A.I

Lord of the Rings’ hobbits are almost too hot to make sense

It’s likely that very mundane forces led to the Hobbits in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings being more-or-less hot. A major Hollywood movie isn’t going to rest itself on the pudgy, childish shoulders of Ralph Bakshi’s Hobbits or any of the similar depictions. For a movie, you have to gussy the main heroes up, at least, make them leaner, even more elfin. Save the classic Hobbit features for the various background characters and lovable beta Samwise Gamgee. It’s how big movies work: Good people are pretty and pretty people are good, unless they are bad.

Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin stand at an intersection as Hobbit-heroes. In comparison to the rest of the Fellowship, they’re strange, but in comparison to other Hobbits, they are noble. The audience takes both perspectives, learning through the text and themes that heroism comes from the smallest of places, but they’re eased into an opposite belief at the same time: These Hobbits could only be heroes because of how they look.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.

The fact is that, for the majority of the time they’ve been on the page, hobbits have been unremarkable, looks-wise, and Tolkien delighted in it. “Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful,” he wrote in the prologue of The Lord of the Rings. He even identified himself as “a Hobbit in all but size.” He had the same homebody mindset, enjoyment of life’s small comforts, and physical portliness that he attributed to Hobbits. On the other hand, I have not seen John Ronald Reuel’s feet, but something tells me they are not leathery and covered in thick, curly head-hair.

Beauty is strongly racialized in Tolkien’s universe. (As on Earth, so it is in Middle-Earth.) Elves are astonishingly beautiful, and humans can go either way. In terms of looks, Hobbits are regularly contrasted with Dwarves — less “stout and stocky,” less bearded, and more closely related to humans. Tolkien connected Dwarves explicitly to Jews. “The dwarves of course are quite obviously, wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?” he once said in a 1971 interview, “Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic. The Hobbits are just rustic English people.” It’s hard not to see this as another parallel between Lord of the Rings and Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung; its Dwarf characters have long been noted as tacitly reflecting Wagner’s intellectualized anti-Semitism.

Tolkien has also been described by his biographer as holding an active disgust with Wagner and with attempts to interpret Norse myths as Nazi propaganda, and once excoriated a prospective German publisher of The Hobbit that wanted to know if he was pure Aryan descent, writing in a 1938 letter, “If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” It’s complicated, in short, but the othering quality of how Tolkien dealt with these differences tip the sympathies towards Hobbits above all others.

In Tolkien’s work, Dwarves are meant to be different, not fully alien but not fully human, while Hobbits, despite their fuzzy feet, are the good-ol’ boys. Unlike the Dwarves, the central Hobbits are never ridiculed, and, except for a few of Frodo’s most miserable moments, the central Hobbits are never pitied. (Even Bilbo, after being tempted by the Ring in Rivendell, elicits 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 northerly Fallohides like them as tall, rare, artistic, close to the Elves, and apt to rule over clans of other branches of the Hobbit family tree. Of course, they are also more adventurous.

Tolkien founds the source of Hobbit valor not in their rational faculties or the essential vitality that unites all of us, but in their specific ancestry. Harfoot Sam is a hero only insofar as he is hopelessly devoted to Frodo, following a Fallohide as Harfoots are wont to do. Smeagol becomes a central villain only through circumstance and centuries of demonic corruption, and even then he is craven and pathetic rather than imposing. Neither could be more than the points they have been allotted in Tolkien’s character creation process.

The movies take this complicated racial hierarchy and put it on the characters’ faces. The four Hobbits of the movie Fellowship stick out from their Shire surroundings like a boy band in a sea of music video extras. They pop like stars from their very entrances. Frodo is the pure one, Merry is the bad boy (as bad as Hobbits can be), Pippin is the funny one, and Sam is the shy one.

Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin from The Lord of the Rings

Image: New Line Cinema

None are outright heartthrobs, because that would break the illusion of humble origins outright. (It probably wouldn’t work with the haircuts either.) But by the time they’re hiding from the Nazgul among tree roots, the audience sees them in a perfect Rembrandt huddle, their dynamic established. And even though they are touched by the people they meet and the experiences they undergo, the Hobbits don’t really change much. In the end, they are honored for who they have always been rather than for who they have become.

None of this heroic anointment is really surprising — it’s just how blockbuster visual media works, even when ordinariness is important to the story. For example, a central aspect of the novel The Queen’s Gambit is how plain the protagonist looks. When adapted for a prestige miniseries, that subplot is dropped in favor of Anya Taylor-Joy starring in it. As soon as the hero is introduced in the frame, it is clear who they are. One might argue that the Hollywood filming process itself immediately confers some amount of hotness and importance automatically, a glamour. This is true for Hobbits especially, as nothing in a dramatic close-up discloses someone’s height.

But looking at what causes this moderate hotness in the Lord of the Rings movies is less interesting than seeing what this moderate hotness does in them. For one, it brings the Hobbits closer to the humans. Boromir training the Hobbits doesn’t look condescending. The same goes for Aragorn imparting wisdom to the Hobbits. Merry and Eowyn can share enough of a connection that there are several dozen fics across AO3 and fanfiction.net that ship them.

But this association is so strong that the movies’ aggrandizing human stories fall flat because they pointedly exclude the Hobbits. Some human characters like Denethor and Wormtongue are less human than Hobbits, and perhaps that’s meant to be The Point, but when The Point is your reaction to a character’s superficial qualities, it’s not much of a Point. These episodes simply emphasize not just the value of the Hobbits’ rustic virtue and but their worthiness as heroes.

And yet, the non-Hobbits of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy treat Frodo, Pippin, Merry, and Sam as if they emerged from a nasty, dirty, wet hole in the ground. They’re dismissed for their height, cultural tendencies, and inexperience. Belittled, one might say, due to the narcissism of small differences. Visually, nothing separates them from other characters afforded sole credit for their heroic choices, but the story casts them as children wandering far from home.

Aragorn bowing to the Hobbits at his own coronation is supposed to be a surprise on some level. This catharsis — the Hobbits finally getting their due — might work in another movie, but here it feels like the audience is put in the shoes of the assembled well-wishers. Perhaps this is because the Hobbits just stand there, embarrassed, in contrast to the swelling music and sentimentality. Our emotional experience vacillates between their feelings and what we are being told to feel. The Hobbits recoil into themselves, and the moment falls flat, too much and too little at the same time.

Merry grins as he puts on a warrior’s helmet in The Return of the King.

Image: New Line Cinema

This is the movie trying to have it both ways: The Hobbits can carry the blockbuster visuals of heroism but they can’t be proclaimed as such. That would undermine their identities as rustic everymen and the humble virtues Tolkien wanted to extol. It’s a “you don’t know you’re beautiful” kind of double-bind. Perhaps Tolkien so easily gets away with bestowing an overdetermined destiny 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 from reality come crashing in.

Hotness connotes something, dang it. We all know what it connotes, at least in a movie. I’d like to see a Hobbit who owns it, you know? Their hotness or their plainness. Some modicum of self-regard that shows that they know themselves roughly as well as they know how to survive the machinations of a malevolent demigod. A well-calibrated self-regard isn’t common in Lord of the Rings, film or text, but it’s vital if you’re going to try to learn from it.

If you are to believe that greatness resides in people you wouldn’t expect, then you’d have to believe that they are great people. They are what they do, and they wouldn’t do what they do unless they thought they could do it. Frodo didn’t say that he would carry the Ring to Mordor because he was hot, but he also didn’t say it because he was humble.

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