Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!
J. R. R. Tolkien has received much criticism over the years both for the lack of female characters in The Lord of the Rings and for their characterization. Some readers, for instance, may feel that even though The Lord of the Rings does include a handful of interesting women from Goldberry to Galadriel to Eowyn to Lobelia, they do not get enough page time or, if they do, they do not quite meet modern feminist standards. However, Tolkien’s women are varied, rich, and intriguing, just like his male characters. The difficulty? Readers generally do not get the story from their perspectives, and so do not have more direct information about their internal lives and motivations. Lobelia’s story, for example, is told in retrospect from a secondary character; readers do not get to follow her in her footsteps, as they do with Sam as he approaches Mordor on his own. Without this direct focus, it is easier to dismiss Lobelia, her character, and her actions.
However, if readers take the time to look more deeply into The Lord of the Rings, as well as Tolkien’s other writings on Middle-earth, the richness of his female characters becomes more apparent. Even though they may be few in number, Tolkien’s women are often powerful movers of events, their intelligence, wisdom, and courage on par with or even exceeding that of their male counterparts. This series of posts will take a look at a few of Tolkien’s female characters and explore their character development, and what it can tell us about Tolkien’s vision for Middle-earth.
Seemingly present mainly to add a bit of comedy to Tolkien’s stories, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is a character easily dismissed. In The Hobbit, the Sackville-Bagginses are notable largely for their desire to live in Bag End and their (presumed) theft of Bilbo’s silver spoons. In The Lord of the Rings, Lobelia initially appears as a disagreeable woman who shows up prematurely to claim possession of Bag End from Frodo’s sale, then suspiciously makes Frodo go through all the contents of the house before he departs. By the end of The Lord of the Rings, however, Lobelia proves one of the few Hobbits bold enough to defy Sharkey’s men and their destruction of the Shire. Though her role is small, Lobelia exemplifies the hidden depths of individuals, their secret courage and sense of fairness, that sometimes arises when things become difficult. Lobelia reminds readers that strength can be found in the most unlikely people, and that everyone has the chance for a moment of redemption.
Initially, Lobelia functions as sort of a comedic foil to Bilbo and Frodo. Where Bilbo and Frodo are kind, gracious, and generous, Lobelia is haughty, suspicious, and greedy. At the end of The Hobbit, readers learn that the Sackville-Bagginses are so angry at Bilbo’s return, they refuse to acknowledge his identity and they are “not on friendly terms” with him ever again. They want his house so much they wish he were dead! Lobelia’s first appearance in The Lord of the Rings does her no credit, either, as she shows up early to claim Bag End, and suggests that she thinks the Gaffer is likely to steal from her in her absence–perhaps because she herself is evidently given to thievery. Indeed, Lobelia’s very name, Sackville-Baggins, indicates to readers that she is not a real Baggins, not anyone worthy enough to live in Bag End or to be associated with the heroic Bilbo and Frodo.
Lobelia’s unpleasant character makes it easy for readers sympathize with Bilbo and Frodo’s dislike of her. When readers learn that Bilbo would use the Ring to avoid her, and that Frodo and his friends rudely left behind all their dirty dishes for her to clean up when she finally moves into Bag End, most readers likely smile and believe that Lobelia deserves it. By the end of The Lord of the Rings, however, when Lotho begins calling himself the “Chief” and keeping the bounty of the Shire to himself, the behavior of the Sackville-Bagginses has clearly moved beyond comedic pettiness, and readers may be wondering how much Lobelia knows about or condones her son’s behavior. Certainly she nurtured the greed that leads him to become a minor tyrant. And, at first, maybe she even benefited from his greed.
Importantly, however, even Lobelia Sackville-Baggins’ greed has limits. When Sharkey and his men take over the Shire (supposedly in Lotho’s name), she challenges their wanton destruction, their desire to put up ugly and unnecessary sheds near Bag End. She cries, “You dirty thieving ruffians!” at the Men and advances on them with her umbrella, her own version of a sword. Her umbrella becomes a symbol of her heroic resistance, a spirit that few of the other Hobbits match as they docilely accept Lotho’s rule and then Sharkey’s. When she is at last released from prison, the Hobbits clap and cheer her, recognizing her bravery in their defense.
Lobelia’s experience with Sharkey’s men, her time in prison, and the news of Lotho’s murder all change Lobelia, who, instead of deciding to live out her last days in the much-coveted Bag End, returns to live with her family. She even leaves all her money and Lotho’s to be used to Hobbits “made homeless by the troubles” after her death, signifying that she, at last, is able to give up her material wealth and think of others.
Though a minor character, Lobelia’s characterization and transformation has echoes of Sam and Boromir’s character trajectories, showing both the hidden strength and courage within individuals, and their ability to repent and change. Sam is most often identified as the representation of the common man who rises up when necessity arises, the “small” person who, along with Frodo, manages “to shake the towers and counsels of the Great.” However, in her own way, Lobelia shows the same strength. Her actions might have a lesser effect–she ends up imprisoned rather than removing Sharkey’s men from the Shire–but that should not make her courage meaningless or unworthy of recognition. Rather, she is a continuation of Tolkien’s theme that “small hands” are often capable of great work, and that even the lowly possess amazing strength.
In the same way, Lobelia is also a continuation of the themes of repentance and transformation that Tolkien initially illustrates through the death of Boromir. Her fall may not be as great–she is simply a mean, disagreeable, selfish women her whole life–and her moment of change may not be as inspirational, either–she does not fall in battle or even save anyone. But she is not a prince or a mighty warrior, just an elderly Hobbit woman going about her life. Yet that does not mean she does not also possess depth of character or that the hope of a change of heart is denied her. Once again, Tolkien uses Lobelia to illustrate the belief that everyone is deserving of pity and empathy, because everyone has a seed of good in them. Everyone can ultimately repent.
Overlooking Lobelia’s transformation is easy because readers do not get to follow her journey, nor do they ever get her story from her perspective. What readers know about her is usually told secondhand, through the (biased) eyes of Bilbo, Frodo, and their friends, or through the stories of the other Hobbits. Readers do not see into her heart, as they see into Sam’s as he stands on the border of Mordor and wonders whether he has the strength to carry on alone, or the strength to reject the Ring and its power. What Lobelia may be thinking, feeling, and suffering is unknown–yet one can imagine that perhaps some of her bitterness and spite is of a cyclical nature. Perhaps she is mean because others are, in turn, mean to her. What readers can assume, however, is that Lobelia is a person, too–and thus more complicated and nuanced than may initially appear on the surface.