Real people seldom face what Frodo Baggins did in Tolkien’s trilogy. For most, the world does not depend on our heroic stand in the face of overwhelming odds. The likes of WWII or Thermopylae just don’t happen every day.
But we do face trial — the simpler trial of Bilbo Baggins. We feel it in the push-and-pull of conflicting urges.
Bilbo’s Shire prized “respectability” and Bilbo as a true Baggins, was rock-steady and predictable. He loved his pipe, the company of friends, a full belly, and a beer.
But he was also a Took. The Tooks were respected, but not respectable. They had (gasp) adventures. And adventures — in Bilbo’s own words — are “(n)asty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”
You know the story: adventure literally knocks on Bilbo’s door, and he has a decision to make. Should he go, see exotic places, and face unknown dangers that test his mettle; or stay at home, fat and happy? The answer did not come easily and needed revisiting throughout his trip. But he went, and the others would never have survived without him.
His dilemma rephrases the question we’ve all had to ask ourselves: Baggins or Took? Which road today? Play it safe, or go “all-in”?
Our culture was originally forged by adventurers, pioneers, and explorers. Innovators and inventors. They breathed an air of independence, courage, and vision that often transformed warnings into dares: Can’t be done? Just watch me.
As a culture, we’ve become less adventurous … domesticated. Our Tookish nature, like Bilbo’s, is fading. Not quite gone — just buried under fine food, a couple of beers, and a pipe with friends.
There could be countless things blunting this edge, even the good life handed down from “Tooks” in generations before ours. What are they? While not a complete list, here are some points to get us thinking:
You’ve heard of Big Tobacco, Big Oil, and the rest. But have you heard about our self-appointed risk-managers, Big Safety? They see no problem so great that it cannot be fixed by a bylaw officer or bureaucrat with papers in triplicate. Want to stand more than arm’s length from your kid in ankle-deep water? Drink a Big Gulp in NYC? Spray your lawn for weeds? Play street hockey with your kids? The answer will be the same: “We can’t let you do that.”
C.S. Lewis described such people: “… a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive … those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” Big Safety trains us to fear and avoid risk.
Secondly, that cultural priority shift from starting a business to being employed by one. The former emphasizes self-reliance, ownership and risk-taking, “The American Dream”. The latter looks for success in a job from the right company, agency, or government department. As factories grew, and we became more urban, we inevitably traded one for the other.
Modern schools have kept pace with that shift. Now, we teach job skills. This has replaced the highly successful interdisciplinary comprehension, critical thinking, and balance of sciences and humanities taught to earlier generations. The graduating student now has an employee’s skill set, not an employer’s. [Thanks heaps, Dewey.]
Why should we want the classical education model that gave us Issac Newton, Jonathan Edwards, John Milton, Lord Nelson, David Livingstone, Tolkien, and, oh yeah, the Founding Fathers? What lightweights! Instead, let’s throw more money at modern institutions committed to indoctrination (“co-parenting!”) rather than literacy. Is it any wonder the alternatives to Public School are thriving?
Big Education encourages us to seek the modest safety, security and steady paycheck of dependence rather than the rollercoaster uncertainty of independence. Big Government does the same thing, but differently: it promises that programs will be there for you, so you needn’t learn how to be there for yourself.
Let’s not forget Big Ego, those various Esteem movements so protective of fragile egos that they forbid competition or failure. We rob kids of the real-life lesson that some people win and others lose. You’ve seen the sports that don’t keep score, where everyone leaves with a “participation trophy”. The villain from The Incredibles said — “When everyone’s super… no one will be.” Bingo. That’s us.
Each of these things: our cozy life, Big Safety, school “subservience training”, Big Ego, and the siren song of Big Government call us back to the Baggins life. They prompt us to distrust or fear our native Tookishness.
With Bilbo, the Took side won out. It wasn’t easy. There were missteps, and second thoughts. The kettle kept calling him homeward, but he won out.
Bilbo’s war may not seem epic, like Frodo’s was. But without Bilbo’s trip, the Fellowship would never have been formed. And who could say what impact the goblin armies, and marauding dragon might have had if they’d survived to serve Sauron?
However small the private battle of a hobbit might seem, those were the very victories upon which Middle-Earth’s epic battle most depended. Likewise, real-world history’s great turning points, when remembered, are won by private personal victories like Bilbo’s.
Our trials are more Bilbo than Frodo in nature. Since Bilbo’s war is our war, to win it will mean letting our own Tookish natures off their leash.
Image: Illustration Bilbo Baggins Courtesy of JesicaLR