Several weeks ago one of my friends, who recently taught a short period of high school literature, said she was going do the essay she’d assigned her students and asked if I’d do it too. This is what came of that. And below is a political cartoon I sketched today.
Three Things Concerning Hobbits
The story of the hobbits in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is beautiful for three reasons. It illustrates telos gone right. The hobbits are given a purpose in middle earth, and they carry out that purpose well. The story illustrates the paradox concerning how limitations broaden potential and create opportunity. Because the hobbits are such small creatures, their task is an especially great one in the context of their weakness. And thirdly, the story is beautiful because of the faithfulness of Frodo and his fellow hobbits. The task of carrying a magic ring across the expanse of the earth and into a mountain of fire is unlike anything any hobbit has ever been asked to do – yet Frodo does not shrink back.
Socrates was once challenged to a beauty contest by a fellow philosopher named Critobulous. Socrates, a man famous for his ugliness and bad hygiene, accepted the outrageous challenge and made his case in front of the audience.
Socrates: “Do you hold, then, that beauty is to be found only in man, or is it also in other objects?”
Critobulous: “In faith, my opinion is that beauty is to be found quite as well in a horse or an ox or in any number of inanimate things. I know, at any rate, that a shield may be beautiful, or a sword, or a spear.”
Socrates: “How can it be that all these things are beautiful when they are entirely dissimilar?”
“Why, they are beautiful and fine,” answered Critobulus, “if they are well made for the respective functions for which we obtain them, or if they are naturally well constituted to serve our needs.”
Socrates: “Do you know the reason why we need eyes?”
Critobulous. “Obviously to see with.”
Socrates: “In that case, it would appear without further ado that my eyes are finer ones than yours.”
Critobulous: “How so?”
Soctates: “Because, while yours see only straight ahead, mine, by bulging out as they do, see also to the sides.” (West)
Socrates ended up losing the contest, but he pointed out that the beauty of a thing lies in its ability to serve its intended purpose, its telos. On some level, Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is an epic rehashing of Socrates’s argument. Instead of bulging eyes, we are shown shrunken hobbits. The intended purpose of Frodo and his friends was to make a long journey across mountains and into hells they’d never dreamed of, and still they consented to see it through. These hobbits recognized their purpose and forged ahead even while the end was uncertain and doom seemed imminent.
To the modern standard of beauty, hobbits are supremely obtuse. They are of small stature, live in mounds of earth, and walk about on large, hairy feet. However Tolkien chose hobbits to carry the ring of power not in spite of their limitations but because of them.
Sometimes limitations expand potential. Any sport, basketball a prime example, is entertaining simply because of the limitations placed on the players. You cannot move the ball without bouncing it. You must shoot within the given time frame. You cannot go outside a certain area and so on. Without these limitations to give context to the actions being performed, basketball would be meaningless. Tolkien wrote hobbits with great limitations in order to expand the meaning and implications of the story. The limitations of hobbits created a need for community, or as the story goes, the fellowship. The hobbits were not very strong – so they leaned on Aragorn. They were not very wise – so they followed Legolas. They lacked courage – so they looked to Gimly. The limitations of the hobbits make the story beautiful.
The beauty of The Lord of the Rings lies also in the faithfulness of the hobbits to the tasks handed them. For a long long time, these tasks were little more than growing food and throwing birthday bashes. But when once they were whisked away on mission that would draw all the realms of middle earth to a final battle, they did what only they could do. They bore what only a hobbit in his innocence could carry. And they walked into the mountain of fire where only their small hairy feet could go. Like Socrates’s deep set, ugly eyes, the hobbits served their true purpose to the good fortune of a million years. When the whole of middle earth was hanging in the balance, it looked itself over for something noble and true. And there, waiting in the wings, was a hobbit.
West, Stephen. “Episode 3 Transcript.” Philosophize This!, Philosophize This!, 24 Nov. 2016, philosophizethis.org/socrates-sophists-episode-3-transcript/. Accessed 25 June 2018