It is an odd fact about my life: I love small things. Small babies, small children, small dogs, tiny cabins, cozy rooms. And since my generation lives in a world driven by images, some better than others, (via Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, etc) in times when I fall into the stereotype of that image-driven generation, I have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around with girlfriends looking at pictures, or Buzzfeed posts, or YouTube videos, or stories. (Usually, they’re titled something along the lines of, “BABIES TRY LEMONS FOR THE FIRST TIME! THIS IS A HILARIOUS MUST-WATCH.”)
My own affinity for the small, my genuine and deep-seeded love of children, and my desire to protect the innocent is probably rooted in my own psyche and my own life story—but the affinity also stems from an amazement at the reality of the Incarnation. I never cease to marvel at the fact that the Savior of our world came to the world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying, needy infant. The Word who always was allowed Himself to be nurtured and loved into maturity. (That could be another piece, another day.)
And so all of that being said, The Lord of the Rings has always been a place where loves of different sorts collided for me. I find Tolkien’s writing beautifully crafted, his imagination fantastic, and his ability to reflect on deep truths in the lens of myth-making and story-telling absolutely brilliant. I also find hobbits entirely lovable. In fact, for a long time, I loved hobbits simply because of their smallness.
When it came time to write a senior thesis, I eventually settled on writing it about the way the chief four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin grow in virtue throughout The Lord of the Rings. My chief encourager in this line of thinking stemmed from a place where JRR Tolkien commented that, “…the structure of The Lord of the Rings was, “planned to be ‘hobbito-centric,’ that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (Letters 237). As I thought to myself about writing, the process went something like this:
- A kind of spirituality of smallness, a’la Therese of Lisieux, check.
- Lord of the Rings (a somewhat pathological obsession, my friends will testify), check.
- Tolkien’s brilliance from his letters and interviews, check.
- And I even managed to throw in something on patristic theories of the atonement. Relationship to historical Christianity, check.
- Thoughts about vocation and call (one of my other obsessions)- check.
(An insight to me internally at this point: ALL OF THE THINGS I NERD OUT ABOUT WERE ABOUT TO BE IN ONE PLACE.)
“THIS IS SO GREAT!” I thought. “I’ll write all about hobbits, and why we love them, and why it’s beautiful that they’re small, and how important their smallness is to who they are, and yadda-yadda-yadda- yadda” (I can rant to myself for quite a long while). But sometimes, something happens when you write. Sometimes, you find that you were quite wrong in your instincts. Delving into a topic means that you have to permit your long-held ideas and conceptions to grow and mature. And at times, to be crushed. (Gulp.)
It turned out that my own instincts about the place of humility, smallness, and the little in Tolkien’s fictional world were (quite simply) wrong. Not all wrong, but mostly wrong. I had an idealistic and romantic vision in my head of Tolkien’s hobbits as a preferred race, a race we ought to love and value for nothing more than their small, quiet ways of life and their quaint customs. The work I did delving into Tolkien’s own thoughts quickly and totally crushed that tendency towards over-romanticization of the small and childlike in Middle Earth out of me. The Ring cycle is still definitely about the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble. BUT, I came to find, this means we ought to appreciate the hobbits who willingly and freely undergo the process of what it takes to be sanctified and ennobled; we should not overtly romanticize the entire race.
Even though the trilogy thematically focuses on the “sanctification of the humble,” the situation is not so simple as loving hobbits because they are small, comical, innocent people who enjoy gardening and over-eating and time with family. Tolkien’s hobbits are often endearing and comic characters, to be sure, but it is not endearing-ness alone that makes one a saint, or Tolkien’s fictional equivalent of one. Simply put, the hobbits of Middle Earth who become heroes are revered because they demonstrate the Church’s definition of sanctity; they exhibit levels of heroic virtue.
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions (CCC 1803).
So the fictional saint-making in the context of The Lord of the Rings stems from how our hero hobbits reacted to adversity and what exactly they did with the roads set before them– not from an innate sanctification via innocence and ignorance. On those paths, the hobbits themselves were “enlarged” and “sanctified” for the sake of all of Middle Earth, because they continually tended toward and chose the good. (Though not always; saints in our real histories aren’t perfect either, but we can’t treat that here).
The hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin demonstrate a heroic faithfulness for the sake of friendship, coupled with a steadfast courage that persons of their size and background should never have had. Frodo demonstrates a willingness to die for the sake of the entirety of the people of Middle Earth. Effectively, they all are given grace (by an unnamed providence, in this fictional context) in order to continue persevering in the realities presented to them. Take, for example, the hobbit Sam’s reflection on heroes that he shares with Frodo:
“…We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to just have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten….” (Tolkien 711).
It is true, unfortunately, that a post of this nature can’t possibly capture the entirety of the thesis– nor treat all of the nuances involved fairly. But suffice to say, the more I studied and expanded my understanding, the more I came to love Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I saw just how much they all grew in courage, how much they sacrificed their own wants, totally abandoned any understanding of personal safety for the sake of friendship, loyalty, duty, or even a more complex understanding about the good of all. By the end of things, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all actually had been “enlarged, or sanctified,” as Tolkien had desired to show, because they had acquired and continually acted with levels of courage, fortitude, and loyalty that absolutely none of the “Big People” ever expected hobbits to exemplify.
Although (alas) hobbits are fictional, many of us- myself very much included- feel ourselves to be hobbit-like in the scheme of the wider world. We feel small, or sometimes insignificant, or at the least unprepared for the path that has been set before our feet— for the illness of a family member, for the loss of a job, for loneliness in our own path, for difficulties with children, for the impossibility of a class load, for difficulty with responsibilities that “by rights” as Sam would say, we shouldn’t have. But understanding Tolkien’s thought means that if we understand ourselves as a “hobbit in faith,” we do not have the ability to flee to our respective Shires. We cannot content ourselves with pipe-smoking, gardening, entertaining family, and the like. There’s a huge key here to understanding vocation: understanding how we are called to respond to God and the realities of our lives does not mean constantly longing for peace and quiet and a return to (or discovery of) a place of safety.
For evil to be defeated in this world, we have to cooperate with the hand of Providence, even when that means the Way before us is frighteningly unknown or dangerous or not what we expected. To be a hobbit in faith means that we courageously continue, whatever the road before us, knowing that if we keep trying to follow the will of God, good may come of our current Road—even if this means a great deal of suffering and scarring on our part. Sam’s thought on this in the darkest of times communicates this more eloquently:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 922).
Evil, and evil’s affinity for self-deception, will mean that child-like humility and a recognition of one’s smallness may allow for the grace of God to work in ways that will surprise all of us. The Road does not ever quite end, as Tolkien says; “it goes on and on.” It is our part to follow, and to keep following that Road that is at our feet, knowing that Christ is Himself our Road and our Way. We are all homo-viator: man on the journey, pilgrims seeking heaven. Thus, to be a hobbit in faith means to accept the Road that one’s feet have been set on, even if we in no way sought out our particular path, or even if we fear where the Road might be leading in the short term. And so we accept our Road, knowing that Christ our light, Christ our Way, Christ the beautiful, and Christ the victorious seeks us as we continue journeying Home.