If you ask any enthusiast of Middle-earth which of Tolkien’s races they’d like to be, you’ll most likely get one of two answers: Hobbit, or Elf. This doesn’t seem like a curious thing at first glance–who wouldn’t want to be an Elf? They have the best fashion sense, the most beautiful homes, and they’re immortal. Or a Hobbit–they have the coziest gardens, the most comfortably lazy lives, and six meals a day. It seems only natural that we would want to be these characters most. But why? There’s got to be more than outward appearances of beauty and comfort that draws us to these two races. Tolkien is far too careful a sub-creator to leave us with only that to guide us.
I think it all comes down to positive, receptive mimesis in the end. As I’ve said before, the Shire is a society founded on positive desire, which grounds Hobbits in their community. The greatest character trait of Hobbits is contentment, which is a natural product of this community and the visible outcome of the Hobbit-variety of positive desire. It is an openness to fellowship, to each other. Yet this utter peace, comfort, and contentment with life as one knows it is only one side of positive desire. The mimeticism of the Elves is a second.
Out of all the Peoples of Middle-earth, the Elves display a deep longing for something more, something beyond the reaches of Arda. This unquenchable longing for the unknown is in part the result of the Elven exile from Valinor, brought about by Fëanor’s wrath and his shedding of Elvish blood at Alqualondë. It is also a result of the Elvish sort of positive desire, however. Just like the Hobbits, the Elves imitate positive models. Yet instead of looking to their own community for these models and imitating each other, the Elves look to a higher realm of being. They take the Valar, and thus ultimately Ilúvatar, as models. In other words, the Elves look beyond the reaches of Arda, beyond the world in which they live, for positive models with which to engage mimetically. This openness to the divine, or to what Tolkien calls Faërie, is at the center of Elvish receptive mimesis.
Unfortunately these two types of positive desire, if isolated from each other, can become negative. If left alone, the Hobbit-esque contentment and openness to one another can turn into apathy or indifference towards the world outside one’s own daily experience. Hobbits can become too set in their ways and content with their lives to care more than a very little about anything but their inner community. Sam’s Gaffer is an example of this–he talks of Sam’s love for Bilbo’s tales of the world outside the Shire, saying,
Elves and Dragons! …Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings 24).
The Gaffer has a point–Sam does wind up in the middle of a conflict for nothing less than the very world–but ignoring this conflict, refusing to recognize it or to engage in it, is only a type of denial.
The Elvish longing and openness to the divine can also become a trap, if indulged in exclusively. Elves are, by nature of their connection to Faërie, more solitary folk than Hobbits. They do not need communion with each other in the way Hobbits do in order to keep their positive desire alive–for Elves participate directly with the Valar in this, and thus don’t need each other to engage in receptive mimesis. Yet this openness to the divine, if not tempered with the Hobbit-like appreciation of the immediate world and the present, can lead the Elves astray. In a draft of a letter to Michael Straight, a reviewer of The Lord of the Rings and editor of the New Republic, Tolkien states of the Elves,
Mere change as such is not represented as ‘evil’: it is the unfolding of the story and to refuse this is of course against the design of God. But the Elvish weakness is in these terms naturally to regret the past, and to become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favorite chapter (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 236).
Openness to the divine and the longing this brings thus can lead the Elves to become too focused on the past (or future), causing them to forget life as it currently unfolds around them.
But if both Hobbitish and Elven positive desires are not enough, are not able to be wholly positive on their own, then what? How can positive, receptive mimesis exist without falling into Hobbit-like disregard for the world outside one’s sphere, or Elven regret and ignoring of the present world? Elves must forsake Middle-earth in order to satisfy their longing, while Hobbits must disappear into hedgerows and become nothing more than legend to the Big Folk in order to keep their contentment unsullied by the rest of the world. Where is there reconciliation between these tragedies, and where can we reach a common ground that redeems them both?
I believe the answer to this can be found in Samwise Gamgee. Sam is a true Hobbit–he thrives in communion with his own folk, and exhibits a strong love of ease and contentment (he carries cooking gear and spices all the way to Mordor in favor of a good meal over a lighter pack). However, he also has a share in Elvish longing, revealed initially in his great hope of seeing Elves on his journey and finally in his grief over having to choose between the Shire and the Grey Havens at the end of the Lord of the Rings. “I wish I could go all the way with you to Rivendell, Mr. Frodo,” Sam says, “…And yet the only place I really want to be in is right here.” The two sides of Sam’s life, Hobbitish contentment and Elvish longing, are mingled, and the pain of these two seemingly contradictory desires is not easily got over.
This mingling of contentment and longing is where true, whole positive desire as we find it in Middle-earth ultimately leads. And this is where the Word of God leads us in our own world as well. As Christians, we are called to be content and give thanks in all circumstances. Yet at the same time our citizenship is in heaven, and both the Old and New Testaments are filled with passage after passage expressing a longing for something beyond this world–for true communion with God. Romans, Second Corinthians, Isaiah, Psalms–there are enough examples to fill much more than a single blog post. God calls us to both contentment and longing, and we are to cultivate both in our lives. This is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian life–but also one of its greatest consolations.
The struggle to find balance between contentment and longing is hard–we can too easily fall into one and leave the other. Yet this is the challenge that we, like Sam, are called to, and if God has placed these desires within us, we can rest in the assurance that He will ultimately satisfy them with Himself. We are not left to bear the wound of the paradox of contentment and longing alone. We too can find hope in Frodo’s responds to Sam’s lament: “But you will be healed. You were meant to be solid and whole, and you will be.”