Bear with me a moment. I was watching the James Bond parody "Our Man Flint" (1966) starring James Coburn. At the end, he puts all of his female companions into steel barrels and sends them into the sea off a cliff, so they will not be blown up when the whole island explodes. Then he realizes that he can't get into a barrel himself, so he dives into the sea from a great height and survives. Naturally.

It seemed to me that it was obviously stolen from "The Hobbit", from the scene in which Bilbo loads all the Dwarves into barrels and then has no way to get into a barrel himself.

I started to wonder if Tolkien invented this situation, in which the protagonist saves everyone else, and then lacks the means to save himself in the same way.

I googled this several ways.

You save everyone but not yourself returned links to "My Hero Academia" and "Baldur's Gate 3" but that didn't seem helpful.

Save by riding in barrels led to "How to barrel ride with more panache, by Jack Robinson" and "Tips on riding around the barrels" which I've seen at rodeos but doesn't apply.

Save everyone but not yourself returned perhaps the most useful result: Matthew 27:42. "He saved others. He is not able to save Himself." etc.

Other searches returned pop psychology about saving yourself before you try to save anyone else and similar stuff.

Dwarves in barrels got me to "One Wiki to Rule Them All" but the article didn't answer the question.

Maybe my googling is poor. I've been trying to think of fairy tales and Shakespeare and I'm getting nothing. "Pilgrim's Progress"? I can't recall. Dante has people in barrels in the "Inferno" but nothing like this.

Generalizing: Did Tolkien invent this? Is there a literary precedent for the character who saves everyone else, but then can't save themself the same way? Is it presented as comedy? Are there barrels? Or, ignore barrels. Any time you need two people for one of them to escape, one will be left. Is it comedy?

Other questions: Perhaps he didn't realize that he left himself in the lurch ("By now, you've realized the flaw in Bilbo's plan" or words to that effect)... How does he manage to save himself another way? It's treated as comedy for the sake of the children but it's not really funny from Bilbo's point of view. His plan doesn't include himself. Extra question that may be ignored: Is it perhaps somehow related to the Bible verse in Matthew 27:42?

1 Answer 1


I don't think Tolkien invented this idea. I think the idea is so old that we might not be able to tell who invented it, and more than one person could have come up with it independently. Here's a possible old example.

The Odyssey chapter 9 tells about a situation when Odysseus and eight of his human companions are stuck in the cave of the man-eating giant kyklōps Polyphēmos. The giant is blinded, but he is guarding the only exit from the cave so Odysseus and his companions cannot hope to leave unnoticed. Odysseus ties the giant's rams together, three rams side by side, and ties a companion each to the underside of the ram in the middle, hoping that when the giant feels the rams with his hands he won't notice the humans. Odysseus, however, does not tie himself to a ram the same way for reasons that are unclear to me, he instead climbs on the underside of the largest ram.

I don't know whether this is a true example. I think Odysseus could have tied three rams together for himself too, and he was just displaying his usual arrogance by using a single ram. But his storytelling doesn't make this certain: maybe he just ran out of rams in the cave, or wanted to be ready for a heroic last fight against the giant if he discovered the deception and didn't want an extra ram to impede his movement. So I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and present this as a possible example. Hopefully another reader can answer with a less ambiguous literary example.

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    I like this because it's from classic literature. It's close. However, Odysseus didn't forget about himself, he clearly planned his own escape as well as that of his companions. If he'd been left without a sheep after he saved the others, I'd accept this!
    – Wastrel
    Commented Apr 26 at 13:44
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    It looks like first you have to tie a person to the middle ram, and then tie two rams to that ram with the person underneath. The tied person can't tie outer rams by themself. They need someone else to do it. Odysseus, being the last, had no one to secure him with two outer rams. Or even properly tie to the underside. Maybe the knot was on the top side of the ram, or something.
    – user28434
    Commented Apr 27 at 22:35

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