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The Education of the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings

As they approach the end of their long journey, Frodo and his companions are disturbed by rumors that the their beloved Shire is not well. They are even more disturbed when Gandalf tells them:

I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand?

When I first read this passage, I was surprised. “That is what you have been trained for”? Training? What training had gone on? They had left the Shire on a quest, or perhaps better, a mission—to destroy the One Ring and save Middle-Earth from the domination of Sauron. Desperation drove them, despair dogged them, “chance” saved them. In fact, were not the hobbits involved in the Quest precisely because they were untrained, because they were simple and unspoiled? As Elrond said, “This the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?” In his movies, Peter Jackson makes this the central theme: The hobbits have the character and insight to correct the narrow pettiness of the great ones because of untutored simplicity. Can anyone who has seen the movies forget Sam’s impassioned speech that shames Faramir into letting Frodo continue the quest?

And yet Gandalf speaks as though the hobbits had been his squires or attendants, brought along to learn the ropes of being heroes. To me, Gandalf’s statement seemed forced, and Tolkien’s enchanting story faltered momentarily. Thankfully, the Travelers were up to the task of “Scouring” the Shire. But were they really prepared for this? How?

I was a teen-age Tolkien junkie. I have no idea how many times I read the Lord of the Rings in whole and part. This passage continued to bother me until I had been many years an educator myself and, in particular, until I began learning more about the history of education. As the Greeks and Romans knew, great stories which become lodged in the memory have a way of springing to mind unbidden as we try to make sense of our human reality. As I have over the past few years looked for ways to explain classical education to myself and others, episodes from The Lord of the Rings have spontaneously come to mind. I began to see more clearly how the journey educated the hobbits and prepared them to be the heroes the Shire needed.

To appreciate the effects of their training, we must begin in the Shire. What had our four young hobbits received from their upbringing? What did they lack? For many of us living in our technological, fast-paced, complicated, too often ugly age, The Shire conjures feelings of peace, an image of an uncomplicated, simple life with simple pleasures, simple people, simple duties. We might even have felt it to be an idyllic place, one we wish we could have called home. We might have smiled at their oddities, but this would never lead us to condemn it.

hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-bilbo-martin-freeman-the-shire-600x300Yet both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings begin with the idea that at least some hobbits need to get out of The Shire. Gandalf chooses Bilbo because Bilbo needs a great adventure. Bilbo, the most perfectly respectable of hobbits, had no use for or interest in adventures. “Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t see what anyone sees in them,” he told Gandalf. Most of the Shire agrees with Bilbo. They are perfectly content with their comfortable ways. What more would one care to know about besides The Shire, its families and genealogies, the doings of its families and their children, the weather and its affects on crops and picnics? After all, what exists beyond the Shire but the Outside World, full of queer, dangerous beings that have no sense of respectability at all?

Respectability rules in the Shire, especially in Hobbiton and Bywater, where Bilbo and Frodo live. As my oldest son recently pointed out to me [is it not wonderful when we can learn from our grown-up children—a real return on investment!], the Shire is a-political—they really do not have laws that govern them. Laws and police and punishment are foreign to the Shire; the corrupted Shire has to be scoured of its multiplication of Rules and Shirriffs and Bosses. Its Lawlessness is one of its most attractive features. We cannot live without laws, but all wish that we could.

How can a society flourish without laws? By a strong sense of decency that comes from parental teaching, from hearing respected people laugh at the stupidity of those who make faux pas, and seeing them wag their heads over more serious breeches of unwritten rules. Society will go so far as to ostracize those too shameless to conform. A society with few laws needs a strong sense of decency to maintain itself. And a strong sense of decency is usually unreflective. It cannot tolerate anything that falls outside of the customary ways of life. This is why Bilbo’s adventures, which made him an elf-friend, honored by dwarves and wizards, lost him his reputation at home. “He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighborhood to be ‘queer’—except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders.”

The Shire has a strong sense of decency and shame because Shire-folk are to a hobbit completely satisfied with their lives. But their self-satisfaction makes them small-souled. Their suspicion of foreign ways kills natural curiosity about other people and places and times. Nothing foreign can improve their lives in any way, so strangers and their strange ways can only represent a threat to the customs that, without being understood very well, can be destroyed by anything new. Frodo admits this to Gandalf, “…There have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them.” It continually leads them to be unjust to those most deserving of honor; Aragorn points to the painful irony that his labors bring only scowls and insults from the Shire-ish folk he protects: “If simple folk are free from fear and care, simple they will be….”


Lycurgus, founder of Sparta, and Plato, author of The Republic, agree that a custom-based society must carefully censor the stories that are allowed. The Lord of the Rings bears this out—Mad Baggins’s stories are so entertaining that they lead some of the younger hobbits to want more than the Shire can offer. The Gaffer worries about Sam: “He’s in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters—meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.”

Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Fatty Bolger, and Folco Boffin loved the stories Bilbo told about his adventures and about dragons and goblins, elves and dwarves and wizards. These stories affected Sam, as we see in his conversation with the rude and skeptical Ted Sandyman at the beginning of “The Shadow of the Past.” Sam is open to the possibility of the fantastic. More than that, he cares about what is going on outside the Shire. He is sad to think that the Elves are leaving Middle-Earth, though he does not really know much about them. This is the first effect of the love of stories—they help us to imagine new and greater possibilities and they make us long for more than we have. Tolkien unabashedly declared that he wrote his own stories, not for children, but for adults. Shire-folk think the opposite—fairy tales are fine in the nursery room, but are meant to be grown out of. Adults who, like Sam, cherish them are queer, and even worrisome. Sandyman goes even farther—he scoffs at Sam’s mind and mocks his heart. It comes as no surprise that, in the end, Sandyman is one of the few hobbits truly corrupted by Saruman.

Frodo’s quest begins with another kind of story: Gandalf’s history of the Ring. This story is meant to inform rather than entertain and inspire. It helps Frodo understand the terrible situation he is in and make the best choice possible. Frodo does not simply listen. He questions Gandalf and reacts to its twists and turns. He learns of the great struggle that has gone on for ages, and comes to see that he must join it, though he does not know what he can do.

gollum-lord-of-the-rings-movieFrodo’s world is rocked by the stories about Gollum. The idea that Gollum is related to the hobbits sickens him. No hobbit, Frodo thinks, could ever degenerate so far [kudos to Peter Jackson here]. Frodo insists on justice when he hears that Gollum is still at large. Gandalf shows Frodo that lies behind his demand. He quietly urges Frodo to follow Bilbo’s example of pity, and shares his wistful hope for Gollum’s reform. Frodo is not ready for this lesson: “I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? He deserves death.” Still Gandalf’s witness is seared, even if distastefully, into his memory.

We see, then, that even before they leave the Shire, the hobbits’ education has begun. Outlandish stories have already affected their tastes, desires, aspirations and even the decisions the soon-to-be-heroes. Their education continues as soon as they step outside the Shire into the Old Forest. Shire-folk do not like the untamed, unknown natural world any more than they like strangers. Fatty Bolger, who had “no desire to leave the Shire, nor to see what lay outside it,” is “more afraid of the Old Forest than of anything I know about: the stories about it are a nightmare.” The natural world is an enemy to the peace and stability found in the Shire. Frodo and Company quickly learn the Old Forest is very dangerous. But they also meet Tom Bombadil, who frees them from the terror of Old Man Willow, and models for them an attitude towards Nature that is neither proprietary nor powerless. In his house, they hear the tales of a nature they have never known, “of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the Forest….As they listened, they began to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other folk were at home.” Bombadil begins a lesson that will be continued by the Elves and Treebeard—Nature, whether open and friendly like Ithilien or overwhelmingly tree-ish like Fangorn, is an object of wonder and represents an order far removed from the concerns of men and hobbits and dwarves.

The hobbits hear new stories when they follow Strider into the wilderness. In order to encourage them when they fear a Nazgul attack at any moment, Strider tells the tale of Beren and Luthien. For Strider, this story is not a bedside tale for children, nor a story that makes us long for something beyond daily life, nor merely a history from which to draw wisdom. It is the story which has informed his life. “As Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood-fire. His eyes shone, and his voice was rich and deep.” Aragorn, the heir of Gondor and betrothed of Arwen, begins to be revealed to them. In Aragorn, they see that the heroes of old continue to live.

Bilbo_in_Rivendell_-_The_HobbitIn Rivendell, the hobbits listen to the stories of Beren and Gil-galad and many others told in full. Sam and Frodo recognize what a privilege it is to hear the Elves tell their great stories of triumph and sorrow, of beauty and betrayal. More than that, they experience the stories as they were meant to be told—chanted and sung in the Hall of Fire by the greatest story-tellers ever imagined by men. As Tolkien reports in his Essay on Fairy Stories: “In Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving….Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose.” Here story-telling is not a segregated activity—the rhythms of the life of Rivendell are governed by their passion for stories and songs. This is what drew Bilbo to come back when he left the Shire. He was also a story-teller. The atmosphere of the place led him to dare (with a daring only a hobbit would have) to express undying beauties in clumsy mortal words, enough to fill the three volumes that he will later pass on to Frodo.

Two months in Rivendell complete Frodo’s and Sam’s preparation for the Quest. The Council gives Frodo the opportunity to learn from Dwarves, Elves and Men about the anxieties of their peoples. He can now see for himself what Gandalf had told him back in the Shire—the entire free world is in great danger; little hope can be found, and that little hope sounds like despair.

At Parth Galen, when the Fellowship must decide whether to go to Mordor or to Minas Tirith, Frodo shows that he has learned from all the stories. He alone must decide the fate of the Ring. He chooses to leave the company secretly and head alone to Mordor. In stark contrast to many popular young hero stories of our times, his choice is not the impulse of spunky untutored hobbit heart, nor even the narrow self-sacrificial loyalty of a friend. It comes from the deliberation of one who has learned from the wisest of teachers and greatest of stories. Though he sat alone, Frodo was not alone at Parth Galen—“All that had happened since Bilbo left the Shire was passing through his mind, and he recalled and pondered everything that he could remember of Gandalf’s words.” His memory was filled with all he had learned. His heart had been formed so that he could trust and learn from its warning. As he explained to Boromir, “[Your counsel] would seem like wisdom but for the warning of my heart….Against delay. Against the way that seems easier. Against refusal of the burden that is laid on me….Against trust in the strength and truth of Men.”

Frodo knows that the Ring will destroy the company; his heart is strong enough for him make the decision to leave and finish the Quest on his own. Sam, however, has also learned; he has seen and shared in Frodo’s spiritual growth; he alone anticipates Frodo’s decision and so cannot be shaken. And yet even he has much to learn from Frodo, particularly in his dealings with Gollum. When Frodo sees Gollum, he feels pity for him. Sam feels revulsion at his wretchedness, but he would not spare him. Gandalf’s words praising pity, spontaneously recalled, convince Frodo to follow his heart rather than his head. This spiritual insight is all that saves the impossible Quest from final catastrophe and brings it to what Tolkien calls elsewhere “Eucatastrophe”.

Story-tellers—Forged in Imitation

Aragorn-screencaps-viggo-mortensen-2257038-960-404Classical education is great because it frees teachers from the domination of tests and process so that we can really teach. But it also places great responsibility on teachers. This year’s conference charges us: “Make yourself worthy of imitation.” The hobbits teachers had done just that. They learned so much because both the stories and the story-tellers taught. This is particularly true with Aragorn. The light they saw in Strider’s face at Weathertop began to introduce them to the real Aragorn. He showed them what a serious life of engagement with evil demands. “It would take more than a few days, or weeks, or years, of wandering in the Wild to make you look like Strider….And you would die first, unless you are made of sterner stuff than you look to be.”

Having finished the Lord of the Rings (which, of course, means having finished Appendix F), we see that Aragorn had been formed in a particular way by the stories he heard. Raised by Elrond, he first learned on the verge of manhood that he was the descendant of kings. He was the heir of all the great men he had heard about in stories. He rejoiced in his inherited greatness and sang the very story of Beren and Luthien he told at Weathertop. But when he first saw Arwen, he realized the difference between inherited greatness and earned greatness. “’Estel I was called,’ he said [to Arwen], ‘but I am Aragorn, Arathorn’s son, Isildur’s Heir, Lord of the Dunedain’; yet even in the saying he felt that this high lineage, in which his heart had rejoiced, was now of little worth, and as nothing compared to her dignity and loveliness.” Elrond then gave him the charge that will govern his life—“You shall neither have wife, nor bind any woman to you in troth, until your time comes and you are found worthy of it.” Aragorn is not intimidated by the challenge; he embraced it in all seriousness. He spends the next seventy years forging himself into the man worthy to be acclaimed as king of Gondor and be a fit spouse for the latest and last union of Men and Elves. Peter Jackson, in keeping with his modern re-telling, has Aragorn renounce his inhertitance because of the evil example of his great ancestor, Isildur. The real Aragorn is quite the opposite—he committed himself to live up to his destiny. It is not easy—in dark moments he is afraid that he will never live up to their legacy. When the Fellowship is broken at Parth Galen, he blames himself: “Now the company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me.” But he never gives up.

Aragorn forged his character on his own. The hobbits learn a great deal also from Boromir and Faramir, who forged their characters under the influence of an entire civilization. Civilizations, too, have characters, which grow and flourish and change and decline. The stories they tell form their generations. Gondor is no exception. It has stories from 3000 years of peace and war, and it has the stories of Numenor the great, whose glories Gondor tries to recall.

Frodo and Sam come to know Gondor through these two brothers. Faramir tells us that Boromir loved best the stories of glorious battles, probably even the triumph of Ar-Pharazaon the Proud over Sauron, when the Numenorean armies were so mighty that all of Sauron’s minions fled without a fight. Faramir preferred the stories of Numenor’s peace and civilization; they formed his ideals for Gondor: “For myself…I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves….The city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.” Sam says Faramir reminds him of wizards, of Gandalf; Faramir attributes it to “the air of Numenor”. Faramir’s pride in Numenor’s strength is chastened by its fall, the overwhelming tidal wave which haunts his dreams. He never forgets Numenor’s annihilation happened because Ar-Pharzaon thought he could enslave Sauron, but was instead led to Satanic worship by him. His character, forged by the stories, make the difficult choice of the Ring relatively easy for him. Sam’s praises him: “[You] showed your quality [sir]: the very highest” Faramir replied, “I had no lure or desire to do other than I have done.” Yet he knows that his choice will put him at odds with his father, Denethor, whose fear of the might of Sauron makes him despair of the wisdom of the old stories that Gandalf embodies. I think it significant that Peter Jackson was willing to endure the outrage of Tolkien fans by having Faramir first choose to forcibly bring Frodo to Denetorh. In this way, the untutored heart of Sam makes him the hero instead of the disciple.

One of Gondor’s customs makes Frodo feel strangely rustic. Before their meal in the cave, Faramir and his men make a simple act of religious reverence—they bow toward the West. The men of Gondor are religious in a way that no other race or tribe in Middle-Earth is. Their reverence reminds them that Gondor itself is an imitation, a home in exile, a home in subordination. Frodo sees that Faramir’s fidelity to his word has a cultural and religious context transcending anything the Shire has to offer. This encounter increases Frodo’s yearning for “Elvenhome that is, and to that which beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

The stories and story-tellers that they encountered guided Frodo and Sam along their journey. In the darkness of the crags of Ered Lithui, Sam and Frodo realize that they are part of the very same story of Beren and Luthien and the Quest of the Silmarils they first heard from Strider. They look forward to the time when they will themselves be the leading figures in the next great chapter. In their light-hearted way, their reflection on story allows them to see the meaning in their trials. “I used to think [adventures] were thing the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for…because they were exciting and life was a bit dull….But that’s not the way of with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind….But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t…Don’t the Great Tales never end?” On the Field of Cormallen, Sam’s dream comes true in a great eucatastrophic moment, when the minstrel announces, “For I will sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom….And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold….And he sang to them, now in the Elven tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

Forging the Shire

The hobbits return home at last, fully trained to face the evils that have overwhelmed the Shire while they were gone. Merry and Pippin recognize that they have changed. They are still children of the Shire, but they have been ennobled by their encounter with the truly great. As Merry lies in the House of Healing, Pippin says, “’Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can’t live long on the heights.’

‘No,’ said Merry. ‘I can’t. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them.'”

Gandalf sees more deeply into the change. He knows they will now live their lives in imitation of what they honor. As he leaves them to face the Shire’s troubles on their own, he comforts them. “And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.”

tumblr_lea9lj7oks1qfti5wo1_500Gandalf’s faith is justified. The hobbits have the confidence to tear up the Rules that have been enacted to intimidate and isolate the inhabitants. In scenes reminiscent of John Paul’s return to Poland, their commanding presence gives hope to the oppressed and rouses them to risk their lives to fight for the real Shire. They bring with them a new air from their new nations, Rohan and Gondor; Merry’s horn treats them to a music they have never heard before. Frodo shows the spiritual greatness he has attained. He sees that the greatest harm done is the corruption of Sandyman and Lotho and even Saruman and Wormtongue. He lives Gandalf’s greatest teaching: Oppose evil with wisdom, strength and determination, but never lose respect for their dignity of the evil-doers. He recognizes that Saruman’s order deserves reverence; Saruman receives from his hand the mercy that he hated from Gandalf. Mercy is a lesson that only Frodo has fully learned; the Shire hobbits hold their thirst for vengeance only because Merry, Pippin and Sam accept Frodo’s lead; Merry, Pippin and Sam follow Frodo because they know that he represents a morality of a higher order than they can fully understand.

The Adventurers cleanse the Shire of evil, but they do not return it simply to what it was before. Merry and Pippin introduce a lordly, chivalrous element into Shire life. They did what Bilbo could not—they make the “outlandish” admired. Bilbo’s fabulous elf-mail had been a museum curiosity; Merry and Pippin make the armour of Rohan and Gondor appear gallant. No doubt they have many younger hobbits (and maybe a few older ones, too) hang on the stories of their adventures, inspiring them to desire more than simple earth-bound existence. Samwise leads the Shire into a new political life as an active part of the renewed Kingdom of Arnor. He becomes a member of Aragorn’s council, so that the Shire no longer seals itself off from the woes of the world. Through his leadership, the Shire overcomes its greatest fault, a fault it shared with the Elves of Rivendell and Lothlorien and Gondolin. In fact, it is a temptation for anyone who has made their home lives beautiful—to cut themselves off from care for the rest of the world. In The Silmarillion, fear of losing the most beautiful life of the hidden city of Gondolin leads Turgon to refuse the prophetic command of Tuor and to destroy its entrance: “Thereafter none went ever forth from Gondolin on any errand of peace or war, while that city stood. Tidings were brought by Thorondor Lord of Eagles of the fall of Nargothrond, and after of the slaying of Thingol and of Dior his heir, and of the ruin of Doriath; but Turgon shut his ear to word of the woes without…and his people he forbade ever to pass the leaguer of the hills.”

red-book-2Frodo is not honored by his countrymen in the way the other Travellers are, yet he quietly makes the greatest contribution to the flowering of the Shire. Before setting off for his place of rest and consolation, Frodo commits the Red Book to Sam. The Red Book contains the tales of the hobbits’ great deeds in full, along with Bilbo’s “Tales from the Elvish.” The great story, the story that the Travellers entered, has ennobled them and made them fit to take their place among the great of their times and of history. Frodo charges Sam to make sure that it never forgotten in the Shire. “You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on.”

This essay is based on a talk delivered at the 2014 CiRCE Institute conference. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Beautiful piece. I’m not a political conservative for many reasons, but much of what I see here draws me.

    On Tolkien, I don’t have anything to add to this piece, so I’ll comment on the movies. I was one of many Tolkien fans who was annoyed with Jackson’s changes. A few were justifiable or at least tolerable but he really destroyed the characters of both Faramir and Denethor. Denethor was a great man in the books, brought down by hubris–in the movies he’s just a vulgar character played to seem contemptible and I writhed in my seat when people in the theater cheered at his death. Tolkien would have been horrified both by the changes and the orc-like reaction of people in the audience where I saw it.

  2. Also agree, this was a really good piece. I have not read the books but only seen the films, but now this has encouraged me to want to read the books, if nothing else but to get all the details the movies left out.

  3. An excellent exposition on the impact that stories have on the moral and ethical development of our belovèd hobbits. The reader sees the world through their eyes (and through Gimli’s when the Hobbits aren’t present). Perhaps we develop a similar appreciation for the power of story as we listen to Gandalf, Aragorn and others tell them.

    Another excellent work on the moral/ethical lessons to be drawn from LOTR is Matthew Dickerson’s book FOLLOWING GANDALF. Highly recommended.

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