J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional hobbits are receiving unusual attention after Sen. John McCain disparagingly compared the small and shy Shire folk in the “Lord of the Ring” trilogy to members of the U.S. tea party.
During last week's fraught debt-ceiling debate, Senator McCain on the Senate floor chided the tea party leadership for making unrealistic demands in their politics and thinking that “Democrats would [then] have no choice but to pass a balanced budget amendment... and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor.” Mr. McCain was reading from a Wall St. Journal editorial.
But Tolkien scholars – those who presumably know hobbits best – aren’t having any of it. Typical hobbits are far too content and far less sure of themselves than the typical tea-party politician, they say.
In fact, they're such contented creatures that they rarely hold press conferences. In the Shire it’s a big thing just to walk out the front door. There are all those breakfasts to eat, gardens to be tended, and festivals to plan. They don’t even have a K Street Washington lobby firm to represent them.
So like the wizard Gandalf, Tolkien scholars and enthusiasts have come to the rescue, taking up what they see as hobbit character assassination in the Senate.
“Is it fair to compare the Tea Party and hobbits? In a word, no,” says Jason Fisher, a US-based Tolkien scholar. “The tea party might aspire to be hobbits, but at this point the two groups have just about zero in common.”
Indeed, Tolkien experts argue vast differences in character, values, and outlook between hobbits and the tea party.
“A reference to hobbits who vanquish Mordor, such as Senator McCain made, should be complimentary instead of disparaging,” says Wayne Hammond, recent author of “The Art of the Hobbit” and librarian at the rare books library at Williams College. “Frodo volunteers to take the Ring out of a sense of duty, not only to his own folk but to all of the free peoples of Middle-earth, while Sam, Merry, and Pippin follow him out of love and friendship as well as their own sense of obligation to humanity. Members of the Tea Party seem to share none of these values.”
(Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a leading tea party member, appears to agree. Calling hobbits "heroes" and McCain a “troll,” he said, “I’d rather be a hobbit than a troll.")
Frodo Baggins and his uncle Bilbo Baggins are the most famous hobbits in Tolkien’s trilogy, much of which was written during World War II. The novels center around a drama where Frodo and friends leave their beloved homes to help a series of trolls, fairies, elves, and humans destroy an evil ring controlled by the disembodied, demonic force of Sauron.
Mr. Fisher, author of the recent “Tolkien and the Study of His Sources,” is sure that hobbits have little in common with the Tea Party, whose members are mostly white southerners who have not so far appeared on the House floor without shoes, as hobbits would.
“Hobbits are agrarian, simple, they don’t have guns, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t complain their rights are infringed,” says Fisher, a German medieval scholar who lives in Dallas. “The Tea Party is about being dissatisfied. They feel they’ve given too much and gotten too little in return. This isn’t how hobbits think. Hobbits are content. They are about preserving the status quo; the tea party is about changing the status quo.”
Tolkien’s hobbits are between two and four feet tall with oversized hairy feet, and long skillful fingers. Contentment is their main virtue. They reside in “the Shire,” part of Tolkien’s imagined “Middle Earth,” and eat many breakfasts every day, love a well-tended garden and festivals. They live in holes, “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell,” as Tolkien famously describes, “nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
The Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson marked a global rebirth of interest in Tolkien’s work in recent years. Mr. Jackson is currently at work on a two-part film, “The Hobbit,” after Tolkien’s beloved children’s story that preceded his later trilogy. It is due out at the end of 2012.
After the Lord of the Rings references in the Senate, both Hammond and Fisher confirm, there was a viral moment of anger among Tolkien scholars and among a vast Tolkien blogosphere. But it disappeared quickly. “Mostly there was a large murmer of agreement about how absurd these comparisons are,” Fisher says.