Posts Tagged ‘“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”’

Tolkien lecture 2: Monsters, Fairy Stories and the Imageo Dei

September 30, 2014

Tolkien lecture 2: Monsters, Fairy Stories and the Imageo Dei

 This is my current draft of the second lecture of a series of four which I am preparing for my church’s adult Sunday School sessions in October.

Two early childhood creations mentioned by biographers are the language he and his brother invented together and the story he wrote about a dragon. It seems that his mother early instilled in him an appreciation for both the world of imagination and the intricacies of grammar and the way language functions. Much later, however, he reported that as a child he lost interest in “fairy stories” for a time, eventually becoming interested in fantasy again as an outgrowth of his studies in philology.

As an adult, he wrote stories for his own interest and for his children, while at the same time becoming a successful professor of philology. These two interests combined strikingly in his lecture titled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which he delivered in 1936 to the British Academy and published the next year. This essay is credited with revitalizing Beowulf studies. Tolkien began by lamenting the status of Beowulf criticism at that time, claiming that there really wasn’t any. Instead, he argued, there were a lot of historical dissections of “The Beowulf,” attempts to find the mundane historical foundation or to find some pre-English precursor, instead of any attempt to consider the story as it is presented to us now. For those of you rusty on your high-school English literature, here’s a brief synopsis lifted from Wikipedia:

In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats in Scandinavia, comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall (in Heorot) has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel’s mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and later becomes king of the Geats. After a period of fifty years has passed, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants bury him in a tumulus, a burial mound, in Geatland.


All in all, it is a pretty simple story: boy meets monster, boy kills monster, boy kills monster’s mother, and then nothing more is said about the boy until fifty years later when the boy, now an old man, kills and is killed by a dragon. Tolkien summarizes the consensus of scholarship in his day as saying that the story puts the important things at the edges and the unimportant things in the center, and that whatever flaws it has, it is still Highly Significant. He agrees that it is highly significant, but disagrees that it is misguided. Instead, he argues, the critics are unhappy because it is not what they want it to be, whether that be an epic, an historical narrative or whatever. It is instead a poem, and should be read as one. It should be read as a finished product intended to say something particular about life, not simply rummaged through to find what historical facts about the ancient Norse might be gleaned. Above all, the center is right where it should be: on the monsters. Modern critics wish to do away with monsters and find the “real” basis for the story. “Reality” has to be some historical account of a human fighting an enemy, or maybe an allegorized story of a war between two clans, or something “normal.” Tolkien says no: the emphasis is on the monsters, and should be. The poem of Beowulf, he argues, was written by an early Christian monk, who looked back over the heritage of his pagan Anglo-Saxon history (just barely past) to comment on the pagan understanding of life. The hero strives against monsters because he is not just some guy fighting some other guy; he is every hero fighting death itself. In fighting Grendel, he fights evil itself, that which hates music and joy and all the mead hall was meant to celebrate. He defeats it, and thus becomes truly the hero. The hero is he who fights that which threatens to corrupt and destroy human nature and human fellowship. The hero is one who behaves heroically in the face of these dangers. And, the poet shows us, the hero (in pagan times) is one who is heroic without hope. Having proved his boasts true and defeated Grendel and his mother, the next time we meet Beowulf he is facing a more inhuman monster, a dragon, who is truly Death itself. The Teutonic hero faces death bravely, and slays the monster while himself being slain. The beginning of the hero and his end are thus presented in the poem, and that is all paganism offers: birth, striving, death, and then nothing. The ancient monk who wrote the poem both celebrates the heroic virtues of the past, and illustrates the limits of the pre-Christian view of life. No “realistic” story could have done this as well; the hero strives against cosmic forces, and these must be represented as the monstrous, superhuman forces that they are if the hero’s struggle against them is to reflect humanity’s struggle with the cosmos.

This then is Tolkien’s explanation of Beowulf: a Christian poem making Christian points using the language, imagery and even older tales from the pre-Christian past. The author does not mention the Norse gods, Tolkien says, because they are false gods and he doesn’t want to endorse them. Today Thor is one of The Avengers, but when “Beowulf” was written Thor was still The Thunderer who our grandfather prayed to but we no longer do, but who still lived in the back of our minds. We today can treat the Norse gods as fairy tale creatures who live far away in another realm; for the author of “Beowulf” it seemed better just to ignore them.

In many ways, Tolkien saw himself as doing what he felt the author of “Beowulf” had done. At the time he gave the lecture, 1936, he had just finished the manuscript for The Hobbit. This is a fairy-story, and I’ll say more about that later, but it really is a very different tale. The Lord of the Rings had not even been imagined, since it grew out of his publisher’s urgent request for “more hobbit stories.” But Tolkien had been working on The Simarillion for more than twenty years. It was a labor of love for him, beginning as an attempt to create a national myth of England equivalent to the Finnish saga he was studying in 1912. He tried repeatedly to get it published in his lifetime, but even with his other literary successes Allen and Ulwin were hesitant about taking on such a large and complex work; besides, it had no hobbits. Instead, it remained a private project, and since it remained unpublished he continued working on it his entire life, leaving it for his son Christopher to edit and publish posthumously. And this was a work that uses older themes and tales of a pre-Christian world to present Christian values. Many readers of Tolkien have remarked on the fact that there is no institutional religion and little explicit belief ever expressed in his more famous works; but this again is fitting, particularly given what he says about “Beowulf.” Tolkien is depicting a world where there is no “chosen people” because the Creator has not yet chosen any nation. God has not become revealed in history. And certainly, there has been no Incarnation. With the true god unknown in the world, any religion would be false, so it is better just not to deal with it. At the same time, Tolkien’s world is one that is much closer in time to the Creation, and Eru Illuvatar, his name for the Creator, is more present everywhere. The elves were the first people created, immortal and magical, destined eventually to fade from the world and return to their Creator. Wizards are the human forms of the Maiar, who are essentially messengers of the Valar, the heavenly host who surround and assist the Creator. You might say they are the angels’ angels. So in a very real sense, humans are surrounded by agents of the divine though they do not know it. In the Revelations of John we read that in the New Jerusalem there will be no temple, because God is everywhere. In Middle Earth, God is likewise everywhere and therefore not worshipped anywhere specifically. At the same time, though, in Middle Earth God is invisible, because He has not revealed Himself; God’s purest agents are the practitioners of magic, the wizards and elves, who appear to the mortals around them as merely unusual and powerful beings like themselves, superlatively powerful and wise but not “supernatural.” Tolkien’s mythology has its own versions of Satan and the Fall, and the name “Sauron” implies a serpent (notice the similarity between the name “Sauron” and the word “dino-saur,” Latin for “terrible lizard”). The tales of the Simarillion and The Lord of the Rings are thus cosmic tales of the struggle between good and evil, order and chaos, creation and destruction.

And of course, in cosmic tales you must have monsters. The elves are the original people, closest to Eru Illuvatar; the orcs are elves captured and mutated by Melkor, the Lucifer of Middle Earth, the Valar who rebelled against the Creator. They are thus literally evil made flesh, though individually of a low level. By contrast the Balrog and Smaug represent personifications of greed and malice equal to Fafnir, the giant turned dragon which Siegfried slew in German mythology. The struggle against monsters is a cosmic struggle, a moral struggle, and a physical struggle against a dangerous foe, all at once. It is a physical struggle because they are physical realities and pose physical dangers. They thus also require physical courage, and cleverness, and other virtues to overcome, just as “ordinary” dangers such as war and hardship would require. It is a moral struggle because the monsters represent moral evils made manifest, and evoke in others the vices they represent; or sometimes they result from the ordinary vices. For example, the dwarves of Moria were too curious and too greedy and too proud, and thus dug too deeply into darkness and secrets they should not; in that way they uncovered the Balrog which destroyed their kingdom. This monster was only defeated by one who fought bravely without hope of advantage for himself, but on behalf of others. Service to neighbors is an important virtue in Tolkien’s writings, whether it is Gandalf defending the bridge or Mr. Niggle who leaves off painting his picture so he can run an errand for his neighbor with the bad leg.[1] And monsters are also cosmic evils, representations of the powers that would plunge everything back into Chaos, incarnations of death and greed and oppression. When Beowulf fights the dragon, he knows he is going to meet Death, and determines to meet it bravely and dutifully. Tolkien’s monsters are likewise manifestations of the decay that threatens the world. And just as the author of Beowulf described his monsters as children of Cain to link them to the rebellion against God, Tolkien’s monsters are generally agents of Sauron, servant of Melkor the arch-rebel of The Simarillion. To fight monsters is thus to do the work of defending and repairing Creation itself, becoming God’s co-worker.

But enough about monsters: what about elves and fairies and the good? These are the subjects of Tolkien’s 1939 lecture at St. Andrews’ University, “On Fairy-Stories.” At this point Tolkien was already a successful author; The Hobbit was selling well and had gotten good reviews, and his publisher was pushing him to write a sequel. That sequel, barely started at this point, would ten years later be The Lord of the Rings. And of course, Tolkien’s labor of love, The Simarillion, was seventeen years in the making at this point and still growing. He might have been humble about his qualifications to write about fairy-stories, but the world was beginning to know him as an excellent writer of fairy-stories himself.   This essay also, of course, says much about what he saw as his own mission as a writer.

Tolkien begins by attempting to define the concept “fairy-story” more clearly. Many so-called “fairy tales” really aren’t, in his view. Some are simply moralistic allegories aimed at children and sugar coated by saying the heroes are fairies. Some are simply talking beast fables, similar to fairy tales but lacking the magical or fantastic element. So saying anything using a fairy as a character is a “fairy-story” is too narrow, Tolkien thinks; and saying anything with a marvelous nature (like Aesop’s fables) is a fairy-story is too broad. And speaking as a philologist, he points out that before the Tudor period “fairy” was not used to refer to a magical being like an elf, but rather to a magical place or dimension, the Perilous Realm, the land of enchantment. The fairy-story is the story of another reality than the one we generally inhabit, one more mysterious and beautiful and dangerous. It is the realm of Magic, provided “magic” is understood as perfectly serious and real, and not confused with “the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.” As an example, he points to the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a story that is full of magic but has no “fairies” at all. This is a story he lectured on often and had previously discussed in a scholarly essay.

After a discussion of the sorts of tales he would include under the genre “fairy-stories” and the various sorts of faux fairy stories he would reject, he turns to consider the question of the origin of fairy-stories. This question could be considered in two ways, and Tolkien discusses both. The first is the question of the origin of a particular story. This is the sort of thing that scholars debate constantly. If, for example, you find a similar tale in two widely different locations, what is the explanation? Do some tales just travel around the world until every culture has some version? Do some tales originate in multiple locations simultaneously? Tolkien moots most of these questions that so fascinate scholars. First, he says they aren’t using the tale as it was meant to be used. Just as he complained so-called critics had for years dissected Beowulf rather than just read it as a poem, so he says they often do with all fairy-stories. It’s a fine procedure in its own way, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the actual story. We often find stories about witches eating (or trying to eat) children, but that doesn’t mean Hansel and Getel, Baba Yaga and “Hocus Pocus” are “the same story.” And deciding that the first two arose independently and the last imitated the first but not the second tells us little about why this theme should have been used in this story in this way. Ultimately, Tolkien points out, any explanation of the fairy-story goes back to some Story-teller, who had a particular reason for telling this tale in this way. He writes that “The human mind, the tongue and the tale are all coeval.” That is, fairy-stories are as ancient as language and the mind itself. This may be more provable than Tolkien knew, if those cave paintings of horned men suggest (as some scholars believe) that Paleolithic humans imagined a magical man-beast. Tolkien says in his essay that the human mind is able to abstract the qualities from the world and combine them in new ways, imagining the green of grass on an old witch’s skin or the yellow straw being spun into yellow gold. This is the essential creative activity of the human mind: taking the things God has made and seeing them in new ways, in new relationships, and with new possibilities. This is the beginning of Faerie.

The origin of the fairy-story is the story teller. The origin of Faerie is the ability of the human mind to abstract concepts from the observed world and combine them in new ways. But why should anyone seek to do this? Why make up stories about other worlds, and the Perilous Realm? Why did the ancient storytellers choose tales of Faerie, and why do so many modern storytellers continue to do so? Why does there continue to be such a hunger for fairy-stories, even among modern people?    Tolkien says that the chief value of fairy-stories, if they are well done, lies in their literary merit just as it does for any other work of art. He utterly rejects the idea that they are “children’s stories” or as we call them today, “Young Adult literature.” Their chief value is not that they are good for children; if they are good, they are good for everyone. But fairy-stories in particular serve four distinct functions: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation, all of which Tolkien says adults generally need more than children do.

Fantasy: Of the four, Tolkien regards Fantasy as the most important: he devotes as much space discussing Fantasy as he does the other three combined. Tolkien says it is because human beings are inherently, essentially creative. It is human nature to want to create something new. As he puts it, “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made; and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

As a theologian, I find this statement extremely interesting and even exciting. Tolkien is making a claim about the doctrine of the Imageo Dei, the image of God in which Adam was created. We have an irrepressible urge to create because we are ourselves created in the image of the Creator. There are, of course, many sorts of creation. Building, making and using tools, running a business, writing a science textbook or a dramatic novel or painting a still-life, even having and raising children are all creative activities. Tolkien is not saying that only Faerie is connected with the Imageo Dei or that only fantasy writers are truly following the example of the Creator. But he is saying that fantasy is one expression of the Image of God. It can be abused, creating nightmares and idolatries and pagan cults of human sacrifice, whether those be the old Norse religion or the mythologies underlying 20th Century totalitarianisms; but the abuse of the gift does not change the fact of its divine origin.

Tolkien’s word for this human activity is “sub-creation.” We live every day in the “Primary World,” the world God has made. Made in God’s image, we have a desire to create our own “Secondary Worlds.” That is what Fantasy represents. The story-maker tries to create an internally consistent and compelling Secondary World, and invites the reader or hearer to enter it for a time. When the story-maker does a good job of it, we enter into that world. That is often called “suspension of disbelief,” but Tolkien finds that a poor term since it suggests a deliberate choice to push aside disbelief; if the Secondary World is compelling and the story well-told, disbelief does not appear in the first place. It is more like dreaming, as we enter into the Secondary World and give it Secondary Belief: not equal to the belief we give the Primary World, but just as real for the time we are under its spell.

Recovery: Life can be exhausting. The sameness of the passing days can drain the spirit. There are only three primary colors, only straight or curved lines; the elements of reality are always the same. The sameness can dull our ability to see them at all. To see reality clearly we must learn to see it anew, from a different angle. We must see the elements of reality in their distinctiveness. We need the gift of Recovery. Fantasy allows us to take the elements of reality and recombine them in new ways. This in turn allows us to see them afresh and to appreciate them as they are in nature. We see the familiar and are startled to see it from a different angle. Above all, we see things, in Tolkien’s words, “as we were meant to see them—as things apart from ourselves.” Over-familiarity leads to a sense of possessiveness; Recovery means regaining a clear view, to see things in their independent reality. Tolkien says that Fairy-Stories are not essential to this sort of view of reality; humility would be enough. But fairy-stories are one way we can regain this view of things as things instead of seeing them simply as revolving around ourselves. And furthermore, Fantasy can allow us to set all our ideas free from their previous confines and relationships and experience them in new ways.

Escape: The gift of Recovery grants the ability to Escape. In Tolkien’s day as in our own, there is much scorn directed towards “escapist literature.” At the very least, it is often considered like candy: it’s alright if you’ve already eaten your vegetables. It’s unhealthy or at best empty, but not too bad in small doses. Some critics would go further and see all such “escapism” as unhealthy and perhaps a bit immoral. You should put your feet in the “real world” and stick to your work; anything else is shirking your responsibilities. I’m afraid Christianity has contributed to this attitude, particularly Paul’s injunction that Christians should forswear frivolity and confine themselves to singing hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:15-20, for example). Tolkien takes these critics head-on and says the “escape” offered by Fantasy should not be compared to the laborer shirking his responsibilities but rather to the prisoner slipping his chains. Humans have probably always longed to escape the limits of their existence, to fly or swim as easily as a bird or fish, to converse with other animals and so on. More specifically, fairy stories allow us to escape the limits of our own lives. In this mechanized, industrial, polluted, crowded, impersonal, confining and completely un-heroic world we live in today, Tolkien thinks, it is only natural to long for at least a temporary escape. When we have learned to see the trite and familiar in new and fresh ways, and to see the ideas that made up our Primary World in new relationships and full of new power, we can break free of the psychological confinement and limits which we have accepted too easily. And perhaps, he says, they can put us in touch with true reality. He cites the attitude of some of his contemporaries that electric street lights and railroads and traffic jams are “real life” and “inevitable progress.” Really, they are unreal; what could be real about making night as bright as day, isolating human life from the land and air that sustains it, making long distances seem short? Fantasy may create monsters that live in the sea or fly in the skies, but at least it does not try to utterly do away with the oceans or the heavens. Only modern industrial man would think to do that. Escape from that sort of world is escaping from the artificial to seek the natural.

Consolation: Escape opens the way to Consolation. What, exactly, is Consolation, and how does the Fairy-Story offer it? I would answer that by returning to a piece of literature which is not a “Fairy Story” but which does contain many elements of Faerie: the poem Beowulf. True, dragons and ogres are clearly denizens of the Perilous Realm; but monsters notwithstanding, the remarkable thing about Beowulf, the first thing I noticed when I first read it as a teenager, was the relative lack of fantastic elements. No gods or elves or spirits aid the hero or even advise him; the human is on his own against the monsters. That, Tolkien says, is the ultimate conclusion of paganism. One fights against the forces of evil and suffering and decay until one loses, and that is the end of it. Beowulf, in the poem, fights and dies bravely, without consolation. Old age, more than the dragon, finally claims him, as it claims us all. What the poem lacks is what Tolkien called the “Eucatastrophe.” This is another word of his own invention. It literally means “the good catastrophe.” What we usually call a “catastrophe” is the sudden reversal of order and joy, the sudden collapse and destruction. The Eucatastrophe is the sudden reversal, the sudden and unexpected turn of good that come out and redeems the catastrophe. The abused stepchild finds she has a fairy godmother who sends her off to the ball, there ultimately to win her way out of poverty and serfdom. The fatherless son, starving and penniless and the victim of con men, finds his way to a magical realm where he overcomes a giant and wins wealth and fame. What is the traditional end of a fairy-tale? Say it with me: “And they all lived happily ever after.” The fairy-story is an expression of the hope that one might somehow, despite all reason and the way things usually go in the Primary World, somehow Escape from disaster. And of all the disasters that threaten, what is the ultimate? We may dream of escaping from gravity or poverty, but the ultimate escape is the escape from Death. And ultimately, that is what the Fairy-Story hints at: Somehow, by some magic, we might escape the Dragon that claimed Beowulf.

This is why Tolkien claims the Fairy-Story as “a kind of evangelium.” The fairy-story is the story of wondrous Escape and the promise that life might be a bit better than appearances seem to allow. This, Tolkien claims, is a universal hope of all humankind. There is no one who could not wish this were true, except someone who has really fallen to wrath and despair. As a Catholic, Tolkien was familiar with St. Augustine’s prayer: Our hearts, O LORD, are restless until they find their rest in Thee. The fairy-story reflects that restlessness and answers to it. It is a kind of gospel, a precursor to the Gospel. But as humans, the story-tellers through the ages could only create their Secondary Worlds and place their consolations therein. God has placed the ultimate Consolation in the Primary World. The Gospel is the ultimate Eucatastrophe. When history seemed dark and hopeless, Light was born. When Death had won, suddenly the stone was rolled away. As Tolkien writes, “This story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—–and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”

Tolkien scorns the notion that two stories with similar themes are “the same story.” It is essential, he says, to focus on the Story-Teller, and the intentions of the story-teller in telling the story in just this way. So he is definitely not saying that all fairy-stories are the same. What he is saying is that they all speak to a common longing: the need for a Eucatastrophe, the escape from Death, Consolation. And in saying that the Gospel is a Fairy-Story, he certainly does not mean that it is “only” a fairy-story. This was the center of his argument with Lewis, and how he finally turned him from rationalism back to belief. Something can be “mythology” and still also be true in this Primary World. That is, we can understand the historical events of the Gospel as the fulfillment of the intentions and desires of earlier mythology, while still believing that they actually did happen in the “real world.” As the Scripture puts it, Christ came “in the fullness of time,” when all Creation groaned for liberation. The fairy-story reflects that universal longing.

Looking at these non-fiction essays, we can see what Tolkien was up to in his writing. First, as he says, it is essential that the work has its own literary merit. His first goal was to write a good story; if it isn’t good reading, no noble purpose can make it good. Like the author of Beowulf, Tolkien sought to express Christian truths implicitly, telling stories of a pre-Christian and even pre-Abrahamic time. Also like Beowulf, he celebrated the virtues of the heroic age, such as courage and loyalty, putting them in the service of his Christian message. More explicitly than Beowulf and more like the fairy-story, Tolkien sought to create a Secondary World through his exercise in Fantasy, to give his readers the opportunity to join him through their own Secondary Belief. In doing so, the reader has a chance to see another world, a world without motor cars or tenements, a world closer to nature than many of them experience in their lives, and to appreciate again the joys such a world can offer. He presents the dangers and challenges of life as monsters and demons to be fought and defeated, whether by courage, or cunning, or humble persistence. He presents supernatural aid in the form of magic, primarily exercised by elves and wizards. He gives his readers a chance to see things afresh, whether they are things that have become invisible through overfamiliarity or things that are no longer familiar. And he offers stories of Consolation, and Eucatastrophe, where faith is satisfied and virtue rewarded after it seemed impossible. They are stories of redemption; and one reason they have endured and become so popular is that readers, and now viewers, often come away a feeling a little bit redeemed. And while Tolkien rejects the direct allegorizing of C. S. Lewis and seeks to give his reader the imaginative freedom to apply the story to his or her own life, he does expect that by tasting a little redemption in his Secondary World, the reader’s appetite for the true Redemption will be awakened.

[1] “Leaf by Niggle” is an interesting story, but more complicated than I feel I can really explain here; I recommend you read it yourself.


Review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (pt. iii)

January 4, 2013

The Hobbit as Fairy-Story:  Campbell’s interest is to find the similarities between seemingly disconnected myths and fairy-tales, in order to find the unified reality he feels underlies them all.  Tolkien himself, by contrast, rejects the argument that the common elements are the most important.[1]  Instead, he says we should look to the particularities of the story at hand.  After all, behind ever story there was an original storyteller, and each successive storyteller has made some changes.  Of course there will be common elements in traditional stories; what matters is understanding how the storyteller has used those elements to make his or her unique point.  Dwarves and trolls and wizards are common elements of European folklore, of which Tolkien himself was an expert; many details (such as the trollish vulnerability to sunlight) came directly from such sources.  The Ring seems most closely based on the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic, which also was a ring granting invisibility, political power and moral corruption to its owner, but the similarities are stronger in the Lord of the Rings than in The Hobbit.  In this prequel, the evil of the Ring is not fully worked out, and it seems simply to serve the purpose giving Bilbo a sudden magical power, which he uses to thwart enemies and help his friends.  Dwarves, dragons and their common love of gold are likewise fairytale clichés.

What is the point of the story as Tolkien has offered it?  And what is the meaning of the changes Jackson has introduced?  Bilbo is a good, prosperous, bourgeois Everyman.  The most distinguishing thing about a Baggins is said to be his predictability.  Suddenly, a magical figure enters his life.  This figure is not a total stranger; his name and something of his powers are known, even if he has been long absent.  He used to make life “interesting,” which is something that Bilbo apparently secretly yearns for (secret even from himself) but also fears.[2]  Most of us, too, are basically caught up in the world of creature comforts and social respectability; but Tolkien believes that there is a small part that still yearns for something more.  Gandalf is that “more.”  As Tolkien writes, “fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”[3]  “Fantasy” is the element of imagination, of breaking away from the ordinary and the expected and the all-too-human.  Gandalf is that call to imagination.  Bilbo initially seeks to escape the wizard’s call; as Tolkien says, Fantasy has a bad name these days.[4]  But Gandalf does not take “no” for an answer; in fact, he seems to scarcely take an answer at all.  He issues the call, issues the invitation to the dwarves, and plans the adventure.  But in the end, Bilbo must decide whether to cooperate, which is the only thing that turns this from a kidnapping into an adventure.  Jackson’s version gives a bit more freedom to Bilbo, who chases after the dwarves and Gandalf rather than being hustled along by Gandalf after the dwarves.  But in both versions, there is the theme of two forces pulling at Bilbo:  the Baggins side of his nature, all respectability and comfortable, versus his mother’s side of the family, those Tooks, with their family history of adventure and courage and being just a little odd and distrusted because of it.  The Tookish side wins out as Bilbo listens to the dwarves’ song of gold and great deeds of the past, and he answers the call to adventure.

In the book, Bilbo is even less suited to adventure than in the latest movie.  His first attempts at burglary nearly get all the dwarves killed, and they are only rescued by Gandalf’s timely return.  Still, he does his best and endures the hardships of the trail, until the party is captured by goblins.  In the book, Gandalf rescues the party single-handedly, with poor Bilbo getting lost during the escape; in the movie, Gandalf and the dwarves fight their way clear together, with Bilbo getting separated much earlier due mostly to his good luck and small size.  And here is where Bilbo’s fortunes really change:  the meeting and defeat of Gollum.  I have always thought the character of Gollum resembled Tolkien’s understanding of Grendel.  As he wrote in his essay on Beowulf:



If the dragon is the right end for Beowulf, and I agree with the author that it is, then Grendel is an eminently suitable beginning.  They are creatures, feond mancynnes, of a similar order and indeed significance.  Triumph over the lesser and more nearly human is cancelled by defeat before the older and more elemental.  And the conquest of the ogres comes at the right moment:  not in earliest youth, though the nicors are referred to in Beowulf’s geogoöfeore as a presage of the kind of hero we have to deal with; and not during the later period of recognized ability and prowess; but in that first moment, which often comes in great lives, when men look up in surprise and see that a hero has unawares leaped forth.[5]



Like Grendel, Gollum is “more nearly human,” or in this case, more nearly hobbit.  In this story, we know nothing about Gollum’s origins or nature, except that he is nasty and dangerous.  The movie vividly depicts his schizoid personality, without explaining it.  But at the same time, he is no larger than a hobbit.  He is nearly bestial, bent and largely quadrupedal, and more a creature of the darkness and water than of the sunlit world Bilbo calls home; but still, the two are alike in more than just size.  They understand one another’s language, and they both understand the notion of riddles and contests.  Neither is a master of magic like Gandalf, or of arms like Thorin.  They are two like minds, one twisted, dark and malicious while the other is lost and far from home and basically decent, contending with each other for the secret Gollum holds of escape from the world of darkness and return to the light.  The only element of magic here is the Ring, which Gollum does not realize he’s lost and Bilbo does not realize he’s found.  It is his defeat of Gollum that allows him not only to return to his world, but to perform his first real act of burglary:  the successful theft of the magical power, the Ring, which will allow him to overcome his later obstacles.  As Tolkien writes, this is not at the beginning of his adventures, since he has been on the path of adventure for awhile now; but it is at the first moment when he emerges as a hero “unawares.”[6]

Fantasy is the work of sub-creation, the human echo of the divine creativity, creating a Secondary World that the reader or hearer can share in for a time.[7]  This experience of another reality grants us the opportunity to see our own from a new perspective—-or rather, from the old perspective, to see it as if for the first time, without the dulling effects of habit.  It allows us to experience “Recovery,” which is “re-gaining of a clear view.”[8]  In stepping away from our own world for awhile, we recover our sense of our world and the wonder and possibilities therein.  It also allows us to “Escape” from the triteness, the blandness, the conformism and the despair that crushes the hopes and individuality of so many.[9]  The last of Tolkien’s list of functions of the fairy-story, “Consolation,” relates particularly to the end of the tale; and this is obviously where the book and movie diverge the most.

What Tolkien has given us in this part of his tale (roughly the first six chapters, or one-third of the book) is an ordinary person who is called (or dragged) to a more than ordinary destiny, and who begins to be something more than ordinary by conquering a monster that is his own nature twisted by darkness and hate.  He does this without the help of Gandalf, for once.  The movie contains some elements that seem included merely to strengthen the connection with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Of the elements that seem to add meaning, some seem to be speeding up the emergence of Bilbo’s heroic side.  This is necessary, given Jackson’s expansion of the story to three films; in the book, Bilbo does not begin to come into his own until events that aren’t even depicted in the first film, so without some sort of foreshadowing Bilbo would remain a terrified, squeaking dead weight (literally; in the book he has to be carried by the dwarves since he is too slow to keep up while they flee the goblins).  Other elements link the events of The Hobbit to the coming apocalyptic struggle against Sauron, setting the whole story in a more menacing context.  But most interestingly, Gandalf reveals his reason for shanghaiing Bilbo into this adventure in the first place.  In a conversation with Galadriel, queen of the elves, he says that he and his fellow wizard Saruman have a philosophical difference as to how to oppose evil.  Saruman believes that one must fight the power of evil by having greater power.  Gandalf, by contrast, asserts that it is simple, humble acts of kindness, and a generous and unpretentious heart that matter most.  Bilbo was chosen precisely because he was unheroic and knew it.  He has a good heart, a better heart than he himself realizes; his sympathy for the dwarves leads him to abandon his own home for a time, and to risk his life, to help them return to their own home.  He lacks power of magic or of force, but he has the power of conscience.  And in the movie, this power leads him to charge a much larger goblin and defeat him, saving Thorin’s life and finally winning his respect.

For Tolkien, Consolation is the most salvific function of the fairy-story.[10]  It is the Eucatastrophe, the unexpected happy ending.  It is the affirmation that despite all the evil and pain and hardship and darkness of the world, it is still possible that good can win through.  This is the highest function of the fairy-story, says Tolkien, and is what gives us its particular Joy.  Even in the face of dyscatastrophe, in the face of undeniable tragedy and disaster, we can have hope for Joy.  We can see it in the fairy-story, in this work of sub-creation, so we can envision it as a possibility here in the Primary World as well.  After all, we are sub-creators, ourselves made in the image of a Maker, whose creative actions are only an extension and imitation of the Creator’s own work; what we can do in our Secondary Worlds the maker of the Primary World can also do there.

Since Jackson has not really presented us with the end of the story, a viewer who had not known the books would not know whether this will end as eucastastrophe or dyscatastrophe if we had only the tale itself.  Since Jackson has added a prelude, showing Bilbo working on his book in the future, we see that Bilbo does make it home.  At the time, all Bilbo had was Gandalf’s reassurance that if he went on the adventure, when he returned he would be changed, and for the better—if he returned.  Eucastastrophe and dyscatastrophe seemed equally possible to Bilbo at the time; he risked his life to answer the call to adventure.  Considering the end of An Unexpected Journey alone, without the other two films to finish the tale, what we see in that conclusion is the beginning of the fulfillment of Gandalf’s promise.  At the start of the adventure, Bilbo was a rather fearful and petty bourgeoisie, insisting as the adventure began that they would have to return so he could retrieve his pocket-handkerchiefs. But by the end of the tale, his love of his comfortable home has been transmuted by sympathy for the dwarves, who have lost their home.  Where once his greatest fear was that his unexpected houseguests would break his dishes, and he does not even want to touch a sword, by the end he is willing to throw himself into combat to save Thorin’s life.  He does so, he says, because he loves his home, and he understands the pain they must feel, and therefore he vows that he will do whatever is in his power to help them regain what they have lost.  He has truly been changed, as the goodness and generous sympathy that Gandalf saw as latent within him has replaced middle-class Epicureanism as the ruling force in his life.

As a fairy-story, it seems to me, the movie is incomplete by Tolkien’s standards; which is not surprising since the story is not finished.  We know that a happy ending is coming, but we haven’t seen it and can’t really predict it.  And with all the foreshadowing of the great War to come, our eucatastrophe will really have to wait until The Return of the King.  For now, it is an unfinished tale.  Is it a successful movie, in its own right?  By the standards of today, the answer is, “Yes;” it has made a lot of money.  But the market does not choose whether a movie is good or bad, in either the aesthetic or moral senses; it only counts how many people will shell out cash for a ticket.  More interesting would be the question, why has it been so successful financially?  It seems that the reason is that Jackson has done his work as a sub-creator well.  People who have visited his Secondary World want to return again and again.  I would like to believe that this is not just because his world is so convincing and beautiful, with the striking New Zealand landscapes combined with cutting-edge special effects to make everything seem so strange and real simultaneously.  I hope it is also because the underlying theme, that it is little things done by little people with good hearts that redeem the world, is a message that many want to hear and want to believe.  In our Primary World, we see hurricanes, wars, poverty, oppression, and pain.  There are two ways to fight it.  One, as Bill O’Reilly said is to affirm that “You have to make it to give it.”[11]  That is the logic of Saruman.  In the face of so much evil, the only way to accomplish anything is to accumulate as much power and wealth as possible.  Become an entrepreneur yourself, make a few billion dollars by any means necessary, and then you can turn around and do a lot of good—like Rockefeller did when he drove rivals into bankruptcy, worked employees to death and spent millions to buy the presidency for McKinley, and then used all that dubious gain to fund charities in his old age.  The other way is to first try to be good, and then to do whatever small thing you can do now, with the limited power you have, having faith that your good deed will call forth others and somehow things will turn towards the best.  That is the way of Gandalf.  Jackson’s movie ends with the affirmation that the least of the group can have the most conscience, and that this conscience is the most noble and salvific thing there is.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf:  On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York:  Ballentine Books, 1966) pp. 45-48

[2] The Hobbit, pp. 18-19

[3] “On Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 68

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics;” in Beowulf:  A Verse Translation, translated by Seamus Heaney, edited by Daniel Donoghue (New York and London:  W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 2002) p. 128

[6] Since Jackson’s first movie ends well before the encounter with Smaug, we will save the comparison of Bilbo’s dragon with Beowulf’s for another day.

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 72-75

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 77

[9] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79-85

[10] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 85-90

[11] “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium 2012,” ( accessed Jan. 4, 2013