(Transcript of speech given on October 7, 2016, at the Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis and Friends. Taylor University, Upland IN).
a. Most of you probably know J.R.R. Tolkien was a Christian and he played a part in leading C.S. Lewis to faith. Many people have noted that Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia has obviously Christian themes and ideas, but it’s less often we hear this about Tolkien’s work. I’d like to remedy that a little by talking about some Christian elements in The Hobbit.
b. Before I really get going though, I’d like to make this one excuse. The Hobbit is unusually hard to analyze because it’s written in a style where you just want to enjoy it. It’s the same style that you see in Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie or Lewis’s Narnia books, where the narrator has a personality and tells the story in a very oral fashion.
Paul Kocher summed up this style in his book Master of Middle-Earth (pause as volunteer reads the following quote):
“The beginning of wisdom in understanding The Hobbit is to think of Tolkien, or another adult, in a chair by the fireside telling the story to a semicircle of children sitting on the floor facing him.”
The Hobbit has this beautiful oral style which makes it hard to analyze because you think that would be rude. It would be like sitting by Tolkien as he tells the story and raising your hand to say, “Excuse me? What was the symbolism of that?”
Consequently, I won’t pretend this talk covers all The Hobbit’s Christian elements. These are only the three insights I could uncover reading it myself and reading other sources.
c. My three insights are that The Hobbit manifests Tolkien’s faith by depicting a world that has a guiding force, where evil is shown to be wrong, and then praises good things which speak to God’s original design.
2. A World With A Guiding Force
a. It’s interesting how lucky Bilbo and the dwarves are in their adventure to defeat Smaug.
- They happen to meet Elrond, show him their map, and he luckily is one of the last people alive who can read moon letters.
- Bilbo luckily steals the elf steward’s keys on the night the steward is especially drunk.
- Then just by luck, Bilbo and the dwarves arrive at the Mountain in time for Durin’s Day, a date no one knew was even coming.
b. Devin Brown talks about this in his book The Christian World of The Hobbit:
“The word luck appears twenty-five times in The Hobbit, luckily is used eleven times, and the word lucky nine times. We find these words used by Tolkien so regularly that readers may begin to wonder if the author is suggesting by this frequency that there is more than mere luck at work, that what may seem like luck at the time is really the hand of Providence.”
So, we get these strong hints that something or someone is working behind the scenes, and Gandalf confirms that at the very end of The Hobbit when he’s talking with Bilbo. They talk about how prophecies about the Mountain and Dale are being fulfilled, and Gandalf basically says “Well of course! You helped fulfill those prophecies. You didn’t really think all your adventures and escapes happened by mere luck, just for your personal benefit?”
There’s clearly a guiding force in Middle-Earth. What’s interesting is Tolkien rarely said this guiding force is God. He strongly implied it in The Silmarillion, but he never explained it in The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings. In fact, he said in one letter to his friend Robert Murray that when he revised The Lord of the Rings for publication, he noticed how Christian it was and made a point to remove all references to religious practices.
c. Why would you do that? Why would you see your artwork is Christian and deliberately make it less obvious? Part of the reason is Tolkien’s Catholic faith.
Steve Turner noted in his book Imagine that while Protestant evangelicals often only encourage art that’s overtly Christian (Christian fiction, Christian music), Catholics are usually fine with making mainstream art. He cited five different reasons why this is true, based on differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. This is one of the big differences he noted:
“Roman Catholicism emphasizes the sacramental. Bread and wine, oil and ash, water and flame can all become channels of grace. In a similar way, God can confront us through ordinary people, things or events. What this means for Catholic artists is that they are prepared to see a second dimension to the commonplace.”
So, Catholic artists don’t have a problem making art that’s only subtly Christian. They understand better that God can work through even simple things. Therefore, Tolkien, being Catholic, wrote The Hobbit with the idea it would only be “fundamentally Christian” – the foundation is Christian, the specifics less so.
3. Evil is Shown to Be Wrong
The second clear Christian quality in The Hobbit is the way Tolkien portrays evil. He shows it as something awful which should be discouraged.
a. We see this most obviously in Gollum.
Gollum is described as “a small slimy creature,” “dark as darkness except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.” Later, during Gollum’s riddle game with Bilbo, we learn he carries “a sharp stone to sharpen his fangs on.” All these details suggest Gollum is a repulsive person. We know from Gollum’s actions that he is evil, and we see that evil has physically eaten away at him.
b. But Gollum’s not the only character where we see evil’s negative effects. Really, he’s the extreme, the person who’s gone very far down the road of evil. We see many other characters who just go down that road a little bit and they suffer for it.
- Bilbo chooses to be selfish and take the Arkenstone for himself, which leads to strife between Thorin and the others. Ultimately, Thorin banishes him for taking the stone.
- Thorin chooses to follow greed and becomes a selfish self-proclaimed king hiding in his fortress.
The Hobbit is full of characters who sometimes do evil things, even if they’re generally likable people, and their evil actions have negative consequences. This is a very good portrayal of sin, of the idea that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
4. Praising Good Things Which Speak to God’s Original Design
Finally, not only does The Hobbit have a guiding force and show evil as evil, it goes further and shows good as good.
a. Most writers agree that there is something wrong with our world, but not everyone agrees that there is light beyond it. You only have to read books like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré, to know there are stories which show life as meaningless. Stories
where there is evil, people fight it, but in the end, it doesn’t matter.
b. But Christianity claims there are still good things even in a broken world. As Christians, we can remember the passage in Genesis 1:31 where “God saw all that he made, and it was very good.”
Even after the Fall, we see in Scripture God doesn’t abandon goodness in the world.
- In Exodus 31, God appoints people to make beautiful things, like the Ark of the Covenant, which show his love for beauty and well-made things.
- God encourages loving behavior through Paul and other writers in the New Testament.
God values and encourages goodness, even in our fallen state.
c. The Hobbit exemplifies this idea very well, particularly in the chapters that take place in the Shire and Rivendell. There’s a sense of delighting in nature (in flowers and trees) and also in things like good food, music, friendship – good things which show God’s original design.
Thorin says in his last words to Bilbo, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
d. Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, talked a little about this goodness in his 1973 preface to The Hobbit (pause as volunteer reads the quote):
“I said once that the world [Tolkien] charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmare, daydreams, and twilight fantasies, but he never invented them either; he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world.”
That’s an apparently secular writer, seeing how The Hobbit portrays goodness even in a broken world.
To wrap things up, The Hobbit is a distinctly Christian book, because it shows a creator who may be mysterious but is clearly there, the depravity which evil leads to, and the goodness even in a broken world. It may not show this as obviously as The Chronicles of Narnia or other works, but as Tolkien once put it, his work is “fundamentally Christian.”
Brown, Devin. The Christian World of The Hobbit. Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2012. Print.
Kocher, Paul. Master of Middle-Earth. New York: Random House, Inc., 1972. Print.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. Print
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982. Print.
Turner, Steve. Imagine: A Vision for Christians In the Arts. Madison: InterVarsity Press, 2001. Print.
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