Humility in Tolkien

Tolkien is once again much discussed; not necessarily his work directly, but at least the name is in focus.

A good moment, I think, to speak of one bright thread running through his works – and which behooves us gamers to take to heart: Humility.

Humility in Tolkien’s work has ever stood out, at least for me, and I am always surprised when someone does not see it or outright denies it, as there are example after example throughout the ages when those who aspire to reach high must fail and fall, while those who are content with their station and with doing the tasks before them excel.

One striking example are the ringbearers.

Humble ringbearers

Frodo, right from the start of the journey, even before reaching Bree, has trouble to handle the thing in any rational matter. In every stressful situation he is tempted to stick it on his finger. When he does follow this impulse and put it on, he suffers consequences. Many readers say it is the weight of the ring that asserts its power … but it does so extremely fast.

Sam wears the ring for quite a long time, on his finger even, without interruption, uses its powers to overcome the orcs, and then, when Frodo demands that he return the item, he does so without hesitation, as if it was just some random thing. We can conclude that had Frodo died and Sam been forced to bring the ring up to Mount Doom, he would have just chucked the item into the magma pit and turned around to go home instead of struggling with himself and with half-crazed cave-dwellers.

Sam’s superpower

In my opinion, this is a sign and result of Sam’s down-to-earth aspirations. He does not want to be a friend of Kings or marry a princess, he does not want to win a war. He just wants to marry the girl next door and live a normal life and do his job. Such a person with such humble goals is impossible, or at least difficult to corrupt.

I am aware that my opinion here is not uncontested.
Other Tolkien-readers I have spoken to have expressed a different reading, namely that either Sam is not in contact with the ring long enough, or that Sauron was distracted by the combat going on in Gondor, or that Sam is just too dumb. (Obviously I disagree)

Bilbo unites the two approaches — high aspirations and humility — in one person: as a young happy-go-lucky “master thief” he can wear the ring and everything is fine. As an old, well-off member of the prestige class of the Shire who wants to become an author of renown, he has trouble to let go. Of course it is possible to ascribe the easy ways of his younger days with the smaller amount of lore and worldbuilding that was present in “There and Back Again”, so this example is a bit shaky.

Lucky for me, there are others.

Humble Powerhouses

Like Gandalf himself: As the Maiar are chosen to go to Middle Earth, the one who steps forward as a volunteer, thinks of himself as the ideal choice, and claims the title of “Master of the Order”, is Saruman, the one who fails most miserably in his task. The others who volunteer also lose their way (at least as far as we know. The Blue Wizards may potentially do tremendous good wherever they went, east and offscreen as they did, but let us for the moment assume that they follow their own interests and forgot about the reason they went to the lands of mortals).

Gandalf, on the other hand, did not volunteer. He felt he was not good enough or strong enough, and that others would be much better suited to the task. He is humble to the point of imposter syndrome. And that is the one person who finishes the job. Not only finishes it but finishes it in the intended way: By empowering the humans instead of grandiosely engaging in a mighty wizard duel with Sauron.

Because let’s not forget that Sauron himself is also a Maiar. Gandalf and he are cut from the same cloth. They even both feature fire as their element. (The classic unity of opposites!) They stand on an even footing, and yet, the difference can hardly be more striking.

Humble Gods

To go all Christian for a moment, Morgoth, or Melkor, much like Earth’s Lucifer, rebels against Illúvatar, weaves his own melodies into the creation of the world and sows discord. He lives apart from the “good boy” Valar and makes trouble, as he sees Middle Earth as HIS domain to rule. It is said that in Tolkien’s earliest notes his name was slightly different so that it meant “Greed” in Quenya – which I can’t attest to but find plausible.

He is allowed to do a lot of damage before he is finally smote down and thrown out into the Void.

By contrast, those gods with a small g who accept their role as wardens of Middle Earth, as stewards who represent the law of one greater than they, Illúvatar, keep doing their job keeping Middle Earth on course. Note here that Middle Earth does not even have a religion: Gondor, Anor, and whatnot, they have no temples, no churches, no priests and no spiritual leaders: These “gods”/High Angels are content to keep the world turning in tune with the song, without recognition from elves or mortals.

Humble Stonecutters

Thorin Oakenshield was an inspiration to the Dwarves as long as he was a landless prince who tried to get by and help others. In that way he attracted loyal followers and true friends. He was worthy. When he became King under the Mountain (= super rich) his personality tilted heavily and he became hostile and unyielding (not without reason! After all, suddenly everyone wanted to take a share of his treasure, even the wood elves who had been more hindrance than help along the way. Still, even being right and defending what was his, he lost sympathy points). Until he managed to shake off the greed and caught himself, went out to put his life on the line without expecting any payout. Yes, he died, but he died redeemed, with his honour restored, a worthy hero … by letting gold and glory take a back seat and simply helping his friends.

Not so humble gemcutters

Yet another example are the elves as a whole, who were quite fine as long as they were happy to just live in the presence of the Valar. It was when one of them created shiny baubles and desired to own them exclusively that they began to slaughter each other and burn ships in their frantic desire to take something for their own that did not belong to them. Up until Feanor, they had created things, but just in a humble desire to add beauty to the world. Feanor’s desire to be identified as the best was his own undoing, and others’ desire to take what he had made and make it their own, that brought suffering to the elven people overall. One moment you are cutting gems, the next your relatives are burning each others’ ships and leave one another out in the wilds to starve.

The solution would have been so simple: Let Feanor have his shiny crystals, and just make other beautiful things. Reject presents that seem too good to be true. Be content with who you are.

Two Crowns

Denethor, Steward of the mightiest country of the west, Gondor, indulging in luxury, is clinging to his power and locks himself up in the highest tower. Here he loses his sanity and is willing to kill his own son and die by his own hand to avoid disgrace and suffering.

Theoden King, ruler of the Horsemen in the humble steppe, rides in front of his man, ready and willing to die for and with them, and gives up his very life. And he does not even fight for his own territory, but for a neighbour. He is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to honor ancient pacts and help others, who come after him, to win their freedom.

Two Brothers

In another striking opposition stand Boromir and Faramir, two brothers, and both good dudes at heart. But one wants to take the chance to lend a boost of power to his land by using the dark item. He is still a noble man: he wants to take the power for the good of the country, not for himself.

Not good enough! Not pure enough! He fails, even though he recognizes his fault in his last moments.

The other one believes that such weighty decisions like the use or non-use of ultimate weapons should best be made by wiser minds than his own. He learns of the background of the ring and has the very same impulse his brother felt: Bring it to dad. These brothers are so very similar, but still, one is more humble than the other. He does not grab it. He does not even want to use it. He keeps listening, is and remains aware that ultimate weapons can never truly do good, and lets it go.

Greedy Numenorians

Numenor was the mightiest Land of the West. It ruled over all of Tolkien’s Europe-ish lands of Westernesse. They began their ascent by being true friends to the Elves, bringing progress and aid to the lands, and following the rules of the Valar. They were even graced by communication with the Valar!

Then it started to slide when they became more strict as rulers instead of friends, and when they colonized Harad and mistreated the people there. Details are sparse, but they are sufficient to understand where the foundations for the later hate between Gondor and Harad are to be found.

And even then, were they content with ruling all the known world except Khand and Rhun in the east?

Of course not!

They desired to be more than rulers of the world, they desired to be gods.

We know how that ended: With a round world, a Numenor at the bottom of the sea, and an Aman that cannot be reached by any future fleet, except for elven ships travelling out and away from Middle Earth.

Galadriel vs. Saruman

Galadriel stands out especially, because she is all alone with the ringbearer and he is ready to give her the treasure. She could be overlord, a leader of the good, even a feminist icon for being a female leader of all Westernesse. For a Queen, this is not too much to ask. It would be folly for a scullery maid to want to lead the free world, but one who is already immortal, has witnessed aeons of life and radical changes to the landscape, for one who knows more than almost anyone else in Middle Earth, it would not be such a big step to take the crown of everything.

But she does not.

She refuses to break the ceiling and outright states that she will diminish, and remain Galadriel. She chooses to be less than she could: Very un-modern, very humble, and the core of what makes her shine brighter than the others around her.

Not so Saruman (brought up twice now as an example for bad behaviour, the poor fellow).
He too is an immortal beacon, the wisest and grandest of the Ishtari, by all intents and purposes an Angel walking the lands of mortals, and even among them called a leader. In that manner he enjoys a comparable status to that of Galadriel: not a King, and not used to commanding whole peoples like she, but still one of the maybe top 5 denizens of Middle Earth. So he can compare to her.
And he does not want to diminish like Galadriel, or even play the background support for mere mortals like Gandalf. He wants to be revered and praised. He wants to be seen and revered. And so, against his will, he is diminished, and looked upon as lesser, while Galadriel, ready to fade into the background, remains beloved.

Service over Glory

None of these people are perfect. All of them make mistakes. All of them are found by loss and tragedy and get hurt. But those who try to be special and wonderful, they fail to be just that.

Those who are content being themselves, they may be scoffed at for being “dumb” by readers far away, but they embody, as I read it, the great theme of Tolkien’s work: A theme that values giving over taking, enabling over commanding, sacrifice over triumph, and humble service over seeking center stage.

Learning opportunities

In some small ways, this theme of Tolkien’s works is also inspirational for gamers. Good roleplaying groups work on some of these principles too: By sharing spotlight, enabling fellow players to contribute, cooperation in-game and at the table, and even by accepting and embracing failure in the evolving narrative.



Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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