The criticism of The Lord of the Rings that annoys me the most, and I think I share this opinion with most fans, is when people say the characters are black and white; bad guys are wholly bad and good guys are wholly good, and never the twain shall meet.  These criticisms are made by people who’ve never tried to classify the characters into those groups.

In the post that started this ardagraphic quest, I used the term “bad guys” because I was joking.  Now that I’m seriously trying to make something of that work, I need to replace it with something relevant to the text.  The utility of the good guy/bad guy distinction fell apart for me when I tried to classify Lobelia.  She’s built up as a villain all through the first three chapters, but you have to love an elderly lady, two feet tall, attacking a six-foot oppressor with her umbrella. In any case her repentance at the end, which leads her to give Bag End back to Frodo, ought to disqualify her from the “bad guy” label. “Bad guy” is only useful when talking about Uruk-hai or Bill Ferny.  I hereby abandon it.

A better classification comes from my own experience living in Virginia.[1]  It’s not so much good and bad people, as there are the people you keep close to you, and those about whom you always find yourself saying, “Bless his heart,” (if you’re a woman) or “That’s just Joe” (if you’re a man). They’re not bad guys, per se, but they frequently seem to act in a way that interferes with other folks getting on with their lives. It’s good practice to keep them at arm’s length.

Separation, then, is the classification I’ll use.  The hobbits themselves talk in those terms, and the narrator reinforces it.  I’ll use the terms “close” and “arms-length” to describe the two types of characters above.  Bagginses, Tooks, and Gamgees are “close”; Sandymans and Sackville-Bagginses are “arms-length”.

I see two other kinds of hobbits, besides these Hobbiton types.  First are the fringe elements, who are perceived as being a bit strange and often uncanny. “They still had many peculiar names and strange words not found elsewhere,” the narrator says about the Brandybucks.  (Prologue, i) Likewise the Hornblowers, from ‘way off in the Southfarthing, who “had hardly ever been in Hobbiton before”. (I, i) Since this is a scholarly work, I won’t call them “fringe”.  I’ll say “liminal”.

The last category are the “distant” hobbit-names.  Hobbits in Bree have them.  Frodo uses the name “Underhill” when he’s in Bree because Gandalf (who’s been everywhere) knows that someone who hears it won’t think of the bearer as living anywhere near the Shire.

graph of names and importance

Fig. 1. Classification of Hobbit family names

The counts work out to 13 Close families, 5 Arms-length families, 4 Liminal, and 5 Distant.  These numbers are big enough to be just at the threshold where it doesn’t look silly to put them on a histogram. In Figure 1, the blue bars are the counts of families, and the red line is the sum of the importance of each family in the group.  The distribution of importance is also reasonable; distant characters are less important to a hobbit (and to a story), and the weighting shows that effect.  Families in the Liminal category are slightly more important to the story than those in the Arms-length category because of the presence in the former of Merry Brandybuck.


[1] This is not crazy, as the original post hints.  My (English) ancestors, like other long-time Virginians, originated in the West Midlands near Tolkien’s boyhood home, but they left to come here between 1619 and 1750.  They missed out on the birth of the Industrial Revolution in Birmingham, and kept an agrarian lifestyle until recently.  It’s reasonable to conclude that they’re exactly the kind of peasants JRRT had in mind when he imagined the Shire.[back]