Ever since I was 13 I have been one of those Tolkien nerds. I’ve read most of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth works and several of his essays and poems outside of that world. I worked heavily once on a paper in college using Tolkien’s translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, I’ve studied the friendship between he and C.S. Lewis, and I’ve appreciated his ever lasting contribution to my views of myth, specifically as outlined in his poem “Mythopoeia”. Ever since first reading The Hobbit and later The Lord of the Rings I have been enchanted (and since we’re talking about Middle Earth, I can use that word!) by his world. I am not in the least ashamed to say that I even own an Elvish grammar…and may decide to learn it one day! 😉 Don’t laugh.
Of course, this naturally meant that when Devin Brown released his book The Christian World of the Hobbit (Abingdon, 2012) I was eager with anticipation to read through it as I equally worked my way back through Tolkien’s classic children’s story. Brown, who works in the same town I do my graduate studies, is among very few who could write the book with the sort of integrity and clarity the narrative deserves. Brown has earned a solid reputation as both a C.S. Lewis and Tolkien scholar and his exceptional ability to weave through these texts has offered him a learned understanding of the worldviews of both authors. And if, just in case, anyone wants to suggest that Tolkien and Lewis’ stories are just that–stories–they have missed something incredibly foundational to their works: the reality of the Christian worldview. This review of Brown’s work will go chapter by chapter but, at the same time, offer something much broader than a simple review.
After The Lord of the Rings came out in theaters, one of the most tiresome and repetitive discussions among viewers was whether it was a Christian story. Often enough Christians, in the interest perhaps of trying to preserve the sacredness of Tolkien’s stories, would respond quiet naively by trying to make symbolic the characters: Gandalf (=God?), Frodo (=Jesus?), Sauron (=Satan?), Saruman (=the anti-Christ?), the One Ring (=sin?), Mordor (=Hell/Death?), etc., while others, not so committed to the Christian worldview, would point to Tolkien’s oft quoted statement “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations” (29) and thus use the statement as a sort of trump card for any and all Christian inference. Both views, as Brown points out, miss the point entirely as to where Tolkien’s world comes from. It is true that Tolkien disliked allegory, and thus any attempt to try and make his characters symbols for Christian ones fails in quickly enough. Tolkien quite clearly stated in 1957, “Allegory of the sort ‘five wizards = five senses’ is wholly foreign to my way of thinking…To ask if the Orcs ‘are’ Communists is to me as sensible as asking if Communists are Orcs” (31). One might assume the same thing for equating the orcs with the devils. This is why Tolkien was never a great fan of Lewis’ works in which allegory was employed extensively (Aslan=Jesus). But, at the same time, one must allow that Tolkien’s own worldview would find its way into the text on some rudimentary level and influence the personal characters of his figures, the events surrounding them, the moral choices which they face, and the whole of reality. As Tolkien wrote to Father Murray, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (23) and later “I am a Christian and of course what I write will be from that essential viewpoint” (25). Like Albert Camus’ story “The Guest” which embodied an atheistic existentialist worldview where meaning and purpose were absent, Tolkien’s works tell of purpose, divine guidance, morality, and significance.
In Chapter 2, Brown discusses how Tolkien sees the concepts of luck and chance. In The Hobbit alone, the word luck in some form (not including synonyms) appears forty-five times, thus making the reader wonder whether this is really “luck” at all. As Brown notes, “A careful reading of the story suggests that we are not supposed to see simply random chance at work” (48) as some readers have complained, but rather a divine hand. Various statements throughout The Hobbit and LOTR makes this clear. Gandalf, in trying to encourage Frodo in a time of despair states, “I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it” (52). In speaking of this veiled power, Tolkien wrote in a letter “The story and its sequel are…about the achievements of specially graced and gifted individuals. I would say…”by ordained individuals, inspired and guided by an Emissary to ends beyond their individual education and enlargement” (50). Much like our lives, events happen which we deem as “luck” or “chance” which, through accumulation, often reveal something much greater and intended.
In Chapter 3, Brown speaks on the character development of Bilbo, noting that the whole story centers around his moral (and may I say spiritual?) growth. In chapter one of The Hobbit, the narrator interrupts the story by stating “He gained–well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end” (96). Of course, one may initially think this is a reference to the treasure or, at the very least, the adventure itself. But when Bilbo returns with less of the treasure than he was promised (just two chests!), we are not meant to pity him for being shorted his 1/14th of the loot! Instead, Bilbo gains a profound character development which was desperately needed in the beginning. Whereas in the early chapters of The Hobbit Bilbo was seen as ruled by his comfort, possessions, and reputation, we find a Bilbo towards the end of the story which is free from such things. He still lives in his hole, has material objects, and friends, but these things are transformed in a distinctly Christian way. His comfort does not bind him to a well furnished Hobbit-hole (as we later see in LOTR); possessions no longer own him and his happiness; and his friends become those that had become intimate over a long journey, not the snobby neighbors next door. This is, indeed, the sort of transformation Jesus speaks of: being free from possessions, embracing a call despite it being within or outside of our comfort zone, and choosing to serve God over man.
In Chapter 4, Brown touches on the moral landscape of The Hobbit as a whole. This chapter, like the last, deals with moral decisions but on a broader level. Tolkien’s stories very much represent a reality in which moral absolutes exist. That is, relativism is out of the question. This does not mean, of course, that these absolutes are so clearly seen by all characters–or indeed the read–but Tolkien obviously sees them as existing objectively and chooses to relay them in his narratives. There is an “oughtness” to the decisions which the characters of The Hobbit and LOTR must face and they are anything but indifferent. Again, here we see a reflection of our human existence. While the absolutes exist, the characters having to make choices are not cast in the “black and white” of some tales. Men are great, but they desire wealth and power. Elves have a great sense of pride about them. Gollum was not always Gollum. Saruman used to stand beside Gandalf in pursuing the Just. And even Sauron, if you go back far enough in the histories, was not always the polarized evil figure he is in the LOTR. Indeed, Morgoth–the supreme evil being in Tolkien’s universe–was quintessentially a Lucifer type, being the grandest of all Eru’s (the Creator’s) angelic beings before a prideful fall. All characters have the capacity for good and for evil–even those we tend to polarize. This is, indeed, a reflection of a Christian world. Black and white characters do not exist; choices are made through struggle, blood, and despair. Yet the choices we make remain choices of oughtness. Bilbo chose this path of oughtness when he refused to kill Gollum; Bilbo chose this path when he refused to take the Arkenstone. Aragorn chose this path when he kept his love for Arwin instead of trading it in for Eowyn. Sam chose this path when he refused to leave Frodo even after being rejected. Gandalf chose this path when he refused to join Saruman. Yet, as we see in both tales, many choose not to take the path of oughtness which is, again, a dire reflection of our own world. We must choose, whether to be like Gollum or be like Gandalf.
Finally, in Chapter 5 Brown discusses the legacy of Tolkien and The Hobbit in the modern mind. Here his most important discussion is probably on the topic of how Fairy Tales like The Hobbit tell us more about our own world than we usually give them credit for. Against some complaints that The Hobbit was too dark of a tale to read to children (with trolls and orcs and dragons and wolves and spiders and death), Tolkien responded as follows: “The presence (even if only on the borders) of the terrible is, I believe, what gives this imagined world its verisimilitude. A safe fairy-land is untrue to all worlds” (162). This is quite reminiscent to G.K. Chesterton’s thinking:
“A lady has written me an earnest letter saying…it is cruel to tell children fairytales, because it frightens them…This kind of talk is based on what complete forgetting what a child is like. If you keep bogies and goblins away from the children they would make them up for themselves….Exactly what the fairytale does is this: it accustoms them…to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these strong enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than fear” (164).
Tolkien’s story, instead of offering an escape into a world of things that are untrue, gives them an escape into a world of things which are true–and often out of our own perceptions which aren’t true. For example, one may not believe in absolutes, guidance, purpose, oughtness, etc. but to believe such is itself a false reality. When the atheist, for example, immerses himself in Middle-Earth, he quickly immerses himself in a story which reflects a true reality where those things exist. As Brown notes, “The same audience who might scoff at the Christian worldview in a different context find themselves embracing it in The Hobbit (179).” And this is how we can say Tolkien’s story is a Christian one: not by analogy but by portraying the cosmic transcendent reality which confronts us in the here and now.
Brown’s book is simple to read yet sophisticated in its thinking. This is, of course, what we would expect from somebody so influenced by Tolkien’s world as Tolkien himself embraced these qualities. Instead of seeing The Hobbit as a mere piece of fiction, we must be prepared to encounter Tolkien’s mind, his ideas, his beliefs, and his worldview. All of these were “fundamentally” Christian.