It is traditionally believed that a person’s word represents a binding contract, with one’s honour at stake in the process. However, not always is this moral code of conduct followed, with possible repercussions to pay. In the Grimm fairytale “The Lady and The Lion,” L. Frank Baum’s fantasy work, The Wizard of Oz, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy work The Hobbit, the concept of a promise is a prominent and important theme in maintaining one’s honour. As The Hobbit’s Bilbo says, “A promise is a promise,” and it is through the comparison of both fairytales and fantasy works that the idea of the promise is one in which a person’s word is golden, or at least needs to be for an ultimate sense of goodness to ensue.
The character of Bilbo in The Hobbit, is a good example of one that embodies the idea of promise fulfillment. He is a simple fellow that dislikes excitement and adventure, however, he is still convinced by the wizard Gandalf and the party of dwarves to assist them on their journey to recover their lost gold. They require a crafty burglar, something that Bilbo knows nothing about, but still adheres to due to much convincing on the parts of the dwarves; he felt that he would agree to anything if it would lead this numerous dwarven guests out of his house. Yet, it is his hubris, his inner pride which compels him to actually commit to helping them, despite the dangers involved. As the dwarves had belittled him with remarks of mockery towards his very nature of small size and apparent weakness, Bilbo states,
Pardon me, if I have overheard words that you were saying. I don’t pretend to understand what you are talking about, or your reference to burglars, but think I am right in believing...that you think that I am no good. I will show you...Tell me what you want done and I will try it (Tolkien 32).
Even though the dwarves had left him the next morning and he could have abandoned their quest, it is his strong binding promise that urges him to continue. He believed that only bad things could ensue if he dishonoured himself and his companions by leaving them to complete their quest alone. Hence, the ultimate goodness of recovering the treasures for the dwarves is achieved directly in consequence of Bilbo’s accompaniment upon the journey, as he uses his stealth with the ring to save the day in many situations.
Later on in the novel, Bilbo is faced with another promised situation where he encounters a shady character named Gollum. Gollum is a very dark, creepy, slimy creature that lives in a cave beneath the earth and runs rampant killing anybody he wants for food. It is he who possessed the magical ring of invisibility before Bilbo and it was in his cave that Bilbo found this ring that would change his future. Gollum had every right to be upset in losing the ring to Bilbo, however, he also had it in his head to kill Bilbo and eat him anyway, even though he had lost the riddle-game. Bilbo had sense enough not to trust Gollum as he reflects on the immorality of his character,
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He knew of course that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it, (Tolkien 104).
Even though this match of wits was held as an important game and worshiped on a holy level, Gollum was still willing to cheat and to go back on his promise to Bilbo of showing him the exit. Apparently, even the nasty creatures obeyed these rules, so that would have to make Gollum one of the lowliest creatures in Middle-Earth to disrespect such an important game. Even after Gollum has lost the game, he goes to look for his ring to cloak himself and snatch up poor Bilbo unsuspectingly, but Bilbo was relentless in his pursuit of his prize. As he pleads with Gollum, Bilbo says, “I want to get unlost. And I won the game, and you promised. So come along! Come and let me out, and then go on with your looking,”(Tolkien 106). Gollum was ready to go back on his promise of showing Bilbo out of the cave in reward for winning the riddle-game that they had played and this showed the disrespectful and dishonourable side of his character. Eventually, Gollum is left sulking and carrying on in remorse for loss of his “precious” ring and all because he chose to break his promise with Bilbo. Had he not went back to his island to fetch the ring to sneak up on Bilbo, he could have shown Bilbo the way out of the cave and then maybe Bilbo would have shared with him the knowledge of his possession of the ring and maybe even given it back to him as a present. But the immorality drove Gollum to try and in the process reveal the importance of the ring and chase Bilbo, which eventually led to him falling and discovering its power on his own. Ultimately, Gollum led to his own unhappiness, even when personal good and happiness could have resulted with a simple fulfillment of Bilbo’s request.
In the fairytale, “The Lady and The Lion,” a poor merchant promises each of his three daughters a present upon his return from an outing. After fulfilling each wish of his two eldest daughters, his youngest and fairest daughter is left empty handed. It is his promise of wish fulfillment of his beloved that drives him to make an even bigger promise to a dreaded lion. The aspect of the promise becomes even more important as the merchant binds himself to a magical vow to save his own life and fulfill the wish of a rose for his youngest daughter at the same time. After he plucks the desired rose from the Lion’s garden, the Lion threatens that, “Whoever dares to steal my roses shall be eaten up alive...unless you promise to give me whatever meets you first on your return home...I will give you your life, and the rose too for your daughter,” (Grimm 118). Wanting to save his own life and at least have the possibility of receiving a positive outcome, he agrees to the offer put forth by the lion. He anticipated that his youngest daughter would be the first to greet him on his arrival home, but all he could do was hope that his dear family would go unscathed from this bargain. It was the risky chance that made the offer attractive and so he took it. Unfortunately, his youngest daughter did greet him first and so he was obliged to give her up to the lion to live with. However, he attempted to avoid this obligation, but his daughter was quick to convince him that “a promise is a promise,” and that he should keep to the promise that he made to maintain the goodness of his heart. Otherwise, the lion might even seek him out and do irreparable harm to him for not keeping his word. It is her desire to avoid conflict that sets her apart as the most considerate and just person within the story.
The aspect of the promise is dependant upon two persons: the merchant and his youngest daughter. The promise cannot be fulfilled if not for the merchant’s original oath as well as the follow up completion of the oath by his daughter, which is to go and live with the lion. In her way of agreeing to the bargain, the youngest daughter comforts her father as she says, “Dear father, what you have promised must be fulfilled; I will go to the lion and soothe him, that he may let me return again safe home,” (Grimm 118). She is merely fulfilling her father’s promise as a binding contract and ensuring that honour is not lost, for she believes that goodness will ensue if their honour is maintained. She believes that the situation will only be temporary and that her return to home will be a sweeter one after she has met all of the required obligations. It is her devoted love for her father that drives her to obey the lion and to go to live with him. The lion turns out to be a handsome, enchanted prince and this can be seen as the resulting goodness, with the daughter’s eventual marriage to this prince and a child that is borne. Even though her happiness is a slightly different one than anticipated, it is through her devotion to her father’s promise that this happiness is brought into her life for the better.
The fantasy story of The Wizard of Oz, is one in which a little girl named Dorothy travels to a far-off fantasy world of witches, wizards, and talking animals via an unanticipated cyclone. She finds herself in a place in which she knows no one and is all alone, but fortunately makes several good friends on the way to see The Wizard of Oz, the only one in the land that can solve her troubles and help her return home. However, things are not as easy as they appear, for this story is one in which many promises are both made and broken. The idea of the promise takes shape right from the beginning of the story as Dorothy meets the scarecrow and after releasing him from his perch, befriends him. Dorothy assures him that she will accompany him to see the Wizard to help him get some brains, so that he can think for himself, as she promises, “If you will come with me I’ll ask Oz to do all he can for you,” (Baum 29). Throughout the beginning of her journey, Dorothy proceeds to make friends with the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion and promises them her aid as well. It is through these important promises that Dorothy is eventually able to return home for her new friends find ways of protecting her and keeping her safe. She would have been all alone in a strange world without her companions and so it is important that she keeps her promises to each of them and see that they reach the Wizard alongside her. It is her companions that support her and see her to her final destination and so by keeping her promises, goodness ensues with her reaching her goal of meeting the Wizard and ultimately returning home to Kansas. Through fulfilling her promises as well, Dorothy is able to guide her companions on a path to realizing that they already possessed their desired characteristics in themselves, independent of the false hopes derived from the Wizard. Without standing by her word, Dorothy as well as Toto, most likely would have been killed many times or gotten lost amidst the expanse of the unknown world around them.
The character of the Wizard is not the most moral nor the most considerate character to be found in the land of Oz. He fools everyone around him, even his subjects with his flashy props and his carnival talents into thinking that he is all mighty and powerful when really, as he puts it, “I am just a common man,” (Baum 158). Not surprisingly, when Dorothy and her companions approach him and ask him for each of their personal wishes, he selfishly demands a task to be done for him in return. He promises to grant their wishes in return for the death of the Wicked Witch of the East as he says to Dorothy, “There is now but one Wicked Witch left in all this land, and when you can tell me she is dead I will send you back to Kansas - but not before,” (Baum 109). He shows little concern for the safety of the selfless travelers and combined with his disregard for the truth, he shows his true, selfish colours. He makes promises to each of the characters that he knows he cannot keep and when they end up completing his supposed improbable task, he cannot fulfill his end of the bargain. After discovering the Wizard’s true identity and demanding their payment for killing the Wicked Witch of the East, he can only regrettably tell them, “When you came to me I was willing to promise anything if you would only do away with the other Witch; but now that you have melted her, I am ashamed to say that I cannot keep my promises,” (Baum 162). It only serves him a dose of his own medicine that he takes a balloon over the desert, more than likely to never be heard from again. It is his uncertain, most likely dismal future that resulted from his immoral promises that he could not keep and the deceptive faults committed against his own subjects and guests. A better, brighter future may have resulted if only the Wizard had kept his promises, or at least made promises that he had a chance to fulfill.
Even though a person may not be the most loyal or the most respected in all the land, it has nothing to do with the everlasting sense of honour that one can feel when one’s word is kept. Through a thorough look at The Grimm fairytale “The Lady and The Lion,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy work, The Hobbit, and L. Frank Baum’s fantasy work, The Wizard of Oz, it can be seen that honour and satisfaction are the result of keeping those promises that are made in confidence with those around them. A happy ending is always a desirable form of wish fulfillment, so in essence, must promises be kept to fulfill such an everlasting satisfaction? How else can true happiness occur, without a lasting sense of honour to maintain that happiness? In a sense, these are both required however ultimately, it is up to each person to dig deep within themselves to find their own true, eternal answers as to what makes them happy...
Baum, L. Frank. The Wizard of Oz. New York : Ballantine Books, 1979.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Toronto : Puffin Books, 1994.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. London : Harpercollins Publishers, 1998.