The Simple Life According to Hobbits
“It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.”
This quote has entranced me since I first read it. Not in an actual text, as you might expect from a self-proclaimed Tolkien fanatic; but from a pinned blog post on Pinterest. In an online world defining simplicity as white-walled, flawless aesthetics, something about this quote, inspired by the man who created Hobbits, instantly appealed to me. Here, maybe, was a simplicity that was still home-like, grounded, and rooted in community, nature, and rhythms in a way that the simplicity and minimalism of Pinterest and Instagram don’t really convey.
What does simplicity look like, based on the hobbit lifestyle? It’s hardly monochrome wardrobes and blank walls! Bilbo Baggins is noted for having entire rooms dedicated to clothing and food and Hobbits, as a rule, are known for their bright clothing. At Bilbo’s 111th birthday party, we learn that Hobbits give their party guests gifts, resulting in homes bursting with trinkets. Most Hobbits could be accused of being at least slightly covetous of Bilbo’s trunks of gold and large, well-situated home. It seems then that this simple life Tolkien speaks of is far less interested in the number of items in one’s possession or the size of one’s home.
In letter 213, Tolkien professed, “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size).” He goes on to list the things he finds he has in common with the little folk: a love of gardening, trees, farms, pipes, plain food, ornamental waistcoats, mushrooms, simple humor, going to bed, and sleeping late, and staying at home. Anyone who has read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings will see that the similarity of his preferences to those of Hobbits is strong. And I doubt many of us have read (or watched) scenes of these happy folk without feeling some sense of nostalgic longing; a deep desire for a simpler world. What is it about the Shire that draws us in? For myself, I can think of a few characteristics, each represented by a particular Hobbit, that draw me into this world and how they represent a different sort of simplicity that is worth celebrating. And, as noted above, they are also attitudes that characterized Tolkien himself.
A Love of Nature
“And though he liked drawing trees he liked most of all to be with trees. He would climb them, lean against them, even talk to them. It saddened him to discover that not everyone shared his feelings towards them. One incident in particular remained in his memory: ‘There was a willow hanging from over the mill-pool and I learned to climb it. It belonged to a butcher on the Stratford Road, I think. One day they cut it down. They didn’t do anything with it: the log just lay there. I never forgot that’.”“Tolkien”, Carpenter, p.22
Samwise Gamgee is introduced to readers as the loyal gardener of Bag End, son of Hamfast Gamgee, who had gardened for the Bagginses for years. His father hoped that association with the Bagginses – lovers of poetry and adventures – would not spoil Sam’s good, hobbit-sense, and his place as a successful gardener in Hobbiton. One of our first introductions to Sam finds him tending the garden outside the window of Bag End while Gandalf and Frodo discuss Bibo’s ring. Loyalty to his task is interrupted only by talk fo the Elves and, in the end, loyalty to his role of gardener is interrupted only by his relationship with Frodo.
Later in his journey, when looking in the mirror of Galadriel, Sam becomes outraged at the sight of trees being cut down that shouldn’t have been, farming buildings being destroyed and replaced by industry, and black, industrial smoke rising over the pastoral lands of the Shire. Seeing his father sent away from Bagshot row, his gardening equipment with him, was enough to make Sam abandon even Frodo (for a moment, at least). Upon parting, Galadriel, ever perceptive, gifts him with something seemingly unrelated to his dangerous quest: a bit of dirt from her orchard. Upon meeting Faramir in the wilds of Ithilien, Frodo shows such fortitude and Sam shows such loyalty and determination that Faramir remarks: “You are a new people and a new world to me. Are all your kin of like sort? Your land must be a realm of peace and content, and there must gardeners be in high honour.” When Sam puts on the Ring in The Return of the King (“The Tower of Cirith Ungol”) and sees himself as Samwise the Strong, what is it that he sees himself doing? “At his command, the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.” Of course, Sam does not keep the ring, and instead uses it only briefly in order to rescue Frodo from the orcs. Forsaking the power to turn all of Mordor into a blossoming garden, he treks across the barren plains to Orodruin and, in the end, watches as Frodo and Gollum wrestle the Ring into its fires. With the Ring at last destroyed, Sam arrives back in the Shire to discover his nightmares are true: what was once a rolling landscape filled with trees and vegetation is now a barren land filled with ugly buildings. Overthrowing Saruman’s forces at work in the Shire, it is Galadriel’s gift that proves imperative to the Shire’s rebuilding, as Sam uses that earth to aid in planting saplings across the Shire. That spring “surpassed his wildest hopes,” marked by sunshine, rain, and earth’s bounty. Standing in the party field, in place of the party tree, is a Mallorn tree – the only one of its kind outside of Valinor and Lothlorien. When Sam marries Rosie Cotton (her naming bearing botanical connotations in itself), he names their first daughter after the flowers he had seen when in Lothlorien – Elanor. Of his 12 other children, 4 bore flower names – Rose, Daisy, Primrose, and Goldilocks.
A love of things that grow is deeply and firmly rooted within Sam, as we see all throughout his journey. In the wild, where growing things are rare, even the glimpse of a star peeking out from amongst the clouds and darkness is enough to ignite hope in his heart. Sam – along with the Ents of Fangorn – seems to represent a deep and abiding respect for the natural world above the industrialized and mechanical.
“Elves and Dragons! I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you.”The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1, “A Long Expected Party”
Love of Laughter
“Edith and Ronald took to frequenting Birmingham teashops, especially one that had a balcony overlooking the pavement. There, they would sit and throw sugar-lumps into the hats of passers-by, moving to the next table when the sugar-bowl was empty.”“Tolkien,” Carpenter, p. 40
Peregrin Took – known affectionally by Gandalf as the “fool of a took” – provides much comic relief in the books, and even more so in the films. Although calling someone foolish often takes on a negative connotation, implying that they are unintelligent or irresponsible, being a fool can sometimes mean that someone is silly or joking (I would venture to say that Gandalf used the term in both ways when referring to Pippin). Pippin embodies this silly, joking nature in many ways and while Gandalf might call him a fool, Pippin was hardly dismayed by his ferocious appearance and bushy eyebrows, often making lighthearted quips about Gandalf’s behavior or personality. Moreso than any of the other Hobbits, Pippin seems to embody a spirit of laughter and cheerfulness that cannot be dissuaded by outside circumstances. Time and time again, Pippin recovers from fear and trauma quickly, indulging in jest, laughter, and song even at seemingly inappropriate times.
Early in the story, through dangerous treks from Hobbiton to Buckland, through the Old Forest, and from Bree to Rivendell, Pippin quickly returns to laughter. In Buckland, it takes no more than a hot bath; in Bree, a cup of ale and a roaring fire; in Rivendell, the beauty of the Elves. Despite the horrors of Black Riders, Old Man Willow, and barrow wights, Pippin is still inclined to laugh and sing, finding it ‘impossible, somehow, to feel gloomy or depressed. His youth and his cheerfulness leads Elrond to initially discourage Pippin from joining the Fellowship. However, he would not be stopped. As Pippin grows over time from the curious Hobbit throwing rocks down a well in Moria to a guard of the citadel selflessly rescuing Faramir from a premature death, he sheds some of his reputation of irresponsibility, while maintaining his lighthearted demeanor. As he finds himself mostly alone in Minis Tirith, it is with the sons of the guards and soldiers that he finds himself most at home, making jokes about height and strength and running with excitement to see the soldiers coming home. Even so, he also finds in Minis Tirith maturity and courage borne of hardship as he volunteers himself to Denethor’s service in memory of Boromir and then defies his new master in loyalty to Faramir, Boromir’s brother. It is also in Minis Tirith that we see his cheerfulness falter. In the halls of Denethor, when asked for a song, “Pippin’s heart sank. He did not relish the idea of singing any song of the Shire to the Lord of Minis Tirith, certainly not the comic ones he knew best…” Met with Merry’s injury upon the fields of Pelennor, “he ‘tri[ed] to sound cheerful, though his heart was wrung with fear and pity.” And yet, in the end, Pippin continues to fall back on laughter. At the end of his long journey, having arrived back in the Shire and secured its safety alongside Merry, Pippin finds he must say goodbye to Frodo, who is set to sail into the West, the burden of the Ring too much for him to bear. “And amid his tears Pippin laughed.”
“Then at last Pippin took Gandalf’s hand. ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘is there any hope? For Frodo, I mean; or at least mostly for Frodo.’ Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. ‘There never was much hope,’ he answered. ‘Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told’.”The Return of the King, Chapter 4, ‘The Siege of Gondor’
Love of Friends
“When Tolkien returned to Oxford in 1925 there was an element missing from his life. It had disappeared with the breaking of the T.C.B.S in the Battle of the Somme, for not since those days had he enjoyed friendship to the same degree of emotional and intelectual commitment.”“Tolkien,” Carpenter, p. 143
From our first moments of meeting Meriadoc Brandybuck, he establishes himself as a loyal friend and companion. Though it may be easy to attribute ultimate friendship to Sam, the beginning of the story tells a different tale. It is Merry, alongside Pippin, who is designated as one of Frodo’s special friends. Samwise, meanwhile, is well established as a gardener at Bag End, more closely resembling a master-servant relationship than a dear friend. Indeed, although Sam and Frodo do eventually become the best of companions, Sam continues to refer to Frodo as “master” throughout the story. In comparison, Merry begins the story as a fiercely loyal companion to Frodo and continues to demonstrate his reverence for friendship throughout.
After Bilbo leaves, it is Merry who takes on various duties for Frodo, including giving him breaks from visitors, securing him a house in Buckland, and arranging Frodo’s new home to resemble Bag End – even knowing that Frodo is not there to stay. When Frodo finally reveals his plan to leave the Shire, it is Merry who gives an impassioned speech declaring his trustworthiness and support. This continues after the Council of Elrond, insisting that he (and Pippin) would follow Frodo to whatever end. Why? Because they were his friends. No other answer was needed. As we move on throughout the journey, Merry continues to demonstrate his loyalty and need for companionship. After Pippin looks in the Palantir and is whisked away to Minis Tirith with Gandalf for safekeeping, we see Merry enter periods of deep loneliness accompanied by feelings of uselessness. Without friends, he can actively support and love, Merry begins to doubt his part in the quest. He pledges himself to King Theoden, promising to keep him as a father-figure. His distress at being left behind, while Theoden and all of his friends have ridden to battle, is matched only by his delight at being secretly taken in by Eowyn, also in disguise, as the Rohirrim ride to Minis Tirith. On the battlefield, Merry’s loyalty to King Theoden and Eowyn leads to one of his greatest acts of valor – stabbing the Witch King with his small, hobbit blade. Even after experiencing the healing of Aragorn, who has now begun to show himself as the King, he continues to lament the loss of King Theoden, feeling a sadness that makes even a bit of pipeweed with Pippin a sad affair.
After the war ended, Merry and Pippin lived together at Crickhollow while frequently visiting Frodo and Sam at Bag End. He and Pippin also returned to Gondor and Rohan at need and visited Gimli many times there. In his old age, Merry was summoned to the side of King Eomer, son of King Theoden, and with Pippin left the Shire for the last time. He was by King Eomer’s side at his death and spent his remaining years with Pippin in Gondor, under the kingship of Aragorn. At Aragorn’s death, sometime after the passing of Merry and Pippin, they were entombed alongside him. From beginning until the end, Merry surrounded himself with friends and dedicated himself to being a loyal companion.
“But it does not seem that I can trust anyone,” said Frodo. Sam looked at him unhappily. “It all depends on what you want,” put in Merry. “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.”The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 5, “A Conspiracy Unmasked”
Love of Home
“He took his family on holiday to ordinary places. During the central yeras of his life, the richest periods of his creativity, he made no journeys outside of the British Isles. But travel never played a large part in hs life – simply because his imagination did not need to be stimulated by unfamiliar landscapes and cultures.”“Tolkien,” Carpenter
I would debate whether Frodo Baggins really wanted to leave the Shire. At the beginning of his story, just after Bilbo has left, he acknowledges a desire to follow Bilbo on an adventure – a bit of Tookishness rising up in him, perhaps. For some time after, he roused the talk of his fellow Hobbits who wished he would grow some “hobbit-sense.” Not only was he frequently seen wandering the Shire with Merry and Pippin, he was often seen “far from home walking in the hills and woods under the starlight.” There was even suspicion that he visited the Elves. As he approached the age of 50 – the age at which Bilbo had set off for the Lonely Mountain – Frodo seemed torn between the pleasure of being his own master, particularly the master of Bag End, and “wondering…about the wild lands.” However, when Bilbo’s ring is revealed as the Ring and Gandalf makes clear to him that it must not remain in the Shire, Frodo is reluctant to leave. Indeed, when the need is first put to him Frodo declares, “I am not made for perilous quests.” In the end, however, he acknowledges that the only thing to do is leave the Shire, taking the Ring with him. This acknowledgment is met with a sigh. Only when pressed does he begin to realize that, much as he craved adventure, he always imagined coming home again.
And so, we realize Frodo’s motivation to leave home is actually to save his home. “I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” Already, Frodo begins to realize that his tale runs the risk of changing him so profoundly that even home may be lost to him. It is a risk he is willing to take because it secures home for others. In the weeks leading up to his departure, he was often heard muttering variations of “I wonder if I shall ever look down into that valley again.” The location of his home becomes very dear to him and he begins to take special notice of every aspect of it, tucking the sights and sounds away in his heart for the road ahead.
There is a second recognition of home that we see in Frodo, however, and that is that home is more than a location; home is people. Frodo, whose parents had died with him a youngster, leaving him an orphan growing up amongst the Brandybucks, found his bearings at Bag End with Bilbo as his guardian. It was Bilbo who became his true family and Hobbiton that became his true home. Before the Ring was unveiled to him and his adventure laid before him, much of Frodo’s desire to leave the Shire was actually due to his desire to follow after Bilbo. His love for Bilbo, like his love for the Shire, motivated many of his actions more than a deep desire to see mountains, explore new paths, or see new lands. Upon arriving in Rivendell, Frodo meets Gloin, one of Bilbo’s companions to the Lonely Mountain. When Bilbo’s name comes up, Gloin “looked at Frodo and smiled. ‘You were very fond of Bilbo were you not?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ answered Frodo. ‘I would rather see him than all the towers and palaces in the world’.” When the doom of his quest is realized in him, it is by Bilbo’s side that he longs to be, living out his life in peace.
As Frodo begins to fade, he forgets much of his life in the Shire. When the Ring is destroyed, it is the memory of the Shire and Bilbo that returns to him. The thing that, in the end, led Frodo to take Arwen’s gift of passage to Valinor was that the Shire had not been saved for him. The wombs of carrying the ring were too deep for him to enjoy his home any longer. And, in the end, it was to Valinor that Bilbo was destined to go. And so, he departed alongside him.
“‘I know what you have come to say, Frodo: you wish to return to your own home. Well, dearest friend, the tree grows best in the land of its sires; but for you in all the lands of the West there will ever be welcome… ‘” ‘It is true that I wish to go back to the Shire,’ said Frodo. ‘ But first I must go to Rivendell. For if there could be anything wanting in a time so blessed, I miss Bilbo’.”The Return of the King, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”
A Love of Words
“The first thing to understand is why he liked languages. We know a good deal about this from the account of his childhood. The fact that he was excited by the Welsh names on coal-trucks, by the ‘surface glitter’ of Greek, by the strange forms of the Gothic words in the book he acquired by accident, and by the Finnish of the Kalevala, shows that he had a most unusual sensitivity to the sound and appearance of words. They filled for him the place that music has in many people’s lives. Indeed the response that words awakened in him was almost entirely emotional.”“Tolkien,” Carpenter, p. 131
When we meet Bilbo Baggins in his front garden after breakfast, he seems to all the world a sensible Hobbit. By the time he has returned from his trip to the Lonely Mountain, he is a bit of a changed Hobbit. When describing his son, Samwise’s, relationship to Bilbo, Hamfast Gamgee tells the other Hobbits in the local pub: “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.” Now an Elf-friend, not to mention a friend of dwarves, skin changers, and wizards, Bilbo became known for his love of poetry. In fact, we can see traces of his love for words – both in poetry and in song – early on in The Hobbit. When he arrives in Rivendell for the first time, Bilbo and the dwarves are met by elves singing amongst the trees. Having been on a rather arduous journey, Tolkien explains that “tired as he was, Bilbo would have liked to stay awhile. Elvish singing is not a thing to miss, in June under the stars, not if you care for such things.” A few pages later, when Elrond, Gandalf, and the dwarves begin examining the map of Eriador, we learn that Bilbo loved “runes and letters and cunning handwriting.” A little farther along in Bilbo’s journey, we meet Gollum and Bilbo endures the well-known riddles in the dark, chancing his life on his ability to engage in wordplay. At the end of his journey, seeing his home for the first time in many months, Bilbo breaks into song, and Gandalf declares, “You are not the Hobbit that you were.”
As Hamfast Gamgee indicated above, Bilbo’s love for words did not cease after arriving back in the Shire. When we meet Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring, he has maintained his well-known love for poetry and song. The guests at his 111th birthday dreaded his speech in which he was “liable to drag in bits of what he called poetry.” When he leaves Bag End, the last thing he packs is the leather-bound manuscript in which he is recording his journey. When Frodo meets the elves traveling near the Shire, it is Frodo’s command of elvish (taught to him by Bilbo) that marks him as Bilbo’s descendant and an elf-friend in his own right. When Sam, Pippin, and Frodo arrive at Crickhollow after their trek across the Shire, unexpectedly chased by riders in black, Merry gifts them a nice, hot bath during which they sing Bilbo’s bath song. When they set off, they sing Bilbo’s walking song. And when we at long last arrive in Rivendell, we find Bilbo alone in a corner, fretting over some verses he is trying to get just right for recitation in the Hall of Fire. When the company sets off from Rivendell, Bilbo’s encouragement to Frodo is to write everything down so they can appropriately compile his adventures into a book upon his return.
Alongside rambling walks and well-marked maps, Bilbo Baggins is a lover of words. He collects songs and tales from both distant lands and his home, records his adventures in a precious, leather-bound volume, turns even the most ordinary of moments into the subject of song, learns the language of the Elves, and translates verses into the common tongue. It is Bilbo who penned the words that so many of us associate with Aragorn: “All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” And Aragorn, when met with Sam’s recitation of The Fall of Gil-galad, is not surprised to find that Bilbo had obviously translated the ancient words into the common tongue and taught them to others. A love for language was something that Bilbo seems to have long possessed and which certainly grew during his journey to and from the Lonely Mountain. For Bilbo, words held rich meaning and were a worthy pursuit and a worthy legacy.
“Now we had better have it again,” said an Elf. Bilbo got up and bowed. “I am flattered, Lindir,” he said. “But it would be too tiring to repeat it all.” “Not too tiring for you,” the Elves answered laughing. “You know you are never tired of reciting your own verses.”The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”
Although I do not believe that any of the Hobbits holds a monopoly on these traits, I do feel that Tolkien gave an extra dash of each attribute that he himself held dear to the Hobbits as individuals. A love of nature, laughter, friendship, home, and words were characteristics that certainly helped define Professor Tolkien, both in his life and in his works. And for myself, they are attributes that seem much more worthy of my attention than counting possessions could ever be.