I recently finished re-reading my favorite book apart from the Good Book – The Lord of the Rings. I am an incurable nerd when it comes to this classic by J.R.R. Tolkein. The most inspiring element of the story to me is that ordinary everyday people are the heroes. The Great and the Good play important roles, but in the end it is the capacity of unheroic people (“hobbits” who stand at about 3’ tall actually) to grow into moral heroes through great adversity that makes the story so compelling.
Frodo and Sam along with their friends Merry and Pippin are the center of the story. These four hobbits have never traveled outside the Shire, their local village. They have no idea of the perils before them as they embark upon their journey of destroying the Ring of Power, an object that will be used to enslave the world if it falls into the wrong hands. They must take this Ring across the most dangerous lands into the very heart of the Enemy’s territory to destroy it, an almost impossible task.
This task comes to them unbidden. Left to themselves, they would gladly pass their lives in the Shire drinking pints, eating 5 meals a day, and enjoying each other’s company. But they find themselves in the middle of the greatest war of their time. They are naive and untested, ignorant of the evils at work in Middle-Earth and the lengths to which great warriors and wizards have protected their village. As they venture into the wider world, their eyes are opened: they see how dangerous it truly is and how incapable they are of defending themselves. Throughout the journey they face trials, loss, temptation and suffering. It is precisely through these hardships that their capacity to confront and overcome evil grows. They remain humble, knowing their frailty, but as they overcome adversity they become increasingly formidable.
Because the books are so long, the movies (which are ridiculously long as it is!) overlook the epilogue, and it is there that the transformed character and power of the four hobbits shines brightest.
Returning home after the great victory of the destruction of the Ring, there are rumors that all is not well back in the Shire. Not a problem, the hobbits think: they have Gandalf with them, the most powerful wizard alive, their dear friend who brought them into all of this to begin with. But Gandalf tells them that he will not be part of this last battle:
“My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown ups now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.”
Together, the four hobbits return to the peace-loving Shire to find it enslaved by cruel men and an unknown tyrant. They rally their fellow hobbits and overthrow the regime, only to find that the tyrant is one of the great villains and traitors of the story, the wizard Saruman. He has lost most of his power but not his wickedness. He has done deeds which deserve death many times over, but it is Frodo’s virtue, forged by the incredible trials he has overcome, that saves Saruman from the hobbit mob’s desire to execute him. Frodo commands Saruman to leave the Shire. But as Saruman walks by Frodo to leave, he quickly tries (and fails) to assassinate him with a hidden knife. This is too much for the hobbits surrounding them, and they move in to kill. Once again the virtuous Frodo stops them. His hard-earned mercy and magnanimity shine through:
“‘No! Do not kill him even now. For he has to hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.’
Saruman rises to his feet, and stares at Frodo.
There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Frodo. Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness and now I must go in debt to your mercy . . .’”
The once naive, untested and childlike hobbit has become one of the strongest and wisest people in all of Middle Earth precisely because his journey was so difficult and dangerous, and he was able to overcome adversity.
James, the brother of Jesus who suffered greatly and saw more than his share of trials and suffering, speaks of the benefit of trials in James 1:2-4:
2Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Often in life, we cannot draw clear and direct conclusions about the specific “why” behind our trials, suffering and adversity. But this much is true: as we experience these things, God is surely at work in our character to make us the people He wants us to be, and indeed the people we long to be ourselves. No one asks for adversity, but we all have the opportunity to grow from adversity. One of the best examples in literature of this truth, at least for me, is found in Middle-Earth among 3’ tall hobbits.