On June 19, Ian Holm — the actor who brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins to life on the big screen — passed away at the age of 88. His passing called to mind the adventures of the beloved character he so excellently portrayed.
The trials and triumphs in the novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (commonly broken into three separate books), penned by Tolkien in the 1930s and ‘40s, seem not so far removed from life today. There’s much we can still learn from these tales.
J.R.R. Tolkien composed the novels in the wake of the devastation of the First World War. After graduating from the University of Oxford, Tolkien joined a regiment in France and saw the horrors of war firsthand at the infamous Battle of the Somme. He lost many close friends during those tumultuous years. The great destruction of life and the grim presence of evil and death influenced the author’s works, works that are, in essence, a tale of good versus evil.
The adventures of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf, a band of dwarves, and so many other endearing, mythological figures illustrate a number of important truths about life — especially in the face of wickedness, injustice, and all threats to goodness in the world. While we aren’t in the midst of a world war — or a war against the Dark Lord Sauron — these truths can resonate with us as our nation confronts immense unrest.
Great Change Can Come from Even the Humblest of Sources
The small size of Tolkien’s hobbit heroes was not an arbitrary choice. Great symbolism can be found in the slight stature of hobbits. Though Tolkien’s created world is replete with powerful and majestic figures, the victory of good over evil rests upon the shoulders of the smallest creatures — Bilbo, Frodo, and their Shire friends.
These little hobbits teach us that we don’t have to be of great size or importance in the eyes of the world to effect change. Every single person is capable of bringing light to the world. We should never be daunted by our seeming “littleness,” but rather should seek out every opportunity to perform acts of heroism, goodness, and virtue. Even small acts of goodness can have big consequences.
Friendship Helps Us Overcome Adversity
The hobbits also demonstrate the importance of friendship, especially during trials. Frodo and Sam best exemplify this, leaning upon each other when their days grow exceedingly dark and treacherous. Sam’s loyalty and unwillingness to abandon Frodo despite great danger bolsters Frodo’s spirit and provides him with the courage and hope that he needs to accomplish his near-impossible task.
Social distancing has made it difficult to spend time with friends and loved ones, but companionship has never been more important. Humans are, by nature, relational beings. We need to form bonds with others and continuously strengthen and support those bonds. Without friendship, the challenges of life become far harder to bear. Therefore, it’s crucial to find ways to connect with others during this time — through phone calls, outdoor gatherings, or socially-distanced coffee dates. Friends remind us that, even in the darkest of times, we are not alone.
Simple Pleasures Can Bring Us Much Happiness
Before his death, Thorin Oakenshield, who leads the company of dwarves in The Hobbit, states, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” In saying this, he’s commending the hobbits’ preference for good, simple pleasures and lamenting his own weakness for wealth and power. He ultimately realizes that life is indeed richer when filled with little joys, rather than whiled away in pursuit of superficial sources of happiness.
Throughout the days of quarantine, this is a lesson that many perhaps have already learned. We've been forced into a slower way of life, through which simple delights have suddenly returned to the forefront. We’re now grateful for the things we once took for granted, and, therefore, we rejoice more frequently. Like hobbits, we have found that a meal shared with friends and a peaceful evening outside are blessings worth celebrating. And that’s something that shouldn’t change even when life returns to normal.
Unity Is Necessary for Combating Evil
Just as friendship is necessary for enduring and overcoming trials, unity is necessary for triumphing over evil. In the final battle of The Lord of the Rings, once disputing peoples come together to accomplish a common goal — the defeat of Sauron. Differences are set aside because the victory of good is far more important than any of their individual aims.
Our nation is now riddled with disputes and division, resulting primarily in violence, destruction, and a failure to arrive at any reconciliation. It would serve us well to instead unite under a common goal of a better America and to allow this unified aim to prompt thoughtful and peaceful discussion and decision-making.
There Is Some Good in This World, and It’s Worth Fighting For
At the height of their perilous journey, Sam tells Frodo that “there is some good in this world…and it’s worth fighting for.” It can be easy to look around at the many tragedies of this year and resign ourselves to a fallen world, incapable of recovery. Instead, we should feel more convicted than ever to stand for what’s right and fight against all that threatens it. Our world is in desperate need of light, and it’s our duty to uncover it. Just because sin and corruption seem to be taking hold of society doesn’t mean that goodness has ceased to exist. It will never die out. We must find it, fight for it, and raise it high above all of the bleakness.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not simply literary masterpieces. They’re also guidebooks to life because the truths that they contain transcend time and place. Tolkien’s world mirrors our world in very evident ways, revealing intrinsic qualities of humanity. Thus, from this fiction, we can glean much that will enable us to become better human beings. We can learn how to overcome, how to love, and how to hope — even in the darkest of times.
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