The Christian World of The Hobbit
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J.R.R. Tolkien's story about 'the one ring' doesn't start with Frodo Baggins as told in The Lord of the Rings. Before Frodo and Sam, Gandalf and Bilbo, along with a band of 13 dwarves, have a grand adventure to recover a lost inheritance. Bilbo's tale is the subject of Peter Jackson's latest trilogy based on Tolkien's The Hobbit. (Jackson's third installment, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, formerly known as The Hobbit: There and Back Again, releases in December 17, 2014).
Author Devin Brown shares his thoughts on the life, faith and work of novelist J.R.R. Tolkien in his new book, The Christian World of The Hobbit. Here are excerpts from an interview CBN.com recently did with the Tolkien expert before the release of the first Hobbit movie:
Hannah Goodwyn: What was J.R.R. Tolkien's faith background?
Devin Brown: Tolkien was responsible for bringing C.S. Lewis to faith. That's one of the greatest unknown stories to the world. Here's Tolkien who was the real deal when it came to being a believer. He didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk, but he did it in a very quiet way. He didn't write books called Mere Christianity or anything like that, but he lived it.
He was Roman Catholic. His mom converted; she had been an Anglican. His dad died. So, he went with her in the Catholic faith and was very devout, very pious. That said, when he helped bring Lewis to Christianity—he didn't bring him to Catholicism, he brought him to Christianity. Certainly, his commitment to Christ was first and his denomination second. But, yeah, he was very pious, went to church not just every Sunday, but often every day. He was one of those kind of people, that I don't know that very many of them exist anymore.
If you read his letters, he's very concerned, like all parents are, that his children really keep the faith, really have the faith first. His commitment to Jesus was just rock-solid; and he couldn't be separated from who he was.
HG: Your book states that Tolkien didn't purposely write The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings with Christian messages in mind.
DB: There is a famous letter where he says, The Lord of the Rings... someone had written about it, is a fundamentally Christian work, unconscious at first. But then he has this other line that I've thought a lot about, "but conscious in the revisions." If you know anything about it, it took him 12 years to write. So, over the revisions, and then he goes back and revises The Hobbit to match it up. So, this idea that he didn't consciously make it Christian is true at first. But as he revised it, he certainly did.
People say, "Look, God's not mentioned in The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. There's no churches, no priest, no Bible. There's no Jesus. How can you say it's Christian?" And I said, "Here's the deal. You can't see that it's Christian because you live in the Christian world where there is right and wrong and there is truth. I don't know if you know any friends who don't believe that there's right or wrong and don't believe there's such a thing as truth. That's the non-Christian world." I mean, that's the world without God.
In Tolkien's Middle-earth, there is a right or wrong. There is a goodness. There's a providence.
HG: In The Christian World of The Hobbit, you talk how fiction is usually to entertain us, but that Tolkien had a serious purpose behind it.
DB: Yes. So, you're going to run into people, and I run into people all of the time, who think that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are some sort of literary equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons, entertaining, but nothing more.
W.H. Auden was a great poet; and W.H. Auden was a huge Tolkien fan and was one of the first to see, "Hey, this is really amazing!" So, he writes a review for the New York Times, and he says, "Look, you think this is a book about imaginary dwarves and elves and hobbits." And he says, "This is about us." And that's the quote, it's what Auden, in this wonderful way says. He says, "In Tolkien's fiction, he holds the mirror up to the only nature that he knows, which is human nature. He shows us the human heart. He shows us ourselves, as we struggle to decide what's right and wrong, and we struggle to do it, after we figure it out."
Then Lewis, who also wrote a couple reviews of each of the books, in his review of—it's called the dethronement of hearts, so it must be The Return of the King, he said, "Everybody says, 'Well, if you've got something to say about human nature, why do you put it in Middle-earth? Why don't you set it like our contemporary studio?'" He says, "There's something about moving it into this Middle-earth that helps us see it more clearly." And it's true, right? Lewis himself had that same experience. He said, "Look, some of you went to a great Sunday school or a great church. That's wonderful. That wasn't my case, I went to one that, at least maybe it was me, was boring." The Christian story boring? How can that be? And he said, "I hoped through the Narnia stories to recast it without what it was bad for me… Its stained glass associations, to really bring it to its full potency for the first time.
Tolkien does the same thing. He casts this idea of right and wrong, and all of these other what I would call, "Christian aspects" into Middle-earth. Where, somehow because they're not in our world, we see them more clearly, we feel them more powerfully, and we, oddly enough, identify with them. Bilbo and Frodo are not humans. They're hobbits. We're humans, not hobbits; but what we aren't, we're all the same.
HG: The Hobbit started with one sentence, didn't it?
DB: The story everyone tells, and I think it must be true; he's got his grading pen. In his creative, somewhat eccentric mind, he writes on this page. "In the hole in the ground, there lived the hobbit." So if he had been rich, didn't need to grade, or didn't have so many, or hadn't been so tired, or didn't have this blank page, he wouldn't have had that sentence. Once he has this sentence, he says, "My mind likes to make up, find out, where did that name of hobbit come from?" So, he makes up a story to tell where hobbits come from. He starts The Hobbit in the '30s, and it's an interesting story.
He likes to tell his stories to his kids, so The Hobbit was originally told to his kids there in the Oxford suburbs. Then his friends, Lewis and the rest of the inklings, say, "We like this story, you ought to read it to us." So he reads it to them, and eventually they say, "You should publish this."
There's a famous Tolkien letter where he said, "The debt that I owe to Lewis is unpayable. For long he was my only audience, and but for him, I would never have brought this whole project to completion. He was the one who convinced me that my stuff might be interesting to others, besides our little group here."
So, he encouraged him to submit The Hobbit, and it was quite a success, and they wanted a sequel. So, he starts on this new Hobbit; they called it the New Hobbit. Well, before long it grows out of control, it's not going to be that old story. There's not another Bilbo story, we have to tell it about Frodo. It becomes Lord of the Rings; it takes over. He quits twice, and twice Lewis comes and says, "Tolkers, where's your next chapter of the New Hobbit?" He says, "I'm done with that." "No, no, no," in a British way, he says, "Don't leave me hanging." He says, "I got a picture. I don't know where he stops. We don't know that." But it's like, "Merry and Pippin just got kidnapped by the Orcs, Sam and Frodo just got crossed the river, Boromir is dying in Aragorn's arms. You're going to leave me hanging here? You've got to finish it. This is going to be your great work."
HG: People who haven't read the books probably remember Bilbo's name from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But The Hobbit is his story. What are the lessons we learn from his adventure?
DB: Everyone who's seen The Lord of the Rings, knows that Bilbo was the one who found the Ring, originally from Gollum. In Lord of the Rings, he's writing the story of his adventure, "There and Back Again". He's this guy who's writing the red book. But The Hobbit is his story by himself. Frodo isn't around, he hasn't been born yet; he hasn't entered the scene. And so, Gandalf shows up, looking for someone who will go on an adventure with these dwarves; and of course, Gandalf is this emissary. Someone has sent him, we don't know who, but somebody big. Someone who loves Middle-earth and cares for Middle-earth, and that's why he's been sent. Clearly these dwarves are going to need somebody's assistance.
I love the Christian theme, "Not by power, nor by might." So, Bilbo's not very powerful, not very mighty, and he's going to help make this mission accomplishment. Here's the Christian thing I think about it, is the task that God has called us to, they're called to help other people, and in helping other people, we help ourselves. Someone asked somebody a question, "Does the Christian hero go out to save the world or to save himself?" The answer is both. In saving the world and dying to save the world, he saves himself.
So, Bilbo when we meet him, he's in his hobbit home. He's comfortable. He doesn't like adventures. He calls them nasty, disturbing things that make you late for dinner, and that sums him up. He doesn't like unpredictability. He doesn't like being disturbed. He doesn't like being late for dinner. When he runs off, he runs off without his pocket handkerchief. What's lovely, and people need to read this, it's not that he has to give up his tea, which he loves, and his pocket handkerchiefs and his waistcoat, but he's a slave to them. He can't bear to be without them.
At the end, when you get to the last chapter, he's got an even nicer waistcoat on, if you read carefully. He's got a red silk handkerchief that Elrond gave him, and then Gandalf shows up. He says, "Come on and have a tea, and let's have a pipe together." All of the things he loved in the beginning. This is the story where he renounces them, and leads some sort of hired life. But all of the good things in life that God has given him are still his and even better, but now he's not enslaved to them. He delights in them, but does not have to have them.
HG: What do you think kids and adults both could benefit from by reading this book?
DB: Besides all of these lessons that are quite encouraging is Bilbo never becomes Bard the Bowman. In other words, he doesn't do anything that you or I couldn't do if we tried really hard. At the end of the day, he has to work up some courage, but it's not courage that he doesn't have more than you or I could work up, and he has to have faith.
He just does what he can. So this idea of God uses the meek and lonely, yeah, just like you and just like me. At the very last line, Gandalf says to him that all these—they're talking about this prophecy coming true. He said, "Oh my gosh, I was part of that." He says, "Yes." Now, you're a small part of it." He says, "Well, thank goodness, I couldn't stand anymore." But the answer is that Bilbo's story is one thread in a great tapestry, just like all of ours. It's not something we're living on our own, and the fact that it's a thread in a tapestry, actually makes history I think more magnificent, just like our story. Without us, the tapestry's not complete. We have our own special part to play, and our story is part of a larger story, and without us, that story can't be written. So, that's one of my favorite themes, and I think that must be one of Tolkien's themes, using the lowly to confound the mighty because he returns to the exact story in The Lord of the Rings. We have four hobbits, each quite lowly, but accomplishing something spectacular, but not by power, nor by might.
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