The Hobbits’ not-very-Thomistic view of treasure-finding

I happen to be teaching classes on both The Lord of the Rings and Aquinas’s economic theory at the moment, so you’ll understand why this stuff is on my mind.

In my recent post on the hobbits’ not-so-positive attitude towards possessions, I noted the passage in which Frodo had a “tussle with young Sancho Proudfoot (old Odo Proudfoot’s grandson), who had begun an excavation in the larger pantry, where he thought there was an echo. The legend of Bilbo’s gold excited both curiosity and hope; for legendary gold (mysteriously obtained, if not positively ill-gotten) is, as every one knows, any one’s for the finding–unless the search is interrupted.”

Contrary to Tolkien’s narrator, however, it’s not quite true that “every one knows” that legendary gold is free for the finding and taking. According to Aquinas, for example,

With regard to treasure-trove a distinction must be made. For some there are that were never in anyone’s possession, for instance precious stones and jewels, found on the seashore, and such the finder is allowed to keep [*Dig. I, viii, De divis. rerum: Inst. II, i, De rerum divis.]. The same applies to treasure hidden underground long since and belonging to no man, except that according to civil law the finder is bound to give half to the owner of the land, if the treasure trove be in the land of another person [*Inst. II, i, 39: Cod. X, xv, De Thesauris]. Hence in the parable of the Gospel (Matt. 13:44) it is said of the finder of the treasure hidden in a field that he bought the field, as though he purposed thus to acquire the right of possessing the whole treasure. On the other Land the treasure-trove may be nearly in someone’s possession: and then if anyone take it with the intention, not of keeping it but of returning it to the owner who does not look upon such things as unappropriated, he is not guilty of theft. In like manner if the thing found appears to be unappropriated, and if the finder believes it to be so, although he keep it, he does not commit a theft [*Inst. II, i, 47]. In any other case the sin of theft is committed [*Dig. XLI, i, De acquirend. rerum dominio, 9: Inst. II, i, 48]: wherefore Augustine says in a homily (Serm. clxxviii; De Verb. Apost.): “If thou hast found a thing and not returned it, thou hast stolen it” (Dig. xiv, 5, can. Si quid invenisti). (ST II-II.66.5, ad 2)

So there you go: even if young Sancho had found some treasure hidden in Frodo’s larger pantry, according to Aquinas, it would not have been his “for the finding,” but theft (but then you already knew that, didn’t you?).

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Hobbitus Economicus

I think there is a tendency in many readers–myself included–to over-idealize the charming life and culture of the hobbits of the Shire. In this post from a while back, however, in which I contrast the socio-economic order of the Shire with that of Bree, I posed this question:

what role (if any) the apparent failure of her hobbits to achieve the Bree-lander’s delicate balance–a synthesis between spirited independence and a cooperative symbiosis of heterogeneous groups–may have played in the Shire’s eventual vulnerability, first, to the capitalist aggrandizement of Lotho Baggins, followed in turn and replaced by the socialist tyrannies of Saruman-cum-Sharkey.

Whatever the relevance of or answer to that question may be, in my latest reading of The Fellowship I’m struck by just how questionable some of the hobbits actually are in their economic orientation. Although the hobbits have made a practice of gift giving, as I’ve commented before, it is actually Bilbo who, among hobbits, is particularly distinguished by his generosity. At the Party we are told that, although he gave gifts to everyone, some individuals were so greedy that they shamelessly “went out again by a back way and came in again by the gate,” presumably to see if they could acquire yet another gift. And though he wasn’t a Shire hobbit himself, it’s hard not to see Smeagol’s ancient act of slaying his friend and relative Deagol over what he desired as a birthday gift as the hobbit’s own original sin and Cain-and-Abel narratives, in which all subsequent hobbits are, after a fashion, implicated. (If a hobbit could kill another hobbit over a present, then anyone can.) Back to the Shire, however, we read that “Frodo had a very trying time that afternoon,” for

A false rumour that the whole household was being distributed free spread like wildfire; and before long the place was packed with people who had no business there, but could not be kept out. Labels got torn off and mixed, and quarrels broke out. Some people tried to do swaps and deals in the hall; and others tried to make off with minor items not addressed to them, or with anything that seemed unwanted or unwatched. The road to the gate was blocked with barrows and handcarts.

Embarrassingly, the day after Bilbo’s generous feast, the road to Bag End looks like the aisles of Walmart only a couple of hours after the family Thanksgiving meal. The Sackeville-Baggins are, of course, the worst of the lot, being “rather offensive. They began by offering him [Frodo] bad bargain-prices (as between friends) for various valuable and unlabelled things. When Frodo replied that only the things specially directed by Bilbo were being given away, they said the whole affair was very fishy.” When they demand to see and are shown Bilbo’s will, they don’t even try to conceal their covetousness, contempt, and ingratitude: ” ‘Foiled again!’ he [Otho] said to his wife. ‘And after waiting sixty years. Spoons? Fiddlesticks!'” As for Lobelia, Frodo finds her “investigating nooks and corners and tapping the floors,” and he finds she has gone so far as to steal “several small (but rather valuable) articles that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella.” And these are the people who are Bilbo’s next of kin! The dragon-sickness, however, seems to have infected even some of the younger hobbits, as Frodo and Merry are forced to “evict three young hobbits (two Boffins and a Bolger) who were knocking holes in the walls of one of the cellars” and things even get physical when Frodo “also had a tussle with young Sancho Proudfoot (old Odo Proudfoot’s grandson), who had begun an excavation in the larger pantry, where he thought there was an echo. The legend of Bilbo’s gold excited both curiosity and hope; for legendary gold (mysteriously obtained, if not positively ill-gotten) is, as every one knows, any one’s for the finding–unless the search is interrupted.”

In sum, then, for all its virtues and charm, clearly not everything is alright with the hobbits so far as their desire for material possessions is concerned. Even before Saruman got there, accordingly, we see that the Shire was due for a “scouring.”

Bilbo Baggins, the Fairy of Hobbiton

            The Fellowship of the Ring begins as a fairy story, yet the first “fairy,” so to speak, that we actually meet with is, paradoxically, a hobbit. The Hobbit itself was a story of a very ordinary little man, Bilbo Baggins, going on an adventure into the perilous realm of Faërie where he became “enchanted.” What we see in the opening pages of The Lord of the Rings is that this same Bilbo has now returned to his home in the ordinary world of the Shire and has now himself become in the popular imagination the resident representative of the realm of Faërie, a source of mystery, rumor, legend, and enchantment for the rest of his fellow hobbits. He is described as unusually, even “unnaturally” ancient (eleventy-one years old!), and yet “unchanged. He is “very rich and very peculiar” and his hobbit hole is introduced as a veritable treasure mountain in its own right. Yet he is generous, even if a bit “odd,” though he has many “devoted admirers,” especially among the poor and the innocent youth. He “had no close friends,” however, indicating an Elf-like aloofness. For most of first part of the opening chapter, moreover, we see Bilbo, not as he is in himself or in his own words, but entirely through the mediation and testimony of others. Even when the third-person omniscient narrator describes Bilbo, he largely does so by telling us what other hobbits think of him. He enjoys “(apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.” “ ‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said.” As was just noted, we are told who his admirers were, and we get the testimony of one in particular in his gardener, the Gaffer Gamgee: “A very nice well-spoken gentlehobbit is Mr. Biblo, as I’ve always said.” As with the Elves, those who come in contact with Bilbo become enlightened and elevated themselves, as the Gaffer reports that it was Bilbo who taught Sam how to read, “meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will of it.” In teaching Sam how to read, of course, he also taught him stories about the Elves. To the minds of other hobbits, Bilbo is no ordinary hobbit, as his home, Bag End, is described by Ted Sandyman as “a queer place, and its folk are queerer.” The Gaffer gives a different, though not contradictory testimony when he says that “they do things proper at Bag End” and that “everyone’s going to be invited to the party, and there’s going to be presents, mark you, presents for all.” In Tolkien’s stories, encounters with the Elves often involves tremendous feasts and gifts. Food and gifts are also a part of hobbit culture, and yet Bilbo’s own party and gifts are anticipated to be something extraordinary even by their own extraordinary standards. As “the Day” draws near, the mytique surrounding Bilbo becomes even more heightened as he grows even more aloof or distant. An “odd-looking wagong laden with odd-looking packages” appears in Hobbiton, headed for the Bage End, and “driven by outlandish folk, singing strange songs: dwarves with long beards and deep hoods.” Bilbo may technically be a hobbit, but he keeps very unhobbitic company. Yet Bilbo’s most mysterious associate is Gandalf, “whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights,” but “his real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it.” By this time, however, Gandalf’s own fireworks had “now belonged to a legendary past. When he appears at Bag End, he and Bilbo “disappear” together inside, leaving the young hobbits outside, uninitiated into the mysteries and secrets being kept within. At this point there is a break in the passage, and the narrative perspective changes and we are treated, for the first time, to a perspective of Bilbo that is not mediated through others, as we hear him speak for the first time in his voice. What we immediately learn is that not all is as well with this hobbit after all, as he confesses to Gandalf that he is in desperate need of a “holiday.” Bilbo may be the effective “fairy” of Hobbiton, one capable of enchanting others, yet he is only a very provisional fairy, one who is in need of being re-enchanted himself.

Sauron’s Ring and the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 34

Central to Tolkien’s representation of the evil of domination is the eponymous Ring of Sauron itself, about which there are three main points I would like to make in regard to its general symbolism of Tolkien’s metaphysics of domination.

The first point concerns the Ring’s mythic power to render its wearer invisible, a property Robert Eaglestone has analyzed in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s application of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic to the problem of the modern self. As Eaglestone points out, Levinas sees “in the gesture of seeing without being seen, both the phenomena of evil and one of the defining and unavoidable features of modernity” (Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” 75). For Levinas, Eaglestone explains, “our thought and daily lives are first in a relationship to the others that populate the world. Everything else is built on this fundamental relationship to the other, which ‘happens’ to us before we choose it.” This fundamental, mutual participation in the life of others “involves giving up one’s rights and acknowledging both the rights of the other and one’s own responsibility to them over and above yourself.” In modernity, however, Levinas argues a decidedly new attitude emerged, especially in Descartes’s methodical doubt which posited a radical theoretical distance between the thinking subject and the world , thus rendering the subject “invisible” to it. As Eaglestone summarizes Levinas’s argument, the modern isolation of the subject

creates the illusion that one’s subjectivity is, like Gyges, not derived from one’s relation with others but rather existing independently without society or recognition from others. Levinas continues and argues that the “myth of Gyges is the very myth of the I” which stands alone. “Seeing without being seen” is at the same time an illusion of radical separation and uprootedness from others, and the grounds of the possibility of “inner life”… Invisibility seems to turn the world into a world of spectacle, in which the observer is disengaged and free from bounds or restraint…(76)

As Eaglestone continues, in this illusion of separation at the heart of modernity, “others are turned from people into objects” (81). Like the modern conception of the subject, Sauron’s Ring, in making its wearer invisible to others and thus detaching him from his rootedness and participation in the world, in principle denies the claim that other beings have on him by virtue of their otherness. Invisible to all others while all others remain visible to him, the Ring-wearer assumes a quasi-transcendence in which their being effectively becomes an extension of his own.

In this Sauron’s Ring may be said to reverse the pattern of the Ainur’s Vision, the joyous eucatastrophe of which consists in its giving the appearance of “things other” that do not yet exist, the reality of which is later granted as a divine gift. The tragedy or dyscatastrophe of Sauron’s Ring, by contrast, is that it takes the reality of an already existing thing and belies that reality by denying its appearances. However, because things are what they are on account of their otherness, to deny a thing its appearance and its consequent relationship with those beings to whom it appears, is also to deny its reality, as we see in the case of the Ring-wraiths and all those who possess Sauron’s Ring for too long. As Gandalf explains to Frodo, if one “often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings… Yes, sooner or later… the dark power will devour him” (FOTR 56). Related to this, of course, is Bilbo’s complaint to Gandalf in which he unwitting reveals the effect the Ring has had on him: “I am old Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thing, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something” (41).

The only person over whom the Ring seems to have no power, even to render him invisible, is Tom Bombadil, one of the earthiest characters in Tolkien’s fiction and one whose whole identity is most tied to his love of and devotion to things other.  As Tolkien writes of Tom in one letter, “he is an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original).

Bilbo Baggins, friend of the poor

Never really noticed it before, but one of the recurrent themes in the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Long Expected Party,” is that of Bilbo’s simultaneous wealth and generosity to the poor. A few passages:

[A]s Mr. Baggins was generous with his money, most people were willing to forgive him his oddities and his good fortune. He remained on visiting terms with his relatives (except, of course, the Sackville-Bagginses), and he had many devoted admirers among the hobbits of poor and unimportant families.

Even Bilbo’s cool relations with the Sackville-Bagginses implicitly corroborates the point: like Bilbo, they are comparatively wealthy; unlike Bilbo, however, they are greedy and covetous. Bilbo would rather spend his time and attention on the “poor and unimportant” than the rich and self-important. The enterprising Lotho Sackville-Baggins, of course, will be the one responsible for the Shire’s later enslavement to Saruman.

Another passage:

‘A very nice well-spoken gentlehobbit is Mr. Bilbo, as I’ve always said,’ the Gaffer declared. With perfect truth: for Bilbo was very polite to him, calling him ‘Master Hamfast’, and consulting him constantly upon the growing of vegetables…

A little later the Gaffer defends Bilbo as being “free with his money, and there seems no lack of it.” He further indicates that Bilbo is no less free with his time, condescending (as the Gaffer clearly views it) to tell his son Sam stories: ” ‘Elves and Dragons’  I says to him.’ Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters.’ ” And though the Gaffer is suspicious as to its value and long-term consequences, it’s with a hint of gratitude that he remarks that Bilbo has “learned [Sam] his letters.”

Finally, there is this passage indicating that, of those who were left gifts by Bilbo upon his sudden departure, the poor of Hobbiton received the best and most thoughtful attention:

Every one of the various parting gifts had labels, written out personally by Bilbo, and several had some point, or some joke. But, of course, most of the things were given where they would be wanted and welcome. The poorer hobbits, and especially those of Bagshot Row, did very well. Old Gaffer Gamgee got two sacks of potatoes, a new spade, a woollen waistcoat, and a bottle of ointment for creaking joints. Old Rory Brandybuck, in return for much hospitality, got a dozen bottles of Old Winyards: a strong red wine from the Southfarthing, and now quite mature, as it had been laid down by Bilbo’s father. Rory quite forgave Bilbo, and voted him a capital fellow after the first bottle.