Throughout my life I've never gotten over that sense of happy surprise at discovering someone else who loves Tolkien. I've seen his books on the shelves of famous playwrights and industrious farmers, successful businesspeople and cutting edge computer scientists. All of these men and women shared something in common: They loved the Hobbits more than anyone else in Tolkien's tales. That's because there's something about the character of the Hobbits (and not the characters called Hobbits) that makes them live inside us in a profound and lasting way. In my book The Wisdom of the Shire [Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, $22.99] I show how our lives can be better if some of the traits of the Hobbits become our own.
Here are 13 pieces of advice gleaned from the Shire:
Hobbits are quite possibly the most lovable foodies in all of literature. They eat six meals a day, as Tolkien tells us in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings. What was so appealing to the Hobbits about food from the Shire? It’s the most basic kind of fare, after all—“taters,” bacon, bread and butter, brown beer and, of course, mushrooms. But sometimes the simplest things cooked up the right way are the most delicious. Hobbit food is “Mushroom soup for the soul.” When we dine on fast food, we might as well be pigging out on Orc grub. Hobbits, like Merry and Pippin, are constantly delighted and amazed by the things they eat and drink. A meal is a joyful and life-affirming event.
How snug is your Hobbit-hole? Hobbits live in cozy, handcrafted homes built into hillsides with well-stocked cupboards, comfy chairs and fireplaces. Bilbo draws strength from the memory of his beloved home when he’s on his harrowing adventure with the Dwarves. Think of a place in your own life that possessed this peaceful quality. It could have been your beloved grandparents’ living room, or a kindly music teacher’s studio, or a best friend’s apartment. What was it about that spot that made you feel at home? At some point your subconscious put down “roots” here—this Hobbit-hole of your heart—and you can take this feeling with you anywhere you go. Of course, just as Bilbo discovered at the end of <em>The Hobbit</em>, a nice snug room is indeed a lovely thing to come home to.
Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin truly are fighting for something invaluable during the War of the Ring—for friendship and the love of the Shire. And that’s why they’re so crushed when they return to the Shire and find the evil wizard Saruman has taken over their egalitarian country, destroyed and polluted Hobbiton, and imposed a list of despotic and ludicrous rules. Tolkien loathed the notion of “whiskered men with bombs” running the world. The Hobbits, his exemplars of pluck and courage, react to this dire situation with grit and determination, driving out the invaders and promptly setting to work cleaning up their ravaged land. Sometimes baffling rules created by flawed men need to be torn down and replaced with the standards of common sense, Hobbit-style.
Hobbits get as much sleep as possible, wherever and whenever they can, even if they have to bed down in the top of an Elven tree house, or nap in Sauron’s barren wastes. Tolkien was fond of sleeping in, just like his character Bilbo (the master of Bag End almost misses going off on his adventure with the Dwarves because he snoozes so late). If people are denied sleep for long enough, they will actually go mad like poor Frodo-the-insomniac in Mordor. Instead of posting “I’m tired” on your Facebook page late tonight while simultaneously watching bad movies on Netflix, try going to bed early. Even the wizard Gandalf—an angelic Istari—has to catch some z’s now and then. Good sleep makes you healthy, happy and less likely to provoke the wrath of a dragon, something the sleep deprived Bilbo learns the hard way.
It isn’t the lure of treasure that makes Bilbo join Thorin and his company of Dwarves. The Hobbit simply wants to have an adventure! After Smaug is destroyed the Dwarves become bewitched by the gold in the dragon’s hoard. Bilbo, disgusted by their boorish behavior, steals the fabulous Arkenstone—a beautiful and priceless jewel—and gives it to the Elvenking of the Woodland Realm to prevent a war with the Dwarves. Thorin is furious with Bilbo when he finds out and wants to kill him, but later, on his deathbed, he begs the Hobbit for forgiveness. He realizes that riches are meaningless without true friends by your side. Bilbo spends the rest of his life giving away his wealth—sharing it with his family and friends, for he’s learned greed is a trait best left to avaricious dragons and gold-loving Sackville-Bagginses.
There’s a deep interest amongst the Halflings concerning horticulture, and not just the propagation of pipe-weed. One of the most respected jobs in the Shire is that of the gardener, and that’s because the Shire-folk celebrate life in a place where people are completely connected to the land. Try digging yourself a small garden bed and know how satisfying it feels to look at the newly turned earth ready to be planted. And just wait until you grow that perfect tomato. You’ll understand why Sam keeps dreaming of his garden while in the wastelands of Mordor, or why Tolkien loved his own little garden so much. To grow your dinner from a seed planted and tended by your own hand is more wondrous than a wizard’s magic.
The Hobbits live in a world that doesn’t have cars or trains or ludicrous devices like the Segway. So the best way to get around the Shire is to walk. It’s nothing for a Hobbit to walk fifteen miles or more in a day (they’re blessed with giant feet, after all). Many of us have heard stories from our grandparents about how they had to hoof it several miles in each direction to get to and from school. Walking great distances used to be the norm in our society. In the recent study of Blue Zones around the world—pockets of civilization where people have the longest and healthiest lives—walking is one of the keys to longevity. Unless we all want to look like Fatty Bolger (the portliest inhabitant of the Shire) we need to start walking like a Hobbit.
Birthdays are very important to Hobbits. And they have a unique way of celebrating them. Instead of getting presents, they give them. Hobbits don’t give big presents, mind you. Instead they re-gift little treasures called mathoms—things that are lying around their own cluttered Hobbit-holes. Wouldn’t it be a nice change sometime, in this age of conspicuous consumerism, to throw yourself a Hobbit birthday? Of course no party would be complete without a Shire-style celebration. Invite your friends and family. Kick off your shoes. Unburden yourself with song. Eat and drink and dance on the tables. And leave the cleaning up until morning. You won’t regret it.
One of the most revealing things about The Lord of the Rings is that it’s an epic adventure with titanic sieges and demonic wraiths and evil sorcerers and armies of ghosts and mighty talking battle trees, and yet it ends simply and quietly with Sam Gamgee coming home to his little house where his wife and daughter are waiting for him. For Sam, happiness, without a doubt, is holding his daughter on his lap. And according to the appendices we learn that Sam and his wife Rosie produced a dozen more of the little tykes. (Now you know what was really going on in those Hobbit-holes!) Tolkien, by the way, was married to the love of his life, Edith, for over fifty years. They had four Hobbit children of their own.
Tolkien wrote that the Hobbits had “a close friendship with the earth.” It’s a beautiful way of saying they are as much a part of the Shire as the soil, stones, rivers and trees. The Shire-folk practiced sufficiency—taking only what they needed from the lands and forests. And their way of life was also sustainable—everything they had came from within the boundaries of their little country. In our own world nature is under assault. Mega-corporations are really just like the corrupted wizard Saruman who cuts down Fangorn Forest to fuel the twisted machines he’s built inside the walls of Isengard. If we don’t change our ways, our trees might finally get fed up and come after us like an army of enraged Ents.
The Shire was a kid-friendly place. Many Hobbits lived in extended families with lots of children running about. Frodo and his cousins could ramble across the countryside, exploring their world with a freedom that few kids in our world enjoy. In the summer the Hobbits weren’t stuck inside all day playing video games or watching TV. They were out merrily working in the fields with their families, or contemplating the stars, learning about the trees and animals of the Shire, or experiencing the harmless joys of swiping some mushrooms from a farmer’s woods (or even sneaking a peek at an uncle’s mysterious journal). Bilbo raised Frodo all by himself after he came to live at Bag End and he might very well be the first single stay-at-home dad in the history of literature. And Frodo turned out all right... right?
There’s a special camaraderie amongst the inhabitants of the Shire that goes beyond mere friendship. The Hobbits share a bond that will not be broken. They’ll scuffle over a plate of sautéed mushrooms, of course, but they’ll lay down their lives to save each other. Sam’s platonic love for Frodo is even mightier than the Ring of Doom and gives him the strength to face seemingly insurmountable odds including single-handedly storming a tower full of maniacal Orcs, taking on a monstrous spider, and facing down one very scary little Ring-obsessed lunatic named Gollum. In the end perhaps the greatest threat to the evil of Sauron was not men at arms, but rather the bonds of love that kept the Hobbits from letting their friends fall into darkness and despair alone.
Frodo’s greatest trait might just be his focus. Once he decides to accept the quest to destroy the Ring, he will not give up. He heads into Mordor understanding that he will never make it back home to his beloved Shire. His focus carries over to Sam who takes up the terrible burden of the Ring when Frodo is captured by Orcs. Sam and Frodo go through agonizing trials Sauron’s dark realm, facing their worst fears. They overcome these challenges through sheer strength of will. We all have our own Rings of Doom to bear. The trick is to carry it for as long as you deem necessary, and when the time is right, cast it into the fire and be free of the burden. Watch it melt.