Middle-Earth Midrash (part four)
December 29, 2013 at 12:00 am, by noamsienna
“Quite a little fellow in a wide world”: Smallness, Significance, and Finding Balance
The Hobbit ends, in some sense, where it began: in Bilbo’s comfortable hole in the Shire. Bilbo, Gandalf, and Balin are enjoying the simple pleasures of a tobacco jar and each other’s company. Hearing of the newfound prosperity of Lake-town prompts Bilbo to observe laughingly that “the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!”, to which Gandalf responds: “Of course!… Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself?”; he then observes: “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am quite fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all” (pg. 280). This message resonates throughout The Hobbit and indeed throughout Tolkien’s work: each of us has an important part in bringing things to pass, no matter how small we perceive ourselves or our lives to be.
When Saul, King of Israel, gives in to his fears and ignores Divine command, the prophet Samuel reminds him: “Even if you are small in your own eyes, you are the leader of the tribes of Israel, and G!d has anointed you king over Israel” (I Samuel 15:17). Jewish tradition teaches us to balance between these poles: not to have so much pride that we forget that we are just “a little fellow in a wide world,” but to remember nonetheless that we each have a unique and irreplaceable part to play. The Hassidic rabbi Simha Bunim of Peshischa (Poland, 1765-1827) had a well-known teaching that everyone should carry two notes in their pockets, to be read at the appropriate moments: one that reads “the world was created for my sake” [BT Sanhedrin 37a], and the other “I am but dust and ashes” [Genesis 18:27] But one must be careful, he warns; too many people err by reading the opposite note than the one that they should (Siah Sarfei Qodesh, section 233). Like Bilbo, there are some times we need to be reminded that we are not as large as we might think ourselves to be; at other times, we may need to be encouraged to believe that we do have the power to accomplish great deeds, despite what we or others may think of our stature.
Throughout Tolkien, great deliverance often comes from characters who seem (or are perceived to be) small and insignificant. The Dark Rider, Witch-King of Angmar, was confident that no living man could kill him, and yet he is killed in the end by a woman and a hobbit. Dwarves, hobbits, women, Rangers, neglected younger siblings; the marginal, overlooked, ignored and forgotten; these are the characters who save Middle Earth. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Elrond tells the Council that “such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere” (book 2, chapter 2). A pivotal moment in The Hobbit comes when Bilbo must decide to kill Gollum or not; he has “a sudden understanding” and spares him (The Hobbit, pg. 83). Bilbo’s choice is crucial because, as Gandalf later reminds Frodo, even Gollum has a part to play (Fellowship of the Ring, book 1, chapter 2). And indeed, it is Gollum’s final act that fulfills the Fellowship’s quest and destroys Sauron forever.
The ending of The Hobbit thus carries a simple and crucial message: we can make a better world — in fact, in every moment and every choice we have the opportunity to move a little closer. For we cannot decide the times we live to see, as Gandalf tells Frodo; “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” (Fellowship of the Ring, book 1, chapter 2). This is how we balance between acknowledging our smallness and owning the possibility of our power — by living a life that chooses wherever possible to fight for more light, more love, and more goodness.
There is an unusual rabbinic tradition that the Biblical book of Esther, describing the struggles of the Jewish community in Persia, is in fact the most powerful book of the Bible: “the removal of the ring [of the king Ahashverosh, Esther 3:10]”, the Talmud tells us, “is greater than the exhortation of all 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses” (BT Megillah 14a). Similarly, the 9th-century Gaonic collection of she’iltot [homilies] of Rav Ahai Gaon records that “the days of Purim are greater than the day that the Torah was given [at Sinai]” (She’iltot deRav Ahai, vol. 2, homily 67). The medieval rabbi Maimonides concludes: “all the books of the Prophets and all the Writings will be annulled in the days of the Messiah, apart from the book of Esther. It will continue to be binding… Even though all memory of our suffering will be erased…still the days of Purim will not be annulled” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megilla 2:18).
Why is the book of Esther so important for the rabbis? I believe it is perhaps because the pivotal moment, the decisive moment that reverses the trajectory of destruction and the fate of the Jews who hang in the balance, is not a miracle from heaven but Esther’s decision to step forward and change the course of the narrative, putting her own life on the line and not knowing whether she would survive. “If I perish,” she says, “I will perish” (4:16). There are echoes of that moment at the Council of Elrond, as representatives of the different races fall silent in deciding who will take the responsibility of destroying the One Ring. Frodo’s heart is filled with a great longing to rest in peace in Rivendell, and yet he speaks out to say: “I will take the ring, though I do not know the way” (Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, chapter 2).
Why did Maimonides choose the book of Esther alone to be preserved? The world of the book of Esther is the world of the rabbis, and our world as well — a world where G!d’s ‘face’ seems permanently hidden (called by the rabbis hester panim, in a play on Esther’s name) or even absent. Esther’s courage, her boldness, is what carries us through a world of hester panim. These are the small decisions we make every day: to get up, to go out, to stand up, to fight oppression, to nurture lives of beauty and holiness in a world full of silence, brokenness and pain. The noted Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas writes, “The condition of the victims in a disordered world –that is to say, in a world where good does not triumph – is that of suffering. This condition reveals a G!d Who renounces all aids to manifestation, and appeals instead to the full maturity of the responsible [human being]” (1997, pg. 143). There will be moments when we are sitting in silence, waiting with dread for someone else to speak up; but it is our responsibility as mature human beings to stand up and take upon ourselves the burden of repairing this disordered world.
In “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” Peter Jackson gives Gandalf words which resonate deeply with this message: “Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found,” says Gandalf to Galadriel. “I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keep the darkness at bay: simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.” Thus it is in the small moments of our lives that we can have the courage to change the world. We may never know how we will be able to change the course of events until the opportunity comes. And in fact, when it comes we may not even recognize it as such; but in the smallest of ways, even the littlest of us can bring about great things.
There and Back Again: Conclusion
Tolkien’s work speaks to me in profoundly Jewish terms of what it means to live a life of meaning and significance. At the beginning of The Hobbit, Tolkien challenges the readers: “[Bilbo] may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained — well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end” (pg. 4). Indeed Bilbo grows tremendously on his journey, and we have grown with him. In a 1939 lecture, “On Fairy-Stories” (a year and a half after the publication of The Hobbit), Tolkien argues that the meaning of fairy-stories is to help us along our journey of growth by providing models for living lives of dignity and wisdom (1983, pg. 137):
Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder, but to proceed on the appointed journey… But it is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.
That is ultimately what The Hobbit reminds us: that we can face peril and sorrow with dignity and wisdom. “For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death,” runs the line (in the Douay-Rheims translation that Tolkien no doubt knew so well), “I will fear no evils, for thou art with me” (Psalms 23:4). The Hobbit teaches us that we draw strength from our relationships with each other, which are more valuable than hoarded gold or stolen jewels. It encourages us to fight the Great Battle against our egos and fears with valour and dignity. And it reminds us that while we may be small (in our own eyes or those of others), we can — and must — keep the darkness at bay with the greatness of our everyday deeds, what Devin Brown calls the “sacramental ordinary” (The Christian World of The Hobbit, 2012, pg. 146). In Tolkien’s seminal essay on Beowulf, he describes the heroes as those “with courage as their stay,” who “went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat” (1936, pg. 260). We learn from The Hobbit that we all have a part to play in that battle, large or small, whether we are a Ranger or a wizard, an elf, a hobbit, or even a Dwarf. Ultimately, we each will leave the battlefield to go into the darkness. But while we remain in “the circle of light within the besieged hall” (ibid.), we have the opportunity to do deeds of great import and significance in this wide world, no matter our size.
Brown, Devin. The Christian World of The Hobbit. United Methodist Publishing House, 2012.
Lévinas, Emmanuel. “Loving the Torah More Than G!d.” In Difficult Freedom: essays on Judaism, trans. Sean Hand, John Hopkins University Press, 1997, pp. 142-145.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Hobbit. Ballantine, 1996 (original ed. 1937).
–. “Beowulf: the monsters and the critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. 22 (1936), pp. 245-95.
–. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (3 vols., original ed. 1954).
–. The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Allen and Unwin, 1983.
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