in: Character, Manly Lessons, Podcast

• Last updated: December 19, 2023

Podcast #951: The Hobbit Virtues

Virtue ethics is an approach to life, a framework for developing character and making moral decisions. To learn about virtue ethics, you could read a philosophical treatise by Aristotle. Or, you could read a fictional novel by J.R.R Tolkien. As my guest, Christopher Snyder, observes, the ideals of virtue ethics are well illustrated in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, being vividly embodied in the characters of Middle-earth.

Chris is a professor of European history, a medieval scholar, and the author of Hobbit Virtues: Rediscovering J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ethics from The Lord of the Rings. Today on the show, he shares the way Tolkien’s fantasy stories provide real lessons in the capacity of ordinary people to act heroically. We discuss the courage of persistence, the importance of fellowship and how it differs from friendship, the role of merrymaking in the good life, and the value of chivalry.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Virtue ethics is an approach to life, a framework for developing character and making moral decisions. To learn about virtue ethics, you can read a philosophical treatise by Aristotle, or you could read a fictional novel by JRR Tolkien. As my guest Christopher Snyder observes, the ideals of virtue ethics are well illustrated in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, being vividly embodied in the characters of Middle-earth. Chris is a professor of European history, a medieval scholar, and the author of Hobbit Virtues: Rediscovering J. R. R. Tolkien’s ethics from The Lord of the Rings. Today in the show, he shares the way Tolkien’s fantasy stories provide real lessons in the capacity of ordinary people to act heroically. We discuss the courage of persistence, the importance of fellowship, and how it differs from friendship, the role of merrymaking in the good life, and the value of chivalry. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right, Chris Snyder, welcome to the show.

Christopher Snyder: Thank you, Brett. Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Brett McKay: So you are a professor of medieval history, who also specializes in the work of JRR Tolkien. How do you say Tolkien or Tolkien? I’m always wondering how to, the best way…

Christopher Snyder: There’s a bit of debate about it and Tolkien himself talks about this, but Tolkien.

Brett McKay: Tolkien.

Christopher Snyder: Yeah, Tolkien is good.

Brett McKay: So JRR Tolkien, I’m curious, did Tolkien lead you to medieval history or did medieval history lead you to Tolkien?

Christopher Snyder: Yeah, so most of the medievalists that I know became medievalists because of reading The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit or maybe CS Lewis’s fiction. And I’m a little unusual in that regard. I was reading Tolkien and Lewis, but I was reading their scholarship before I ever read their fiction. What drew me to the Middle Ages was the Arthurian legends. And so in high school, I just got really hooked on the legends of King Arthur and the literature, but also the sort of historical backdrop. And so I read what Tolkien and Lewis said about Arthur before I read any other fiction. I think I didn’t read The Hobbit until high school probably and Lord of the Rings until college or even later. And so, it wasn’t early in my career that I kind of decided to work on Tolkien, but the more I learned about their academic careers at Oxford and Cambridge and Lewis’s case as well, the more they became like academic role models for me. And so early 2000s, around the time the first movies were coming out, that’s when I decided to work on my first Tolkien book.

Brett McKay: Well, that’s something people forget about Lewis and Tolkien is that, not only do they write fantastic fiction, timeless fiction that we’re still reading today, but they were serious academics. Tolkien was a medievalist. Can you tell us about his career as a medievalist?

Christopher Snyder: Sure. So Tolkien came to Oxford as an undergraduate to read classics or greats, which means basically be a classics major. And after his first year exams, he didn’t do as well as he had hoped. And he had a tutor who counseled him to maybe try this new degree called English. Oxford didn’t have an English degree until right before World War I. So he did, he moved over to English and started to specialize in the Germanic languages and in philology, which is sort of the history of languages and the science. It’s a subfield of linguistics basically, and you don’t find it a whole lot anymore, but it was really popular in the 19th century. So Tolkien was a philologist who specialized in old English literature like Beowulf and middle English literature like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Brett McKay: And what was his influence? What were his contributions to the field? Are they still lasting contributions?

Christopher Snyder: Yeah, absolutely. After he served at the front in World War I and was injured and almost died, he came back to Oxford and as he was recovering, he got his first job working for the Oxford English Dictionary. And so if you pick up a copy of the OED and turn to the letter W and look up Walrus and some other W words, the definitions are in part courtesy of his work, Tolkien’s work on the dictionary, which is perfect work for a philologist to do. And so he was working there and then he started teaching a little bit at Oxford. And then finally there was a job opening at Leeds University and he went there. And soon after he arrived, he worked on middle English vocabulary basically. And he got eventually a professorship, what we would call full professor at Leeds. And then another one opened up at Oxford. And so he came back to Oxford as a full professor and he had written only a little bit of scholarship at the time, but he became really well known as an expert on the poem on Beowulf and on Sir Gawain and the Green Knights. So he wrote about those things and he also did his own editions and translations. We don’t have all of the Beowulf stuff, we just have his prose translation, but we do have a lot of things that he wrote about those poems. And he wrote an essay called Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, and it is the most important scholarly essay on Beowulf.

Brett McKay: And how did his academic career as a medievalist influence his own fiction?

Christopher Snyder: Yeah. So he had been in love with languages since he was a small child and had been inventing languages. And like many British schoolchildren, especially if they go to better schools, they’re given classical education, Greek and Latin is available. And he studied both. And as we would think of at high school level, he was studying both. That’s why he chose classics. But he really was falling in love with Old English and Norse and also Welsh and eventually Finnish and those stories about elves and dwarves. And so he started with the languages and then he started building a world around the languages. That is, he would invent a language based on the principles of these other medieval languages and then he would build the world full of stories, characters and their stories based on those languages. And that’s very important to know about Tolkien. The language always comes first. So yeah, for decades he was doing this in private. He published a few poems, but nothing really big until The Hobbit came out. And The Hobbit wasn’t really attached to Middle-earth at all. It was entirely just a story about these creatures called hobbits that he made up for his children. And only later did he decide to connect it to this world that he was building that we call The Legendarium which some of it was published in a work called The Silmarillion after he died. But it’s the world of Middle-earth and that was kind of very late in the game for him.

Brett McKay: So you published a book called Hobbit Virtues, where you explore how Tolkien used his Hobbit series to explore and transmit virtue ethics to his readers. For those who aren’t familiar with virtue ethics, what is it?

Christopher Snyder: And so this was my second Tolkien project. And it really just came about for two reasons. One, I was working on a handout for my students for a class that I teach, and it kind of wanted to put down religious principles and ethics across different ancient cultures so that they could see Chinese ethics from Confucius next to Aristotle’s ethics as an example. So I’d been doing that. And then you might remember there was an election in 2016 and a lot of people talking about the election and a lot of kind of angst in the country. And it’s I want to do something positive. How can we bring people together? And I thought, well, I think virtue ethics can do that because regardless of your political, religious, cultural beliefs, usually you recognize certain things as virtues, as ethical behavior. And we respond as human beings, I think very similar in most cases. And that’s what Aristotle wrote about in a work called The Nicomachean Ethics. And it was a central work for him as a philosopher. A lot of what he had learned from Plato, who had learned from Socrates is in the ethics, but it’s also tied to another book he wrote called The Politics.

In other words, you can’t have politics, political science, a good orderly regime, unless you have ethics, which is an orderly soul, a person who has an ordered soul. So for example, I wrote my dissertation in part on tyrants and tyranny, and Plato and Aristotle defined tyrants as people with disordered souls. So if your soul is disordered and you’re given political power, then the state, the regime that you found will be disordered. That’s an example kind of from the political side of it, why ethics are important. But the other part of, I think, Aristotle’s definition that’s really important is saying virtue and virtuous. We tend to think of that in Christian terms or even Victorian terms, right? A virtuous young woman, right, is somebody who doesn’t sin or appears to not sin. And that’s not at all how Aristotle uses the term. Virtues are like skills, and the best way to think of this is like an athlete who possesses certain skills, but they have to practice for those skills to be better and to be habitually good at it. So Aristotle says virtues are excellences in different categories, and you have to be kind of educated enough to identify what the excellence is, like where does bravery fit on a scale of activity. And then once you’ve identified that, then you just practice being brave. And a virtuous person is just simply somebody who has habituated virtuous practice.

Brett McKay: And what I love about virtue ethics is, okay, Aristotle really fleshed this out. But as you pointed out, and I think CS Lewis pointed this out in The Abolition of Man, this idea of virtue, this shared sense of morality, what it means to live a flourishing good life, you can see it everywhere. You can see it in ancient Chinese culture. You can see it in Islam. You can see it in Hinduism. And what’s interesting, the specifics are different because they’re based on their culture. But if you look at the first principles, they’re pretty much cut from the same cloth. Confucianism, for example, is very similar to Aristotelian virtue ethics, where Confucianism is all about using your practical wisdom to know what the right thing to do at the right time for the right reason in any social circumstance you find yourself in. That’s how you’d be virtuous. And Aristotle basically had the same definition.

Christopher Snyder: Yeah, exactly. In fact, in our great book sequence, I teach Aristotle and Confucius back to back because I think there’s so many similarities in the way they talk about the gentleman or the virtuous man. I think that helps students to see. But students don’t always see that, right? So they may think, for example, oh, well, Christianity has a different virtue ethic than Islam does. And again, I was developing a handout to show, oh no, there are a lot of overlap. There’s more overlap than there is dissimilarity. And that’s exactly the point that CS Lewis makes in The Abolition of Man. He makes it in Mere Christianity as well. But in Abolition of Man, there’s an appendix he calls the Tao. And that is simply showing examples of the Ten Commandments and how they overlap with religious rules or guidelines in other religions and world religions and philosophies. So I include a bit of that in some of the appendices in my books. You’ll be able to see those different traditions and just how much they overlap.

Brett McKay: And I know CS Lewis was very explicit about his desire to re-educate people about this shared moral language of virtue ethics. That’s what The Abolition of Man is all about, is that we’ve lost this shared moral language. And as a consequence, we have this disorder in our culture. Did Tolkien have the same sort of goal as CS Lewis of reviving a virtue ethic in modern life?

Christopher Snyder: That’s a really good question because Tolkien was a man who had parts of his life and his soul that he didn’t share with the whole world, whereas Lewis wrote and shared everything from so many different angles and different fields that he ventured into. And Tolkien, as a devout Catholic, was uncomfortable, for example, talking about theology in a scholarly way or in an authoritative way. He would say, no, leave that to the priests and the theologians. And so Lewis was doing stuff that sometimes made him uncomfortable, not that he disagreed with Lewis. He just thought, well, Lewis, you’re not an expert on that stuff. Stick to medieval literature. That’s what you’re an expert on. But when I started this project, I had two things kind of, that I had identified. The first that I had for a long time that I’ve been teaching The Hobbit, and that is a hobbit philosophy. Is there a hobbit philosophy or is there a philosophy that Tolkien gives us that’s connected to Hobbits? And I thought, oh yeah, there absolutely is.

And it’s in the most serious part of the book, The Death of Thorin Oakenshield, when Bilbo is brought to Thorin’s bedside and the dying king says to forgive me. And Bilbo speaks very seriously and solemnly to him. And then Thorin says, “There’s more good in you than child of the kindly West. And if more people enjoyed good food and good cheer and fellowship and so on in books, then the world would be a merrier place.” And to me, that’s a virtue, that’s a philosophy rather. And in that speech, Thorin also says there’s wisdom and courage in you, blended in good measure. And the other thing that defines Aristotle’s virtue ethics is, they’re not extremes. They’re a point on a scale and they’re usually somewhere in the middle or not too far to the extremes of two things. Like for example, bravery, the extremes would be cowardice on one end and foolhardiness on the other. So bravery is obviously closer to probably foolhardiness than it is to cowardice, but it’s on that scale. What Aristotle is known for is the golden mean, right? Where is that kind of moderate position?

That’s the best position to be in. And so I think Thorin is saying that to Bilbo that you’re not the wisest person in the world and you’re not the bravest person in the world, but for a little person, you’ve been able to display these virtues. And so I think he’s saying that oh yeah, there’s Aristotelian virtue in Bilbo. And then the other thing I saw in Tolkien eventually is in one of his letters, I saw him say that he was using fiction to teach virtue ethics in essence, that he would embody virtuous behavior in characters. So it’s not allegory, which is something different, but having characters represent certain virtues or maybe multiple virtues is something that really interested him using literature for sort of moral teaching purposes. And a lot of modern academics would be uncomfortable with that, but not Lewis and Tolkien, they would absolutely be comfortable and understood that most ancient, medieval and Renaissance literature did exactly that.

Brett McKay: But what makes Tolkien different from other maybe fiction writers who had the aim to teach virtue is that he wanted to tell a good story first, right? You got to tell the good story because if you don’t, it’s going to be ham-fisted and everyone’s going to roll their eyes. You’re oh my gosh, you’re just, you’re really trying to preach to me here, but you can read the Hobbit series and you’re not hitting the face with the virtue stuff. It’s there, but you’re so captured with a story that the focus is on that. And then the virtue ethics as a consequence gets transmitted into you indirectly.

Christopher Snyder: Yeah, it isn’t heavy handed. And so a lot of people who come from a faith tradition would say, read the Lord of the Rings especially and say, this is a religious work. Well, what makes you say that? If you’re looking at organized religion and things like churches and liturgy ritual and so on, there are almost no examples of that in the Lord of the Rings. That’s obviously not because Tolkien was an atheist. He was a devout Catholic, but he wanted to write literature that was a mythology that didn’t directly compete with Christian mythology, that is stories told within a purely Christian context like the Arthurian Legends, at least the medieval ones that he was familiar with were sort of overtly Christian stories like the Quest for the Holy Grail. So he wanted to do something different. And so he gives us this world that’s almost a pre-Christian pagan world where the pagans understand the concepts, some of them theological and some of them virtue based that are in organized religions and especially in Christianity. It’s kind of like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Lewis and Tolkien both loved pagan cultures and they were both devout Christians, at least Lewis was eventually. So how do you kind of stay true to your principles and also your first loves? And I think they both found out very effective ways to do that.

Brett McKay: So you start off Hobbit Virtues talking about how the hobbits were gardeners and that Tolkien himself was also an avid gardener and he appreciated the gardens in England. How is garden keeping a good metaphor for what it means to live a life guided by virtue ethics?

Christopher Snyder: Yeah. So I kind of came up with that notion because I know gardening appears a lot in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and Samwise Gamgee is such a central character, some would argue the hero of The Lord of the Rings. And he is, don’t forget, his occupation is gardener. He is Frodo’s gardener, just like his father had been Bilbo’s gardener. So it was kind of there already. And then when I started writing, all of a sudden Voltaire came out, like the last line or nearly the last line in Candide is a novel searching for a philosophy of life and they keep coming up with bad ones. And finally, Candide says, you just need to tend your own garden. And that is a really profound statement if you think of it in terms of virtue ethics. We need to take care of ourselves. Like Plato and Aristotle wrote about the inner regime, we need to tend our own gardens. We need to make sure that we are grounded, that we’re examining our behaviors, we’re asking questions about how we treat other people, and that’s very down-to-earth stuff. And so I kept finding these little connections, often literary connections, to gardening. That the hobbits were small people who lived underground and esteemed gardeners. That humility is tied to humus, which is the earth in Latin.

They’re literally down-to-earth in their size and their living habits, but they’re also down-to-earth in that they don’t think too much of themselves. They have kind of a natural humility. And Frodo and Samwise are maybe the best examples of it in their quests. But just a general characteristic, I think, of the hobbits is that they’re humble people and that Tolkien really was fond of the common English village, especially the Midlands, where his family was from. He loved the kind of middle-class values and the small-town values of that English society. Even though he pokes fun at it a little bit in The Hobbit, he still really feels comfortable there, much more comfortable than he would, say, in a posh aristocratic circle in Britain.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Tolkien even said that he based The Hobbits off of soldiers that he met in World War I, not the officers, which sounded like the common everyday.

Christopher Snyder: Samwise, for sure.

Brett McKay: Yeah, Samwise, for sure.

Christopher Snyder: Yeah, he’s thinking back to when he was an officer, if you were an Oxford student and you went off to war, you would usually get some training and then be commissioned as an officer. And those people were often infantry and artillery and were killed at an enormous rate, the disastrous wiping out of that generation of young men, including the Dons, including the younger Tudors and Dons at Oxford. And Tolkien and Lewis both narrowly escaped World War I with their lives. And Tolkien’s time in the trenches are very important to him. In his time there, he said, he just didn’t get on with the other officers.

That he didn’t enjoy their jokes and their outlook on life, which you get, for example, in a lot of the war poetry that comes out of World War I. The famous poems of Wilford Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the more celebrated authors of the day, were more dark and cynical about war. Tolkien wasn’t that way at all. He really associated with the enlisted men and especially the Batman, which is the name for the servant that is given to the officers in the British Army. It’s a very British thing to have a servant. He had a lot of fondness for his own Batman. And he says that Samwise was very much based on his Batman.

Brett McKay: What does it say about Tolkien that he made these humble creatures who loved a garden, loved to drink a drink. They just wanted to relax, enjoy good food. They weren’t ostentatious, but the hobbits were the heroes. What was Tolkien trying to convey there?

Christopher Snyder: Yeah. If you look at the lifestyle of Lewis and Tolkien, neither of them liked to travel much. Neither of them ever came to America, where at least by the 1950s, both of them were celebrities. By a couple of years into the publication of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was really kind of a cult hero. And in the ’60s, he was very much so. And Lewis was on the cover of Time Magazine in the 1940s. They would have been treated like real celebrities in America. They never came to America. Tolkien traveled to France before the war.

And after the war, didn’t really want to go back. He traveled to Ireland a little bit. But other than that, he never left home. Lewis and his wife, Joy, went to Greece on a vacation. But again, other than that, he never really traveled. They had what they needed here in Oxford. They had their fellowship, a fellowship of scholars. They had great students. They had great pubs with great beer. They had food that they liked. Neither of them liked French food.

They didn’t like continental food. They liked simple English food. And they had the countryside, and they were both great walkers. They both loved country walks. And they really felt like they didn’t have to leave. And that’s, I think, who you get in The Hobbits. That’s why it’s so hard for Gandalf to get Bilbo out the front door and onto this quest is because he’s typical probably of Tolkien and his friends that they just didn’t like to travel a whole lot.

And they had prejudices about people in the greater world outside. And Bilbo has to overcome those prejudices through travel, but he has to come back home. And the most simple formula in this kind of a fairy tale is the same formula you see in Sword in the Stone by TH White, the Arthurian story. It’s a formula you see in almost every Harry Potter book. It’s there and back again. That’s it. You leave home. It’s uncomfortable. You go do something, and then you come back again. And when you come back, you’re either a changed person or you appreciate home more. And the last words in The Lord of the Rings, of course, is Samwise saying, I’m back. That’s it. It’s that simple.

Brett McKay: It’s yeah, Tolkien wasn’t a fan of travel or adventure just for travel or adventure’s sake. The Hobbits went on the venture because there was a reason to. They got called to it, and they needed to do something. And then they stepped up to the challenge. But again, you had to come back home. That was the most important thing for Tolkien.

Christopher Snyder: Yeah. Frodo and Sam certainly weren’t warriors, and really, neither were Merry or Pippet. They were kind of forced into those roles by their commitment to this quest. It’s the reluctant hero I think we see and admire in Tolkien.

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings and in The Hobbit makes courage a primary virtue that he explores. What’s Tolkien’s theory of courage?

Christopher Snyder: I think in The Hobbit, the courage that we see is the courage of the small person. And we’re kind of used to that now in American culture. We have lots of children who do great things and small people who do great things. But if you think about it in the early 20th century, there’s not a lot of great literature written about heroic quests by small people. And Bilbo is this person who’s not trained as a warrior. He really doesn’t even have a training. He doesn’t have a job. He’s kind of English gentry who’s inherited property and he just putters around in the garden and smokes his pipe and eats and just really doesn’t do anything.

But yet there’s something inside him and Gandalf says, we just need to bring it out of you. You need to prove to yourself that it’s in you. And I’m going to kick you out the door. I’m going to put you on this quest and it’s going to be good for you and amusing for me, which is a great line. Bilbo keeps being put in these situations with the trolls and with Gollum with the spiders and then Smaug in which he displays increasing amounts of courage. He fidgets, he faints, he does all these things, but eventually he becomes a person who’s courageous enough to crawl towards a dragon.

And of all the great courageous moments for Bilbo, Tolkien says that’s the big moment that he knows there is a horrendous evil power on the other end of this tunnel and he has to keep crawling towards it. Now, think about men in the trenches, men who are going over the top and into no man’s land as soldiers in World War I. That’s little people in a big story. Facing a big evil. And I think you can relate to that if you are someone with military experience or wartime experience, you can relate to that feeling that Bilbo has, only he doesn’t have the military training, the physical training. That’s why it’s even greater for him because he’s a small person without those physical characteristics. He just needs to figure out a way to stay alive and he does and he uses his wits to do it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And you mentioned that essay that he wrote about Beowulf, the monsters and the critics, and he talked about this idea that the early northern literature is a creed of unyielding will. It’s fighting and continue to fight even though you’re not on the side that wins. You see that in the Lord of the Rings, there’s all these moments when you think, boy, it’s over for these people. They’re goners, but they still keep going and they still keep fighting. I think Tolkien really admired that.

Christopher Snyder: Yeah, this keep calm and carry on, that’s become kind of a popular phrase resurrected in the last couple decades when you think of the Brits, stiff upper lip and all that. Tolkien did believe that there was something inherent to the makeup of an English person, and this goes back to when they were gardeners themselves back in pagan Anglo-Saxon times. There must have been something in them that gave them this ability to keep moving forward. And sometimes there are warriors in Anglo-Saxon or Norse epics that have the ability to fight and they just keep fighting even though they know they’re going to lose the battle. And sometimes he’s critical of that. There’s an Anglo-Saxon term called overmode, which is similar to hubris or overwhelming pride that makes you want to just keep fighting for your own personal glory even though your side is going to lose.

The Song of Roland is another example in medieval literature of this. But the hobbits aren’t really like that. The hobbits don’t have glory. They don’t have these great heroic figures in their culture. And yet, something makes Frodo and Sam especially keep moving up the mountain of Mount Doom, keep pushing through with the weight of the ring and this responsibility on them and no food and run out of water and what makes them keep moving. And Tolkien really thought that was something about the English character.

Brett McKay: Well, you talk about the elves in Middle-earth kind of represent this Tolkien tenacity. You talk about the elves fighting the long defeat. The elves knew that their time was over in Middle-earth, they were leaving and it was going to be the age of man. They nonetheless kept doing what they could do no matter what.

Christopher Snyder: Yes, the elves are very different. The hobbits have characteristics, the dwarves have different characteristics, and the elves have different characteristics. And the elves are the elder children. They were created first as tall, beautiful, strong, wise. They have all of these kind of natural characteristics that the hobbits don’t have. And yet, they’re cursed with long life. They live for a long, long time and they see other people die and they see Middle-earth change. And they know that Middle-earth is eventually going to die and they love it so much. Fighting the long defeat means that you’re fighting these battles, these great wars.

And if you don’t die in battle, you will continue to live. But if you stay in Middle-earth, you will get to watch Middle-earth die. That’s the long defeat and that’s the kind of dark pessimism side of Tolkien that some people don’t really kind of see, I think, is that there is a lot of darkness, especially in the latter parts of The Lord of the Rings.

Brett McKay: Is there a scene from any of the books from Tolkien that really exemplify his ideal of courage, you think?

Christopher Snyder: Well, again, in The Hobbit, I would say that Bilbo crawling through the tunnel facing Smaug and Bilbo’s fighting the spiders. Again, without any training, he has this little sword. Those are kind of his moments. In The Lord of the Rings, Samwise trying to rescue Frodo who’s been stabbed by Shelob and trying to get Frodo’s body back, fighting orcs turning into this vision of the brave Samwise that he was daydreaming about. That’s definitely a great moment of courage for Sam.

Brett McKay: Now, no my favorite scene with Sam is when he puts Frodo on his back and carries him up. And Sean Austin, he does such a great job portraying that scene. It’s better in the movie than in the book, I think.

Christopher Snyder: Yeah, I think so too. There are some moments like that. I think Boromir’s death and his conversation with Aragorn in the movie, that is all original dialogue, most of it written by Fran Walsh, who I got to meet and talk to her about just how great that speech is that Boromir gives and then Aragorn’s response to it. I think that’s better than the way Tolkien does it in the book, which is basically another version of the death of Roland from The Song of Roland. But it’s changed a little bit in the movie. And yeah, it brings a tear to my eyes almost every time to see Sam put Frodo on his back. And then the other moment in the movie that’s not in the book that really, really makes me tear up is when Aragorn’s coronation, when he comes to greet the hobbits and they kneel to him, and he looks pained and says, my friends, you kneel to no one. And then he kneels to them. And everybody there follows the king kneeling to the hobbits. That just shows you why Aragorn is just the best king. That’s an act of humility.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. Come Mr. Frodo. Oh man, I’m just thinking about it. So Lord of the Rings, the first book’s called The Fellowship of the Ring. And this idea of fellowship is really important to Tolkien. What did he mean by fellowship and how does it differ from friendship?

Christopher Snyder: I think friendship, he explores sort of individual friendships. I think that Sam and Frodo is one of the greatest. It’s a real love, a Philos. And so it’s in a different way, the friendship between Gimli and Legolas, I think is really interesting. But fellowship is a little different. Fellowship is a gathering of enough people that you can kind of entertain each other, never be bored with that group of people and feel comfortable around one another enough that you can both encourage each other and you can criticize each other. As writers and artists, you can criticize each other’s work. Of course, that’s exactly what we get in The Inklings, but that was not the first of Tolkien’s fellowships.

Tolkien had a fellowship of friends at King Edward’s School before university when he was in Birmingham. His high school friends, as we would say, are very close and they call themselves the TCBS, the Tea Club and Barovian Society that met in these tea rooms and had this kind of banter that you see a bit of in The Inklings later. Well, all except for two of the major TCBS members died in the First World War and that left a lasting imprint on Tolkien in a lot of ways. But one thing was that he missed that fellowship. And he tried to start clubs at Leeds and at Oxford, but it wasn’t until Lewis and Tolkien joined a student club that already existed called The Inklings that it really fit their temperaments.

And the students graduated, left Oxford, they kept the name and invited more and more of their friends on Tuesday mornings, usually at the Eagle and Child Pub and Thursday evenings, usually in CS Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. And they sometimes just drank and told stories and jokes. And sometimes they had very serious discussions and sometimes they read work to each other, work that eventually became The Lord of the Rings, for example.

Brett McKay: All right. The fellowship, you get together with people for a purpose. For the Fellowship of the Ring, the purpose was, we got to get this ring back to Mordor. And for Tolkien, his fellowships are I want to be around a group of people where we can support and criticize our work and become better writers.

Christopher Snyder: Yeah. And that we like the same type of literature and history, I think as well. And that was important certainly for The Inklings because they were mostly were Christian group, but in a lot of ways they had different temperaments and different interests. But the thing they had in common most was that they appreciated traditional forms of storytelling. Epic, poetry, the romances of the 19th century, like William Morris’s works and fairy tales and some periods of history, they all liked that stuff. They did not like modernist writers, for example, TS Eliot, who Lewis at least did not like at all.

And there were people that would kind of be excluded because they were writing a type of literature that The Inklings wouldn’t like. So you do have to have enough in common, usually cultural tastes. It wasn’t for them so much politics because they never really talked a lot of politics. Almost all of them were kind of conservatives culturally, but politically they just didn’t really talk much about politics. But I think most fellowships do form around that kind of first thing that you share in common. Maybe that is politics or maybe that is religion or maybe it’s an interest in a certain type of music or literature.

Brett McKay: So the hobbits, we talked about this earlier, they like to enjoy themselves. They like to eat good food. They like to drink. They like to laugh and dance, smoke a pipe. And Tolkien himself, he said, I’m in fact a hobbit in all but size. Tolkien liked gardens and trees and unmechanized farmlands. He says, I’m fond of mushrooms out of a field. He says I have a very simple sense of humor. I go to bed late and get up late when possible. I do not travel much. So, this idea of merrymaking and just enjoying life, how is that virtuous? What role does that play in living a virtuous life?

Christopher Snyder: Well, I’m not a good singer, but a lot of people who sing tell me how healthy it is to do so. And I think singing and laughing and dancing do have these biological pluses to them. I think they do raise the endorphins and all of that. But I think that there are some studies that would suggest that those things are actually good for you physically, as well as the fellowship or the spiritual side of what you’re doing. And then comes the food and drink. And that is maybe the more controversial part of Hobbit Virtues, my book, is that I’m trying to make a defense for living well by eating and drinking well. C.S Lewis and JRR Tolkien did not abstain. They were not teetotalers. They liked beer and they liked to smoke pipes. And I don’t know if they were around today whether they would still be smoking pipes, but they would certainly still be drinking beer. And so, I don’t think they saw anything wrong with that. And I give some examples in the book about the history of Christianity and Judaism and other religions, where there are times of the year in certain places in which it’s not just okay to drink, but in some cases even to overindulge.

For example, the Catholic church in the Middle Ages and The Renaissance, felt that at certain times a year it was good to have a Mardi Gras, to kind of get the humors out, the bad humors, out of you by having this kind of good time. And so they let people blow off steam, as we would say, so there’s a little bit of that.

But I don’t think it’s complete overindulgence, I think it’s just appreciating the taste of beer, the taste of food, but also that those things you can appreciate better in fellowship, as opposed to drinking alone is one thing. But if you’re having that same glass or two of wine with someone you love, with a fellowship, then it takes on other meanings. And I don’t know if that’s physically better for you, but I think, that Tolkien and Lewis think that is entirely appropriate. I think they see Jesus behaving that way in the Gospels, and they would think it’s just fine, if not virtuous behavior.

Brett McKay: So another thing that Tolkien talks about is the theme, is this idea of mercy being a virtue. Nietzsche, famously, derided mercy.

Christopher Snyder: He did.

Brett McKay: The Karate Kid, the sensei there, [chuckle] sensei Kreese says that, “Mercy is for the weak.” And Tolkien has a different take on mercy. What was his take on it?

Christopher Snyder: Yeah, it’s really interesting that you went to Karate Kid, ’cause I remember seeing that movie when I was young and then I went back to the reboot, to the series. And I love it, I love most of it, not all of it. But I love a lot of it because it is a spiritual journey for a lot of the characters there. And Daniel, the original Karate Kid, he’s trying to stick to Mr. Miyagi’s virtues, and mercy is a virtue that he was taught by his sensei. And so he thinks that the Cobra Kai way is wrong, because it’s no mercy. And so Johnny has to kind of learn that from Daniel, and then Daniel learn some other things from Johnny. I think that’s what made that last season that good.

But mercy is not a virtue that you see early in the Greco-Roman tradition. Again, the heroes are people who seek individual glory, and that’s often military glory and political power. Those classical virtues are challenged by the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He, on the Sermon on the Mount, challenges these notions by saying, “No, that it’s the humble, it’s the peacemakers, the merciful, those are the exalted ones.” And I think that’s He’s maybe most revolutionary sermon, and part of His philosophy is that you have to reverse these things, and from that moment on then it becomes a struggle between, in the Roman world, these classical heroic virtues and the Christian principles, which says that the slave is, got a soul that is just as important as the emperor’s soul, right, that To God they’re just both beautiful souls.

And so, really I love the Middle Ages because it’s kind of trying to work this out, and it really does take mercy seriously. Knightly codes develop that say that you have to fight in a certain way. Usually one-on-one, and if your enemy falls then you have to offer him mercy, and not take advantage of his disadvantage position. That you don’t fight women and children, and priests, and non-combatants, those were all laws that were instituted in church law, that were some of the first international laws of the Middle Ages. That’s what makes the Middle Ages, I think, so great. And C.S Lewis has a wonderful essay called on “The Necessity of Chivalry,” in which he argues that we need more chivalry today, because what we get today are wolves and sheep.

We have people who are… He doesn’t really like pacifism, and he says, they’re just sheep. They’re too docile. And then we have the killers, who have no mercy. And what we need is more land slots, who have the physical abilities of an Achilles, so they can do just as well on a battlefield, but they’re trained, or they’re training themselves to refrain from unnecessary violence. To restrain themselves so that they do not attack non-combatants, they offer mercy to fallen opponents, that’s part of the chivalric code in the Arthurian legends that then becomes a cultural code, not that every real life Knight lived up to that, for sure, but at least it’s a measuring stick that’s out there, that is not in the classical virtue world. And it’s not really I would say in the modern world either.

Brett McKay: Is there a scene in the, The Lord of the Rings series that really shows this idea of mercy?

Christopher Snyder: Yeah. The great act of mercy towards Gollum. First in The Hobbit, in which Tolkien didn’t originally write it this way, so he had to tinker with this episode, but when Bilbo has the ring and he turns invisible and he has the sword, Gollum is in the tunnel in between him and his freedom, and he could have killed Gollum and says, “Yeah, that’s what I need to do. I just need to poke his eyes out, kill this miserable creature.” And then he starts to imagine Gollum’s life. So he has empathy for Gollum, because he imagines what it would be like living for hundreds of years in this sunless dark cave. And because he has empathy, he decides to jump over Gollum and run instead of killing him. And Tolkien eventually kind of says, “Oh, that, that works out really well with what I’m trying to do in The Lord of the Rings. And a lot of my friends, especially Christian friends, will say that that’s the key to the whole Lord of the Rings. That everything would have changed if Bilbo would have killed Gollum, because he would have obtained the ring in an act of violence. He would have simply become a dark lord.

And then Frodo just echoes these acts of mercy towards Gollum and several points in the book, he has opportunity to kill Gollum he doesn’t. And Sam in the book is a little more like wanting to kill Gollum than he is in the movies. And so that’s the one kind of failure with Sam. It’s that he can’t empathize with Gollum the way Frodo can. And Peter Jackson’s interpretation of that is it’s because Frodo had the ring for that long. And so he understood addiction to this kind of power that Gollum had. And that empathy led to these acts of mercy. And it’s beautiful and it’s wonderful. And it gets us all the way up to the crack of doom. Right? And you think, oh yeah, that’s a easy answer. And then Frodo refuses to destroy the ring. And you’re thinking, oh, you got that close and you can’t do it. And that’s that darkness in Tolkien, right? That says, no, even our best champions can’t ultimately do at the last minute the right thing all the time. And in the face of evil, Frodo becomes selfish and gives in. And so Gollum jumps up and bites his finger and they fall into the crack. And that’s how the ring is destroyed. So Tolkien is obviously saying there that it’s not Frodo’s action at that point. It’s what this off-screen power does with Frodo and Gollum’s actions that creates the eucatastrophe, the happy ending of the Lord of the Rings.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah. And there’s that famous scene between Frodo and Gandalf where they’re having a conversation where Frodo’s like, it’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance. And then Gandalf, you know, the wise, he’s saying, he says, pity, it’s a pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. And then he goes on, he says, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many. And that’s the scene, right? Like the Bilbo’s pity in the Hobbit is what saved the day at the end of the Lord of the Rings series.

Christopher Snyder: ‘Cause Gandalf senses that Gollum is going to have some role to play in this and that he needs to keep Gollum alive. He can’t kill Gollum because he’s got some role in all of this because Gandalf has these kind of angelic abilities even before he’s Gandalf the White. He kind of senses this. And yeah, he’s absolutely right. None of this would have been a happy ending had it not happened exactly this way. But it is also Tolkien’s really theological point there that we need grace, that human action, sort of humanism is not enough. At the end, in the face of the greatest evil, we need help.

Brett McKay: Well, Chris, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Christopher Snyder: Well, so they can read Hobbit Virtues, which came out a couple of years ago. Hobbit Virtues: Rediscovering Virtue Ethics Through the work of JRR Tolkien. Or they can read my first Tolkien book, which came out in a revised edition just this past year called The Making of Middle-earth. And that’s a more comprehensive book in which I talk a lot about history and archaeology of the ancient medieval worlds and how understanding that better helps us understand Tolkien better. So those are two to start with and basically read anything by Tom Shippey on Tolkien. He’s probably our greatest living Tolkien scholar. There are a lot of people, a lot more people now doing really good books on Tolkien than there were say, you know, 10, 15 years ago.

Brett McKay: Well, Chris Snyder, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Christopher Snyder: Thanks, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Chris Snyder. He’s the author of the book Hobbit Virtues. It’s available on Check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, sign up for our newsletter. We’ve got a daily option and a weekly option. They’re both free. It’s the best way to keep track of what’s going on in Art of Manliness. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us review on Apple podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AoM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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