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Tolkien's Hobbit travellers in the tradition of Imperial-era travel adventures

noWizardme
Half-elven


Apr 8 2021, 4:43pm

Post #1 of 7 (1456 views)
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Tolkien's Hobbit travellers in the tradition of Imperial-era travel adventures Can't Post

Lately I've read a couple of books that have caused me to think a bit differently about The Hobbit and LOTR ('the hobbit tales') as travel adventures. So I thought I'd write about it a little.

In particular I've been reading Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane. It discusses what possesses people to climb up mountains when they don't have to. Robert Macfarlane says that up to (very roughly) 1750, it was what I might call 'the Shire-like' in a landscape that most Europeans admired-- things that were productive, neat and domesticated. People of course went into difficult terrain at need (hunting, herding, mining, pilgrimage, refuge etc.) But the gentlefolk would have been about as reluctant as the average hobbit. Then, as the Eighteenth Century goes on, a much more Bilbo-like, Romantic Movement attitude takes hold: people travel to the mountains (and to other novel and hazardous places) for the thrills to be experienced there. The rugged, scary and overwhelming begins to be thought of as sublime rather than unlovely. The British in particular become avid mountain-tourists. A research motive also appears- a new (and also quite Bilbo-like) interest in collecting everything from facts to folk-songs to fossils.

Other, less hobbit-like motives also come into play - 1750 onwards is after all an era of colony-grabbing empires, competing for the first time in a global theatre. So adventure comes to be valued for its role in this international competition. Exploration provides excuses for military reconnaissance or prospecting for exploitable assets in yet-to-be-colonised lands. Map-making provides the opportunity to replace the existing local name with the explorer's name or that of their sponsor: immortalising the named, and achieving a level of symbolic (and sometimes practical) control over what has been mapped. As training and teaching, outdoor activity could teach the young practical skills for military or frontier life. Also, hazardous outdoor activities come to be seen as generally manly and self-improving for anyone -- a display of physical and mental superiority, and so a source of personal (and national or sometimes racial) prestige and re-assurance. We get, in other words, the emergence of a belief in hazardous travel, adventure and physical hardship as a valuable teacher and tester of 'grit':


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Grit was the ability to put one foot in front of the other for as long as necessary. To tread ceaselessly in the prints of the man in front. To know when to take the lead yourself and to be sufficient to that moment. And above all, not to complain. ... Grit was ingrained in the imperial generations of Britain from an early age - the boarding school system churned out generation after generation of boys allegedly full of the stuff - and it was considered to be the moral substance which underpinned Britain's martial success, its zeal for exploration and its Empire-building: its prolific pinking of the map.

'Mountains of the Mind' by Robert Macfarlane


It's probably unnecessary for me to point out that uncomplaining endurance in Tolkien's heroic characters. I think Tolkien's hobbit adventures show this in a travel-writing style rather than the epic style of (say) Silmarillon, or Gawain and the Green Knight. In the hobbit tales, the everyday discomforts of fatigue, fear and short rations are to the fore for readers to empathise with, along with the delights of the sights and the camaraderie of comrades. Slow, 'gritty' 'one foot in front of the other for as long as necessary' plods - from Weathertop to Rivendell, from Rivendell to Moria, from the Breaking of the Fellowship to Mount Doom -- are integral to the LOTR hobbits' achievements.


In another recent read of mine, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, Francis Spufford points out that real-life explorers were were held up to their contemporaries as heroes for virtues such as endurance, self-sacrifice, teamwork, and emotional restraint. This arises because explorers in hazardous places were necessarily hopelessly over-mastered by their environment. Nobody could 'defeat' extreme environments as if they were living opponents that might be beaten in a battle or competition. Rather, the explorers' heroism was seen as strength of morals and character, demonstrated by withstanding the undefeatable for as long as necessary. Or 'withstanding to the end' if the expedition ended in the explorers' deaths, as it often did: something that might add to, rather than detract from the perception of heroism. (I'm reminded here of how hobbit Ringbearers must withstand the Ring that nobody should try to master, or how Bilbo must be brave enough to endure an encounter with a dragon that nobody expects him to slay. And how Frodo withstands the Ring not quite to the end, but remains a hero nonetheless).

I'd say that the sort of heroism admired in explorers is one that is particularly appropriate for the co-operative, shy and diminutive race of hobbits. The other traditional ways of being a hero wouldn't work. Masterfully travelling at dangerous speed, muscular fighting, making romantic or sexual 'conquests' to show your manliness: those hoary Homer-to-Hollywood tropes of machismo are hardly hobbitish. Hobbits endure rather than enjoy bloody battles, cavalry charges or ballistic barrel-rides. And either Tolkien, his hobbits or both are too bashful to revel in romantic or sexual 'conquests'.


To sum up my suggestion is that it's fun to look at Tolkien as a writer in the tradition of Imperial-era travel adventure. A proper, scholarly exploration of all this is so obviously beyond me (and the scope of this site) that of course I can't do more than suggest a few points, not argued all that rigorously. Most likely these studies have already been done in the proper Tolkien-scholar fashion, but I'm not aware of them (let me know...). Anyhow, I've enjoyed writing this and I hope you've enjoyed reading it. It will be interesting to see what (if anything) people think.

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


Roverandom
Bree


Apr 9 2021, 1:09pm

Post #2 of 7 (1390 views)
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Very Nice! [In reply to] Can't Post

Thank you, noWiz, for a very interesting post. I don't know enough about Tolkien's background to know how he liked to spend his holidays (other than at the seaside, of course, which inspired the story which, in turn, inspired by screen name!), but I think you've hit on something here. My daughter is studying European History this year in school, and she's just finished the Romantic Period. Your thoughts jibe with what she has been learning, with regards to changes in the attitudes of a people who suddenly find they have a lot of time on their hands.

That's the point I'd like to add to the discussion. While there was still plenty of hard work for the lowest economic classes, the 1800s saw the beginning of "leisure" for more than just the very upper crust of society. My opinion is that this helped to foster the new wave of exploration that you and Mr. Macfarlane describe. It seems to be the nature of human beings to be dissatisfied by sloth and to want to fill the empty hours of their day with something more interesting and exciting than staring at the same four walls.

Thank you, for mentioning Mountains of the Mind. I'll have to check it out, and perhaps even suggest it to my burgeoning scholar! And thank you, again, for your thoughtful post.

For just as there has always been a Richard Webster, so too has there been a Black Scout of the North to greet him at the door on the threshold of the evening and to guard him through his darkest dreams.


noWizardme
Half-elven


Apr 10 2021, 6:00pm

Post #3 of 7 (1344 views)
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The importance of leisure [In reply to] Can't Post

Nice to 'see' you, Roverandom, and I'm sure you're right:


In Reply To
While there was still plenty of hard work for the lowest economic classes, the 1800s saw the beginning of "leisure" for more than just the very upper crust of society. My opinion is that this helped to foster the new wave of exploration that you and Mr. Macfarlane describe. It seems to be the nature of human beings to be dissatisfied by sloth and to want to fill the empty hours of their day with something more interesting and exciting than staring at the same four walls.


I wonder whether it's significant that the period we're talking about is the Industrial Revolution in the UK, as well as the rise of the Romantic Movement. So among the folk with leisure and disposable income were more of those with a relatively new lifestyle - urban or suburban desk-workers. I think they might be significant because that lifestyle would make energetically exploring the countryside a refreshing change. A chance to imagine yourself as a bold explorer rather than your reality of working dutifully as Deputy Assistant to the Assistant Deputy at Daygrind & Intray. If you couldn't get to the Alps, then the wild places of Britain were being rapidly opened up by the railways, making it easier to find an adventure to fit your pocket and schedule. And there was always the option of setting out from your own home and keeping walking...

And of course these folk were literate, so that they could enjoy and provide a ready market for all kinds of factual and fictitious travel adventures when a holiday from Daygrind & Intray wasn't coming up any time soon.

I do enjoy Robert Macfarlane's writing - usually a mixture of personal travel anecdotes, and historical or journalistic writing. A title that goes well with Mountains of the Mind is The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. It starts with a beautifully written account of a short night-time walk setting out from his Cambridgeshire home on a snowy evening. It then expands to a series of other journeys, and the sorts of folk who have made them. A lot about one of Tolkien's contemporaries, the poet Edward Thomas, but also about the considerable English literature from folks who would certainly have approved of Frodo's Three is Company jaunt across the Shire.

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


sevilodorf
Tol Eressea


Apr 11 2021, 1:30pm

Post #4 of 7 (1294 views)
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The three Gs [In reply to] Can't Post

That moved exploration... gold glory god ( or goodness) often inspire men to move beyond their daily boundaries. If its not pressures of war/pestilence/famine pushing them then you get the three gs pulling them. Bilbo seeks (with a shove out the door) adventure and ends up with gold while the hobbits of LOTR are driven by the desire to further good.

Fourth Age Adventures at the Inn of the Burping Troll http://burpingtroll.com
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Hamfast Gamgee
Grey Havens

Apr 24 2021, 9:01am

Post #5 of 7 (1022 views)
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That is one conundrum of civilization [In reply to] Can't Post

That as people get wealthier and consume more they also damage the environment and make the world nosier and dirtier. Something about the perils of the machine, I think. Just as I am not sure that Tolkien would have totally appreciated the modern-day rather build up with motorways all around it, Oxford. But then again, even in his day society was becoming more mechanizied and even in the 19th century with industrialization and mills and mines been build the countryside was radically changing. But before we get too nostalgic about quitier and greener times lets remember than even 200 years ago many people were living on the brink and even famines then where not unknown. And besides some of us don't mind a little noise!


noWizardme
Half-elven


Apr 26 2021, 9:40am

Post #6 of 7 (1012 views)
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the perils of the machine, I think. [In reply to] Can't Post

I think so too, HG, imagining we're talking about 'machine' as in:

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By [Machine] I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents -- or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

JRRT - letter 131 to Milton Waldman

I think the important thing for Tolkien here is not that it is necessarily bad to get your way or be admired or get more stuff: it's the motive behind it.

Tolkien offers some civilizations that do very little to bother anyone else - the Shire is the obvious example. I've said elsewhere that the county-sized autarkic Shire seems to have all the benefits of being in the British Empire, without either empire or trade (and so sidestepping the dominating, bulldozing and coercing that was included in the historical arrangement). I'm not sure how the Shire's economics would work really, but that's fine, because I'm sure Tolkien is writing fantasy adventure rather than proposing a political allegory or ideal model society. In any case, the Shire ends up (as I recall squire pointing out) exploited as a colony of Isengard, with things set up for maximal resource extraction - until Saruman turns to outright revenge and vandalism.

Other Tolkien civilizations (Numenor, Gondor, Moria) have at times been highly expansive and go-grab about sevilodorf's 'G's of glory, gold etc. Morally and in practical outcomes that has been a mixed picture for them.

Mordor, I suppose, is the extreme of Machine - getting more and more of what Sauron wants at any cost to others, even though (I think) what Sauron wants has degraded into soething insatiable: wanting to get anything at all at cost to others, to show he can do it: "compulsion that has long lost any object except power" as in this quote:

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The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object except power, and so on...

Tolkien Letters #144 to Naomi Mitchison


~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


noWizardme
Half-elven


Apr 26 2021, 3:45pm

Post #7 of 7 (987 views)
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What AM I on about? [In reply to] Can't Post

Sorry my preceding post was a bit of a dog's breakfast. I don't think I managed the jump from agreeing with HG that 'progress' has been a mixed picture to...
...to being intrigued about how that might relate to Tolkien's ideas of Machine (which I see as the moral perils of getting what you want more and more easily).
I got further ideas mixed up in that - for example that:
  • Seeing 'progress' with generating more wealth and leisure might be a particular cultural take on things, consistent with the Romantic era/Industrial Revolution culture we've been discussing.
  • While I'd argue that Tolkien's stories are in some ways a product of the culture he grew up in, I think it's perilous to try and turn him into an allegory, or to use him in the (sometimes very polarized) political debates about the legacy of those times.Amd anyway we have a 'no politics' rule that I do not want to infringe

Sorry about the mess - maybe it's a bit clearer now. It might even be interesting Or maybe bringing up a dog's breakfast again doesn't make it any more appealing?...

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/

 
 

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