As far as Middle-earth and our world are concerned, Hobbits are uneducated. They are the personification of country-bumpkins, with little or no knowledge of math and science (outside of what is required for farming and marketing), literature (save their own tales and ditties), or history. Yet in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien places their race in the spotlight and exhibits in them a strength and endurance that far outweighs their education (and stature).
Hobbits believe education is unnecessary. Gaffer Gamgee is proud his son Sam can read and write, thanks to Bilbo Baggins, but he has his doubts, remarking cheerfully that “Mr. Bilbo has learned [Sam] his letters—meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.”1 Bilbo Baggins is certainly educated, possibly in part due to his upbringing (the Baggins family being an unofficial leader in the neighborhood) and most certainly due to his travels. It is clear Bilbo is an anomaly in this regard. It is hinted that he has translated Elvish texts, which is probably the equivalent of translating Greek or Latin in our world. Bilbo’s nephew Frodo follows him in his eccentricities. When questioned about his reason for travelling to Bree, he “gave out that he was interested in history and geography (at which there was much wagging of heads, although neither of these words were much used in the Bree-dialect). He said he was writing a book (at which there was silent astonishment).”2 Any Hobbits who were hopeful that Frodo would “settle down and grow some hobbit-sense”3 are disappointed to discover that Frodo shows the same tendency toward oddity as his uncle.
Yet despite their love for anything but book-knowledge, Tolkien makes clear that Hobbits are the sturdiest, hardiest, and most courageous people in Middle-earth. Frodo’s resistance of the effect of the Morgul blade, which Gandalf says has overcome even great warriors,4 the endurance of Sam and Frodo in Mordor, and even Merry and Pippin on their individual journeys, not to mention the resilience of Hobbits in general during the Scouring of the Shire, are all testaments to their peculiar strength despite their ignorance. In The Lord of the Rings, it is not only the characters whom the reader expects to be wise as a result of education who fail—Boromir and Saruman, for example—but the characters with little or no education who save the world.
With this in mind, how important is education? Very important, but not so important as society believes it is. Tolkien does not claim education is bad, only that lack of education does not mean someone lacks courage, strength, or depth of character. Bear in mind that Tolkien himself was educated, as are many of the most admirable characters in The Lord of the Rings: Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf, and Elrond. These characters use their education to become more wise, loving, and courageous than they would otherwise be. It is knowledge tempered with humility, not poisoned with pride, as it is with Boromir and Saruman. In the end, it is the courage and humility of a person that matters, not what he knows—which is really what the Shire is all about.
One blog post is not sufficient to say all there is to be said about education or the lack thereof. Here are some other posts I have written on the subject: The Renaissance Spirit: What It Is and Why I Pursue It, The True Definition of Education, A Particle of Truth Spoken by Lord Henry Wotton.
1J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 1
2Ibid., Book 1, Chapter 9
3Ibid., Book 1, Chapter 2
4Ibid., Book 2, Chapter 1
2 thoughts on “Courage in Spite of Ignorance”
How many people do we meet in fiction—and in real life—who are not conventionally “educated,” and yet exude a level of inner strength, worldly wisdom, and insightfulness that’s equal to or greater than their more academically knowledgable peers?
Fictionally, there’s Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the BFG from Roald Dahl’s The BFG, Stilgar from Frank Herbert’s Dune, and even Hagrid and Dobby from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga. In real life, I think of the rapper NF and my own grandfather. These characters/people should remind us of what’s really important, as you stated. I’m an academic Big Brain, so remembering this has what I would call a Healthy Humility Dose Effect. (:
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Ha! I like it: the Healthy Humility Dose Effect. 🙂 I find especially that I have to keep my Classical education from putting on airs. It is characters like the ones you mentioned, and others, that remind me what education is really supposed to be.
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