‘The Christian World of the Hobbit?’ Part One

With the Hobbit frenzy now being at fever pitch, Abingdon Press has done well to publish a book such as Devin Brown’s latest exploration of one of the Inklings works entitled ‘The Christian World of the Hobbit’ (208 pages, Abingdon, 2012). Brown is an accomplished scholar who teaches at Asbury University and he has previously spent a good deal of his research and writing time on the Chronicles of Narnia. Now that the filming of that good ship Narnia has sailed, or better said sunk, with the poor performance of the latest of the Walden films on Narnia (Prince Caspian), Brown has wisely turned to an already extant series of films which have proved to be box office gold— namely the three Lord of the Rings films, and now not one, not two, but three Hobbit films.

On first blush, the title of this book is odd—- after all Tolkien’s expertise and academic subject was Anglo Saxon and its lore, and it is clear enough from previous literary study of Tolkien’s fiction that he is deeply indebted to Norse mythology. Furthermore, God nowhere shows up directly in the whole series of Tolkien’s hobbit books. Tolkien was clear enough he was not doing Christian allegory in these novels. It should not be read as anything like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or even Milton’s Paradise Lost. One could further point out, that while Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, there are also no specifically Catholic themes in these novels. Even friendly elfin queens are not disguised versions of Mother Mary. What then could Brown mean by talking about ‘the Christian World of the Hobbit’?

Here is the point where a disclaimer is in order. This little book, which is well written and well researched, is not a guide to understanding the Hobbit or an introductory guide to that novel. It is rather seeking to treat a specific topic– is the world view undergirding and presented in this novel a Christian one? Brown’s answer to that question is yes, and he bases his answer on several important themes or leitmotifs that run through the Hobbit. These themes are providence, purpose, and morality.

Yes indeed, these themes are found throughout Tolkien’s fiction, but is there anything specifically Christian about them? Wouldn’t it be better to say these are Biblical themes, rather than specifically Christian themes? I ask this question because there seems to me to be very little in the Hobbit when it comes to these specific themes, that could not be called Jewish themes, or even Muslim themes were a Jewish or a Muslim scholar who takes seriously the Biblical worldview and its ethic to write such a book on the Hobbit.

It is only late in this little book that Brown gets to discussing a theme or two that might be called more specifically Christian— for example what is said about wealth and greed in these novels which certainly comports better with the ethic of Jesus than the ethic of Solomon, for example. And as for God as the behind the scenes director of providential occurrences, the Hobbit, like the Lord of the Rings, comes across more like Esther than say, any New Testament book. With these caveats however, we can now focus on examining some of the very helpful things to be found in Brown’s analysis of the Hobbit, to which we will turn in our next post.

  • http://www.thebarainitiative.com Randy Hardman

    Dr. Witherington,

    Glad to see you got your hands on this book. I also just did a review on my blog for Abingdon on the book… I found it was a generally solid approach to something which many could easily have botched. I especially found the references to luck (x45) interesting though I didn’t quite feel like this came through well in the movie version though.

    You make a distinction here between Biblical and Christian themes, suggesting that the latter term may not be quite the term to use. But could one not just as easily say that whatever is true is ‘Christian’ (that is, Christ-like) even if it is something found in other worldview systems? I guess it’s a question of classification over substance. Do we describe what is “Christian” by what is uniquely and distinctively Christian or do we describe “Christian” by what is true of God and our world.

  • Ben Witherington

    Randy my short response would be no…. not all Biblical themes are Christians themes. For example, the theme of vengeance is found in lots of places and layers of the OT. In Christian ethics it is a wholly inappropriate response. BW3