Concerning the Nature of Hobbits in Tolkien’s Middle-earth
Tolkien seems to have regarded the Elves as his favorite creatures of Middle-earth, but most of his readers seem to be hobbit-lovers at heart. They find hobbits to be the most likeable and also to be the most like themselves, despite some obvious differences (for most people) in the height and furry-footedness departments. Even Tolkien referred to himself as a hobbit (“in all but size”) for his love of pipe-smoking, gardens, plain and simple food, peace and quiet, his dislike of mechanized farmlands and traveling, and his fondness for wearing ornamental waistcoats on particularly dull days.
Before considering what hobbits really meant to Tolkien, you need to picture them as Tolkien designed them. In the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien asserts that hobbits are distantly related to humans and acquaints readers with all their vital statistics. According to this Prologue, hobbit characteristics include the following:
- A height of between two and four feet
- Feet with tough, leathery soles covered in hair (they seldom wear shoes)
- Long skillful fingers
- A tendency towards chubbiness
- Little or no facial hair
- An ability to disappear swiftly and silently
- Excellent hearing and sharp eyesight
- No understanding of machinery more complicated than the watermill, forge bellows, and the hand loom
- A delight in wearing bright colors, particularly yellow and green
- A love of food and drink (especially ale), eating a mere six times a day on average
- A love of laughter, jests, games, and celebrations
- A love of peace and quiet and “good tilled” earth
- A particular love for the smoking of tobacco in small clay pipes
For many readers, one of the more important hobbit characteristics is missing from this list — namely, their tendency to live in burrows or what Tolkien so ignobly calls a hole.
In fact, Tolkien is quite clear that only extremely rich or poor hobbits live in burrows (sometimes referred to in The Lord of the Rings as smials from the Old English smygel, meaning a “burrow” or “place to crawl into”). Because Bilbo and Frodo are such major characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and are fairly well-to-do, you are probably more accustomed to hobbits dwelling in very well-appointed holes (none of your wet, smelly rabbit holes, mind you). The more middle-class hobbits, Tolkien assures you, dwell above ground in houses of wood, brick, or stone.
Hobbits are deeply contented with their way of life. Understanding the level of this contentment is important to comprehending their central role in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Tolkien therefore spends a good deal of time introducing the reader to the way hobbits party and hang out together, thus ensuring that his readers understand the depth of this contentment.
A great part of the overall contentment with the hobbit way of life comes from their deep love of the Shire (from Old English scir meaning a “district”). The Shire is the region where most hobbits live, in the northwest section of the land of Eriador. Tolkien, like many English authors before him, is in love with his own “shire” (the Midlands in his case) and therefore naturally fosters in his hobbit characters a parallel love for their homeland.
In the tradition of English villagers at the turn of the nineteenth century, the hobbits of the Shire are very distrustful of any kind of stranger. They think it quite “queer” when they run into hobbits such as Bilbo and Frodo who go off on foreign adventures. Because everything any hobbit could desire is found right in the Shire, why would any hobbit in his right mind want to go off to some strange, far-off land in search of adventure, of all things! They often say that this isn’t natural and trouble will come of it. And it often does.
So hobbits are Tolkien’s “Everyman” in Middle-earth — creatures who just want to mind their own business and live a simple life. But the hobbits’ simple life, just the like the one that Tolkien knew as a boy in the village of Sarehole (a hamlet just outside Birmingham), is being threatened by the outside world. Just as Tolkien saw the urban sprawl from Birmingham threaten the isolation and idyllic rural existence of Sarehole, the Shire in the Third Age faces its own menace from without that threatens to end its isolation from the rest of Middle-earth and endanger the hobbits’ very way of life.
Hobbits and their homespun wisdom
Among the many delightful aspects of hobbits is their great homespun wisdom. Tolkien puts a number of pithy sayings, proverbs, and aphorisms into the mouths of the hobbits of the Shire. On the surface, the wisdom of these sayings appears commonsensical, but becomes a bit more complex when examined further. In Middle-earth, hobbits could write the equivalent of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac —they achieve contentment by living their lives according to truisms.
One of the first of these sayings comes from the Gaffer, Sam’s dad. At one point, the Gaffer warns his son about queer folk such as Bilbo Baggins by telling him not to get mixed up in the affairs of “your betters” or “you’ll land in trouble too big for you.”
When the hobbit fellowship of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are making their way to the Bucklebury Ferry, Frodo suggests cutting across country to save time and avoid the roads (and the Black Riders who are following them). Pippin responds, “Short cuts make long delays.”
A couple of favorite aphorisms come from the incident in which Frodo finally gets Gandalf’s letter at the inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree, warning him to make sure that he’s dealing with the “real” Strider. Frodo tells Strider that if he (Strider) were a spy of the Enemy, he would somehow “seem fairer and feel fouler.“ Then, after Strider wryly observes that his looks are against him, Pippin quotes the old saying of the Shire, “handsome is as handsome does” — words of wisdom that many a mother tries to pass on to her daughters.
As you can see, these commonsensical hobbit sayings are cautions when making judgments about the truth of a situation. They are forewarnings of the troubles that come your way when you can’t effectively make these determinations. This makes them typical of the kind “folk” wisdom and truisms that that abound not only in faraway legends but also in today’s small communities all around the world.
Despite their short stature and relatively conservative nature, at least when it comes to traveling and going on adventures, hobbits are the heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In the case of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins saves the day for the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, even though it is a Man, Bard the Bowman, who slays Smaug the dragon, and even though it takes a host of Men, Elves, Dwarves, eagles, plus Gandalf to defeat the army of goblins and wolves. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, it’s the hobbits Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry, and yes, even Sméagol/Gollum, who save Middle-earth from the domination of Sauron.
On the one hand, you may find it strange that Tolkien calls upon the “wee” folk of his fantasy world to carry the day. On the other hand, if you consider the hobbits’ diminutive stature as a sign not of a lack of courage or steadfastness, but rather as a lack of towering ambition and desire, their heroic role makes perfect sense. In The Lord of the Rings, the Men, Elves, Dwarves, and wizards in the story, for all their might, are not able to handle the One Ring. Only Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are able to bear it, each with differing amounts of harm to their personalities.
All those “greater” in stature than the hobbits, including the Dwarves because of their greater stoutness, are hampered by their high aspirations and the great purposes to which they would put the One Ring. To be sure, those purposes are noble ones, such as defending their people and defeating the Enemy. But most hobbits lack any overarching goals (other than a pint of beer and a good meal) that the One Ring could amplify and distort and in turn use to control them. The hobbit who suffers the most in bearing the Ring is Frodo, because he carries the ambition of destroying the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom — a noble goal but one that the Ring itself naturally resists.
The hobbits’ way of life also suggests the “common person” who does his or her duty without any greater goal than a job well done and seeing the matter through to its conclusion — the ideal of any good infantryman, as Tolkien’s experience on the front in World War I confirmed. By contrast, the high and the mighty seldom, if ever, do anything for its own sake. They are always working for a “greater” goal that inevitably colors the endeavor and that often can work against the very thing they want so badly to accomplish.
Viewed in this light, Tolkien’s selection of hobbits as the true heroes of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit marks these works as very contemporary in outlook. For it seems that in contemporary history — the modern democratic age — the common man is the hero. This was especially true in the two World Wars (Tolkien fought in the first one, and his son Christopher fought in the second). In Tolkien’s opinion, it wasn’t the lieutenants, colonels, and commanders who were the true heroes of the war, but rather the common soldier — especially the foot soldier, the nameless infantryman.