Last week, I discussed the nature of negative mimesis and its relationship with Sauron’s Ring of Power. Sauron’s Ring is just another link in the chain of negative desire, which reaches from Morgoth himself down through Sauron, and from there effects many other characters including Saruman, Denethor, Gríma Wormtongue, Gollum, and all the servants of the Enemy. Each of these characters is drawn into negative mimesis with the person or persons above them in the chain, regardless of the goodness (or not) of their intentions. Yet, as I mentioned last week, not everyone is so bound by negative desire. Some of those who come in contact with the Ring are long able to withstand it. Take, for instance, hobbits.
Hobbits are able to resist Sauron’s power in the Ring longer than even the strongest Man of Gondor. Boromir falls to the temptation of the Ring before the Fellowship has scarcely left Lothlórien, while Frodo carries it to the very Cracks of Doom before the desire to possess this powerful object completely takes hold of him. How is this possible? Do hobbits simply possess an inherent magic that makes the Ring less appealing? Are they, due to natural features of character, more resistant to Sauron’s corruption?
This is where a further understanding of mimetic theory comes into play. It isn’t character features alone (though these are also important), and it definitely isn’t magic, that enables the hobbits to resist the Ring. Alongside the reality of negative mimesis there is such a thing as positive desire, an idea which Girard himself does not explore much in his works, though he does recognize that it must exist. In an interview with Rebecca Adams, Girard discusses these two types of imitation, saying,
[T]he idea that mimetic desire itself is bad makes no sense…I hear this question all the time: ‘Is all desire mimetic?’ Not in the bad, conflictual sense…Wherever you have…that really active, positive desire for the other, there is some kind of divine grace present. (Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with René Girard 23, 25).
The Shire in which the hobbits live is filled with this “active, positive desire,” enabling them to resist the negative mimesis fostered by the Ring to a great degree. This positive, or receptive, mimesis is evident in many aspects of the Shire community, notably the models available for imitation, the objects desired by the hobbits, and the focus on stewardship rather than acquisition or possession.
The Shire is a relatively small community, guarded from evil by the Dúnedain. Hobbits also have very little inclination to travel; even Bree is thought of as a frightening, far-off place to be avoided by all self-respecting Shire-folk. This protection creates a self-contained community that knows its members well, making it nearly impossible for negative models of desire to enter from the outside. Thus, the hobbits must look to their own community for mimetic models. The mimetic mechanism is, in the end, a cycle: because hobbits live in an environment of non-possessive desires, they provide each other with non-possessive models to imitate–the positive models already in place in the Shire foster new models which are also positive, a circle which is not interrupted by negative outside influences due to the seclusion of the Shire.
In addition, the objects of mimetic desire for the hobbits are things which cannot truly be competed for. Tolkien writes that hobbits are an “unobtrusive” people who “love peace and quiet and good tilled earth” (The Lord of the Rings 1). The Shire, a rural agricultural community, has no lack of these. Unless all the hobbits are collectively in danger of running out of an object, a situation which the guardianship of the Dúnedain and the delight the hobbits take in giving render nearly impossible, no hobbit can individually have a dangerous lack of anything to lead them to rivalry. The non-scarce objects themselves are also of a low-prestige sort: food and drink and gardens cannot grant real power to the one who has them. These simple, abundant objects are not worth fighting over – and so the hobbits don’t.
The Shire society is unique in that it provides an environment where one can have pleasure without possessiveness. Hobbits act out of stewardship, rather than acquisition or possession. At the end of The Hobbit, Thorin says to Bilbo, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world” (The Hobbit 348). Hobbits are able to take pleasure in simple, ordinary things and view the world as a thing to be protected, cared for, and watched over, rather than possessed. Hobbits love the Shire as a whole, not just their own homes and lands.
There are still hobbits who operate out of acquisitiveness and who stand as potential models for negative desire, however–for instance, the Sackville-Bagginses. This family of hobbits is most famous for making off with Bilbo’s silverware and desiring avidly to take Bag End from Frodo. The other hobbits look on them with laughter, however. The Sackville-Bagginses provide a model for negative, acquisitive desire, but the Shire community is vastly united in its genial dislike for them, rendering the S.-B.s unable to succeed in pulling others into rivalry with themselves. The hobbits bounce back to positive desire before possible negative mimesis can take hold of the community.
The Shire is not impervious to all that is negative, however. The War of the Ring and Sauron’s evil eventually reach into the hobbits’ homeland, corrupting it. Bereft of his greater wizardly skills but still very much in possession of his powers of persuasion, the wizard Saruman has invaded the positive mimesis of the Shire, set himself up as negative model, and taken the once abundant objects of the hobbits’ desires and made them scarce. This forces the hobbits to turn from stewardship to acquisition, as there is no longer enough of any one thing to go around. When he returns, Frodo offers himself and his companions as new models of familiar, positive desire, and initiates the Scouring of the Shire. The hobbits rally together, turn out Saruman, free his prisoners, and clean the Shire of his filth.
Through these events Tolkien proves that hobbits are not just somehow immune to negative desire. Rather, they live in a protected land, allowing them to look to positive models within their own community, focus their desires on non-scarce objects, and engage in stewardship rather than possessiveness. As a result, an environment of positive mimesis flourishes. Frodo carries this environment with him as he journeys on the quest to destroy the Ring. The relationship of mutualencouragement between Frodo and Sam, carrying the community of the Shire with them as they act as each others’ positive models, lends Frodo strength even on the slopes of Mount Doom against the negative desire fostered voraciously by the Ring. It is this supportive background, and not strength of individual character or magical power, that enables Frodo to resist the Ring and its pull to negative mimesis.
It is important to uncover the workings of this sort of positive desire because it opens us to beauty and communion with each other and Christ in a way that negative desire, which leads to violence, never can. Though it is safe to say that Tolkien was not aware of Girard or mimetic theory, he was evidently familiar with these two types of desire. In the Shire, Tolkien presents us with a fragile but wondrous image of community based on positive desire. This is something we don’t see often in our own world, and so all the more to be treasured when we discover it in Middle-earth.
[all images by John Howe]