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Heroic Tales and Hobbits

Heroic Tales and Hobbits by Clint Stevens


In the first essay of Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye presents five levels of representation found in literature:

1. The Hero is a divine being. His tale is what we call a myth.

2. The Hero is superhuman: “prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him.” Typically this hero operates in a world that we would describe as fantastic—having such things as trolls and magic wands and rooms without doors.

3. The Hero is superior to us but not superhuman. Frye defines this as the high mimetic mode.

4. The Hero in the low mimetic mode is one of us.

5. The Hero in the ironic mode is below us in power and intelligence. We look down on him just as we look down on Homer Simpson.


A central characteristic of Tolkien’s mode of representation in The Lord of the Rings is that all his representations are level 3 or higher with the exception of the hobbits (and Sméagol). That said, by the end of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry have all moved to the high mimetic mode. When they return to the Shire, they are great men—I mean hobbits—though very few of their folk can comprehend that. It’s worth noting that in the tales constituting The Silmarillion, we see no representation below level 2.

High mimesis is a characteristic of old tales. Our culture is, and has been for a long time, far more comfortable with low and ironic representations of characters and environments. Our typical reaction is to feel something phony in non-ironic representations of greatness. Aragorn really is a great man. There is nothing funny or ironic in him; we are supposed to take his greatness seriously. Without a doubt, many critics have seen something regressive in Tolkien’s mode of representation. We are far more comfortable tearing down heroes than building them up. We live in an ironic age; our representations should be ironic.

Of course, Tolkien was fully aware of this. And it is likely that the wonders of his created world would have already faded into obscurity had he not come up with a totally unexpected solution to the problem. His solution was a hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins who lived in a very comfortable hole in the ground called Bag End in Hobbiton, a village of the Shire. Hobbiton was just off the Great East Road, which led to Imladris and beyond.

Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle Earth and JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century discusses how the creation of Bilbo Baggins bridged the gap between the ordinary, common, low reality that we are accustomed to and the world of high fantasy so characteristic of the realms of Arda. Bilbo, like all the hobbits, though living in Middle-earth, seems very familiar to us, and by his entry into the world beyond his borders, we enter too. His exaltation becomes ours.


Clint Stevensclint.jpg

Clint Stevens lives in Southern Illinois with his wife, two children, a dog, cat, two goats, and, currently, eight chickens. When not teaching writing and literature at Kaskaskia College, he can be found outdoors dreaming of Entwives and Entings.



About reuben

Steve, also known as “Rifflo”, is a University MBA Administrator in Ontario Canada where he lives with his wife, Lisa and two young daughters, Alexa and Ava. Steve has an extensive background in corporate sales. Steve also worked for ISAF: International Security Assistance Force and the Canadian Military as a recruiter in Human Resources for the operations in Bosnia and Afghanistan. When not immersed in Tolkien works,sci-fi, and film, you can find him training in Muay Thai, and Italian rapier.