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Why Hobbits?: A Look at Tolkien's Unlikely Heroes

Patricia Briggs writes in her novel entitled Blood Bound that "even after all this time, I keep forgetting that heroes can be found in unlikely places and persons." We tend to expect heroes to come in mythical shapes and sizes, blasting onto the scene with strength like the Hulk, gadgets like Iron Man, or a thirst for justice like Batman. J.R.R. Tolkien’s famed trilogy The Lord of the Rings and its prequel The Hobbit are set up to follow this paradigm of a mythological-sized hero. The stories detail a world full of elves, dwarves, men, wizards, dragons, and most other expected players in such a fantasy series. Amidst these known entities, Tolkien places a new species of creature called hobbits into his middle earth and builds around them a quest for the fate of the entire age. These four works comprise the path of the One Ring (a ring with ultimate power to rule and to destroy the entire civilization) as the Ring emerges out of antiquity and the threat of Sauron, the dark ruler, grows. It is a hobbit that finds the Ring, and a hobbit that must destroy it for the sake of all in Middle Earth.

Hobbits are unexpected protagonists in a work of such epic proportions for they are small and wholly unknown. They dwell peacefully in the land of the Shire away from most of the concerns of the rest of Middle Earth, and they are not factors in the great legends of the days of valor. There are no songs sung in the great halls of Rohan or Gondor of the deeds of hobbits, for many do not even known of hobbits at all outside of the Shire. It is with these smallest of creatures, however, that the true essence of courage and valor is found in the novels. J.R.R. Tolkien builds The Lord of The Rings around hobbits rather than any other bigger, notoriously more valiant species because hobbits bring an element realism for the reader into a fantasy of such epic scale.

Despite the existence and dominance of men within the series, hobbits are the most humanlike of all the characters when it comes to the experience of emotion. Hobbits enjoy nothing quite as well as they do the comforts of home: they love naught more than the camaraderie of good food, beer, and pipe weed. Their fears center on the potential for things to disturb the peace of the land that they have cultivated. Hobbits do not like change and do not know much of the world outside the borders of the Shire. Tolkien describes hobbits in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring as “an unobtrusive but very ancient people” who find their delights in “peace and quiet and good tilled earth” (Tolkien 2). Their world is their own, the Shire wholly untouched by the dealings of the so-called greater races of Middle Earth.

The men of Middle Earth are tall and grim, hardened by the wild and by battle with orcs and forces trying to subdue them. The dwarves are stout, hearty folk and staunch defenders of their lands. The elves are perilous and fair, untouched by either good or evil, a step above the reckoning of any mortal race. Men, dwarves, and elves are known figures within fantasy tales for centuries before Tolkien’s work; a sense of their characterization and history is already present in the minds of most readers before even opening one of Tolkien’s books. Hobbits, however, are Tolkien’s creation. They are unknown to the reader of his works, as well as wholly unknown to the world into which Tolkien places them.

By the narrative of The Hobbit chiefly taking place through the eyes of Bilbo, the reader is introduced to the world of Middle Earth through a meeker perspective than one might otherwise expect in a tale of such an epic quest. Hobbits possess both the innocence of children and the wisdom of elders when it comes to interacting with the world outside the Shire. Hobbits make the fantasy real for the reader, and open up the world of Middle Earth not just to themselves but to the audience to explore. Apart from stories from the likes of Gandalf, Bilbo (nor any other hobbit for the most part) has never seen things such as the majesty of the elves nor experienced the terror of a dragon’s might.

Not until Bilbo steps out his front door to join Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf, on the quest to reclaim Erebor from Smaug the dragon does Bilbo actually glean any experience of the world outside the Shire’s borders. Bilbo becomes the lens through which the reader experiences these adventures, and “the reader sees the world of dwarves, trolls, and dragons through Bilbo’s unheroic eyes and shares his naïve and sensible reactions and responses” (Atherton 43 - 44). The reader is able to experience logical emotion through Bilbo’s viewpoint. Bilbo’s trepidation on setting out on the dangerous quest for Erebor contrasted by Thorin’s relentless determination to do whatever he can to reclaim his homeland shows just how perilous these types of quests are, especially for one so small and naïve as a hobbit. “Bilbo is only a little fellow in a wide world, but he still has a hand in making the prophecies come true” (Atherton 3).

In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the same notion of making the unreal accessible to the reader can be said of the narrative perspective of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. In these works, however, the hobbit’s points of view are not the sole narrative voice, unlike Bilbo’s perspective that dominates the pages of The Hobbit. When the fellowship breaks, and the members of the company scattered across different parts of the realm to save Middle Earth, the voices of the hobbits are contrasted by that of Legolas, and Aragorn, and Gimli’s valiant deeds of war. The hobbits are set adrift in this world of heroism. Their struggle to step outside of their smallness to aid in this quest of bigger people, in both stature and deed, to save Middle Earth is a very real fear. One of the riders of Rohan laughs that hobbits are but “only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North” (Tolkien 434).

The hobbits find themselves amidst the conflict of a world that already possesses expectations about the worth of a hobbit, a force which is almost as daunting as orcs, Saruman, or Sauron himself for Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin to overcome. The four hobbits are the ones that in the end have the greatest hand in purging the kingdom of evil so that Aragorn can resume the throne again: Merry kills the leader of the Nazgul; Pippin rescues Faramir from Denethor’s madness; Frodo and Sam despite all odds trudge through Mordor and destroy the ring for good. In the midst of waiting for battle amongst the forces of the Rohirrim, Merry “felt small, unwanted, and lonely” (Tolkien 830). The hobbits have no established tradition of valor, and they are easily overlooked in the world of men preparing for war. They are isolated from even each other and must strive to find their place in the world of which songs and legends of the age will be written about. Without the four hobbits, however, the fortunes of the war would have been quite different.

The hobbits must rise to the challenges posed by this tumultuous environment in which there are no established roles and places for them. They are forced by the sheer horrors of war to cast off the innocence that they had taken for granted in the Shire. Pippin remarks that “already it seemed years… since he had sat there before, in some half-forgotten time when he had still been a hobbit, a light-hearted wanderer touched little by the perils he had passed through” (Tolkien 807-808). The intensity of the struggle of the hobbits to cast off the purity of their experiences to do these formidable tasks makes the toil of the quest palpable to the reader more so than would being given solely the point of view of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they slay countless orcs and achieve battlefield successes.

Experiencing the contrast of fear through the eyes of the hobbits versus the eyes of the already hardened heroes makes the terror and the horror palpable to the reader. The hobbits arise from relatively nothing legendary to make themselves into heroes despite fear and unreasonable odds, and it is this destruction of their innocence that becomes so relatable. Hobbits make the pain of war more of a reality than solely a fantasy to the reader, people who most likely have never been in any sort of war and will certainly never labor on the fields of Pelennor against hosts of Mordor.

The addition of hobbits brings to Tolkien’s Middle Earth a sense of realism amidst the fantasy. For the reader, the hobbit is the most humanlike out of all the species because their struggles are that of retaining innocence when faced with the depth of the horrors that the world can contain. The other species that inhabit Middle Earth come from traditions both in Tolkien’s universe and in mythology itself that give to men, elves, dwarves, and wizards preconceived notions of glory and valor.

Hobbits, however, show the full trajectory of what courage actually means: starting from a place of innocent fear, acknowledging the fear and its limitations, and then harnessing those fears to do what must be done for the greater good. Hobbits, the smallest of creatures, save Middle Earth from Sauron’s destruction. Without the lens of a hobbit’s view, the reader would find themself adrift in an unfamiliar world and alienated by the very nature of fantasy being a story of otherworldly struggles. Hobbits, while not a purely human species, give back the realism of human emotion into the narrative. As the hobbits learn to navigate and surmount the trials of Middle Earth, so too does the reader learn what courage really means. Heroes are found in the most unlikely of places - in a hole in a ground in Bag End or right there sitting in front of a computer screen reading this article.