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Noble Is As Noble Does

J.R.R. Tolkien said in a letter to his American publishers: "There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. The inter-relations between the 'noble' and the 'simple' (or common, vulgar) for instance. The ennoblement of the ignoble I find especially moving...."

Even the most cursory read of The Lord of the Rings bears out the truth of his admission. The funny thing about this particular "theme" is that most people do not notice it. This says something about how adeptly Tolkien wove the threads of his stories; in that he doesn't stoop to beating the reader over the head. I confess to being an avid reader of Tolkien since 1977, yet only when I read his published Letters did I realize this thematic color was so lovingly couched within LOTR.

There are many characters who start at a certain point in the story, go through personal and external changes, and then at the story arc's conclusion end up being changed. This is the most common device any writer would use. But in this case, the Professor has worked an angle that moves many characters from 'low' -- meaning not given any regard or validity by the greater powers and people around them, to something 'noble' -- which essentially is a state of acknowledgment. His characters are given credit where credit is due. They become 'noble' by being appreciated, in the end, by those upper-crusty high brow people who never really appreciated them before.

In The Field of Cormallen chapter we see the greatest example of ennoblement. You will recall Sam's point-of-view takes over in the narrative. It is a particularly lovely scene (and one of my favorite episodes in the story). Remember when Aragorn greets the hobbits and shows them their place of honor?

And then to Sam's surprise and utter confusion he bowed his knee before them; and taking them by the hand, Frodo upon his right and Sam upon his left, he led them to the throne, and setting them upon it, he turned to the men and captains who stood by and spoke, so that his voice rang over all the host, crying:

'Praise them with great praise!'

With remarkable emotion, Tolkien shows the effect of this powerful acknowledgment on the two Ring-bearers. It has a similar effect on the reader. It seems that, perhaps in a small way, the author is also giving the reader a sense of 'congratulations' for having worked their way through such a demanding saga. The reader has been through the same journey -- the same trials. People feel very connected to the hobbits at this point in the story: we share their feelings in a unique way.

I only hope that the movie audience will see this scene, or a suitable taste of its sentiment, in Peter Jackson's ROTK.

Other characters are also raised up to share in the glow of nobility. However, I caution that the term nobility can be somewhat misleading. It most often suggests a system of hereditary superiority where the noble-born might not deserve the classification of noble but they get it anyway. Again, I believe the key concept that Tolkien exercises here is bringing someone unappreciated to a place of greatness. Aragorn manages two kinds of ennoblement at the same time. Strider starts out in the beginning as, well.... a dirty, unkempt, mysterious person who might not be trustworthy. He is certainly not trusted by the locals of Breeland (nor by Samwise). Strider is not regal or kingly in his Ranger persona. He fits the messianic character type -- whose true nobility is hidden at first. In the end he becomes the true King (literally noble-born) yet we also see how much the world has changed around him. People react to him very differently. Captains and Lords of other realms treat Aragorn with newfound respect, and he is congratulated by his surrogate father, Elrond. Quite transformed from the bedraggled Ranger, now Aragorn has earned the Sceptre of Annuminas. And yes, he has finally proven he is worthy of Arwen's hand, worthy of the Crown, and worthy to be given the grace of a Númenorean lifespan.

Bilbo and Gimli are also given the chance to mix with the "higher ups." Where else but in Elrond's house would you see a doddering hobbit of advanced age sitting with Elven Lords, writing songs with a Dunedan, and blurting out his home-spun wisdom at a secret Council? Tolkien allows Bilbo a special place among the more accomplished people of the Third Age. He was once just a homebody worried about his seed-cakes. But we all know, after many trials and successes, Bilbo ends up with mithril, the respect of several races of Middle-earth, and a moving acknowledgment from Thorin (given with the King's dying breath). Bilbo is ennobled simply by being validated for all his efforts.

Gimli's affection for the Lady Galadriel typifies what Tolkien is so fond of: "The inter-relations between the 'noble' and the 'simple.'" He can see something in her face that he has never encountered before: the light of Aman. She bears the light and grace of Valinor even after all the long ages of separation from it; and Gimli reacts with his heart. He acknowledges her in the only way he knows how. The other Elves are shocked to hear him request one golden hair from her head -- yet to the wise ears of Galadriel, the Dwarf's simplicity and honesty opens up the doors to her heart.

The ultimate acknowledgment for these characters (with the sole exception of Aragorn) is their place on a ship that will carry them Over-sea; and their admission to the Blessed Realm.

So what is Tolkien trying to show us with this whole 'ennoblement' concept? There is a hugely important lesson in communication here. Nothing is more powerful than acknowledging someone, with respect and with love. The Professor connects different characters defined as 'noble' and 'low' but the root of these connections, what really makes them shine, is the act of acknowledging the person for who they are -- for WHAT they have done -- and separation of class be damned.

Try saying the statements below. Just say them in your head. Imagine what it sounds like to someone else when you tell them with an honest heart:

"Thank you for helping me with this."

"That shirt brings out the color of your eyes. You look wonderful."

"I'm very glad you came along with us."

"This is delicious. Thank you for making me breakfast."

"I'm happy you introduced me to this book. It's terrific."

By doing so, you establish an opening; a new level of understanding. You can open up someone's heart and mind by the power of acknowledgment. To them, it feels like they have been lifted up. They feel like they are important, and validated, and appreciated.

This is what Tolkien does with Frodo and Sam on the brightly lit field -- they are suddenly aware of how they are appreciated by others. Aragorn sheds the disguise of a Ranger in hiding -- he understands that he has earned his true station in life. Bilbo understands that something within his heart has changed -- and Gimli is brought closer to a grace he never could have known.

All of them have heard and understood the acknowledgment of others. The writer has ennobled his 'common' characters and at the same time uplifted his readers.... with the power of respect and gratitude.

Much too hasty,

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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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