This week, I met a good friend of mine at a local restaurant, the first time we’d got together since before the onset of the pestilence. He is a Presbyterian pastor and a great lover of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. It was, in fact, Tolkien who had introduced us to each other, in the sense that we first met at a local Tolkien conference a few years ago.
During the course of our conversation, my friend wondered whether Tolkien had something deeper in mind when calling hobbits “halflings,” beyond the literal fact that they are about half the size of men. This set me thinking. Bilbo Baggins is not fully the hobbit he is meant to be at the beginning of The Hobbit. He is a creature of comfort addicted to the creature comforts. He needs a dose of healthy discomfort so that he can grow into a wiser and more virtuous hobbit. He needs an adventure and the suffering and self-sacrifice that an adventure demands. In truth, as we come to discover, Bilbo was suffering from the same dragon sickness as that which afflicted Smaug, only on a smaller scale (pun intended!). Smaug lives under a mountain, squatting on his treasure; Bilbo lives under a hill squatting on his own hobbit-sized treasure trove. They are both possessed by their possessions.
Something similar is happening in The Lord of the Rings, in which the power of the Ring represents something very similar to the dragon sickness. Those who possess the Ring become possessed by it. The Ring promises empowerment but delivers overpowerment, subduing the will of the wearer. The Ring can be seen to symbolize Pride, the one sin to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. If we succumb to its power and its promises, we begin to live the lie with which it overshadows us. We become slaves to our addiction to Pride and its narcissistic self-centredness. We become Pride’s prisoners, unable to escape from the confines of the ego. We cannot sacrifice ourselves for others, which means that we cannot love. In such a state of self-imposed self-isolation, we begin to shrivel into a pathetic shadow of who we are meant to be. We gollumize ourselves.
This is the deeper metaphorical meaning of the word “halfling.” Bilbo and Frodo—and Sam, Merry, and Pippin—all begin as half the hobbits they are meant to be and are called to be. In resisting the power of the Ring, the power of Pride, they grow into their full stature as wise and virtuous hobbits. They are not merely halflings but have attained the wholeness that holiness delivers. Gollum, on the other hand, is overpowered by the “empowerment” that the Ring of Pride promises, becoming a slave to his own possessiveness of the thing that is possessing him. He has also ceased to be the halfling that he once was by becoming less than a halfling. He has shrunk into a shriveled wreck of the hobbit that he once was and has become a demonic parody of the whole hobbit he had refused to become.