Each evening I read a chapter of JRR Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings, to our youngest boys. I think this might be my third read through of Frodo the hobbit’s long journey from his home in the Shire in a remote corner of Middle Earth to Mordor’s Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring.
I read it first when I was close to their age, maybe 12 or so and then again as a uni student. Now in my 40s, even though I’ve watched the movies, I forget so much of the plot that it’s refreshing to enter that world again. Bit I still can’t quite manage to read all the longer songs!
One of the things I’ve been mentally digesting this time – I’ve just got to the end of The Two Towers – is the humility of some of the main characters, Frodo, Gandalf, Galadriel and Aragorn.
The paradoxical power of being able to bear one’s lack of power with equanimity, or being content to wield it only at greatest need in service of others, is a theme that runs through this whole story. For one thing, the hobbit Frodo is literally close to the ground, half the size of Men, so easily overlooked and grounded in his live for the Shire and the wholesome pleasures of his simple and cheerful rural folk.
Most other inhabitants of Middle Earth don’t even know what hobbits are, they don’t figure in the great tales or songs or the Know-all Ents’ lists of existing creatures. This is partly what makes Frodo, an exemplary hobbit, the perfect person for the mission without the bad guys realising what a danger he is to their cause for a very long time.
When struggling to describe the great Elven Lady Galadriel, Sam finally splutters that “she is so strong in herself somehow”. While a vastly different person to Frodo, she also knows herself and the part she has to play in the big scheme of things.
Each of them are extraordinary and they are aware that they are different to others of their kind, but they are never full of pride or (at least by the time they have to make a hard choice) ambitious for anything other than serving the mission that’s been put before them and that each of them have accepted.
They make sacrifices without making a big deal about them, they suffer without bitterness, resentfulness or meanness. That’s in stark contrast to the likes of Gollum, and poor Boromir.
This self-forgetfulness along with a kind of knowing-your-placeness is what I think of as humility. They don’t think too highly or too little of themselves. They don’t think about themselves much at all, unless somebody asks them to give an account of themselves.
They know they only represent perhaps a line or little more in the unending song of Middle Earth and all that lies beyond it. But they also know they have to give those few lines’ worth everything they have got, otherwise the whole song will be less than it could be.