It is likely that some very mundane forces caused Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Hobbits to be more or less hot. A great Hollywood movie isn’t going to rest on the chubby, childish shoulders of Ralph Bakshi’s Hobbits or any of the similar portrayals. For a movie you have to at least doodle the main heroes, make them thinner, even more elves. Save the classic Hobbit features for the various background characters and the adorable Samwise Gamgee beta. That’s the way great movies work: good people are pretty and pretty people are good, unless they’re bad.
Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin stand at an intersection like Hobbit heroes. Compared to the rest of the Fellowship, they are strange, but compared to other Hobbits, they are noble. Audiences take both perspectives, learning through text and themes that heroism comes from the smallest of places, but at the same time they are brought to the opposite belief: these Hobbits can only be heroes because of their appearance.
2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the Lord of the Rings films, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So, every Wednesday of the year, we’ll be going back and forth again, examining how and why movies have remained modern classics. This is the year of the Polygon ring.
The point is, for the majority of the time that they’ve been on the page, hobbits have been mundane, in terms of appearance, and Tolkien is happy about that. “Their faces were generally in a good mood rather than beautiful,” he wrote in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings. He even identified himself as “a Hobbit in everything but size”. He had the same home-from-home state of mind, the same enjoyment of the small comforts of life, and the same physical plumpness that he attributed to the Hobbits. On the other hand, I haven’t seen John Ronald Reuel’s feet, but something tells me that they are not leathery and covered with thick, curly hair.
Beauty is strongly racialized in Tolkien’s universe. (As on Earth, it is the same in Middle-earth.) Elves are amazingly beautiful, and humans can go either way. In terms of appearance, Hobbits are regularly pitted against Dwarves – less “body and stocky,” less bearded, and more closely related to humans. Tolkien explicitly linked the Dwarves to the Jews. “The dwarves, of course, obviously are, wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?” he once said in an interview in 1971, “Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic. Hobbits are just rustic English. It’s hard not to see this as another parallel between the Lord of the Rings and Wagner The Ring of Nibelung; his dwarf figures have long been noted as tacitly reflecting the intellectualized anti-Semitism of Wagner.
Tolkien has also been described by his biographer as having an active distaste for Wagner and with attempts to interpret Norse myths as Nazi propaganda, and once lambasted a potential German publisher for The Hobbit who wanted to know if he was of pure Aryan descent, written in a letter from 1938, “If I am to understand that you are asking if I am of Jewish descent, I can only answer that I regret not having ancestors of these gifted people.” It’s complicated, in short, but the altering quality of how Tolkien handled these differences tilts sympathies towards the Hobbits above all others.
In Tolkien’s work, the dwarves are meant to be different, not totally aliens but not totally human, while the Hobbits, despite their fuzzy feet, are the good old boys. Unlike the Dwarves, the Central Hobbits are never ridiculed, and with the exception of a few of Frodo’s most miserable times, the Central Hobbits never complained. (Even Bilbo, after being tempted by the Ring at Rivendell, arouses pity.)
But Tolkien went further in his ethnic taxonomy to elevate Frodo, Bilbo, Merry, and Pippin above other Hobbits, preparing them to do greater things than their countrymen. He described the northern Fallohids like themselves as tall, rare, artistic, close to the Elves, and able to rule over clans from other branches of the Hobbit family tree. Of course, they are also more adventurous.
Tolkien finds the source of the Hobbits’ worth not in their rational faculties or in the essential vitality that unites us all, but in their specific ancestry. Harfoot Sam is only a hero insofar as he is desperately devoted to Frodo, following a Fallohid like the Harfoots are used to. Smeagol only becomes a central villain through circumstances and centuries of demonic corruption, and even then he’s cowardly and pathetic rather than imposing. Neither could be more than the points given to them in Tolkien’s character creation process.
Movies take this complicated racial hierarchy and put it on the faces of the characters. The four Hobbits of the film Fellowship stand out from their Shire environment like a group of boys in a sea of music video extras. They burst like stars as soon as they enter. Frodo is the Pure, Merry is the Bad Boy (as bad as Hobbits can be), Pippin is the Funny and Sam is the Shy.
Neither is a true idol, for that would shatter the illusion of humble origins altogether. (It probably wouldn’t work with haircuts, either.) But as they hide from the Nazgul among the tree roots, audiences see them in a perfect Rembrandt caucus, their established dynamic. And while they are affected by the people they meet and the experiences they have, Hobbits don’t really change much. Ultimately, they are honored for who they always have been rather than who they have become.
None of this heroic anointing is really surprising – it’s just the way blockbuster visual media works, even when banality matters to the story. For example, a central aspect of the novel The Queen’s Gambit is how simple the protagonist looks. When adapted for a prestige miniseries, this subplot is dropped in favor of Anya Taylor-Joy who plays it. As soon as the hero is introduced into the frame, it is clear who they are. You could argue that the Hollywood filming process itself immediately imparts a certain amount of warmth and significance automatically, a glamor. This is especially true for Hobbits, as nothing in a dramatic close-up reveals someone’s size.
But looking at what is causing this moderate heat in the the Lord of the Rings the movies are less interesting than seeing what that subdued heat does to them. On the one hand, it brings Hobbits closer to humans. Boromir training the Hobbits doesn’t sound patronizing. The same goes for Aragorn imparting wisdom to the Hobbits. Merry and Eowyn can share enough connection that there are dozens of fics on AO3 and fanfiction.net forwarding them.
But this association is so strong that the awe-inspiring human stories in the films fall flat because they ostensibly exclude the Hobbits. Some human characters like Denethor and Wormtongue are less human than the Hobbits, and maybe that’s meant to be Point, but when Point is your reaction to the superficial qualities of a character, it’s not really a Point. These episodes simply underscore not only the value of the Hobbits’ rustic virtue, but also their worth as heroes.
And yet, the non-Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy treat Frodo, Pippin, Merry, and Sam as if they were emerging from a dirty, dirty, wet hole in the ground. They are fired for their size, cultural tendencies and inexperience. Depreciated, one might say, because of the narcissism of small differences. Visually, nothing separates them from the other characters who are given credit for their heroic choices, but the story presents them as children wandering far from home.
Aragorn bowing to the Hobbits on his own coronation is meant to be a surprise on some level. This catharsis – the Hobbits finally get their due – might work in another movie, but here it feels like the audience is being put in the place of the assembled sympathizers. Maybe that’s because the Hobbits just sit there, embarrassed, unlike the music and sentimentality that swells. Our emotional experience oscillates between their feelings and what we are told to feel. The Hobbits turn in on themselves, and the moment falls flat, too much and too little at the same time.
This is the movie that tries to play both ways: Hobbits can wear the hit visuals of heroism, but they can’t be proclaimed as such. It would undermine their identity as rustic men and the humble virtues Tolkien wanted to boast about. It’s a kind of double link “you don’t know you’re beautiful”. Maybe Tolkien got off so easily by bestowing an overdetermined fate on his genetically engineered protagonists because the world he created was so fresh and different from ours. The fantasy of a Hollywood movie is more prosaic and our expectations of reality collapse.
Hotness connotes something, damn it. We all know what that entails, at least in a movie. I’d like to see a Hobbit who owns it, you know? Their warmth or their simplicity. A bit of self-esteem that shows they know each other about as well as they know how to survive the machinations of a malicious demigod. Well-calibrated self-esteem is not common in the Lord of the Rings, a movie or a text, but it’s essential if you want to try to learn from it.
If you have to believe that greatness is in people you wouldn’t expect, then you have to believe that they are great people. They are what they do, and they wouldn’t do what they do if they didn’t think they could do it. Frodo didn’t say he would wear the Ring in Mordor because he was hot, but he didn’t say it because he was humble either.