Middle-Earth Midrash (part 3)

December 24, 2013 at 1:00 am, by

(Continued from parts one and two)

“The Bravest Thing He Ever Did”: Valour, Victory, and the Great Battle

There is an emphasis throughout Tolkien’s work on what one might call “true heroism,” which comes not from martial victory and certainly not through needless violence, but from the choices we make to conduct ourselves with dignity. In his 1964 BBC interview, Tolkien called it “the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds.” We fight our circumstances, we fight the perceptions of people around us, and we fight our own doubts and fears. This, I would suggest, is the greatest battle we face; yet it can therefore be our greatest victory.

When Bilbo finds himself alone in the dark forest, separated from the Dwarves, it is “one of his most miserable moments” (The Hobbit, pg. 145). But when he is attacked by a spider there, he manages to fight and kill it. This accomplishment, “all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else” makes a difference, and he feels “much fiercer and bolder” (pg. 146). In appreciation, he names his sword in formal, almost Biblical language: “‘I will give you a name,’ he said to [the sword], ‘and I shall call you Sting’” (pg. 146). Rereading this scene after the release of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” it takes on additional meaning. When the dwarves are in Rivendell and Elrond identifies Glamdring and Orcrist, Bilbo looks at his sword hopefully, only to have Balin tell him that “swords are named for the great deeds they do in war… [and] I’m not sure it is a sword. More of a letter-opener, really.” But Tolkien’s message is that if swords are named for the great deeds they do, then it is precisely this moment in Bilbo’s story that is a great deed! We can accomplish great things, even in our own small lives — and that those accomplishments are indeed our greatest triumphs.


“More of a letter-opener”? Really, Balin?!

This message is repeated at another pivotal moment in The Hobbit. When Bilbo is creeping through the tunnels of the Mountain, about to confront Smaug for the first time, he begins to hesitate. He begins to imagine the dangers facing him, and he thinks of his own front-hall at home in the Shire. When the sound of Smaug becomes unmistakeable, he stops. But then, he decides to move forward — and this, Tolkien writes, “was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone” (pg. 200). And indeed, throughout Tolkien’s work, the emphasis is on these seemingly small moments of decision and resolve, rather than a cinematic preference for extended scenes of epic combat and gruesome violence. The greatest battles, Jewish tradition teaches, are the battles we fight with ourselves — with our fears, with our anger, with our greed and ego, with what the rabbis call the Yetzer haRa‘ [the Evil Impulse]. The Mishnah teaches us (Pirqei Avot 4:1): “Who is mighty? The one who conquers their yetzer [hara‘], as it is written: ‘The one slow to anger is better than the mighty, [and the one who controls their spirit than the one who captures a city; Proverbs 16:32].’” Medieval rabbis borrowed a Sufi story about the Prophet Muhammad to illustrate that the fight with the Yetzer haRa‘ is indeed the greatest battle. The Andalusian rabbi and philosopher Bahya ibn Paquda (ca. 1050-1120) writes (Ḥovot haLevavot, Gate 5, chapter 5):

It was told about a certain pious man [i.e. Muhammad] who met people returning from a battle against enemies and had looted much after a mighty battle. He said to them, “You have returned from the lesser battle [hamilḥama haqeṭana]; now, prepare yourselves for the greater battle [hamilḥama hagedola].” They said to him, “What is the greater battle?” He said to them, “The battle against the yetzer and its soldiers.”

The early Hassidic rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoye (1710-1784), the pre-eminent disciple of the Ba‘al Shem Tov, called this struggle with oneself hamilḥama hagedola hatemidi, one’s great eternal battle (Toldos Yaakov Yosef, parashat Bo), and I think Bilbo — and Tolkien — would agree. The epic battle that one might expect to be the climax of the narrative, the great Battle of the Five Armies, is summarized in a mere five pages; the story of The Hobbit is ultimately about a different kind of fight.

battle of five armies

Although this battle is going to be pretty awesome too. Art by Matt Stewart.

We should remember, as well, that Tolkien himself saw the trenches of the Great War, and he writes in the preface to The Fellowship of the Ring that while his work is not an explicit allegory of war, it would be impossible for him to remain “wholly unaffected” by his experiences in the war, where “by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” John Garth argues that Tolkien’s narratives try to counter the prevailing attitude of disenchantment, hopelessness, and disappointment that characterized WWI writing. He writes that Tolkien “recorded how individuals are transfigured by extraordinary circumstances. His characters set out… in bondage, frustration, or absurdity, but they break free of those conditions, and so become heroes. They achieve greater power of action than ourselves, and so reach the condition of characters in the older modes… [of] myth, romance, and epic… This liberation from the chains of circumstance makes his stories especially vital in an age of disenchantment” (Tolkien and The Great War, pg. 305). Tolkien knew, as we’re reminded by the old author of Qoheleth [Ecclesiastes 9:11], that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” We achieve heroic status by our self-liberation from circumstance, by our victories not on the fields of war but against our own selves.

Stay tuned for the final segment!


Garth, John. Tolkien and The Great War: the threshold of Middle Earth. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Hobbit. Ballantine, 1996 (original ed. 1937).

–. Interview with Denys Geroult. “Tolkien Interview.” BBC Radio 4: Now Read On. 1971. (available here: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-G_v6-u3hg>).

–. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (3 vols., original ed. 1954).

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