Ordinary Virtues in Ordinary Places

Many have written eloquently about how Tolkien celebrates the triumph of ordinary virtues over extraordinary evil. Indeed, this explains why hobbits are at the center of his tales. Their loyalty, perseverance, pity, sense of duty and humble tastes are what in the end defeat the powers of darkness.

What I have not always noticed is how Tolkien foreshadows this victory in the first chapters of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. In chapter one of The Hobbit we see Bilbo overwhelmed by a boisterous invasion of thirteen hungry dwarves. He was flustered and feared failing his duty as a host: “He had a horrible thought that the cakes might run short, and then he—as the host: he knew his duty and stuck to it however painful—he might have to go without.”

Now certainly this deluge of dwarves did not seem ordinary to Bilbo. But here at home in Bag-End, Under-Hill, Bilbo practices the virtue of doing his duty. A virtue that will later give him the courage to descend alone down a dark tunnel to face Smaug.

After many adventures the dwarves and Bilbo make it to Lonely Mountain where Smaug dwells. Determined to do his duty as burglar and honor his contract with the dwarves, Bilbo descends alone down a dark tunnel to the dragon’s lair. He pauses when he hears Smaug’s snoring. Tolkien says, “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did.” It was not a warrior spirit that pushed him forward, he was simply keeping his word to the dwarves and doing his duty as a burglar.

The Lord of Rings begins with an elaborate birthday party. Tolkien explains that hobbits give rather than receive gifts on their birthdays. It clear that unlike dwarves or even elves, hobbits care little for physical possessions. It is precisely this virtue of generosity and unselfishness that enables Frodo to bear the ring for so long through so much.

Tolkien is careful to show that these ordinary virtues so essential to the hobbits’ quest do not surface only in dire straits or exotic adventures. The heroic was possible because the hobbits didn’t practice their virtues only in extraordinary circumstances.

Honestly, many of us wish the heroic did not require this. Few words are more boring or bothersome than “duty”. We often hope we would make a heroic sacrifice when the time comes even though we put ourselves first day by day. However, hobbits teach us the ordinary virtues that make us heroes must first be practiced in ordinary places.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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