Happy Hobbit Day! In case you weren’t aware, the twenty-second of September is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and among Tolkien fans it is a time to celebrate Tolkien’s greatness. Although Tolkien’s works are well-known, few are aware of just how great an impact they have had not just on literature but also on western civilization in general.
What is Heroism?
I once took a university course on what makes a character heroic with Professor Tom Shippey, a Tolkienian scholar who helped with the pronunciation in Peter Jackson’s movies. The first lecture of the course focused on Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and how Tolkien’s books were able to help the traumatized veterans from the World Wars and even change the very definitions of courage and heroism.
If you look at the definition of heroism in the modern dictionary, you’ll see “a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” Many people take this definition for granted, but before Tolkien’s work, the definition was very different: “a man of superhuman strength, courage, or ability,” A hobbit doesn’t fit the old definition by any stretch.
Ancient Demigods and Extraordinary Heroes
If you look at the ancient Greek heroes, they’re often lacking where good qualities are concerned. What made them heroic was that they were extraordinary, whether by their strength, courage, or intelligence. That their quests were usually selfish had little bearing on the matter. Even Odysseus’s goal was simply to get himself home to his family, whether or not his crew survived. One must note too that what made them courageous was that they risked their lives fighting monsters, regardless of why they fought in the first place. Perseus, for instance, essentially killed Medusa on a dare and spent the rest of his adventure distracted by his own whims until his mother needed his help.
An Alternative to Cynicism
This definition was all well and good until the brutality of World War I. The horrors of the bombs and trenches stripped war of all its supposed “romance” and “glory,” and those soldiers who returned were disillusioned with the concept. This lead to a great many nihilistic movements such as Dadaism, but Tolkien was able to give his fellow veterans a new idea of what heroism was. With the old form of heroism soliciting little more than cynicism, The Hobbit provided an idea that people could get behind even after the impersonal savagery of the war.
Bilbo Baggins: An Honest Burglar
Whereas much of old-fashioned heroism took place on a battlefield, surrounded by one’s loyal entourage, Bilbo’s courage is most apparent at the times when he’s alone. Professor Shippey called this “lonely courage,” and it has a great deal in common with much of the fighting in the Great War. More important, however, is “moral courage,” which has little in common with the heroism of the Greek legends. The first example is when Bilbo sees an opportunity to kill Gollum and make his escape from the goblin tunnels; despite the danger, Bilbo shows mercy, doing the moral thing when an immoral thing would be easier.
What has the least to do with the old style of heroism, however, is when Bilbo steals the heirloom of Thorin’s house and gives it to Bard for use as a bargaining chip. According to the ideals of traditional heroism, this would make Bilbo a vile traitor. In the light of modern heroism, however, this is a shining example of moral courage. Bilbo, in doing this, does what he knows is the right thing regardless of what others might think. Courageous too is how Bilbo confesses this action to Thorin on the gatehouse despite the risk to himself for doing so.
After all the horrors of the war, Bilbo returns to his home in The Shire to find that his neighbours are in the middle of auctioning off all the possessions of “the late Bilbo Baggins.” In the end, he’s forced to spend most of his reward from the adventure on buying back his furniture—and he never did see his silverware again. Most of the other hobbits don’t believe the tales of his adventures, and many think he’s insane—even an impostor. He gets absolutely no recognition for his heroism, as was the case for many veterans who returned from the trenches.
I Will Take It!
Now, I think I’ve said about enough for a full article, but there are a few things I need mention about The Lord of the Rings. The chief hero of that book is Samwise Gamgee, but I’m going to focus on Frodo here, seeing as it is his birthday. Just as Bilbo fainted in the first chapter of The Hobbit, Frodo spends near the first third of the book frequently trying to shirk his responsibility by giving the ring to others, with courage only barely keeping him from doing so. He even says early on “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” which brings to mind Neville Chamberlain’s failure to keep Hitler in check; very unheroic.
The Simple Acts of Kindness
Although the decisions to take the ring to Mordor, to leave the Fellowship and continue alone, and other such choices are certainly courageous and heroic in the new style, the one that truly embodies Tolkienian heroism is the decision to spare Gollum’s life, resisting the temptation to do what is easy rather than what is moral. Although it is Sam who makes this decision in the final moment of truth on the slopes of Orodruin, it was Frodo who chose to spare Gollum up to that point, just as Bilbo had done before him. This was done with full knowledge that Gollum would have likely killed them without a moment’s thought were their places reversed. This kind of courage is one that had become increasingly relevant during World War II; just because your enemies would do something immoral doesn’t mean you should. It is, as it turns out, this very moral decision that saves the world when Frodo fails to destroy the ring.
After all this, just as with Bilbo before him, Frodo receives little or no recognition of his deeds after he returns to his home. As was the case for countless veterans, Frodo’s courage is lonely and unpleasant, and after the fact it’s unrecognized.
A Heroism for Ordinary Folk
In conclusion, the ancient ideals of traditional heroism were brought crashing down by the trauma of the World Wars, and people became cynical of the idea of heroism. Tolkien, however, created an alternative to cynicism: a type of heroism that was built around doing the right thing no matter how unpleasant, scorned, or unrecognized your deeds might be while, or even after, you’re doing them. Unlike the heroism of Greek demigods, the new heroism of the hobbits was one of ordinary folk doing what they must. To one who has grown up with this new form of heroism, the heroism of the greek heroes seems vulgar, which only serves to illustrate the impact that Tolkien’s writing has had on the world.
I’d like to give my thanks to Professor Shippey for opening my mind to how great an influence Tolkien has been on the world