Since its initial publication almost 60 years ago, it is estimated to have registered sales in excess of 150 million copies.
In a poll organized jointly by Waterstones and BBC Channel 4 in 1996, The Lord of the Rings topped the poll in 104 of the 105 branches of the British bookstore, receiving 20% more votes than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, its nearest rival. Perhaps its ultimate triumph in the age of the Internet was its being voted best book of the millennium by Amazon.com customers, signaling its conquest of the final frontier of cyberspace.
In the wake of the book’s phenomenal success, Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy became one of the most successful films of all time.
Few would predict anything other than another huge success for Jackson and his team with the December 14 release of the first part of the long-awaited three-part adaptation of The Hobbit.
At its deepest level of meaning, The Hobbit is a pilgrimage of grace in which its protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, becomes grown-up in the most important sense. Throughout the course of his adventure, the hobbit develops the habit of virtue and grows in sanctity, illustrating the priceless truth that we only become wise men (homo sapiens) when we realize that we are pilgrims on a purposeful journey through life (homo viator).
Bilbo’s journey from the homely comfort of the Shire to the uncomfortable lessons learned en route to the Lonely Mountain, in parallel with Frodo’s journey from the Shire to Mount Doom in the Rings trilogy, is a mirror of every man’s journey through life. It is in this sense that Tolkien wrote in his celebrated and cerebral essay “On Fairy Stories” that “the fairy story . . . may be used as a mirour de l’omme” (the mirror of scorn and pity towards man).
In short, we are meant to see ourselves reflected in the character of Bilbo and our lives reflected in his journey from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain.
Indeed, and perhaps surprisingly, Bilbo bears a remarkable resemblance to many of us, his diminutive size and furry feet notwithstanding. He likes tea and toast and jam and pickles; he has wardrobes full of clothes and lots of pantries full of food; he likes the view from his own window and has little desire to see the view from distant windows. He is a creature of comfort dedicated to the creature comforts.
In Christian terms, Bilbo Baggins is dedicated to the easy life and would find the prospect of taking up his cross and following the heroic path of self-sacrifice utterly anathema.
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The unexpected party at the beginning of the story, in which the hobbit’s daily habits are disrupted by the arrival of unexpected and unwelcome guests, is, therefore, a necessary disruption. It is the intervention into his cozy life of an element of inconvenience or suffering, which serves as a wake-up call and a call to action.
In losing his bourgeois respectability — the price he must pay for becoming an adventurer — he forsakes the world and the worldly in favor of the pearl of great price.
Another key component of The Hobbit, which it shares with The Lord of the Rings, is the presence of the invisible hand of Providence or grace. This presence, euphemistically labeled “luck” in the story, is not really “luck” at all.
“You don’t really suppose, do you,” Gandalf tells Bilbo, “that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?”
Contrary to the claims of Nietzsche, Hitler and other secular “progressives,” there is no triumph of the will without the supernatural assistance of grace. This is the whole point of Frodo’s failure to destroy the One Ring of his own volition in The Lord of the Rings. Human will, on its own, is never enough. Grace is always necessary.
In The Hobbit, as in The Lord of the Rings, good “luck” is inextricably connected to good choices, and bad “luck” is inextricably connected to bad choices. With regard to the latter, we should recall the words of Gandalf to Pippin: “Often does hatred hurt itself” — or the words of Theoden that “oft evil will shall evil mar.”
Thus, there is a supernatural dimension to the unfolding of events in Middle-earth, in which Tolkien shows the mystical balance that exists between the promptings of grace or of demonic temptation and the response of the will to such promptings and temptations. This mystical relationship plays itself out in the form of transcendent Providence, which is much more than “luck” or chance.
For a Christian, this is life as it is. It is realism.
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A Christian believes in dragons, even if he can’t see them, and knows that they are perilous and potentially deadly. They are certainly not to be courted, nor is it wise to toy with them.
“The more truly we can see life as a fairy tale,” said G.K. Chesterton, “the more clearly the tale resolves itself into war with the dragon who is wasting fairyland.”
Grace is always available to those who seek it and ask for it, biasing “fortune” in the direction of goodness; yet, on the other hand, the fallen nature of humanity means that man’s natural tendency is towards concupiscence and its destructive consequences. If we don’t ask for help, we are bound to fall.
It is in this choice, rooted in the gift and responsibility of free will, that the struggle with evil is won or lost. The will must willingly cooperate with grace or, in its failure to do so, must inevitably fall into evil. The struggle which all of us face is a dangerous adventure in a perilous realm.
If the interplay of Providence and free will is the means by which the dynamism of virtue and its consequences drive the narrative forward, the overarching moral of The Hobbit would appear to be a cautionary meditation on Matthew 6:21 (“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”).
The story begins with Bilbo’s desire for comfort and his unwillingness to sacrifice himself for others. His heart is essentially self-centered, surrounding itself with the treasures of his own home. His position at the outset of the story is an ironic and symbolic prefiguring of the dragon’s surrounding himself with treasure in his “home” in the Lonely Mountain.
Bilbo is, therefore, afflicted with the dragon sickness. His pilgrimage to the Lonely Mountain is the means by which he will be cured of this materialist malady. It is a via dolorosa, a path of suffering, the following of which will heal him of his self-centeredness and teach him to give himself self-sacrificially to others.
The paradoxical consequence of the dragon sickness is that the things possessed possess the possessor. Thus Bilbo is a slave to his possessions at the beginning of The Hobbit and is liberated from them, or from his addiction to them, by its end.
When Gandalf proclaims at the story’s end that Bilbo is no longer the hobbit that he was, we know that he is changed for the better. He no longer places his heart at the service of his worldly possessions, but seeks instead those treasures of the heart to be found in wisdom and virtue. He is healed, and he is whole — or, as Tolkien the Catholic might say, he is whole because he is holy. The hobbit had attained the habit of virtue, and, as befits the hero of any good fairy story, he now knows what is necessary to live happily ever after.
Joseph Pearce, writer in residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, is the author of eighteen books and co-editor of the St. Austin Review.