By Devin Brown
Author of The Christian World of The Hobbit
Whether you are reading The Hobbit for the first time, rereading it for the twentieth, or simply looking forward to seeing the first of the three Hobbit films this December—here are five lines from Tolkien’s original to watch for.
1. “You can stop at thirteen and have all the bad luck you like.”
Gandalf says these words to the thirteen dwarves in chapter one as they begin to have doubts about his choice of Mr. Bilbo Baggins as their so-called “burglar.” Gloin complains that Bilbo looks more like a grocer than a burglar—and he’s right.
Even though Tolkien frames the entire quest in this question of luck, we are not really meant to think that the reason Gandalf—and whoever set him—has selected Bilbo is simply to avoid an unlucky number. If that were the case, anyone could have served as the company’s fourteenth member. Bilbo is especially chosen to go on this journey. There is something he is supposed to do, and there is something that the adventure is supposed to do for him. And this brings us to:
2. “Very good for you—and profitable too.”
Gandalf tells Bilbo that the adventure will be good for him, and profitable as well—and it is, but not in the way that Bilbo initially thinks. Bilbo is promised one-fourteenth share of Smaug’s enormous hoard, but in the end comes home with a very different kind of treasure—the kind that will never rust, the kind thieves cannot break in and steal.
From the start, it is clear that Bilbo’s home-loving Baggins side has been dominating his life. The adventure will allow his more daring Took side to come out. In the song that the dwarves make up about him, they sing: “Chips the glasses and crack the plates! … That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates.” The Bilbo we meet in chapter one is far too concerned about his lovely plates and glasses, his pocket handkerchiefs, and not being late for dinner. In the end, his Baggins side is not so much conquered as redeemed, as he returns home with a renewed and an ordinate love for all these things.
3. Going on from there was the bravest things he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone.
These words are said by Tolkien’s narrator as Bilbo, not knowing what he might find there, is about to go alone down the tunnel to Smaug’s lair. In another type of story, Bilbo would have gradually become a great warrior, and it would have been Bilbo the Blademan who would have killed the dragon—not Bard the Bowman. But this is not the story Tolkien wants to tell.
The kind of courage that Bilbo comes to acquire—in deciding to spare Gollum, in giving up the Arkenstone, and in returning to face Thorin’s wrath—is a particularly Christian version of this virtue. Tolkien does not have Bilbo do anything that his readers could not do themselves. We are supposed to let Mr. Baggins’ moral courage inspire our own choices.
4. “If more of us valued good and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
These are among Thorin’s last words near the end of the story just before he dies. The excessive desire to lay up treasure in Middle-earth is one of Tolkien’s central issues in The Hobbit. Dwarves, elves, men, goblins, a dragon, and, for a time, even Bilbo himself are all affected by the power that gold has. The Desolation of Smaug threatens to become the Desolation of Thorin as the new king under the mountain become just as greedy and possessive of the dragon’s hoard as its previous owner.
When Bilbo discovers the Arkenstone and hides it in his pocket, he briefly becomes not the honest burglar he later calls himself but a real one. How, in the end, is Bilbo able escape the dragon sickness that affects even his closest relatives, the Sackville-Bagginses? In the end, Tolkien has Bilbo come to recognize and value what might be called the “sacramental ordinary,” the reverence, celebration, and love of the everyday that is an essential part of Tolkien’s moral vision.
5. “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?”
On the final page of The Hobbit, a place of particular prominence, the author speaks through Gandalf to explicitly make the point he has hinted at all along. The wizard suggests that something greater than luck has been at work, something that Christians might call Providence. At this point, a line from earlier in the novel takes on new meaning. When Bilbo’s hand happens to come down in the pitch black darkness on Gollum’s ring, he thinks: “A magic ring! … It was hard to believe that he really had found one by accident.”
Bilbo agrees with Gandalf’s final statement adding a grateful “Thank goodness.” Readers are meant to learn what Bilbo learns and to conclude along with him that his adventures and escapes were managed by something that may have seemed like mere luck at the time but was something far greater.
The Providence, purpose, and morality in The Hobbit go against the grain of the modern mindset. In his classic tale, Tolkien brings his readers into a world filled with meaning and intention, a world where people and their actions—no matter how seemingly small or insignificant—still have value. The same audience who might scoff at the Christian worldview in a different context find themselves embracing it in The Hobbit.
For more conversation on Devin Brown’s The Christian World of The Hobbit, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and Professor of English at Asbury University, where he teaches a class on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010). He has spoken at Lewis and Tolkien conferences in the UK and the U.S. Devin has published numerous essays on Lewis and Tolkien for cslewis.com,Christianitytoday.com, SamaritansPurse.org, and Beliefnet.com.