Happy Hobbit Day to One and All! For those of you who are not in the know, September 22 is known as Hobbit Day because it happens to be the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the main characters from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, respectively. Considering that both characters live out the rest of their lives as writers, it behooves us to look a little more closely.
Now, I know those of you who are not fans of Tolkien’s more famous works are wondering how in the world I am going to equate writing to a furry-footed fantasy humanoid who has been highly publicized in recent years once again from yet another round of movies. Bear with me.
All writers face some common challenges at one point or another as they work their craft. For instance, there is a tendency to think that you either aren’t good enough or that you’ve started too late. There’s also a tendency to not take care of ourselves, or to suffer burnout because we won’t take a break from our end goal. Lastly, there’s a fear, common to everyone, of being excluded or misunderstood and, ultimately, frustrated from lack of advancement. Yet, when we look at the Bilbo and Frodo and their own writing careers, we can find small pearls of wisdom. Bilbo especially models what to do when these challenges face us in the real world—be there dragons or grumpy dwarves.
- If you think you aren’t good enough, carry on anyway.
Bilbo has many moments of doubt in his very long journey with the dwarves. From the very beginning of The Hobbit, Tolkien takes pains to tell us that hobbits, Bilbo’s family especially, never did anything out of the ordinary for a hobbit. They lived up to everyone’s expectations and always did what was expected of them in hobbit society. Bilbo was what we would probably call “sheltered” he knew there were dangers in the world, but he, like the rest of his folk (as Frodo and Gandalf discuss in The Fellowship of the Ring) preferred to mind their own business within the bound of their own land. Bilbo was not cut out for having adventures. This is noted in several places by his fellow dwarves who say he looks more like a grocer. Now, keep in mind being a grocer in the Shire is probably not the same as being a grocer in 21st century America.
The dwarves’ comment turns out to have more far-reaching effects than anticipated because it goads Bilbo, to a certain extent, into action. He starts doing things he never expected he would do—like trying to pickpocket trolls, talking to dragons, stealing out from behind the dwarves’ defenses to give Bard leverage to negotiate with Thorin. He never thinks he’s quite good enough, however. He always thinks it’s going to turn out a disaster and there’s a constant wish he was at home again. Yet, for all that, he not only lives to tell the tale, but he lives to write a book on the whole thing.
What’s the lesson? You are fulfilling a purpose somewhere even if you don’t think you’re that good. In Bilbo’s case, he ends up saving the dwarves from the spiders, saves them from the dungeons of the Elf-king, and, because of his pity towards Gollum, end up saving Middle-Earth itself. He never aspired to be anything but a hobbit—nothing more than he was.
I think here too, a word needs to be said on age and the feeling that it’s too late. I know I struggle with this myself. Did I wait too long? Am I too late? Am I just being pathetic? Bilbo and Frodo were both 50 when they started out on their adventures. 50, mind. Not 35, not 40: 50. Was it too late for either of them? Did they allow age to get in their way?
No, they didn’t. Age wasn’t even a consideration. It was for Bilbo by the time The Lord of the Rings rolls around and he’s in his 100’s. But with Frodo and Bilbo are in their 50’s it’s not even a blip on the screen. This is another lesson for us as writer. It’s never too late to go on an adventure. It’s never too late to start over again and try something new or to retry something old. It’s not too late. So, if you are a writer who’s having these negative thoughts because you think it’s “too late,” be more like a hobbit and go on your adventure, pick up that pen and start writing. Learn new skills and set off into the great unknown. Work on your self-talk. Chances are, like Bilbo and Frodo, you aren’t going to be alone. You will have friends along the way whether they go with you or are met along the road.
2. Do not suffer needlessly, or just to prove a point.
Throughout The Hobbit and indeed The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits are noted for their seeming preoccupation with comfort, food, and drink: the pleasures of hearth and home. Bilbo, throughout The Hobbit, longs for his own chair by his own fireside. Indeed, if you read the food the dwarves demand of him in “An Unexpected Party,” it’s a long list of English comfort foods, pretty much. Some of them most people are familiar with. Others, not so much. I myself am familiar with pork pies, mince pies, and seed cake, but not everyone else is, I understand. So, I included a picture of the pork pies I made to show you.
It’s all well and good to reach for lofty goals and to have ambitions, but at the end of the day, you do have to consider the practical necessities of life. You still have to eat, you still have to have water to drink, and you still have to make your way in the world. What’s the use of starving, isolating, and flagellating yourself if, at the end, it’s just going to make everyone a lot more miserable? If you’re stuck, stop. Have a snack. Brew some tea or coffee. Relax. Take a break. You’ll feel better once you do.
When I consider this point, I think in particular of the workaholic culture in the United States. Sacrifice, save, don’t take a day off, don’t take a sick day, don’t call out, don’t spend enough time with yourself let along your family and friends. Work hard, play harder. Go until you burn out. When you aren’t working, volunteer, be a good citizen, be a good neighbor, be the parent who does it all, be the student with straight A’s and full activity calendar, be active in the community. What has all of that gotten everyone? No sleep, poor dietary choices, lack of connection with our families and, worst of all, lack of connection with ourselves and our spiritual nature. One of the best things to come from the Great Resignation and the pandemic overall is there is finally some attention getting paid to the fact that everyone is overworked and overtired. A year and a half of lockdowns have done us good beyond just feeble attempts at controlling the spread of a virus.
As a writer, what does this mean? It means take breaks, enjoy good food, enjoy that walk you want to take in the evenings, enjoy the glass of wine (if you imbibe), or make yourself that mocktail recipe you’ve always wanted to try. Don’t work yourself into a frenzy over things you cannot control. Don’t volunteer if you are already tired. Don’t put one more thing on your plate if you feel like it’s all you can do to keep going during the day. Take value in good wholesome food cooked at home and eaten mindfully. What’s one of the Bilbo’s everlasting questions in The Hobbit? What about food?
When he’s at his lowest point: in the depths of the Misty Mountains. What does he reach for? His pipe and tobacco. He doesn’t have any food, but he has at least one pleasure left to him, and he turns to it. Why can you not do the same? It doesn’t have to be pipe tobacco; it can be as simple as drinking some water. It can be as elaborate as a tea party for one.
Take care of your visceral needs—don’t put them off for the sake of working hard, playing harder. Allow yourself that consideration. The hobbits certainly don’t stint themselves on that point and they end up being the heartiest of the bunch. Moreover, they aren’t afraid to share it with their friends—to show hospitality. So, invite a friend over, take some tea, and have a little company and conversation before tackling the next problem.
3. Do not fear the opinions of the less worthy.
In The Lord of the Rings, one of the hobbits we meet is Ted Sandyman, the miller’s son. He is one of the chief gossipers from what we can gather, and he certainly doesn’t have anything good to say about the Baggins clan. The Sackville-Baggins clan ends up being one of the chief mischief-makers in the Shire while the events of The Lord of the Rings are happening in the outside world, and they too have a very low opinion of Bilbo and Frodo. We also know from the books that both Bilbo and Frodo are considered very odd and not quite as respectable as they were before Bilbo’s great adventure in The Hobbit.
In other words, both Bilbo and Frodo were someone outsiders. They were very generous as a rule, as can be told when Hamfast Gamgee, Sam’s father, tries to put down as many rumors as he can and thinks Frodo selling Bag End is the worst thing that could possibly happen. Does this affect either Bilbo or Frodo? No, it doesn’t. For one, hobbits, unlike humans, are a much more live-and-let-live lot. That two are slightly outside the norm doesn’t bother them all that much. This in itself is a lesson in keeping your nose out of other people’s business in the first place—something which post-modern social media-crazed society can much benefit from.
More importantly, Bilbo and Frodo aren’t bothered by their lack of popularity. They don’t even mind that what they are writing concerning hobbits in the events of the War of the Ring may not have much of an audience amongst their own people. Hobbits, according to Tolkien’s essay on the topic, general preferred family lore of a genealogical nature to writing entire histories of things outside the Shire. They do not care for the opinions of the likes of Ted Sandyman or the Sackville-Baggins’. They care about the people themselves, but not their opinions.
What can we learn here? There is a different between not caring for someone’s opinion and not caring for the person expressing that opinion. Too often, even as writers, we cannot separate the opinion from the person or the work from the writer. Are the two able to be separated? Yes, I think they can be. You can, for instance, disagree most voraciously with someone and still not want them to come to harm. You may think their opinion is not worth the air used to utter it, but it doesn’t mean you wish them dead. Bilbo and Frodo may not care for these people’s opinions, but Frodo nevertheless takes care of his Aunt Lobelia Sackville-Baggins as much as he can when she’s freed from prison upon his return to the Shire. Most importantly, neither Bilbo nor Frodo allow these people’s opinions to stop them from either writing their memoirs or living their lives as they wished. Their friends they care about, and care about very deeply and both seek advice from the people they respect. But they do not give one minute’s audience to the opinions of the people who they know don’t have their best interests at heart—the less worthy if you will.
As writers in a day and age when criticism can be especially vicious, it can be tempting to either remain silent or to sensor yourself. Of course, we should all be mindful of what we say and to whom manners are manners after all but there’s a fine line between minding your manners and purposefully writing in a way not true to yourself just because someone else doesn’t like it.
If you have received severe criticism as a writer, was it constructive? Well-reasoned? Will it help you improve your craft? If not, if it was just out of malice, spite, ignorance, or just for the sake of stirring up trouble where there isn’t any, don’t take it to heart. Keep writing in a way which expresses your own experiences, and which can help people with their own struggles. Don’t crucify them for expressing their opinions, but if they are intent on crucifying you, don’t give in. Your art is worth more than the opinions of people who don’t have your best intentions at heart—even if they claim just the opposite. Shakespeare was called vicious names in his day, and he’s survived all his critics and naysayers. No one reads Robert Greene, but everyone reads Shakespeare.
Bilbo and Frodo may have suffered nothing like what we are seeing now in the public sphere, but their resilience and their renown amongst the wise and the great should be an encouragement to all writers.
So, when you are writing, embrace your inner hobbit. Don’t be afraid of starting out late, don’t be afraid of learning new things or going on new adventures. Eat the good food, get a long night’s rest, indulge in the simple pleasures of table and hearthside. Most importantly, don’t let anyone else make you less than you are. Take instruction from the wise but do not allow pettiness or maliciousness bring you down.