There and Back Again

Review of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Reviewed by PAUL D. MILLER

I first visited Middle Earth when I was in middle school. I owned a thick, dark yellow copy of The Hobbit (1937). It smelled musty and old, which is just right for a book like this. Like many a ten-year-old, I fell under the spell of the elves and dwarves and wizards and daydreamed my way through 6th grade by fighting great battles against goblins and trolls.

As is my habit, I went back again to Middle Earth recently to freshen up on the book before the movie comes out. I like to relive the memory of a story as a book, before my reading of it is irremediably altered by viewing it as a movie. Alas, the influence of the Lord of the Rings films is too great; I can’t read “Gandalf” or “Shire” without visualizing Ian McKellen or the set design from Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve already seen the trailers the forthcoming fourth installment in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien saga: Howard Shore’s haunting rendition of the dwarves’ Misty Mountain theme echoed in my head the whole reading. Some things can never be recaptured.

Which is fitting, as that is one of the themes of Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories. The Hobbit  is pervaded by a sense of lost greatness (and The Lord of the Rings much more so). Characters regularly make references to the old days, to how things were before various wars and battles—the war between the dwarves and goblins in the Mines of Moria, for example. The story takes place in a kind of Dark Ages of Middle Earth—a savage time when roads are unsafe and no one trusts anyone. Indeed, there is a brutality and savagery to the realm—sometime nearly tantamount to ethnic cleansing (as when it is said the dwarves were “driven out” of the North by the goblins). In this the tales of Middle Earth reflect the Biblical truth of the Fall and our built-in sense of having lost paradise.

The Hobbit is, in this respect, firmly in the tradition of the literature that followed in the wake of the Great War. Tolkien, an educated young man in his 20s when the iron dice began to roll, served as a lieutenant in the British Army in World War I and saw most of his close friends killed in the meat-grinder of the trenches. European literature in the 1920s and 30s is pervaded by pessimism and despair sown by the terrible cataclysm of the war.

Reading the book as an adult, I noticed many more things. The Hobbit is, in part, the tragedy of Thorin Oakenshield, a noble hero undone by greed. Indeed, the story lacks a traditional hero: Biblo is passive for the first third of the book; Gandalf disappears for the middle half; and Thorin turns out to be a petty, mean-hearted one-percenter. None of them end up killing the dragon; that’s done by a human (Bard) who is introduced a mere two pages before his battle with the great lizard. The Master of Esgaroth is a cynical merchant; the king of the Elves is a cruel and narrow-minded bigot. Throughout the book the action is accomplished a motley bunch of indecisive opportunists who want all the credit for hero’s work while doing half the effort, and yet won’t take a risk until they are assured of victory. Thorin’s most heroic act—charging out the gates to turn the tide of the Battle of Five Armies—simply gets him killed. There is a strange realism in these characters. The story involves magic, but the characters are strikingly normal.

Then there’s the odd structure of the book. While Smaug the Dragon is killed quickly, the book goes on for several more chapters and turns abruptly into a short war epic as dwarves, men, elves, and goblins descend upon the mountain to fight over the dead dragon’s gold. There is a moral ambiguity in the concluding chapters; there are no clear good guys except Biblo and Gandalf, who want to avoid the Battle if possible. Again, this is quite realistic. (Perhaps inspired again by the Great War, Tolkien would have been aware of the chaos that erupted across Europe and the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman, German, and Austrian empires. A power vacuum invites a war of succession.)

It is easy to see how Jackson is going to translate this for the big screen, highlighting some aspects for better cinematic value. Thorin, who is something of a blank slate for the first two-thirds of the book, will loom larger in the films. Bard will probably be a major character in the third film. The run-up to the Battle of Five Armies—which happens suddenly and without much establishing work in the book—will probably get a lot of screen time. And Gandalf’s long absence to work with the White Council to drive out the Necromancer, which gets about two sentences in the book, is reportedly a major subplot since it feeds directly into The Lord of the Rings. (For a fun tie-in, I’d like to see the Master of Esgaroth, who is never named, identified as Grima Wormtongue, as they are similar characters in the two books).

We see the action through the eyes of Bilbo, of course. He is the noblest character. Three moments in particular stuck out. First, in the goblin caves, when he is left alone in the dark, he gathers his wits. “‘Go back?’ he thought. ‘No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!’” It is his first moment of taking charge of his own fate. Second, when he is again left alone in the pitch dark of Mirkwood, nearly starving, and attacked by a spider, he fights it off. “Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder.” Finally, as he approaches the dragon’s lair: “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.”

These are the moments that comprise Biblo’s character-arc. I hope Jackson plays these up in the movie versions. I may be stretching a bit here, but I’m reminded of Philippians 2:12: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling…” Our choices matter. God freely justifies by his grace through Christ. But our sanctification is our work to do. If we would be the heroes of our own lives, then it is up to us. As Bilbo takes more responsibility for his fate, as he shows more initiative and agency, he grows more heroic.

But of course, that is because God, in his sovereignty, has ordained that our choices and actions are the means through which he accomplishes his purposes. Our actions and choices, free to us, are planned and used by God for his glory. Paul goes on to say in Philippians 2:13, “…for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purposes.” How our freedom and God’s providence are reconciled is a mystery to us, but they are. Bilbo, similarly, was a small player in a grander story the design of which was unknown to him, even while he played the part assigned him. Gandalf says on the last page of the story, “Surely you don’t disbelieve in 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 very 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!”


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