Posts Tagged ‘Elves’

Lecture: The Christian World of The Hobbit

October 29, 2014

The Christian World of The Hobbit

 

            I’m taking the title of this lecture, and much of the material from Devin Brown’s book of the same name.[1] This is a very readable book; if I have any complaint, it that it comes across at times as some sort of inside discussion. The author often uses phrases like, “This will of course be familiar to Christians….” Even a non-Christian scholar might want to understand Tolkien better, and might want to understand the religious messages; asides to the fellow Christians can be off-putting. Also, the author generally can show his points from the textual evidence, so the reliance on Christian intuition or experience is not always necessary.

            These are basically lecture notes. I did not deliver the entire paper, but rather used it as the foundation for my talk. What was presented was more of an oral summary of most of the main points.

 

SUMMARY OF THE HOBBIT

 

  1. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
  2. Bilbo Baggins, a well-off middle-class hobbit, is enjoying a lovely morning on his own doorstep when the wizard Gandalf walks up. This is extremely unusual and the hobbit greets him happily but a little apprehensively. The Bagginses are well respected in the community for their complete predictability as well as their relative wealth, and Bilbo is nervous when the wizard says he is looking for someone to go on an adventure. The hobbit declines vigorously, but the wizard still puts up a secret sign which leads thirteen dwarves to show up the next day. Gandalf tells the dwarves that he has chosen Bilbo to be their burglar. The dwarves introduce themselves, and tell Bilbo that their leader Thorin is the rightful King Under the Mountain, that their kingdom was destroyed by a dragon, and that they are going to steal their treasure back from the dragon. Bilbo faints.
  3. The next day the dwarves set off without Bilbo. Gandalf arrives and rushes him out the door, without time to even pack properly. The fourteen travel on initially without Gandalf, and after some time on the road are cold and hungry in the rain when they hear voices, which belong to trolls. They send Bilbo to burgle some food, but his inexperience and bungling lead instead to all the dwarves being captured and nearly killed before Gandalf suddenly arrives to rescue them.
  4. They travel to Rivendell, the home of the High Elves, and their leader Elrond, with whom Gandalf wishes to consult. By a seeming coincidence, Elrond discovers that their map has magically hidden notes indicating a secret door into the dwarves’ fortress, and instructions on how to find it. The party is reprovisioned by the elves and departs.
  5. Some days after the party is captured by goblins, except for Gandalf. Gandalf rescues them and while they are fleeing Bilbo is lost in the goblin caves. While there he meets a nasty and miserable person named Gollum, who engages him in a riddling contest which Bilbo manages to win, again by luck as much as cleverness. Gollum determines to kill Bilbo anyway, but Bilbo has (again by “luck”) found Gollum’s magic ring, and by luck finds that the ring makes him invisible. With this he is able to escape, although his escape is complicated by a decision not to kill Gollum but merely to evade him.
  6. Bilbo finds the dwarves and Gandalf outside the caves. They are chased up trees by wolves, and soon goblins arrive as well. They are nearly killed when giant eagles who happen to be passing by (and hate goblins) rescue them. But all that stuff in the movie about the giant white goblin and Thorin fighting and so on never happened.
  7. Soon they leave the eagles and go to the homestead of Beorn, a mysterious person who is sometimes a bear, and who has domestic animals that act as servants. Beorn gives them rustic hospitality, shares his vegetarian food with them and finally sends them on their way with new provisions to replace what they lost to the goblins. The group is certainly hard on ponies!.
  8. They travel through the mysterious and dangerous Mirkwood, when running out of supplies they do what Gandalf warned them not to do: they leave the trail to try to beg food from the Wood Elves they can hear around them. The elves lead them deeper into the woods until they are completely lost. Then the party, except Bilbo, is captured by giant intelligent spiders. Bilbo uses his magic ring to help him trick the spiders, kill a couple and rescue the dwarves.
  9. Then the dwarves are captured by the Wood Elves. Bilbo manages to remain invisible and follows them to the elven fortress. The Wood Elf King imprisons the dwarves but treats them fairly well, but won’t free them without information and Thorin and the others will not tell him about their mission to regain their gold. Finally Bilbo manages to free them by hiding them in barrels and floating them down the river. Again, all that stuff about the elves chasing them never happened, and Legolas is not in the book at all. The barrel riding diversion is a lucky break since they later discover the road ended before arriving anywhere, so they would have died had they not left it.
  10. They arrive at a human settlement built on pilings in the lake by the survivors of Smaug the dragon. The Master of the town is initially disturbed, but hides this. The townsfolk are excited and see the arrival of dwarves as the fulfillment of prophecy that the dragon will soon be dead and the rivers will run with gold!
  11. After several days of trying to find the secret back door into Smaug’s lair, Bilbo discovers it, again by luck. The dwarves send Bilbo alone to burgle something, and he succeeds. The second time the dragon awakens and Bilbo flatters him and distracts him with riddles. The dragon guesses that Bilbo is not alone and that he and his friends came from the Laketown. Bilbo discovers that there is a bare patch on the dragon’s belly where a scale is missing.
  12. The dragon traps the dwarves and Bilbo in the secret tunnel but can’t get to them, so he flies off to destroy the human town. After more than a day the dwarves finally work up the courage to go investigate the dragon’s lair, and find he is gone. They revel in the wealth piled around them, and Bilbo finds the fabulous Arkenstone, the great gem Thorin desires more than anything and which seems to represent the great wealth of the dwarves in this story. Bilbo initially pockets it for himself.
  13. Unknown to them, the dragon is killed by the men of Lake Town, but not before badly damaging the town. It is only by luck that a magical thrush has overheard Bilbo tell the dwarves about the missing scale, and then told a human who happens to know thrush-language, so that human, named Bard, could shoot an arrow that killed the dragon.
  14. The Master of Lake-Town turns the people against the dwarves by blaming the dwarves for the dragon’s rage and saying they should demand a share of the dwarves’ gold. Wood Elves arrive and help with emergency supplies for the town. Their king, who likes gold too, agrees to send his army with the Men to demand some gold.
  15. Thorin refuses to negotiate with an army or to talk to the elves at all, so the two armies besiege the mountain. The thirteen dwarves hole up waiting for reinforcements. Bilbo sneaks off and gives the Arkenstone to the Men so they can offer to trade it for Bilbo’s share of the treasure, hoping in that way to buy peace. This only delays conflict, however. Thorin is enraged and nearly kills Bilbo, but is persuaded to send him away penniless instead. But just as the two sides are about to fight, an army of goblins riding wolves appears. The humans, elves, and the newly arrived dwarf army hastily agree to fight together against the goblins. They are still losing when an army of giant eagles arrives to aid them. The four armies together fight the goblin horde, and the battle is finally turned when Beorn in bear form suddenly arrives and claws his way through the goblin ranks to Thorin, who lies mortally wounded.
  16. Bilbo was knocked out early in the fight, and lain unconscious and invisible during all these events. He is finally found in time to be taken to Thorin, and the two reconcile before Thorin dies of his wounds. The new dwarf king, Thorin’s cousin Durin, honors Thorin’s agreement to pay Bilbo’s share to the Men in exchange for the Arkenstone; but he also insists on giving Bilbo his rightful one-fourteenth share. Bilbo refuses to take any more than one pony’s carrying capacity. He and Gandalf return to the Shire, Bilbo’s homeland. Bilbo finds that he has been declared dead and that his acquisitive friends and neighbors are selling off his estate! He spends much of his loot buying back his own goods, and never gets his silver spoons back from his cousins. He gives most of the rest of it away. But in the end he retires, not quite as respectable but a bit richer, and the friend of dwarf, elf and wandering wizard for the rest of his days.
  17. The story ends with Bilbo being visited by Gandalf and Balin, one of the dwarves. Balin and Bilbo both show their prosperity over the years. The wizard and dwarf tell Bilbo how prosperous the land is now; there is so much trade that the rivers are said to run with gold. Bilbo says it seems the prophecies have come true, and Gandalf tells him that of course they have; just because Bilbo helped doesn’t mean they weren’t prophecies or that there wasn’t some force managing to make them come true. Bilbo says, “Thank Goodness!” and the two enjoy their pipes together.

The Lord of the Rings is not a grim book, but it is serious. The good suffer, the innocent die, and even admirable characters turn out to be flawed. And ultimately, even the hero, Frodo Baggins, fails, and does evil in spite of himself; the world is saved when Gollum does good in spite of himself. The characters and peoples in the story are not allegorical stand-ins, but they are metaphors; some are metaphors of nature (Treebeard, Tom Bombadil) others for modernity and the power of evil (Saruman, Sauron, the One Ring), or humanity threatened by inhumanity (The Shire, Gondor), and still others share the role as Christ figures (Gandalf, Aragorn, any of the Ring Bearers). And ultimately, this is an apocalypse, Tolkien’s Armageddon or Ragnarok; the elves are leaving Middle Earth, magic is fading, and the world itself is on the edge of destruction.

  The Hobbit is set at a time when shadows are gathering, about a generation before the events of The Lord of the Rings. The cover of my copy describes it as “The Enchanting Prelude to “The Lord of the Rings’”. This is a bit misleading, as if it was written as a prequel. In fact, it was the first major fictional work published by Tolkien; The Lord of the Rings was only written because his publishers wanted to follow up on the great success of his first book with “more hobbit stories.” Tolkien expressed some regret for having written The Hobbit as a children’s book, but he didn’t let that choice prevent him either from including some real frights and violence on the one hand, or some serious theology on the other. If you’ve only seen the movies, you only have a hint of how different the two “hobbit stories” really are. The Hobbit has a good many songs, a conversational style with numerous asides to the reader, and overall a much simpler style and structure than does The Lord of the Rings. This simplicity can at times hide the deep theological insights undergirding Tolkien’s story of a reluctant hero.

The fairy story was said to serve four functions: first, Fantasy.

 

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Before the wizards, elves, monsters, or even an explanation as to what a “hobbit” is, we enter the Secondary World which Tolkien is creating through a description of the physical environment. What is a “hobbit”? Why does it live in a hole? How can a hole be comfortable, when most holes we know are either wet and yucky or dry and barren? In two sentences, we are already outside our normal world, and asking questions about this new one.

Second, Recovery: Tolkien describes a number of rather ordinary things in this extraordinary hole, and as the book goes on we see still more: carpeted and tiled floors, chairs and coat pegs for guests, tea kettle and pocket-handkerchiefs, flowers and green grass and good tilled earth. At the end of the hobbit’s long adventure, returning after a year to his home, the old familiar hills and meadows move him so much that he bursts into spontaneous poetry. The time we spend in Middle Earth is meant to allow us to do the same: to see afresh what we have come to overlook. Sometimes this Recovery is meant just to inspire appreciation; sometimes it invites critique; and sometimes it seems to do both.

Escape: Bilbo Baggins lives in a world familiar in some ways, utterly alien in others, and nostalgic in still others. Before his adventure, he lives a life of middle-class comfort, with tea-time and nice clothes and friends. At the same time, he is a hobbit, half the size of the people we’re used to, dressed as we are except for his bare feet which keep him always in touch with the earth; a hobbit who lives in a world of dwarves and elves and goblins and wizards. And while his life in this extraordinary world seems like an ordinary grocer’s, it is natural in a way few of us can ever experience: no motor cars making the miles disappear in minutes, no electric lights obliterating the alteration of sun and moon, no bulldozers leveling hills and trees to make room for thousands and millions to pack into ever more crowded cities. The time we spend in Middle Earth is time we spend away from the limits of our modern lives, in touch with a world more heroic and full of possibilities, and in touch with nature and truer values than those that normally preoccupy us.

For Bilbo, too, the adventure is an Escape. At the start of the story he is living a limited, controlled, respectable life. He cannot imagine being without his pocket-handkerchiefs. He is so timid that he screams and faints just hearing the dwarves and Gandalf talk about adventures. Gandalf drags him out of his literal “comfort zone,” and Bilbo learns he can do without quite a few of his possessions; and he finds he possesses things he never knew he had: such as courage, cleverness, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.

Lastly, Consolation: The great gift of the fairy-story is the Happy Ending, the Eucatastrophe. Bilbo experiences this again and again, and we experience it through him. The great turning point in his life is when he is alone and lost in the goblins’ cave, and finds a magic ring. In this story, we are not told anything about it being a world-destroying curse, and this clearly was not the original intention. In fact, the only power of the ring is to grant invisibility, something that hobbits are said to have something of a knack for anyway. It’s a common fairy-tale device, and in the first version of The Hobbit it is won fair and square in the riddling contest with no hard feelings afterwards. That is, the emphasis is on Bilbo’s self-reliance and cleverness, as well as his providential good luck. This unexpected gift in his moment of despair is one of the greatest Eucatastrophes Bilbo personally experiences. Other “lucky breaks” come to him unexpectedly and sometimes even without his knowledge. Tolkien is saying, more or less, that sometimes we make our luck and sometimes it makes us, but it exists. And as Gandalf informs Bilbo, what seems like luck is something more: he says,

 

“Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

 

What seems to be a story with a series of lucky breaks, the sort of thing critics generally hate, is really a story of Providence in action, perfectly in control and perfectly hidden. Critics disparagingly call this the deus ex machina, the god in the machine; but that is Tolkien’s point: it is God in the machine! Bilbo’s response to Gandalf is instructive: “Thank goodness!” What a Consolation to discover both that there are bigger forces in the world and bigger concerns than oneself, and still to find that one is included!

Now, for the monsters: like Beowulf, Bilbo has his dragon. Unlike Beowulf, Bilbo has only a very small part in slaying it. Beowulf does not live “happily ever after” once the dragon is slain; it represents the sunset of the hero, an end which comes to us all. Smaug represents Greed Incarnate. He comes to destroy the dwarves when they are at the height of their prosperity, when they have uncovered the mysterious Arkenstone, the heart of the mountain, and made it their own. His greed even infects the treasure; the Master of Lake-Town is said to be infected with the sickness of dragon-treasure, which causes him to steal much of the money intended to rebuild his town and flee into the wilderness, there to die alone. Smaug is so obsessed with his treasure that he notices when even a single goblet disappears from his immense pile; but his only use for all this wealth is to sleep on it. In the end it is his blind fury at having been robbed that leads to his death.

Even before hearing tales of dragons, Bilbo’s life revolved around his possessions.[2] He really is a nebbish, a perfectly bourgeoisie character even if he is only three feet tall and has hairy feet. He prizes his comforts. His life is more predictable than the ticking of a clock. His neighbors respect this, and he values their opinions. He’s not ungenerous; he knows his duty to his guests and will go without a second seed-cake if he must, although it distresses him. But his generosity is circumscribed by his comfortable, predictable life. By the end of his adventure, while he loses the respect of most of his neighbors, his generosity is boundless. He welcomes the invited and the uninvited, the hobbit, elf, wizard or dwarf to his home. He gives away all rights to the dragon treasure to try to buy peace between the dwarves, men and elves; and when pressed to accept it, he consents only to take the small portion he can transport on one pony. He gives away the troll horde as well. He still appreciates his comforts, but his comforts no longer bind him.

Thorin, by contrast, is a tragic figure. His obsession with wealth nearly leads him to murder Bilbo, and to go to war with the Wood-Elves and Men with whom his people once had allied. Bilbo’s example finally redeems him, leading him to realize on his death bed that the world would be a merrier place if more people prized a hobbit’s simple comforts over piles of gold. But he has virtues as well: courage for one, self-sacrifice when required, perseverance, a willingness to work hard and do without. The Master of Lake-Town, on the other hand, is a pretty shrewd politician: calculating, persuasive, with a keen eye to present circumstances and how they affect his standing with the people. All in all, the Master is a pretty modern guy all right; which is precisely why he is just the sort who so quickly falls victim to the sickness of dragon treasure. Unlike Thorin, he dies unrepentant, unredeemed, unloved and alone.

The goblins are even more types of the dark side of modernity. Tolkien describes them thus:

 

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones…. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far. They did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everybody and everything, and particularly the orderly and the prosperous;…

 

Goblins are darkness and evil as much as Elrond’s elves are light and joy. They don’t even need the temptation of dragon gold to be greedy and malicious; sadism and laziness are inherent traits, as is envy of the orderly and prosperous. In the end, though, even they serve a good purpose: the threat of the goblins is the one thing that finally leads the men, elves and dwarves to lay aside their squabbling over gold and make a common cause, reforging the old alliances destroyed by Smaug and his treasure.

I don’t have much to say about the spiders. I do know that Tolkien was bitten by a spider as a child in South Africa, that he said it didn’t affect him but his biographers seem to doubt that. He included a giant spider, named Ungoliant, in The Simarillion as one of the manifestations of cosmic evil aiding Melkor in his attempts to destroy the world. And later, Tolkien’ placed Shelob, the giant spider who is said to have been descended from Ungoliant, as a monstrous force more or less independent of Sauron and as ancient and malevolent though not as ambitious. Shelob seems to represent pure appetite, delighting in killing and eating and unconcerned what she ate; the spiders in The Hobbit seem much the same, if more chatty. They aren’t interested in dragon gold or in tea kettles; they delight only in capturing, tormenting and finally killing and devouring others. Bilbo’s only act of violence is killing some of the spiders to rescue the dwarves; and this violence is seen as a good thing, both necessary to save the others and as a real turning point in Bilbo’s growth from nebbish to mensch.[3]

Enough of the monsters: what about the Good Guys? In The Hobbit, Tolkien presents the dwarves as basically reliable if not always good or generous, and basically brave if pressed albeit quarrelsome, condescending and ungrateful at times. When Bilbo is about to sneak into Smaug’s lair for the first time, he asks “Now who is coming with me? He did not expect a chorus of volunteers, so he was not disappointed.” Two look a mite uncomfortable at refusing, and Balin actually agrees to go partway; Bombur is asleep; but the other nine have no qualms about staying back and sending Bilbo alone. Tolkien writes:

 

            The most that can be said for the dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor little fellow doing it if he would; but they would all have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it, as they did in the case of the trolls at the beginning of their adventures before they had any particular reasons for being grateful to him. There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots, some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.

 

The dwarves may be unusual and mysterious to Bilbo, but in Middle Earth they are just one people among several. Gandalf, on the other hand, is as wonderous to Bilbo as hobbits are to us. He is the fairies’ Faerie, the Perilous Realm’s Perilous intrusion. And he is one of those elements of so-called “luck” (or Providence) that comes along when most needed. He is not omnipotent; in fact, his magic seems fairly minimal. But he is a manifestation of Magic and a world beyond the understanding even of dwarves and hobbits.

His only equal seems to be Elrond. Elves are wise and magical, Elrond in particular; and his people give the Thorin expedition advice and material assistance that even Gandalf alone could not. But they also share the common traits of fairies: mysterious, sometimes mischievous and selfish (particularly the Wood Elves), often whimsical and seemingly mocking.

Beorn seems to be a metaphor for Nature. He is sometimes a savage bear, and sometimes a rough but basically good man. He has to be approached carefully and respectfully. He is not pure wilderness, but barely cultivated; his stead is far more primitive than The Shire but includes domestic animals and sturdy accommodations. And in the end it is Beorn who saves the day, scattering goblins to rescue Thorin when he falls, so that he can die surrounded by friends.

Beorn is too wild and strange to be a role-model; Elrond and Gandalf are too mysterious, magical and Other; and the dwarves by contrast are simply too unheroic to be described as the heroes of the story. Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, is the hero and role model, although to the end he seems an unlikely candidate for either job. How can we know that the hobbit is the hero of the story? Because Tolkien sees himself as one. In a letter to a friend he wrote:

 

“I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.”

 

 

If Bilbo Baggins is basically Tolkien reimaging himself, or perhaps idealizing himself, then what is different? In his book he lists these particular characteristics that differentiate hobbits from “Big People:”

  1. Size, obviously. A hobbit is half the size of a normal human.
  2. They are stealthy; they can hide from us pretty much whenever they want.
  3. They have no beards, which particularly distinguishes them from dwarves.
  4. They eat a lot.
  5. They have naturally leathery soles on their feet and thick hair on their feet matching the curly hair on their heads, so they don’t need shoes.
  6. And as Thorin observes, they prize good food, good drink and good company more than all the gold in the world, making them a naturally peaceful people (though the Sacksville-Bagginses do steal Bilbo’s silver spoons).

They aren’t perfect by any means; but again, most of their faults are those we would expect from any people living in a small rural community. Their homeland, The Shire, is based on Sarehole Mill, the English village Tolkien’s mother moved the boys to after the death of their father in South Africa. The main difference between hobbits and us that while we include both city people and country folk, hobbits have only country folk; there are no hobbit cities, though there are communities and even towns where hobbits and Big People live together. Left to themselves, hobbits are more down-to-earth than we are. This is literally seen in their bare feet and in their small size. And their size, and their shyness, reflects the idea that they represent humility. They don’t seek to dominate anyone else, and would consider it absurd to try. They are intelligent but don’t seek to become great scholars. They don’t worship their heroes, but generally consider them a little odd even if they remember fondly the good they did.

At times, Bilbo is a bit player in his own story. He is drafted by Gandalf to go on an adventure, and initially terrified as he eavesdrops on Thorin and Gandalf planning the heist. His first attempt at burglary is a miserable failure. In fact, up until the escape from the goblins, he is literally a burden, needing to be carried by the dwarves when fleeing. After being dropped and lost, he begins to grow. First, his escape from Gollum is accomplished through a combination of luck, intelligence and virtue. Finding the ring just happens to him; winning the riddling contest is partly luck and partly cleverness; and sparing Gollum shows his good nature. Rescuing the dwarves from the spiders also involves both cleverness and courage as well as the gift of that magic ring. Freeing the dwarves from the Wood Elves is accomplished without any force on Bilbo’s part, and eventually he even pays the elves back for the food he stole. He also returns the keys to their jailor to help keep him out of trouble, a very kind gesture. And finally, there is his encounter with Smaug. This again is solved through a mix of hobbit cleverness and something more than luck; but the real key is Bilbo’s moral struggle. Tolkien describes Bilbo going down the tunnel to Smaug’s lair for the first time. None of the dwarves dared to accompany him; even Balin, who liked him best, would only go partway. So he creeps along as quietly as he can through the black tunnel, until he hears “some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.”

 

            It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

 

This is Bilbo’s apogee as a hero, and it is completely internal. The “real battle” is mustering the courage or responsibility or whatever to keep going despite the danger and fear. And because he finds the strength of virtue to do the right thing, the story is able to have a happy ending. Frankly, I think this is one place where Jackson’s movie weakens the whole effect. The thirteen dwarves do little in the story except make things worse for everyone, until the goblins attack. Everything that happens, particularly the death of the dragon, happens because of what Bilbo brings himself to do. And increasingly, Bilbo becomes more a witness to events than a real actor. His efforts to mediate peace delay the fighting between dwarves and elves, but had the goblins not arrived they still would have fought. The final great act of Bilbo is a failure; he gives the Arkenstone and with it his claim to any part of the dragon’s treasure away, and then returns to the dwarves to face whatever might come of it. But Bilbo’s failed peace effort does allow one final accomplishment: the redemption of Thorin. In life, Thorin had been increasingly caught up in his desire for treasure, and particularly the dragon’s treasure embodied in the fabulous Arkenstone. Bilbo is able, after some struggle, to give it away. Because he returns to Thorin, Thorin is able to repent of his greed and fury at Bilbo and to receive forgiveness, so the two are able to part as friends before his death. Durin, Thorin’s heir and the next King Under the Mountain, agrees to honor the deal Thorin had made to ransom the Arkenstone, allowing the Humans to rebuild Dale and the Wood Elves to share in the new prosperity.

Tolkien’s attitude towards wealth is instructive. Described by a biographer as an “unabstentious Catholic,” Tolkien enjoyed his material comforts; but at the same time, his tastes were simple. His hobbits enjoy good food and even tend towards plumpness; they enjoy their comfortable homes and nice furniture and all the other pleasures of life. But they do not gather wealth excessively. The dragon’s gold brings Bilbo out of his comfortable life, on an adventure that proves to be, as Gandalf predicted, good for him. He grew as a person by learning to do without; but he never became an ascetic. And his great heart does not result in great wealth; the blessings of God do not express themselves in riches but in richness of life. He has enough and to spare, which he generously shares with others. He loses some of the respect of his neighbors, while gaining the friendship of strangers.

For Bilbo, the adventure brings out his moral richness. He becomes, or finds that he is generous, even to his own loss, if the cause is right. He is loyal and responsible. He has courage. And he is merciful and empathetic, particularly as he looks at the miserable Gollum. Pursuing this adventure brought these virtues out. Before his travels, Bilbo’s “Took side” was suppressed. His courage shows in his agreeing to join the group, but he also is initially terrified. His generosity is limited to a willingness to do without a third seed-cake if his guests are hungry. And we see little sign of a capacity for empathy or pity; his comfortable life simply provides no occasion for it.

In others, the dragon’s gold brings out not hidden virtues, but hidden vices. The Master of Lake-Town is the prime example: a shrewd businessman and politician, he is the very sort most inclined to fall to the sickness carried by dragon-gold. Thorin, too, is overwhelmed with greed. Both are killed through their lust for the gold, though Thorin’s soul is redeemed at the end. The Wood-Elf King likewise prizes gold too much, which makes him an enemy of the dwarves; but it seems to bind him less since he still helps the men of Lake-Town before setting out to chase the dwarves. Overall, we could say that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” The desire for money, or dragon’s gold, is the motivating force behind the story and the chief threat undermining community. When money is spent or given away to promote community and fellowship, it leads to happiness; when it is an end and not a mere means, it leads to solitude, suspicion, hostility and misery. The reward of a good life and a good heart is not wealth, but freedom from the domination of wealth. The providential forces that guide Bilbo’s seeming luck bring about a prophecy where the rivers run with gold, not by generating riches but by generating trade and cooperation.

[1] Devin Brown, The Christian World of The Hobbit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012).

[2] The Christian World of the Hobbit, pp. 86-114

[3] Perhaps presumptuous for a goy like myself, but the words fit better than any I could think of.