Classic Characters: The Much Maligned Hobbits (And Why They Still Stand)

“The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire, are “safe”, but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are “dangerous”. Experience of life itself is dangerous. The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a declining nation with a morally bankrupt class whose cowardly self-protection is primarily responsible for the problems England answered with the ruthless logic of Thatcherism. Humanity was derided and marginalised. Sentimentality became the acceptable subsitute. So few people seem to be able to tell the difference.” Michael Moorcock, from page two of his essay Epic Pooh (the Pooh is a reference to Winnie the Pooh… mostly. I include this as an example of the kind of ruthless, and thorough criticism that Tolkien has somehow withstood. Moorcock is best known as the author of the Elric series, another favorite Character of mine.)

Mmmmm… Carrots.

Ask a Fantasy lover if they like Hobbits. More often than not you will either get a cheerful affirmation of love for Tolkien’s creation or a denunciation of the work. Very rarely will you find a neutral opinion on Hobbits and the Shire  among those who are familiar with Lord of the Rings.

This article was brought about by a post I read on Friday (r/Fantasy or r/Fantasywriters I would guess).  Someone complained that they felt ganged up on because they didn’t like Lord of The Rings, and every time they noted how bad a writer Tolkien was people would bash them. Not liking Hobbits is one thing. I dislike plenty of things and don’t feel the need to try to convince people that they are bad. I recognize that my tastes are distinct from any level of objective criticism. I might not like squash, but that doesn’t mean squash is bad and that people should stop cooking it. It is entirely a personal matter. Trying to convince others that their favourite author is a terrible writer is more contentious, however.

I don’t like X =/= X is objectively bad.

Moorcock’s case is much stronger than that, including a long discussion of poetry, popularity, and deep analysis of hidden themes within the book. It bites hard, and yet it fails to kill. Other, equally cogent criticisms of Tolkien’s have surfaced over the years and yet The Lord of the Rings remains as loved and as hated as ever.

The Hobbits themselves attract a fair bit of criticism and yet are beloved by fans. It is hard to imagine a group less suited for grand adventures than the Hobbits, either physically or culturally. I’ll break this down in point form:

1) Hobbits are small and not especially strong. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage in physical combat. (Counterpoint: it does make it easier for them to hide, which is their default strategy)

2) Life in the Shire is quiet and insular, a distinctly pastoral landscape that is cut off from the troubles of the world. The state of the shire as an idealized or utopian land is subject to numerous criticisms, but I feel most of them miss the mark. The shire has its problems, and is hardly presented as perfect. Regardless such a land is hardly a likely place for producing adventurers, since it does not produce the world-wise or cynical attitude  that we feel is needed for a smart protagonist or put forth the kind of brutal challenges required to create a tough guy or a great fighter. (Counterpoint: plenty of people have risen from humble, bourgeois beginnings to do great things)

3) The Hobbits are too innocent. (Counterpoint: the ring is a metaphor for power, innocence is the best way to resist that)

4) The Hobbits are too cowardly. (An older criticism. Counterpoint: Most people like flawed heroes these days. However fear of physical combat and bravery in the face of danger are two distinct things, which are clearly delineated in the book. The Hobbits would rather avoid conflict, but are brave enough when they have to be. This is a nuanced point and applies to to Tolkien’s view of the essential goodness of man.)

5) The Hobbits are too virtuous, no one is that good. (Counterpoint: The Cynical view of the nature of mankind is not necessarily more realistic than the optimistic view. This is a matter of taste. Also, it is worth noting that the Ring, power itself, does corrupt Frodo in the end)

You get the point. There are plenty of criticisms of the Hobbits and the Shire out there. And yet despite all of this the Hobbits make compelling protagonists. Frodo, Samwise, Merry, and Pippin are all rolly polly young hobbits to begin with, homebodies who get up to a bit of mischief here and there but would likely enjoy simple lives if left to their own devices. They don’t have any obvious heroic qualities, or none of the advantages, skills, or cynical attitude that would avail a decent anti-hero. They are normal, fairly innocent, and interested in their own creature comforts… hardly the sort you would expect to see answer the call to adventure. However, when adventure is forced on them, Frodo takes responsibility for the Ring, Loyal Sam joins him, and Marry and Pippin initially come along out of a sense of fun and friendship. The key here is that adventure is forced upon the Hobbits. Gandalf discovers that Frodo’s old heirloom is the One Ring of Power, a bloody dangerous thing that must be destroyed. Frodo accepts responsibility for the ring. He may want some adventure, but the ring is truly dangerous and a burden of great weight. Interestingly, after the council in Rivendell convenes he has a chance to give up the ring now that he knows that he will be chased by Nazghul, Orcs, and Worse, but Frodo reaffirms his commitment even after he has gained knowledge of the world.

The Hobbits move out of the shire into an increasingly hostile world. They are constantly exposed to danger and while they initially depend on their allies to save them (or just run away and hide), they all eventually grow to deal with danger in their own way. It is an excellent metaphor for growing up, intentional or not. They lose their innocence, but retain their love of peace, good times, and friendship. It may seem corny, but it isn’t exactly wrong. The Hobbits aren’t tough, worldly badasses, or magic-wielding princes. They are the little-guys, literally. They in over their heads but try do their best. They manage to rise to the occasion, stumbling at times, but grow to become worthy of the tale they take part in. They remain popular because that is the way most people view themselves. We know we aren’t perfect, and maybe we’ve eaten too much pie, but if the shit hit the fan we’d like to think we could survive and perhaps even grow enough to help out a little…

You know, kinda like World War II

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