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(Re)Reading 'The Lord of the Rings' in an Age of Excess

Or, how to live like a hobbit.

"In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit." With that one line, J.R.R. Tolkien changed the landscape of English literature. Great tales were no longer reserved for the wise and mighty. With a swift stroke of his pen, Tolkien introduced one of the most unlikely heroes to the canon of English fantasy fiction — the hobbit. Tolkien described his creations as "an unobtrusive but very ancient people … they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favorite haunt." Unlike the heroes of stories past, hobbits are not creatures of renown. They possess no great warriors in their ranks (unless you count Bullroarer Took). They are comical and small and wholly insignificant to the great powers at work in Middle Earth. 

The hobbits and their homeland, The Shire, serve as a polemic in Tolkien's literary work. They exist in stark contrast to the rapid industrialization of the 20th century and the excess that followed in its wake. Those of us living in the 21st century, have much to learn from hobbits.  In an age of overabundance, while many of us living in the West do not possess the overabundant resources of the wealthy, we are still trained to desire what the wealthy possess. Even amidst a pandemic we still enjoy unprecedented excess in comparison with our brothers and sisters around the world. Tolkien's hobbits challenge our notions of the good life and invite us to consider living simply in an age of unprecedented excess.

To gain better insight into Tolkien's characterization of the hobbits, we must turn to the author himself. He was raised by his mother in a rural community in Sarehol, near Birmingham, a piece of English countryside filled with bogs, forests, a pastoral landscape that would serve as the backdrop for the Shire. The Shire and its residents represent a pastoral ideal, an agricultural society reminiscent of England's Victorian past. Through them, Tolkien presents a simple way of life. The hobbits aren’t industrious. Their industrial efforts are artisanal. They use technology and tools (water mills and handlooms, to name a few) but only as a craftsman does. There is no excess; they make what they need and need what they make. They are lovers of the simple life, and their excess is marked by generosity, feasting, and gift-giving to the nth degree. Tolkien describes them as a hospitable lot, prone to cheer and laughter, never wanting more than what they have and always willing to give what is needed. They are also, in some sense, humble, aware of their diminutive stature and inconsequential place in the world. They are not mystical like the elves, industrious like the dwarves, nor battle-hardened like the men of middle-earth. It's these simple folk Tolkien makes the heroes of his tale. 

This ideal stands in stark contrast to the England of Tolkien's adulthood. As Carol and Philip Zaleski note in their biography, The Fellowship, "[Tolkien's] antipathy [for machines/industry] had been aroused by firsthand experience of mechanized warfare during World War I." Unlike many in the 20th century, Tolkien did not trust the industrial age the way others so readily did. Tolkien wasn't an enemy of progress, per se. As Holly Ordway, author of Tolkien's Modern Reading, states, "the picture of Tolkien as fundamentally backward-looking, happily living in total rejection of the modern world, must be abandoned." Tolkien was instead an enemy of the excess that came with industrialization. The wanton desire for more that fueled the industrial age came at a cost. The human price was clear. Tolkien saw firsthand the horrors of trench warfare, poison gas, and the like. He also saw a clear ecological cost. The demolition of forests pained him as he watched the greenery around Oxford replaced with towers of smoke and iron. 

The Industrial Revolution ushered in a period of excess unknown to previous civilizations and its this excess that drives the villains of Tolkien's narrative. Saruman's desire for progress clouds his judgment and causes him to disregard the Valar's holy orders. Sauron's lust for power leads to his demise, and Gollum loses his very humanity in his desire for the ring. Even the seemingly good characters fall victim to the siren call of excess, Boromir loses his way, the dwarves dig too deeply, and even the Elves, for all their wisdom, unwittingly aid Sauron in the forging of the Rings of Powers.

These characters are a mirror in which we learn to see the effects of excess in our own lives.

We, too, have been enraptured by the allure of excess. We are unsatisfied with what has been allotted to us. We want more, knowing that more does little to satisfy the inner longing of our souls. Our fallen nature and the fallen world in which we live stoke our desire. Every advertisement is designed to remind us of what we don’t have. We are not "content in all things."

It is here we should turn to the hobbits. Tolkien calls our attention to these diminutive creatures because hobbits find satisfaction in the little things. They are satisfied with their simple lives in the green fields of the Shire. In an age of excess, hobbits teach us the value of simple joys and humble pursuits. They call us to be responsible stewards and, in turn, reject the seductive call of excess. 

Simple Joys

Simple joys are those things we often take for granted and, in the end, the things we most often regret having overlooked. The hobbits reveled in laughing, eating, and drinking. They enjoyed the simple comforts ignored by those who have too much. We would benefit from learning how to embrace simple joys. We won't find our contentment in more. More breeds desire, and desire can never be satisfied. But true joy, true contentment, is located in the simple things. So, "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart" (Ecclesiastes 9:7) — these are the simple things that bring true joy, a meal shared between friends and the simple contentment of laughter. It's in these moments we are freed from the trappings of excess and learn satisfaction.

Humble Pursuits

Even on their grand adventures, the hobbits never lose their sense of self. They possess an inherent humility about their role in the War of the Ring. Unlike us, they suffer no delusions of grandeur. They humbly pursue their quest without needing celebration or fame. The excess of our age extends to our vocations. It is not enough for us to do good work unnoticed. The allure of fame and notoriety has created a culture of celebrity that has us all longing to be celebrated for the work we do. We want our left hands to know what our rights hands are doing. 

Yet this flies in the face of Jesus' teaching. Jesus, the king of all things, toiled in obscurity, and it was through humble self-sacrificial service that he was exalted. The hobbits teach us that good work is humble work — work done for the sake of doing what is right and without the need to be rewarded. 

Responsible Stewards

In the Lord of The Rings, the White Wizard Saruman serves as an example of the dangers of excess. To achieve power, Saruman pillages and plunders the earth, uprooting ancient trees with reckless abandon. His desire for power that rivals that of Sauron comes at the cost of the earth. Saruman is emblematic of the type of industrial progress Tolkien loathed. While the Industrial Revolution paved the way for incredible advances in production and industry, they came at the cost of the pastoral England of Tolkien's childhood. In this way, the hobbits serve as a foil to Saruman. They produce and make but never at the cost of the land. Unlike excess, contentment considers the price of progress. The perversion of the Genesis 1 mandate has seen humans turn from responsible stewards to industrious overlords. Excess destroys ecological systems and disrupts historical communities by blatantly ignoring the needs of the land. 

The call to simplicity is marked by contentment; humbly live within our means, embracing the simple joys while responsibly stewarding God's creation. Tolkien's hobbits embody a countercultural approach to living lost on many of us in the modern West. In some ways Jesus is the prototypical hobbit. He is the one we are tempted to overlook and yet it is from this unassuming Nazarene that we learn how to embrace the simple joys, engage in humble pursuits, and how to be responsible stewards over God’s good creation. For it is the foolishness of man God uses to confound the wise and the wisdom of God is often displayed in the diminutive and unlikely.

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