic fantasy stories. The Hobbit is the story of how Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, helps Thorin Oakenshield and his company of 12 dwarves to reclaim their homeland and the treasure that lies therein from the terrible dragon, Smaug. When the wizard Gandalf the Grey shows up at Bilbo’s door to invite him on this adventure, Bilbo stoutly refuses. However after some convincing from the dwarves who show up the next day, Bilbo decides to leave his comfortable home and join them in their dangerous quest. Bilbo not only helps the dwarves reclaim their homeland, but he also becomes the owner of a magic ring that seems to make the wearer invisible.
The ring will prove to be of great importance in the three books of The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The story starts when Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, discovers that it is not just any piece of jewelry but is in fact the One Ring of the Dark Lord Sauron, an ancient enemy of the people of Middle Earth. If Sauron were to regain his Ring (and with it, his powers) he would wreak havoc and destruction on its people. After discovering the significance of the ring, Frodo has to bring it to the safe realm of the Elves. He starts out his voyage with three other hobbits, Samwise Gamgee, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Pippin Took. Later on they find another companion, Aragorn, also known as Strider, a human that is willing to help them.
Throughout their journey, Frodo and his friends are hunted by Sauron’s minions, but they eventually make it to the Elves' realm. On arrival, however, they discover that the Ring must be destroyed in the place where it was created - the lava of Mount Doom. But there is a twist. The Ring corrupts not only anyone who wears it, but anyone who even comes near it. It has a will, and its will is to not get destroyed and to get back to its master. Many powerful characters, like Gandalf the Grey and the powerful Elf Lady Galadriel, refuse to take the Ring because they know that they would fail to destroy it - in trying to do good, they would ultimately only do further evil. Despite knowing this, Frodo takes it upon himself to carry the Ring, realising somehow that he is the only one who can. Only a humble person with no ambition can carry it without becoming overpowered by it. And that person turns out to be not a hero, but a hobbit.
Something that becomes very obvious from even this cursory outline of the plots of The Hobbit and the three books of The Lord of the Rings is that the heroes are none other than the hobbits. This is remarkable, especially considering that if one were to look at the whole of Tolkien’s writings it would seem that he greatly favored the Elves amongst all races of Middle Earth. He created an entire language, Elvish, which was learned by dedicated fans, and he wrote a whole book, The Silmarillion, on the history of the Elvish people. In the fantasy genre, elves, dwarves, wizards and dragons are important and recurring characters, and yet, in Tolkien's classic epic battle between good and evil, it it the most unlikely characters, the hobbits, who are the heroes.
But who are the hobbits? For the few who have not been exposed to Tolkien's tales, they are a quaint and serene people. They love to drink, eat and laugh, and they value above all else the peace and quiet of their homeland, the Shire. Physically, they are quite diminutive (smaller than dwarves), although they have big, hairy feet. In a fantasy world wherein a battle between good and evil plays out, the hobbits do not involve themselves in the fighting. It is this abstention that makes them interesting. Bilbo, Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin are not fighters like their comrades in the Fellowship. In fiction, the main protagonists' experience of events often provides the point of view for the audience, and they therefore have to be somewhat relatable. (Raven, 2019). By identifying with the hobbits, readers are cast into a situation with no real idea of what is waiting for them in a dangerous fantasy world, and therefore, they are unequipped to deal with what it thrown at them. Usually, when a Chosen One of a fantasy tale is introduced, that character may not be ready for the task at hand, but ultimately, they succeed in overcoming challenges and difficulties thanks to some incredible ability that they possess. Maybe they did not want to be the Chosen One, but when it comes down to it, they are willing and able to fight and win. Harry Potter, the main character of J.K. Rowling's eponymous series, is a good example of this. He takes quite some time to accept that he is the Chosen One, and yet, every time he has to battle against the many enemies that he meets, he can rise to the occasion and ultimately prevail.
The hobbits do not have the luxury of magical superpowers or even of enhanced abilities. They are simple creatures, and whilst they do grow during their journey, becoming braver and more mature, they never attain magical abilities of any sort. By the end of his journey in The Return of the King, Frodo is so exhausted by the enormous weight he has to bear that he nearly fumbles and fails. This depiction of a character pushed to the absolute limit of their abilities is realistic to the point of almost hurting. It resonates with us as readers because we all, at some point, have experienced the pain of coming close to achieving a goal, only to fall at the last step.
It has been argued (Garth, 2014) that the reason why Tolkien's depiction of dejection is so resonant is because he had personal experience of it while fighting in World War One. Tolkien himself drew the comparison between his fellow soldiers and Samwise Gamgee (Garth, 2014), and this similarity can be extended to all of the hobbits. Both Tolkien's hobbits and his comrades-in-war are young, innocent, and bound by duty and friendship. They are not ready for the realities of war, but when they are called to action, they answer, even if that will bring them incredible hardship. And to do one’s best in unfavorable circumstances is incredibly brave - braver, in fact, than taking on a fight in which success is guaranteed.
"I wish it need not have happened in my time", said Frodo. "So do I", said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us". (p. 51)
Heroes like Achilles, Odysseus, and Beowulf are accustomed to being praised for their actions. They are all kings, and they are all fearless leaders who were born to greatness and who are imbued with special abilities. Achilles is strong and swift, Odysseus is smart and cunning, and Beowulf combines all these qualities. Greek myths are centred around praise of courageous acts. (Ancient Heroes, 2016). Achilles leaves for the Trojan War knowing that he is destined to die, and yet he is willing to accept his fate because he sees it as better to fall young and have his actions sung about and praised by later generations than to die unheroically, an unknown king. The praise of heroic acts confers a kind of immortality on the lauded heroes and kings who charge courageously into battle. This immortality is not extended, however, to the common soldiers who follow them. In the second book of the Iliad, Thersites is a common soldier who complains about his plight and that of his comrades. (Postlethwaite, 1988). Like Tolkien's hobbits, he is not physically beautiful - quite the opposite, he is described as being very ugly. But he speaks for the common soldier in questioning why he has to die for the honour of kings without the chance of advancing his own position. This is met with derision and disgust from his comrades, and Thersites is beaten over the head with a stick by Odysseus until he cowers away like a dog.
If Tolkien were to follow this ancient blueprint for epic tales of heroism, it is Aragorn, the newly crowned King of the Reunited Kingdom, who would be lauded for generations to come in songs and poetry. The hobbits would be forgotten, left in the dust of the battlefield. And yet, at the end of the Lord of The Rings, Tolkien actively subverts the reader's expectations by going out of his way to praise the common soldier. This praise is neither expected nor assumed by Frodo, who says:
Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: ‘‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!’’ And they’ll say: ‘‘Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?’’ ‘‘Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.’’ ’‘It’s saying a lot too much" said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. (p.712)
The Lord of the Rings is an ode to the undervalued and berated heroes of war, the forgotten fighters who do not get put in the history books, the ordinary people who return from war irrevocably changed by what they were forced to endure. It casts the spotlight on people more like Thersites and the hobbits, who may have been beaten and berated for being brave enough to fight the status quo, with the odds stacked against them. Hobbits represent all the unassuming, unremarkable figures who show that sometimes, the ordinary can become extraordinary.
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