Deconstructing Bilbo Baggins

Deconstructing Bilbo Baggins November 13, 2012

Review of The Christian World of the Hobbit by Devin Brown 


Based on my limited experience, there seem to be two kinds of Tolkien scholars. The first sort are those who truly love and delight in his works and want to know more—they want to plumb the depths of Middle Earth and relish the world he has created. The second sort are those who disdain his writings, and want to kill the joy of others in reading his books. They exist seemingly solely to remind us that we’re reading fiction that has no connection to the real world and is at best sentimental escapist plop. Members of this second group I have to assume also kick puppies and shove old people while wearing black and laughing manically. Devin Brown and his book thankfully fall into the first category.

In The Christian World of the Hobbit, Brown argues that the implied backdrop for The Hobbit (and Lord of the Rings—to which he devotes quite a bit of space) is a Christian worldview and moral landscape. In the five chapters of this short work, Dr. Brown argues that 1) the whole story is told from a set of Christian presuppositions; 2) a Christian view of providence dominates Middle Earth; 3) Christian ideas of moral development are experienced by the characters; 4) a Christian ethical view defines the thoughts and actions of nearly all involved—which is not necessarily to say that it is an overly simplistic view of good and evil; 5) the whole story fits into a Christian view of what a story should do (which involves arguments drawn from Tolkien’s work On Fairy Stories).

Overall, Brown has provided us with a well-written and interesting interpretation of both The Hobbit and (to a lesser extent) Lord of the Rings. He does an excellent job analyzing the text as literature, pointing out how the themes, plot, and characters blend together in a way that sets Tolkien’s work out as a literary masterpiece. (Even the critics of Tolkien—discussed briefly at the beginning and end of the book—rarely criticize his writing ability.) This book will help you see several of the themes in The Hobbit and make reading Tolkien a richer and deeper experience. Moreover, Dr. Brown’s book is no dry academic tome—he has an easy and clear writing style that flows well and makes this a quick read. (For another related-but-different perspective on The Hobbit, check out the review by the reigning King of the Blog Paul Miller.)

That said, I think there is one major issue with the book that should probably be addressed should a second edition of it ever come out. Which means that even though this is going to be a mild criticism, in one sense it’s a backhanded compliment since I’m essentially saying I’d like to read more of what Brown has to say about Tolkien.

My quibble is this: while I think Dr. Brown has made his case well that providence, morality, and the rest are the backdrop of Tolkien’s writings, I don’t know that I’m quite sold on the worldview of The Hobbit being, as the title claims, specifically Christian. That is, the points made in the book could apply to any number of theistic (or even pantheistic) worldviews. Christianity doesn’t have the marketed cornered on doctrines of providence, morality, and a beneficent divinity concerned with your spiritual and ethical development. The book is full of statements like this:

Many Christians will find this concept of something greater than luck at work in Middle-earth to be akin to the way that God works in their own lives. Christian readers may see the Providence that surrounds, guides, and guards Bilbo to be very similar to the basic Christian doctrine of a loving Father who cares for his children. (53)

“Many Christians will find”, “many Christians will recognize” (105), and so on. In other words, it’s not so much that the book is explicitly embracing Christian themes, as it is that there are themes in the book which resonate with Christians. This is an important distinction. A book does not automatically involve a “Christian” worldview just because there are points in it Christians can agree with—after all, there are themes in the Iliad that ‘many Christians will recognize,’ and it is most certainly not a Christian book in any meaningful sense.

This point is reinforced when we remember that most of the themes are ones which can be embraced likewise by many pagans, pantheists, Muslims, and, well, you get the point. While it’s fair to point out that 1) Christianity may very well be the only religion where these doctrines all come together in the specific way found in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and 2) Tolkien was himself a Catholic writing from a Catholic worldview, I think it’s reaching perhaps a bit farther than warranted to conclude that therefore the world of Tolkien’s books is “Christian.”

Yet we can go one more step—The Hobbit lacks the one thing necessary to make something fall into that elusive category of “Christian”: it lacks any perception of the Gospel. What makes Christianity stand out at the end of the day from other sorts of theism is not that we believe in ethics or providence or a benevolent God, it’s that we believe that Jesus Christ was God and that in his life, death, and resurrection he saved everyone who repents and believes in him. This message is absent from Tolkien’s works in any shape, whether explicit or allegorically.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to criticize Tolkien by pointing this out, and I’m not even criticizing the various points Dr. Brown makes about Tolkien’s works (I think he’s right pretty much across the board). I’m just suggesting that the title The Christian World of the Hobbit is a bit of a misnomer. There’s nothing “Christian” about Tolkien’s world. He himself pointed out that 1) Middle Earth existed long before Christ had come and 2) he was intentionally not writing an allegory. As a result, we shouldn’t be looking for specifically Christian themes in Middle Earth (see the Introduction to Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s letters for more of his thoughts on the time and un-allegorical nature of Middle Earth).

That said, I’m certainly not trying to kill anyone’s enjoyment of Tolkien’s works (again, they are utter delights to read). What I am suggesting is that maybe our enjoyment of The Hobbit is not because Bilbo is a Christian, but rather because we are. As believers we can delight in Tolkien’s creative ability, revel in the world he has drawn up for us, and be moved and excited by the adventures of his characters. The Christian World of the Hobbit is a wonderful help and guide in this delight, revel, and excitement. Brown’s treatment of the themes running throughout the story will only deepen your love for Tolkien’s world.

Recommended for fans of all things Tolkien.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the Patheos Book Club. I received it for free, but was not required to write a positive review.

Dr. Coyle Neal doesn’t get to revisit Middle Earth as often as he would like, and considers Washington, D.C. to be somewhat akin to Moria. 

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