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The Rousing of Hobbits

A scene from the Scouring of the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
"What's come of his weskit?" - Miriam Ellis

"What's come of his weskit? I don't hold with wearing ironmongery, whether it wears well or no," says the Gaffer of Sam's gilded mail shirt, encapsulating for readers of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings the anti-industrial, peace-loving nature of both the hobbits and the author.

Farmer Cotton's farm in The Lord of the Rings
"When Sam Spoke to Rosie at Cotton's Farm" - Miriam Ellis

Yet, we learn that if things get just bad enough, the humble, rustic folk who garden and farm amongst the green hills of Eriador can be ignited like a set of tiny wildfires. We see it when Frodo, shouting, "The Shire!" sets upon the horrible scaly monster trying to break down the door in Moria.

We see it when Sam, crying out in Sindarin, takes on Shelob over his master's fallen body, giving us one of the most stirring and heart-wrenching passages in all of Tolkien:

"Sam did not wait to wonder what was to be done, or whether he was brave, or loyal, or filled with rage. He sprang forward with a yell, and seized his master's sword in his left hand. Then he charged. No onslaught more fierce was ever seen in the savage world of beasts, where some desperate small creatures armed with little teeth, alone, will spring upon a tower of horn and hide that stands above his fallen mate."

Reading this, we begin to believe the rumors that hobbit archers went to battle long ago, and to credit that the Horn of Buckland is no mere party-cracker prize from Dale. Its call is serious, and hobbits, when roused, can be utterly fierce.

What Rouses Hobbits?

Detail, "Wake now! my merry friends" - Miriam Ellis

Most readers will be quick to relate to the idea of standing up in defense of loved ones, but Tolkien imbues the hobbits with a quality which the kindred of Men have yet to fully embrace: getting roused over the ruination of our environment. We are too like the Shire-folk-pre-Scouring, confused by the ill-fortune that has befallen our polluted waters, our fouled lands, our ailing skies, unable to organize ourselves into a proper rebellion, waiting for a spark.

We understand that Climate Change is wrecking our green earth, but we have not yet figured out how to face the towering horn and hide of the fossil fuel monster. Like Tolkien mourning the industrialization of his childhood countryside, we feel incapable of stopping the thing which beats upon our door with its scaly fist. Whereas Bilbo didn't want to take part in Thorin and Company's greedy, senseless war against Men and Elves in The Hobbit, Frodo and Company find themselves besieged on their own home ground.

Adaptations of The Lord of the Rings may leave out the chapters relating to 'The Scouring of the Shire', making it seem as if Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin sacrifice their comfort, their health and almost their lives all so that Men could have a king and peace again. To me, however, the shining crown of the book is not at Elessar's coronation but in the homecoming of the hobbits, changed and ready to take on the mind of metal and wheels which has turned their green and pleasant land into an environmental disaster area. Their adventure has roused them and helped them better measure all that is at stake, and has taught them how to rouse their own kind.

Image of Treebeard and his house at Wellinghall by Miriam Ellis
"Treebeard at Wellinghall" = Miriam Ellis

We recall that when Sam looks in the Mirror of Galadriel, he is not only distraught by the plight of the Gaffer, but by the fate of trees. In this, we see natural hobbit folk growing from the same root as far more powerful beings: the Ents. Both kindreds are slow to rouse, but wanton destruction of the green world gets them up and moving, at last, ready to hurl themselves at towers and evict fallen Maiar.

The scale of action is widely different between the wrecking of the machines of Isengard and the small battle with the Ruffians amongst the hedgerows, but it stems from the same native wisdom that we are part of the nature that is under attack. It isn't some remote forest being burned or felled, or some distant farm ridden with drought or flood - it is all of us.

Fierce Little Folk

Hobbits hiding in tree by Miriam Ellis
Detail, "Hidden Hobbits" - Miriam Ellis

"By the craggy hillside, through the mosses bare, they've planted thorn trees for pleasure, here and there. Is any man so daring as to dig them up in spite, he'll find their sharpest thorns in his bed at night." - The Fairies, William Allingham

The danger of misbehaving in the presence of the Little Folk is as old and probably older than Irish leprechauns and Icelandic elves. If you ignore their customs, trespass on their home grounds, or otherwise offend, serious consequences follow. Traditions about Hidden Folk exist across much of Europe, as well as in parts of the Americas, and I think they matter a great deal, especially in societies where it has become the accepted "enlightened" practice to treat such ideas as a joke.

In painting this scene of the Cottons' kitchen, I wanted to show all the quiet comforts of rural hobbit life we readers love. There is a large table, and round, ruddy faces, there is a fire and soup on the hearth, farm dogs underfoot, and the warm light of sunset in the round windows, illuminating the drying plants used to dye the colorful clothing hobbits love to wear. But look again.

The Gaffer and Sam have just burst in the door in a state of unusual excitement. Sam is not only wearing the mail he was given in Gondor, but that is Sting in his belt. Frodo's mithril shirt peeps over the collar of his tunic, and Arwen's star hangs upon his breast, betokening all he has experienced in the foregoing year.

While Rosie looks on, smiling in admiration, Frodo is telling the Gaffer that his son has become famous in the wide world. Sam may be bashful, but he has also become one of the most courageous and hardy figures in the entirety of Tolkien's legendarium. And Merry stands at the window, armed in gear of Rohan, surveying the Great East Road and planning the next steps in the Scouring of the Shire.

It is easy to oversimplify the hobbits; to think of them as jolly country bumpkins, somehow living on the borders of the Perilous Realm. In fact, they are right at the heart of it, as ready to bite back when someone cuts down their party tree or spoils their stream as any Celtic fairy. And thank goodness for that, because the green world needs its heroes, now even more than in the Third Age. I wanted to show this potential for good fierceness in the Little Folk I love best. In this video short, I've tried to give a sense of the slow but vital rousing of the hobbits:

To this day, in Iceland, things fall apart if people disrespect elves. Accidents on construction sites, broken machinery, landslides, ill luck of all kinds is said to originate in someone dishonoring the customs.

Painting of J.R.R. Tolkien by Miriam Ellis
"Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien" - Miriam Ellis

Meanwhile, Professor Tom Shippey gives a memorable account of an Oxford University student encountering an old gentleman on the campus who fell into conversation with him on the subject of trees, particular trees he loved, how awful it was that people did things to trees, and what ought to be done to people who do things to trees! The old gentleman was, of course, Professor Tolkien, and we hear him in this story at his hobbit best, defending the natural world that is the raiment and the resource of Faërie - because any other course is perilous to ourselves.

Pippin Took singing in a meadow
Detail, "Don't You Leave Him" Miriam Ellis

In the "old wives' tales" recorded by the Grimms and loved by Tolkien since boyhood, wishes are often granted. If I could ask some Queen of Elves to grant one for me, it would be that humankind could be more like the hidden folk, get well and truly roused over Climate Change and organize ourselves to scour away our own dependence on oil and gas in our own smials around the world. Then, like little Pippin Took, we might dance in the sunny meadows again, in the wind and by the water, seeing in these powers the pure and lovely sources of our life. Taking any other Road ahead just isn't good plain hobbit sense.



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