Small Hands: A Hobbit’s Radical View on Duty & Adventure
Guest post by Mark Wilson
Today we have the honor of featuring a post by Mark Wilson, a frequent speaker at our young writer workshops. Professor Wilson is especially beloved for his heartfelt presentations on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. You can read for yourself why:
When I got home last night, after an especially hard week of teaching, I was exhausted. I sighed heavily when my wife reminded me about the community Good Friday service. She reminded me that it is “what we do”—we support anything that strengthens the unity of the church.
I love Teckla’s quickness to see and do what is right. Over time her highly developed sense of “ought” has helped me see the beauty and adventure of simply doing one’s duty.
But the other source of instruction has been Tolkien’s hobbits.
This surprises me because I first read Tolkien as an escape from duty. Through much of my 7th grade year of English, I sat in the back reading The Lord of the Rings. My dad was an English teacher so I knew enough to pass the tests without studying. I should have cared some about good grades, but didn’t. I was happy in Middle Earth.
I read Tolkien through the lens of a small-town boy looking to escape his boredom. So when Bilbo and Frodo leave the Shire, I cheered, “Yeah! Small towns are boring, and the people stupid and prying—all Sackville-Bagginses. Hooray for adventure!”
Of course, I conveniently ignored all the times Bilbo asks, “Why did I ever leave the Shire?”
I also overlooked Tolkien’s own view of courage. I liked the courage of Aragorn, Gandalf, and Gimli who could slice and dice orcs, but hobbits missed most of the battles (a rock knocks Bilbo out).
Hobbit courage was of a different sort. In The Hobbit Tolkien says the bravest thing Bilbo ever did was decide to walk alone down the tunnel to the red glow of the sleeping dragon. Tolkien explains:
The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
Before going down the tunnel Bilbo gives a hint of why he is going. He says to himself,
Now you are in for it at last, Bilbo Baggins. You went and put your foot right in it that night of the party, and now you have to pull it out and pay for it.
He goes on to say he has no use for dragon-guarded treasures. It is only his sense of duty, the obligation to keep his word, that moves him into his great adventure.
Duty becomes even more central to The Lord of Rings. Adventure abounds in Frodo’s quest, but there is little talk of seeking adventure. In fact, Frodo sees the difference clearly:
Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see.
Duty, rather than an awakened desire for adventure, motivates Frodo. Examples can be multiplied. For instance, Sam’s heroism flows out of his fierce faithfulness to Frodo—a commitment to stick through thick and thin.
The hobbit devotion to duty not only drives the plots of Tolkien’s books, but is what makes adventure possible. Here we discover the amazing realism of Tolkien’s fantasy. In the real world it is duty that leads to real adventure and heroism.
Listen to any interview with a soldier who is receiving a medal. Again and again they tell us they were just doing what they were trained to do—just doing their duty. The same is true of those who step up to rescue or protect others from muggers.
All this may seem obvious, but we should recognize how much contempt Tolkien’s contemporaries often heaped on the middle class and its “bourgeois morality.” In much modern literature the need to escape small-town morality is seen as essential for real adventure. Duty, especially toward family, is seen as the chains that must be broken for the hero or heroine to fully realize themselves. Tolkien, however, shows that only by faithfully doing one’s duty do we fulfill our potential and our destiny.
Decision by decision, Sam and Frodo become more than they were.
At the time Tolkien was writing, most academics insisted that history was driven by impersonal forces—sociological and economic. Most historians scoffed at the idea that individuals and their decisions could change history. Through the voice of Elrond, Tolkien challenges this assumption:
This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.
In the long slog of duty through Mordor, Sam and Frodo have no hope of seeing how they might move the wheels of the world—they simply do what they “must.”
We too seldom see how our faithfulness changes the world. For that we must await the return of our king. Until then, we remain a fellowship of small hands.
How have YOU found adventure in the “long slog of duty”? Share your story below.
Although he says of himself that he’s “about as interesting as Bilbo before his adventures,” the One Year Adventure Novel community begs to differ.
Mark (B.A., Northwest Nazarene College; M.A., Washington State University) teaches literature and writing at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay.
In his own words, he “has the soul of a 12-year-old boy that hopes summer will never end.” No one gives him more joy than his wife, Teckla. Mark is a father, and this brings joy and sorrow. His four boys are grown now and moved from home, but are still resident in their parents’s hearts.
Mark and Teckla live in Myrtle Point which he both loves and hates. When the rain stops, Mark and his Dobermann often walk up to the cemetary on the hill. There he prays for his family and the city. He would like to see these prayers answered before he dies.
He blogs at Mark’s Letters, where you can read more of his musings on Tolkien.
Yes yes yes thank you ever so much. That is honestly one of the things I love the most about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; how the characters, more often than not, decide to follow through on their commitments and their duties even though it is the hardest or the least glorious route. It’s encouraging and admirable.
For myself, I’ve spent several years in “slogging through” a routine of working a part-time job, paying bills, and making small but steady advances in the things I’m truly passionate about, all while dealing with a lot of family and relational stuff and moving seven hours away from where I spent eighteen of my twenty years. It’s been hard and I’ve often been locked into an apathetic cycle of dullness. Now, though, it is truly starting to “pay off”–God’s opening up doors to a fantastic educational opportunity, scholarships, and freelance work that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. It’s kind of been like stepping into Minas Tirith after the hard march from Rohan: exciting and beautiful, but still full of difficulties and battles to fight.
Thank you so much for the post, Mr. Wilson! I find that I can connect with Hobbits better than most characters in books, and you hit upon a lot of truth here. Looking forward to seeing you at the SW!
Thanks Mark – some time ago, you made me think about the value of just “doing your duty”. I suppose I think about it in terms of faithfulness. And this is what much of life is comprised of…it’s not necessarily very rewarding or thrilling at the time! Sometimes it’s worth considering what would happen if we persisted in not doing what we know is right or best! Thank you for bringing this to light again.