The Lord of the Rings was a true earthquake for Tolkien’s epic.
Up to that point, his stories had mostly been about exceptional heroes. A more classic kind of hero, if you will.
Let’s take, for example, the Three Great Stories of The Silmarillion. The heroes of Beren and Lúthien are the titular characters. Beren is one of the last of the House of Beor, the very first mortal people who came in contact with the Elves, and he’s a strong and daring warrior in his own right. Lúthien is the only child of Middle-earth to have both Elvish and Maiar blood.
The hero of The Children oh Húrin is Túrin, who’s foremost in Morgoth’s thoughts. Morgoth’s intent is to find the hidden city of Gondolin. He has taken captive Húrin, one of the few people in Middle-earth who knows where Gondolin stands — and won’t bend to Morgoth’s power. So Morgoth curses not him, but his children and dogs Túrin’s every steps’ till the bitter end.
The hero of The Fall of Gondolin is Tuor, Túrin’s cousin, who also has the special attention of a Vala. In his case is Ulmo, who helps him save as many people as possible from Gondolin when Morgoth finally finds out its location and destroys it. Tuor will then be the father of the man who will break the Ban of the Valar and will eventually allow dethroning Morgoth.
Not many common people here.
Besides is it epic fiction, and Tolkien adhered to the epic trope.
There are lots of exceptional people in The Lord of the Rings too, mind you. Starting with Gandalf, who’s himself a Maia, and Aragorn, who’s the last descendent of the Kings of Númenor and will be the last mortal to marry an Elf. But this exceptional people won’t go very far without the help pf the most common, most quiet, most unassuming of all people: the hobbits.
What’s heroic about hobbits?
Hobbit produced a huge shift in the perception — and I believe, also in Tolkien’s understanding — of heroism.
It wouldn’t be right to say that Tolkien’s hero changed completely. The main characteristics remained. Humbleness, sacrifice, sense of community and awareness of a larger picture remained central qualities of the hero. But the way in which these characteristics manifest as well as the looks of the heroes themselves substantially changed.
Tolkien Reading Day 2020 — Reading “The Lord of the Rings” at the time of Covid 19
It’s mere chance that I’m reading The Lord of the Rings during a time of pandemic and emergency, but it’s giving me…
One characteristic that the Tolkienian hero loses (not in all cases, but still often enough to notice) is their manifest uniqueness.
The heroes of The Lord of the Rings, in most cases, aren’t exceptional. The best example is probably Faramir, a quiet man who shies away from the spotlight, gladly leaving it to his brother, who certainly is more the kind of the hero.
But even Aragorn. He’s the last of the Númenórian royal house, heir of an ancient house of kings, educated by the elves and probably destined to change the course of history. These are indeed characteristics of the classic hero. Still, Aragorn does bring something new into the trope. The first time we see him, he doesn’t look any of this. We might — as the hobbits indeed do — take him for a shifty stranger, part of a community that no one seems to trust very much.
Aragorn so introduces a new element that was previously only latent in Tolkien’s stories, but permeates The Lord of the Rings in its entirety: you cannot judge a person by their looks, because their appearance and normal behaviour won’t necessarily express their true valour.
I believe this kind of heroism in this kind of character was a discovery for Tolkien himself. And it was precisely his exceptionally unexceptional hobbit who revealed it to him.
This is precisely what the hobbits are about. On the surface, they are the most unassuming of people. Most wouldn’t give them much credit, thinking that if they don’t look heroic, they probably aren’t. But — unlike Aragorn — they don’t hide their true nature. Rather, they are themselves unaware of it.
Their leader Frodo does possess some of the characteristics of the classic hero. He is of ‘noble’ origin, as far as hobbit society goes, since he belongs to an ancient and respected family. He enjoyed a very high, almost unusual education which allows him to be at ease even outside his environment. In this, he resembles Aragorn remarkably. But apart from this, he is a hobbit through and through. He loves simple things and the peace of his homeland. He isn’t a warrior. He doesn’t possess any exceptional quality (in fact, what quality he possesses belong to most of his people). He is, in essence, a very normal man.
And still in the end, he proves to be capable of what even the classic hero could not achieve alone.
Yet it isn’t on him that Tolkien’s new discourse about heroism focuses.
Death and Rebirth of a little Hobbit
The Hobbit — Ch. 19 The Last Stage — Adventures are worthless if we don’t bring them home with us.
Tolkien himself famously stated that the true hero of The Lord of the Rings is Sam.
Now Sam is the very opposite of the classic hero. In no way he belongs to a noble house, though his father, the Gaffer, is indeed a respected member of their small community. Sam isn’t an educated hobbit, but he has his own form of wisdom which comes in large part from his father. It’s simple wisdom based in common sense, which finds its roots in nature and life (not by chance Sam is a gardener).
Of Sam’s many qualities, none would readily resemble the qualities of the classic hero, and still, his very creators think of him, not of any of the warriors he tells about, as the true hero of his story.
When Tolkien was asked for a sequel for The Hobbit, he said he had nothing else to tell about hobbits. I believe this kind of heroism in this kind of character was a discovery for Tolkien himself. And it was precisely his exceptionally unexceptional hobbit who revealed it to him.
The first heroic non-hero
Neither Frodo nor Sam would exist without Bilbo.
He was the one who produced such shockwave in Tolkien legendarium, even if he wasn’t created for it. Besides, it may be just because Bilbo wasn’t created for the legendarium that he was able to produce such great innovation.
Intentionally, Bilbo was a small creature. Tolkien created him so that his children would identify with him. For the same reason, Bilbo doesn’t have any extraordinary characteristics, on the contrary, he is a very ordinary individual.
This was, I believe, one of several serendipitous circumstances that lead to the creation of The Lord of the Rings. Created for the benefit of the children, Bilbo ended up being the father’s deep reflection on life and people, and on an event that I believe was profoundly formative for Tolkien: World War I.
If there was an event that might have made Tolkien feel small and insignificant, that sure was the Great War. It was the same for so many people of his generation. Still, as he said more than once, Tolkien saw also true valour in the trenches often coming from the simple soldiers, rather than from the officers.
The Hobbit, the WWI Officer and the Power of Freewill
The Hobbit — Ch. 16 A Thief in the Night — Bilbo and all his unorthodox decisions
He saw the courage and the valour that comes from common sense and a love for life that should be common. He saw people who had no idea of the larger course of events, shaping those events without even knowing it.
The men and women who fought in WWI weren’t heroes, but often what they did was heroic.
Bilbo is one of those soldiers.
He sets on an adventure, having no idea what he is signing for. He is totally unprepared for what is coming his way, but he manages to weather all the problems relying on his best judgment, his solid pragmatism and his big heart. Bilbo never cares for the bigger picture. He just wants to protect his friends, helping things going the best way for everyone and possibly come out of it alive. And the best weapons he has are his common sense, his love for the small and delightful things in life, his sense of loyalty and respectability.
That is, the very same things he needs to live a good life very far from adventures.
In the end, what makes Bilbo a hero are precisely his non-heroic qualities. It’s what makes him a common fellow that allows him to act heroically.
Bilbo is a hero because he isn’t a hero.
And this, I think, is one of Tolkien’s more profound, more human themes.
Sarah Zama is a Tolkien nerd and proud of it. She read The Hobbit the first time as a teenager and was a Tolkien fan years before Peter Jackson’s trilogy ever hit the theatres. She’s always been involved with Tolkien groups, both online and in person. In 2004, she founded a Tolkien group in her city, Verona (Italy), which is still meeting and divulging the Professor’s work. In 2017, she started reading Tolkien’s work with a group of other nerdy readers, one chapter a day. They are still on the road together.