Posts Tagged ‘The Hobbit’

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1: The Hobbit

December 27, 2014

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1:  The Hobbit


Tolkien confessed that, if he had been writing an allegory of the modern world, he would have been compelled to make the hellish consequences of war much worse than they are in The Lord of the Rings: “The Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied.”

—from The Gospel According to Tolkien



Having completed a short study of Tolkien’s work and thought, I now look back and consider how his theology stacks up to the popular theological currents today. It is true that Tolkien was not a professional theologian was not really even “doing theology;” but then, neither are many of the most influential theologians in the U.S. today. In fact, modern American religious history, from William Miller to Billy Sunday to Bill Bright, has often shown the untrained theologian to be more influential than the “scholar;” and why not? Scholars tend to write for other scholars; at best, they teach somebody (a pastor or teacher or judge or whatever) who eventually goes on to translate the esoteric intellectualizing into some sort of life-philosophy or public policy. What is rare, though, is to find an “amateur” (in the true sense: one who practices an art for the love of it rather than for money) who has the insight Tolkien. As I look forward to the release of the final Hobbit movie, and as I anticipate the convening of a new Congress, I am struck by the contrasting theological themes that play out in Middle Earth and The Political Landscape. In brief, The Lord of the Rings can be fruitfully seen as a critique of Christian Zionism, and The Hobbit as a critique of the Prosperity Gospel; and together, they offer a valuable comparison to the dominant strains of The Religious Right.

Tolkien was not an ascetic. All the biographical discussions I have read affirm that. However, he does not equate money with virtue, or see comfort as automatically indicative of divine favor. Today, many (not all) of the largest churches are non-denominational megachurches preaching some variation of The Prosperity Gospel: if you tithe, and follow the pastor’s directions on social-political issues such as gay marriage, you will become wealthy and happy; if you are not wealthy and happy, you are sinning, and need to give more money, be more socially judgmental and more stridently anti-intellectual. There is a direct cause-effect taught in many of these megachurches; and this theology is spreading beyond the U.S. to Africa. Tolkien’s heroes, by contrast, know better. Bilbo is not a monk; he enjoys his six meals a day, his pipe and beer and comfortable home and nice clothes. And when we meet him, he probably does believe he “deserves” all that he has, since he has always been a good society man and never done anything unusual. But when he leaves his home, his views on wealth moderate. He becomes like Luke’s “Unjust Steward,” who uses his wealth not to make more wealth, but to make friends. He gives away all of the treasure he has rightfully earned from the dragon’s hoard; and when he is pressed to accept some reward, consents only to take as much as he can easily transport home. It is hard to tell whether he is really wealthier after plundering Smaug or not; he gives away all the troll hoard and spends much of the dragon treasure buying back his own belongings from his “heirs” after he has returned home only to find he has been declared dead. What has changed is that he holds his property more loosely; or rather, it holds him more loosely.

Tolkien’s characters show that some wealth is useful and contributes to happiness; but too much is perhaps worse than not enough. The Master of Lake-Town ends up dying alone in the wilderness with the dragon-gold he has stolen from the town. Thorin too ends up dead as a result of his greed. Smaug has literally absorbed much of his treasure, his skin embedded with countless gems; and in the end they lie with his carcass under the lake, considered cursed by those who know of them. The dragon hoard brings death to those who covet it most; but still, it proves to be a blessing to those who hold it lightly and pass it on freely. It is through trade, not theft or conquest, that prosperity returns to Dale.

Tolkien does not demonize wealth. He does not say that those who have comfortable lives are automatically “oppressors” who need to be overthrown. In fact, he points to the goblins’ hatred of the “prosperous” as one of their many unsavory qualities.[1] He shows none of the Marxist-inspired disdain for wealth and authority, which we commonly see in liberation theology; and he shows little of the Neo-platonic asceticism that appears in much Christian mysticism and monasticism. Pleasure is good, in moderation. His heroes often do renounce wealth, sometimes for many years (as did Aragorn when he became a Ranger); but when they do it is as a means to an end, and when that end is achieved they can enjoy the good things in this life again. What he does reject is the idolization of wealth. And here is where so much of today’s theology leaves the path of wisdom, which Tolkien has marked for us. The central, simple message of the Prosperity Gospel is that if you give up some money, God will give you more money. God becomes little more than a banker who pays extravagant interest on whatever you loan him. You are giving up something in this world, in order to gain something in this world. That’s not faith; that’s trading. When wealth is the primary motivation for worshipping God, the primary means by which you worship God (through tithing), and the primary or sole expression of God’s good will and the state of one’s God-relationship, wealth has in fact become God. This deification of wealth is what The Hobbit warns us against. To that extent, I would say the movies are a loss over the book; the book does not have so many side-plots or exciting fight scenes to obscure this point. Thorin’s lust for the Arkenstone echoes the acquisitiveness of this kin and forbearers who dug so deep that they claimed the fabulous heart of the mountain for themselves. Tolkien suggests that this was the event that drew the dragon to them. Too much wealth and too much adoration of their own wealth summoned the incarnation of Greed, which is what Smaug represents. Lust for his hoard destroys some, nearly destroys others, and is only truly a blessing for those who seem to desire it least. The wise and the good show themselves by surrendering their wealth when it is appropriate. In a material sense, Bilbo’s condition is little changed at the end of the book. While the Prosperity Gospel says that the righteous tither will grow more wealthy, Bilbo takes great risk, suffers great deprivation, and gives up most of his legitimate reward to help others, and in the end is right back where he started: in his own hobbit-hole, smoking a pipe and enjoying the company of Gandalf and one of the thirteen dwarves. Whatever he gained from his adventure, if it is measured in prosperity it was a very bad bargain; so much effort for so little gain! The famous Prosperity Gospel preacher Rev. Fredrick Price said in an interview that God wants us to be prosperous, and that if anyone believes in God and is not wealthy then he or she is “missing the mark.”[2] This is a fascinating phrase, since “missing the mark” is the literal translation of the Greek word “harmatia,” which is the word most translators of the Greek original tests of the New Testament translate as “sin.” Price is saying, essentially, that if you are poor then you are a sinner; that is the essence of the Prosperity Gospel. To be without money shows that you are without God, and to be with God is to be with money. It is this easy equation of God and Money that The Hobbit warns us against, not by thundering sermons against greed but by gently telling us a child’s fairy tale, and in the process showing us how one ought, and ought not, to be oriented towards the material goods of this world.


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill.”

[2] Interviewed by Dr. Randal Balmer, in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: a journey into the evangelical subculture of America; pt. 3, “Coming of Age”. Isis Productions, Chicago; 1993

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.




  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.

Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

September 18, 2014

I use this forum to publish a variety of ongoing projects.  Here, I am working on a mini-course on Tolkien which I am to lead for my church in October.  These are the notes for my first lecture. 



Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio


First, when I start a new class I usually tell the students who I am and what relevant background I have for the course. In this case, I admit I am an amateur when it comes to Tolkien. My specialty is philosophical theology, and most people think of Tolkien as a writer of fantasy literature. Perhaps, if they are bit more informed, they think of him as a religious fantasy writer. Religion and Lit. is not necessarily my professional expertise, but it is a longtime interest.

My first qualification, I would say, is that I wanted this course. I’ve heard for a long time that if you want something done around the church, you should volunteer to do it. With the last of the Hobbit movies coming out this December, there seems no better time to look at Tolkien.

My second qualification is my decades-long interest in fantasy literature, movies, games and so on. Tolkien really established fantasy and influenced generations of writers afterwards. Another writer of fantasy literature, great in his own way though not as grand perhaps, was C. S. Lewis. I was pleasantly surprised when I first learned that these two great religious writers were friends and collaborators. I read both Tolkien and Lewis first in the mid 1970s, during the Tolkien craze in the U.S. and like millions I loved the books. In my church youth group we did discussions of some of Lewis’ books, but never discussed Tolkien. It was much later that I first realized that Tolkien was just as much a religious writer as Lewis, although they had very different styles and strategies.

As I began my scholarly work in Religious Studies, I encountered various psychological methods of analysis, including those of Carl Jung. I learned that Jung influenced Joseph Campbell, whose work on comparative religions in turn influenced George Lucas. Tolkien’s more theoretical discussions of religion and mythology began to interest me as alternatives to the Jungian approach. More on that next week.

And getting back to my professional focus, I became interested in Tolkien as a theologian about ten years ago, when SECSOR issued a call for Tolkien papers in conjunction with the release of Peter Jackson’s Ring movies. That seems only fair, since Tolkien was not really schooled in theology yet he wrote theologically significant essays, and I’m a theologian who’s not really schooled in Tolkien yet I write about him. One thing I hope to do here is discuss some of the theological concepts developed by Tolkien, and consider whether they offer better alternatives than some of the most popular theology today. Again, more on that later.

Still, I would not dare to stand in front of a group like this, which I know to be pretty sharp, if it weren’t for my confidence that sheer enthusiasm can make up for a lot in a teacher; and I am enthusiastic about Tolkien, both as a writer and a theologian. As a first step towards a greater appreciation of Tolkien as a theologian, I’d like to start with a short summary of Tolkien’s life, and consider in particular how some of the events of his life shaped his writing and his religious thought.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3rd, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His father, Arthur, was a branch manager of Lloyds Bank of Africa, having come originally from England with his wife Mabel two years earlier. The climate in South Africa was not good for mother or children and John was often sick. His father died in South Africa in 1896 of rheumatic fever, while the family was away visiting England. They then moved there permanently, first living in the small town of Sarehole Mill for four years before returning to Mabel’s hometown of Birmingham in 1900. Birmingham at that time was at the epicenter of English industrialization, and young John desperately missed the rural life he had left to move to this mechanized and dirty city. It was also about this time that he began studying languages and grammar. His mother converted to Catholicism, which estranged her from many in her family. Four years later she was dead from diabetes, leaving the parish rector, Father Morgan, as their legal guardian so that they would be raised as Catholics (1904). John was 13.

For the next four years the brothers lived with an aunt who was not emotionally close, but spent as much time as they could at school or the church with Fr. Morgan. In 1908 the boys moved out to a boarding house near the church, and John met another lodger there, a 19-year-old girl named Edith. Although she was three years older than he was, they declared their love for each other in 1909. Fr. Morgan did not approve when he found out about their relationship, and moved John Ronald to another house and forbade him from seeing her until he turned 21, at which point he would be legally an adult.

Over the next four years the two exchanged letters but never saw each other. JRR finished his schooling and won a scholarship to Oxford. On the day of this 21st birthday he wrote a letter to Edith and proposed. When she replied that she was already engaged to another man, he traveled to see her five days later and persuaded her to marry him. She converted to Catholicism a year later, and they were married Nov. 22, 1916.

JRR finished his studies at Exeter College of Oxford University, focusing on philology. After he finished his studies he joined the British army and fought in France during WWI. Originally sent to Flanders, he soon became ill and spent most of his military service in and out of hospital until he was discharged. By 1918, when the war ended, he wrote “All my close friends but one are dead.”

During this time his career was beginning to take off. Privately, he had begun writing poems years earlier, and began work on the Simarillion in 1917. Professionally he worked as a tutor and on the New English Dictionary, particularly the letter “W”. Years later, when an editor attempted to tell him that spelling “dwarves” with a “v” was not proper according to the Oxford dictionary, he replied, “I WROTE the Oxford English Dictionary!” This was also a time when he learned a great deal about language, as he researched the etymology of words back to Old English and other roots.

In 1920 he became a Reader at Leeds University, and in 1925 he was elected Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, beating out his former tutor. The position required at least 21 lectures a year; his second year he gave 136, and eventually settled down to 72 a year through the end of the 1930s. So he wasn’t lazy.

May 11, 1926 Tolkien met C.S. Lewis. Lewis is said to have been warned never to trust a Catholic or a philologist, and Tolkien was concerned that Lewis might oppose his efforts to improve the linguistics portion of the college syllabus; but the two became friends because of their shared interests in good beer and good stories. At the time they met, Lewis was not religious; his conversations with Tolkien and mutual friend Hugo Dyson led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity in 1931. Lewis’ ongoing suspicion of Catholicism did somewhat strain their lifelong friendship at times.

In 1932 Tolkien, Lewis and several others formed a literary club, calling themselves The Inklings. This group met weekly to share meals, give public readings of ongoing projects (and offer criticism), and generally socialize.

One biographer remarked that after this point in Tolkien’s life, nothing much happened. That’s “nothing,” of course, aside from writing some of the most widely read and beloved books in the English language, with combined sales of over 250 million copies and still going. But at this point, the story becomes less about what made J.R.R. Tolkien, and more about what J.R.R. Tolkien made. In addition to his scholarly work, he had been writing fantasy first for himself, and then for his children; but he never intended to publish most of it. He was a respected scholar and a popular and busy lecturer, working far harder than his job demanded; he was a husband and father; and he met weekly with the Inklings. And that is where it probably would have remained, except for an event that Tolkien recounted years later in a letter to a friend. He said that around 1930 he was grading exams for secondary school students to earn some extra money, when finding a blank page in the exam book and feeling bored he scribbled, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” And there he left it, he said, for a very long time; but eventually he began to wonder himself what a hobbit was and what they were up to, so he began writing a story to find out where it would lead. While he was working on that he wrote, in 1936, probably his most important non-fiction work, his essay on Beowulf titled, “The Monsters and the Critics.” This lecture is credited with revitalizing and revolutionizing Beowulf studies, and today we can see it as a statement of Tolkien’s own intentions as a writer. He shared early work on “The Hobbit” with Lewis, who urged him to publish. The tipping point came when a former student who worked for Allen and Unwin Publishers showed it to a coworker, who urged him to finish it. It was then reviewed by the resident reader of children’s literature, Stanley Unwin’s ten-year-old son Raynor, who gave it a very favorable review and said it did not need any changes. And at that point, Tolkien began the transition from obscure but respected scholar to world-renowned author.

The Hobbit received favorable reviews, including one written by C. S. Lewis that predicted that the work could become a classic. And as Rayor Unwin had predicted, children enjoyed the book and found it very exciting. As a result it sold very well, and soon Allen and Unwin were pressing him to write “more hobbit stories.” Tolkien, on the other hand, wanted to publish The Simarillion, which is a collection of tales describing the creation of Middle Earth. The work does not have the easy style of The Hobbit, or the narrative unity; and worst of all, it has NO HOBBITS. Instead, Tolkien began work on a sequel to The Hobbit which also picked up on some of the themes of The Simarillion, the struggle against Melkor the evil rebel against the creator God, and so on. This work turned into the massive Lord of the Rings. This is published as a three-part story, though the parts themselves are actually separate volumes so it could appropriately be said to be a six volume series. The story of Bilbo’s obtaining the magic ring, which had been a fairly short affair in the original telling, was expanded and the character of Gollum added to The Hobbit to tie it closer to the story Tolkien wanted to tell. While The Hobbit is a fairly straightforward fairy story about a rather stuffy, middle-class, nebbish who gets dragged off by a wizard and his dwarf friends on an adventure (and in the process becomes something more), The Lord of the Rings is a tale of four simple hobbits who are swept up into not only a world war, but a cosmic struggle of the agents of good against an evil that has existed since the creation of the world.   As it was written during the time of World War II and the Cold War, many readers sought to see it as an analogy or political allegory; but Tolkien vigorously denied this. He wanted it to be received as whatever the reader’s imagination said, so each person could apply it to his or her life. At the same time, while it was not explicitly or obviously Christian the way Lewis’ Narnia tales were, religious themes are integral to the book. The religious undertones and the epic scope of the work make Tolkien the figure he is. In the USSR, there were people called Tolkienisti who read smuggled books in secret. While it is likely the Soviets would have disapproved of fairy tales like The Hobbit, I have a hard time believing people would have risked persecution to read Tolkien were it not for the substance and sustenance they found in The Lord of the Rings.

In 1965, the American firm Ace Publishing released an unauthorized edition of The Lord of the Rings. Although publishers generally were expected to respect international copyrights, Ace had decided that since The Lord of the Rings wasn’t registered in the U.S. it would treat the work as public domain. Tolkien reacted by quickly reaching a deal with another American publisher, Ballentine, to publish the authorized version, and then made efforts to promote the authorized edition and to encourage his readers not to buy from Ace. Tolkien readers are a loyal and basically moral group, and proved willing to pay a bit more for an authorized version that paid the author royalties. Eventually Ace was forced to capitulate and pay royalties. The upshot of the lawsuits and publicity was that Tolkien became an internationally known author, and sales soared. It was the beginning of the Tolkien boom.

After this, even works that had been passed over by publishers began to attract attention. Hobbits or no, anything by Tolkien was likely to attract a readership. There was even consideration to finally publishing Tolkien’s own personal favorite, as far as I can tell, The Simarillion, although it remained unpublished and he continued to work on it until the end of his life. He passed away in 1973, while his son Christopher continued to edit and publish his father’s previously unpublished works for years after.

If I made it this far and didn’t run out of time or have to skip oodles of material, I am surprised. However, let me close by trying to sum up what I think a survey of Tolkien’s biography reveals about him as a man:



As we look at Tolkien’s life, we can see how events made him the man he was.

  1. As a child,
  2. He showed an early interest in language, making up his own as a game. He also showed an interest in fantasy and fairy stories.
  3. Also, he was born in South Africa, but the dry climate did not suit him. His happiest memories were his young childhood in rural England. Shehole became the model for The Shire. By contrast, he hated the large, industrial city of Birmingham.
  4. He had a strong appreciation for nature and an aversion to technology that harmed the environment, such as cars and later trains.
  5. He lost both his parents at a young age. He knew suffering and loss.
  6. His mother converted to Catholicism, and was estranged from much of her family as a result. He learned that you may have to give up something for faith, because faith is important.
  7. As a teenager (to age 21),
  8. He was raised by Fr. Morgan. His aunt, in whose home he and his brother lived in the years after their mother’s death, was cold and distant; Fr. Morgan was engaged and supportive. Tolkien’s faith and his studies were a shelter and escape from an unpleasant home situation.
  9. His long separation from Edith and their eventual marriage shows his devotion and commitment.
  10. As an adult,
  11. He was a patriot, and he knew the horrors and loss of war.
  12. He was a perfectionist; he worked harder than he had to as a scholar and a teacher, and as a writer he generally had to be prodded to publish because he was unsure if his work was really ready.
  13. He was a devout Catholic.
  14. He was devoted to his family, writing regular stories for his children. His marriage to Edith lasted more than fifty years, until she passed away in 1971.


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

January 4, 2013

Review:  The Hobbit:  an unexpected journey


In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

—–J. R. R. Tolkien


First, I’ll try to do a little of what seems to be customary in reviews:  help the reader decide whether or not to see the movie.  I shall not say much about the acting skills of the stars and so forth, because I have little expertise in such matters; I shall simply offer some observations and advice.  Then, I shall proceed to what I consider much more interesting:  a philosophical discussion of what the story is saying.  Every story reflects the world and changes it at the same time.  If the reflection is accurate, it can help one to see one’s world better; if the reflection is encouraging, it can change it for the better; if it is deceitful or demoralizing it can make the hearer and the world a bit worse.  Attending to the story can help blunt the bad and sharpen the good; simply absorbing thoughtlessly can allow the good to wash over one and away, while the bad sinks in and stains the soul.  But first to the esthetics: and as a final warning, if you didn’t want spoilers of some sort you should just go to the movie and not read reviews like this one.

General review:  Do you want to see this movie?  If you enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, you will probably enjoy The Hobbit:  an unexpected journey as well.  On the other hand, if you enjoyed the original book by Tolkien, you may not enjoy the movie so much.  The reason for both of these is the same:  Jackson has added a great deal of material to his version of the Story of the Hobbit, some gleaned from unpublished Tolkien writings and some original to the movie, that strengthened links between the story of Bilbo Baggins and the tale of world war and cataclysm to follow.  As a reader of Tolkien, I found The Hobbit to be a brighter, lighter tale.  There is more humor, and rarely is Bilbo in as much danger as he is in discomfort.  And the book moves faster; it is a shorter story with less detail.  For example (this is from the book and does not enter the current movie at all), there is the adventure when Bilbo must save the dwarves from giant spiders.  He alone is not caught, and he saves them not by force of arms but by taunting the spiders, throwing rocks and insults.  Tolkien writes:



Practically all the spiders in the place came after him:  some dropped to the ground, others raced along the branches, swung from tree to tree, or cast new ropes across the dark spaces.  They made for his noise far quicker than he had expected.  They were frightfully angry.  Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.[1]



Once the spiders are distracted hunting him, Bilbo sneaks back to the dwarves and frees them from the webs.  These are talking spiders, not merely huge ones, and thus as liable to temper and folly as anyone.  They are not merely animals or monsters chasing a noise, but rather bad-tempered villains whose pride has been wounded.  We can’t really imagine Gandalf distracting the Balrog with choice insults, or Samwise luring Shelob away from her prize with a few rocks and some stamping.  Even in its darkest moments, The Hobbit remains a fairy-tale, while The Lord of the Rings is an apocalyptic epic.  The earlier book is lighter even in its darkest moments, with elements of humor and tales of cleverness defeating brute force and malice.

Elements of this remain in Jackson’s most recent movie, but there have been significant expansions.  The expansions are generally more somber, as they aim to foreshadow the return of Sauron and other fateful events leading to the War of the Rings.  Jackson has also added some violence, with Bilbo actually attacking a goblin and killing him in a scene that originally had Bilbo and his friends hiding trees awaiting a grim fate.  And finally, there is the greater visceral impact of visual over print depictions of violence.  It is one thing to write that Thorin killed a goblin; it is another to show extremely detailed and believable depictions of sword-and-ax fighting, with heads and limbs severed and flying across the screen (I can only imagine what this would look like in 3-D[2]).  True, there is no real blood; but I think that anyone who does not think this is nightmare material for small children has forgotten childhood.  This movie is rated PG-13 with good reason.  It may better suit a young audience than The Lord of the Rings, but not by much.

But as I said, if you enjoyed the earlier trilogy, you will enjoy The Hobbit.  It does have more humor than the Ring films, and thus does have a slightly lighter mood.  It also has a smaller focus; the War of the Ring is an apocalyptic struggle, while this is the story of a rather fussy homebody thrust into the company of thirteen adventurers, now trying to keep up and do what his heart tells him is right.  Gandalf the Grey is a bit less grey, Bilbo is considerably younger than when we last saw him (and played by a different actor), the dwarves generally less gruff than Gimli (Thorin is plenty grim, but as a general statement of all thirteen dwarves I think it is true).  Radagast represents a somewhat darker moment, warning of the coming evil he has seen; but any character who rides a sled pulled by giant rabbits cannot help but cheer you up a little.  And those rabbits, and the goblins, trolls, giants and other creatures and details of the world, all show the marvelous tools modern special effects offer to the imaginative moviemaker.  About the only criticism one could offer in this regard would be to complain that it is too much like the Ring trilogy.  Perhaps, when we see more of Smaug, we will really say, “This is something totally new.”

To be continued…..

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again, revised edition (New York, Ballentine Books, 1978) pp. 157-58.  The original version was written in 1936, three decades before publication of The Fellowship of the Ring.

[2] as I myself have no depth perception, besides which I saw only the 2-D movie.

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

January 4, 2013

The Hobbit and the Monomyth:  Joseph Campbell taught that all myths are basically the same story with different details.  They originate, as dreams do, in the unconscious; but myths are communal, so they represent the collective rather than the personal unconscious.  They are tales made from symbols and plots that represent universal life events, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood; and these universal psychological events themselves reflect the great metaphysical unity of all existence.  The Story of the Hobbit is in some ways a myth, and in some ways more like a dream.  Like a dream, it is the creation of a particular individual, not the historical product of a culture; but it was an attempt to write a myth in new form, and given its widespread resonance it would seem to have succeeded.  Now it has become as widely known as many “real” myths today, and has even reached the stage that it is being retold and reinvented by new generations of storytellers.

Campbell writes:




The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage:  separation—-initiation—-return:  which might me named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder:  fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won:  the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[1]



How does The Story of the Hobbit fit into the form of the monomyth?  First, let us consider our hero.  Tolkien begins:



            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.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.  The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel:  a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—-the hobbit was fond of visitors.[2]



With the first sentence, Tolkien sets up a distance between the reader and the hero.  He is not a human, he is a “hobbit,” whatever that is, and he lives in a hole as might a badger or mole.  But immediately after that, Tolkien sets a scene to show that the hobbit is in fact very much like you or me; he enjoys comforts and visitors, bright colors and polished furniture, and he lives in a hole very much like one we would want to live in, if we lived in holes.  Despite being called “hobbit,” he is Everyman, so much so that he is even more a blank slate than that, and we can come to him with no preconceptions beyond what the writer himself tells us.  And Tolkien tells us that he is a well-to-do person, from a very respectable and unremarkable family, famous for their conformity and predictability, with no magic about him.  He is so far from being “heroic” that he is smaller, shier (his country is even called “The Shire”) and more soft and self-indulgent than most of us.  And having established that, Tolkien pointedly says, “Now you know enough to go on with.”[3]  He leaves his canvas blank for the moment and lets the story reveal the rest; we know what we are meant to know:  that this is a very unremarkable person, an unportentous and reluctant hero.

As Campbell points out, the hero is often unexpectant and even reluctant.[4]  Some seek a quest, and others have the quest thrust upon them.  Bilbo’s unexpected quest is not so different than that of the princess who loses her prized golden ball and encounters a talking frog, the Arapaho girl who chased a porcupine, the knight who chased the white deer or a thousand other examples.  And insofar as the hero’s story is meant to be our own, it is fitting; we are not expecting any momentous transformation, but life will generally send us one.  The only question will be whether one embraces destiny and opportunity, or attempts to flee it; one can refuse the god and end up birthing a monster (as Minos did the Minotaur when he tried to cheat Poseidon), or one can answer the call to adventure and become the hero who slays his monsters.

The hero is called out of his former life into a higher existence, often by an old wise man or woman.[5]  And often, the hero has companions as well:  Heracles and Iolas, Jason and the Argonauts, Jesus and the Twelve.  Bilbo goes Jesus one better (or worse) and has the Thirteen:  dwarves, that is.  Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, is a hero in his own right already, and thus considers Bilbo a mere hanger-on in The Tale of the Returning Dwarves; but as Gandalf points out in the book, Bilbo is essential since otherwise the group will consist of thirteen members only and that is an unlucky number. Thus, in the original version of the story, the wizard is not really a member of the group, but rather a protective and advisory figure (as Campbell says, more a symbol of a protective destiny than a colleague).[6]  The dwarves will strike any reader as “different” and special, and Thorin in particular shows that the dwarves represent those who have already crossed the line between Ordinary and Hero worlds and now have come to accompany the soon-to-be hero as he takes up the call to adventure.  There are always thresholds to cross, symbolizing the departure from the ordinary world into the supernatural or transcendent realm, and usually several thresholds showing still deeper penetration into the great mysteries.  However, the first threshold is the most important, as it symbolizes the real beginning of the hero’s journey.  It is the point where before the hero was just one in the crowd, the undifferentiated social/cultural womb, and now is both born and laboring to give birth to himself or herself as an individual.  It is hard to say where the first threshold is in The Story of the Hobbit.  His first brush with the really fantastic seems to be the encounter with the trolls; the dwarves are mysterious and Other, but still depicted as people more or less like the hobbit himself—-a tiny bit taller and more experienced in the ways of adventure, but not truly alien.  Meeting them is only a call to adventure.  Trolls are so fantastic and alien to the normal world that even the merest touch of it—the least glimmer of sunlight—-turns them to stone.  But if this is the first threshold, then Bilbo fails to cross it; he is caught with the dwarves and must be rescued.  In the original story, Gandalf must intervene to magically rescue the party so the adventure can continue (“benign, protective power of destiny,” as Campbell would say); in Jackson’s version, it is Bilbo who keeps the trolls quarreling and thus stalls for time, which gives him a part in their eventual rescue.  However, they still are only saved by the deus ex machina of a timely arrival of the wizard.  The real threshold, then, seems to be the Descent into the Underworld, again a common mythological theme—-here, a capture by goblins.  The dwarves are rescued by the wizard, but Bilbo must save himself, by his own wits and luck.  As Oedipus had to answer the riddle of the Sphinx (to give one mythological example of the riddling monster motif), Bilbo can only escape from the dark underworld by defeating its guardian, Gollum, in a riddling contest.  In the course of his escape, Bilbo finds a magic ring that gives him the ability to become invisible; as Campbell wrote in describing the monomyth, “the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”  The movie ends before Bilbo has actually used the Ring to bestow any boons; but clearly he now has a magic power that even Gandalf does not display.  He was recruited by the group as a “burglar” (the book also allows the euphemism, “expert treasure finder,”) but he vigorously denied any qualification for that task.  Now, he is a burglar par excellence; an invisible person can go anywhere, take anything, and never have to worry about capture or even blame.

The book continues on through many more adventures, but Jackson has saved those for future films.  There is also the visit to Rivendell, which Jackson has greatly expanded from the original book, but which serves the same main purpose:  to give the adventurers secret knowledge that will enable them to fulfill the quest.  At each step, Bilbo is venturing further into the realm of the Other World:  from dwarves (only a little taller, scarcely more magical, but experienced in the wider world) to trolls (stupid but definitely magical, if only magically vulnerable) to elves (wise, ageless, and naturally magical, even beyond the wisdom and power of Gandalf).  But still, the most important threshold is the one he has crossed alone, symbolically escaping from the power of Death and capturing magical power for himself.

To be continued…..

[1] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1973) p. 30

[2] The Hobbit, p. 15

[3] The Hobbit, p. 16

[4] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 49-58

[5] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 69

[6] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 71-72

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