“There Is More to Him than Meets the Eye”: Thoughts on Tolkien and Capitalism

“The dwarves looked at him with quite a new respect, when he talked about dodging guards, jumping over Gollum, and squeezing through, as if it was not very difficult or very alarming.

“What did I tell you?” said Gandalf laughing. “Mr Baggins has more about him than you guess.” He gave Bilbo a queer look from under his busy eyebrows, as he said this, and the hobbit wondered if he guessed at the part of his tale that he had left out.”

  • The Hobbit, J.R.R Tolkien

“’Well, it did not skewer me, I am glad to say,’ said Frodo; ‘though I feel as if I had been caught between a hammer and an anvil.’ He said no more. He found breathing painful.

‘You take after Bilbo,’ said Gandalf. ‘There is more about you than meets the eye, as I said of him long ago.’ Frodo wondered if the remark meant more than it said.”

  • The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

What does Gandalf mean when he says “There is more about you than meets the eye”?

It’s always struck me as an odd thing for him to say. The surface meaning, of course, is part of the books’ constant insistence that hobbits in general, and Bilbo and Frodo in particular, are more than they seem. Arguably the entire point of The Lord of the Rings is exactly the ability of the small to do great deeds. But what’s interesting about what Gandalf says is that in both cases we have a subtext which asks whether Gandalf knows something more than he’s telling; specifically, whether he knows about a concealed object of power and worth that has allowed some un-hobbitlike feat (the Ring, we remember, allows Bilbo to escape Gollum and the goblins in the caves of the Misty Mountains; Frodo’s mithril-coat saves his life when a cave troll thrusts a spear at him).

My question is: what’s the link between these readings?

Superficially at least, they actually seem to contradict each other. Tolkien (through Gandalf, who I think is a pretty reliable mouthpiece for Our Author) is trying to tell us two things simultaneously: that hobbits are intrinsically more than they seem, and that hobbits (Bilbo and Frodo) are more than they seem because they were lucky enough to stumble across the right magical talisman. At some level, the possession of material goods seems to have become conflated with the possession of fortitude, or cunning, or the ability to survive. (This isn’t the same as saying that the Ring and the coat are symbolic of fortitude or cunning, however. “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations”, as Tolkien is so kind as to inform us.)

So let’s have a look at the role of material objects throughout Tolkien’s work. The thing we immediately notice is that all three of Tolkien’s major fictional works – The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – actually revolve around, well, objects: the Silmarils, Smaug’s dragon-hoard (and the Arkenstone), the One Ring. All of these objects cause strife, jealousy, tragedy, the breaking of friendship, and it’s easy to draw the conclusion that Tolkien’s idea is at root anti-capitalist; that the words of Thorin at the end of The Hobbit, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world”, are supposed to exhort us to give up all our treasures immediately and go sit round a campfire eating bacon and eggs for the rest of our lives. But this conclusion is, I think, reductive. It’s clear that material objects, their creation and possession, aren’t in themselves evils: the Silmarils are holy and Beren and Luthien are clearly blessed to own them without strife; Frodo’s mithril-coat is a “kingly gift” which saves his life; the reforging of the legendary sword Narsil signals the renewal of the hope of Men.

Are there beings in Tolkien’s work who don’t place importance on objects?

Well – yes.

“Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.”

“If he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind.”

“But Aule the Maker said: ‘Be not hasty! We ask a greater thing than thou knowest.’”

Shelob, Tom Bombadil, Yavanna: the characters who don’t seem to understand the power of material objects are all Maiar or Valar. (I’m assuming Shelob is at least part-Maiar, given that she is the child of Ungoliant, who definitely is Maia.) We can go further: none of the Valar are strongly associated with any kind of material object, save perhaps Aule’s hammer, which crops up perhaps twice. We also never see Aule the Maker actually making anything specific. The first symptom of the ending of the bliss of Valinor is the wholesale forging of swords and shields by the Noldor, and the Silmarils aren’t very good for it either – in fact, despite their holiness, none of the Silmarils actually end up in Valinor. The point is that there seems to be a distinction between the immortals, the Valar and the Maiar, who couldn’t care less about owning stuff, and the races of Middle-earth, who will actually literally die to get their stuff back. Frodo has to give up his home and everything he owns when he leaves Middle-earth for Valinor; more pertinently, the last departure of the Elves from Middle-earth comes about as a result of the failure of the power of material goods: the Three Rings. It’s important to note that neither of these events is an entirely joyous one: the Elves in particular are jolly sad to be leaving the world. So the importance of material possessions to the people of Middle-earth isn’t just a sort of Christian indictment on the flawed nature of the world; it’s a trait which is actually basically intrinsic to existing in this world.

We’ve noted that possessions aren’t, in Tolkien’s worldview, morally good; nor are they morally evil. Instead, I think, we’re supposed to take a character’s relationships with objects as an index of their relationship with the world; that is, for Tolkien, created objects, midway between external nature and internal personhood, are how people access and understand the world. So the transferral of the Elfstone from Arwen to Aragorn signifies a decision to commit, a choice to become mortal; Frodo’s attack on Shelob with the phial of Galadriel is an act of defiance, a symbol of strength; Bilbo’s trading away of the Arkenstone, as well as showing a canny awareness of what objects mean under this system, performs his understanding of friendship and peace as something greater than dragon-treasure. (We note, however, that he’s still perfectly happy to take two chests of gold and silver home with him.)

I think we can link this with Tolkien’s thoughts about art, or, more specifically, about story and song. Arda, after all, is made by song; and can anyone tell me what really happened when the Ents came to Isengard? Or when Aragorn led the Dead to Pelargir? No; because we don’t see these things; we are told them, and we have to trust the tellers because it’s the only way we can make sense of the tale, of Tolkien’s world. Aragorn’s singing of part of the Lay of Leithian foreshadows his marriage to Arwen; Sam’s song in the orc-tower of Cirith Ungol wakens Frodo to hope and rescue; parts of the Ride of the Rohirrim are told in alliterative verse lifted straight from Old and Middle English. I hope you can see what I am getting at here: art – including narrative and including made objects like the Ring and Frodo’s mithril-coat – is how we interpret and interact with the world. So it is true, for Tolkien, literally true, that at some level Frodo and Bilbo’s possession of coat and Ring is part of their character; because it is through that which is created that we experience and understand both ourselves and the world which is not ourselves.

And that, Constant Reader, is what I got from this year’s Tolkien Reading Marathon.

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