Study Guide

The Fellowship of the Ring Race

By J.R.R. Tolkien


The Harfoots had much to do with Dwarves in ancient times and long lived in the foothills of the mountains. [...] They were the most normal and representative variety of Hobbit, and far the most numerous. They were the most inclined to settle in one place and longest preserved their ancestral habit of living in tunnels and holes.

The Stoors lingered long by the banks of the Great River Anduin, and were less shy of Men. They came west after the Harfoots and followed the course of the Loudwater southwards, and there many of them long dwelt between Tharbad and the borders of Dunland before they moved north again.

The Fallohides, the least numerous, were a northerly branch. They were more friendly with Elves than the other Hobbits were and had more skill in language and song than in handicrafts; and of old they preferred hunting to tilling. (Prologue.1.9-11)

This type of fake scholarly introduction, with lots of rich details about the origins of the people under discussion (the Hobbits) is absolutely typical of Tolkien's style. His trademark is his skill with world creation: he is incredibly obsessive about background detail, and he loves providing histories and genealogies for all of the fictional peoples he creates for <em>Lord of the Rings</em>. It must be the Oxford professor in him coming out.

The genealogical trees at the end of the Red Book of Westmarch are a small book in themselves, and all but Hobbits would find them exceedingly dull. Hobbits delighted in such things, if they were accurate: they liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions. (Prologue.1.23)

We get plenty of suggestions that Hobbits as a people are (to put it kindly) unimaginative, and (to put it cruelly) stupid. This is the flip side of their extremely peaceful natures: they are also self-satisfied, self-centered, and generally suspicious of anything new or inventive. Hobbits love studying "things that they already [know], set out fair and square with no contradictions." But avoiding contradictions sometimes also means avoiding broader truths. Much of the <em>Lord of the Rings</em> is dedicated to the difficult choices that arise in the fight between good and evil. Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam have to leave the Shire to learn these lessons; that's because the Shire, for all of its positive qualities, also resists both change and ambiguity.

The singing drew nearer. One clear voice rose now above the others. It was singing in the fair elven-tongue, of which Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood. This was the song as Frodo heard it:

<em>Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!</em> (1.3.117)

When Bilbo first encounters the Elves in Rivendell, he knows them not by sight (since they're hidden by trees), but by sound: the whole valley is full of Elves singing. And Frodo and Bilbo, the two Hobbits most associated with Elves, are also the Hobbits most likely to burst into song at any moment. The Elves' love of singing associates them with poetry and stories: the verbal arts. And since J.R.R. Tolkien was a scholar of Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English sagas and ballads, we know he loves words. No wonder he seems to admire the Elves so particularly: they are the poets of Middle-earth.

Gildor was silent for a moment. "I do not like this news," he said at last. "That Gandalf should be late, does not bode well. But it is said: <em>Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.</em> The choice is yours: to go or wait."

"And it is also said," answered Frodo: "<em>Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes</em>." (1.3.165-6)

All of the peoples of Middle-earth are strictly divided into races: Men, Elves, Wizards, Orcs, etc. And while there is some variation within these groups (High Elves vs. Wood Elves, the Orcs of Isengard vs. the Orcs of Mordor), they are mostly alike. There appears to be much less variation among the different kinds of Hobbits (Stoors, Fallohides, and Harfoots) than there is within different human races. Why do you think this is?

The Big Folk and the Little Folk (as they called one another) were on friendly terms, minding their own affairs in their own ways, but both rightly regarding themselves as necessary parts of the Bree-folk. Nowhere else in the world was this peculiar (but excellent) arrangement to be found. (1.9.4)

The Fellowship of the Ring is unusual because it brings together Dwarves, men, Elves, and, of course, Hobbits. We get the sense that there isn't much (peaceful) mixing among the peoples of Middle-earth. Sure, the Elves are happy to host visitors at Rivendell, but you don't find Dwarves living there unless they absolutely have to. In fact, peaceful coexistence between peoples in the same village is so unusual that it is worth pointing out: the narrator observes that Bree has a "peculiar (but excellent) arrangement" in which men and Hobbits live together. Why do you think Dwarves, Elves, men, and Hobbits don't usually share land? Under what circumstances do they have to? What do these difficulties tell us about Tolkien's conception of race in Middle-earth?

"No one lives in this land. Men once dwelt here, ages ago; but none remains now. They became an evil people, as legends tell, for they fell under the shadow of Angmar. But all were destroyed in the war that brought the North Kingdom to its end. But that is now so long ago that the hills have forgotten them, though a shadow still lies on the land."

"Where did you learn such tales, if all the land is empty and forgetful?" asked Peregrin. "The birds and beasts do not tell tales of that sort."

"The heirs of Elendil do not forget all things past," said Strider; "and many more things than I can tell are remembered in Rivendell." (1.9.30-2)

There's this sense of collective memory in <em>Lord of the Rings</em>: not only does the landscape itself carry the ruins of previous kingdoms and peoples, but the "heirs of Elendil do not forget all things past." In other words, stories get passed down family lines. And of course, a lot of the Elves have living memories of the oldest days of Middle-earth. Tom Bombadil can remember a time even before the Elves and men of Middle-earth, and the trees of the Old Forest recall when the forests ruled the world. There's this fantastic sense of layers upon layers of history, bound up in architecture, ruins, cultural memory, and family tales. That's what gives Tolkien's world so much depth: he doesn't just populate it with interesting folk and cool places. He also gives each of these peoples their own memories, tales, and history.

"For I have become very fond of Strider. Well, <em>fond</em> is not the right word. I mean he is dear to me; though he is strange, and grim at times. In fact, he reminds me often of you. I didn't know that any of the Big People were like that. I thought, well, that they were just big, and rather stupid: kind and stupid like Butterbur; or stupid and wicked like Bill Ferny. But then we don't know much about Men in the Shire, except perhaps the Breelanders." (2.1.25)

The Hobbits often seem a bit ridiculous to us, with their intense suspicion of strangers and their insistence on tradition and respectability. So it's nice to see that Big People look equally ridiculous to Hobbits: either "kind and stupid like Butterbur; or stupid and wicked like Bill Ferny." As wise as Frodo is, he needs to learn to get over his prejudices about the other races of Middle-earth as much as anybody does.

Many Elves and many mighty Men, and many of their friends, had perished in the war. Anárion was slain, and Isildur was slain; and Gil-galad and Elendil were no more. Never again shall there be any such league of Elves and Men; for Men multiply and the Firstborn decrease, and the two kindreds are estranged. And ever since that day the race of Númenor has decayed, and the span of their years has lessened. (2.2.39)

As Elrond recounts the first war against Sauron and the deeds of the Last Alliance, he muses that Middle-earth will never see another alliance like the last one, now that the Elves are fading away and men are becoming more numerous but weaker. In addition to the fact that there are several distinct races in Middle-earth, these races also seem to be at different stages of development from each other. The Elves live longer than men do, but they are dying out. Men are not as good as Elves, but they are younger and there are more of them. Where the Dwarves and Hobbits fit into this timeline is unclear: why don't the Dwarves get to take dominion over Middle-earth? Will Hobbits ever hold the position of prominence that Elves currently have over Middle-earth?

"It was not the fault of the Dwarves that the friendship waned," said Gimli.

"I have not heard it was the fault of the Elves," said Legolas.

"I have heard both," said Gandalf; "and I will not give judgement now. But I beg you two, Legolas and Gimli, at least to be friends, and to help me. I need you both. The doors are shut and hidden, and the sooner we find them the better. Night is at hand." (2.4.76-8)

As representatives of their different races, Legolas and Gimli become like the Odd Couple of Middle-earth: they could not be more different, but they grow to be the best of friends. At the same time, there is some ambiguity in Tolkien's representation of these races: he claims that, in the olden days, Elves and Dwarves were the best of friends and that was a good thing. At the same time, there is very little blurring of lines among the cultures of, say, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits in Middle-earth; Tolkien strictly maintains the boundaries between his invented races. Men can pass among a bunch of different peoples: Aragorn lives in the Elf stronghold of Rivendell, and the men and Hobbits of Bree cohabit happily. But these are the exceptions to the rule that each of the peoples in Tolkien-land has its own place.

Frodo sat and shivered in his wraps. He was thankful that they had not been caught on the ground; but he felt that the trees offered little protection, except concealment. Orcs were as keen as hounds on a scent, it was said, but they could also climb. He drew out Sting: it flashed and glittered like a blue flame; and then slowly faded again and grew dull. (2.6.102)

In this scene, Frodo is sitting in the trees of Lothlórien hiding from Orcs. Now, the Orcs are a creation of Mordor, so they are naturally evil. But we still find it interesting that the different races of Tolkien's Middle-earth have different intrinsic moral value. The Elves are good people, men are okay (but changeable), and Orcs are evil. What do you think of this? Would it be possible to imagine a good Orc? Could an Orc overcome its heritage to join with the Elves, for example? Or the Dwarves? Where does free will fit into Tolkien's moral structure?