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Book unearths Christian messages found in ‘The Hobbit’

Michael F. Haverluck   - Guest Columnist


Thursday, December 13, 2012

The much-anticipated movie The Hobbit opens on Friday -- along with the release of a book that explores the spiritual warfare that Bilbo Baggins and other characters undergo in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic tale.


Even though they have abnormally big and hairy feet and pointy ears, hobbits resemble humans more than we think.

Bilbo's Journey (book cover)Just in time for the release of film director Peter Jackson's much-anticipated soon-to-be blockbuster The Hobbit -- a movie that's sure to satisfy the hunger of frenzied moviegoers in thousands of theaters across America -- Dr. Joseph Pearce unveils his latest title, Bilbo's Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning of 'The Hobbit.'

Because much of the deep Christian messages radiating through author J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novels are often overlooked by readers and lost on the big screen, Pearce sets out to meticulously explore the spiritual warfare the main character Bilbo Baggins and other characters undergo in the classic, The Hobbit.

Cutting through the chase

Packaged as a fanciful adventure with magic and mythical creatures, the average person reading the novel or watching the movie is likely to miss the true intent and spiritual dimension behind The Hobbit. Intrigued by the mystery behind the 75-year-old novel, OneNewsNow asked British scholar Professor Joseph Pearce what he believes The Hobbit's most powerful underlying Christian theme is.

"The most powerful Christian theme is the effect of the dragon sickness on various characters, including Bilbo, Gollum, Thorin, the Master of Lake-town, and, of course, Smaug," Pearce told OneNewsNow in an exclusive interview. "The dragon sickness serves the same purpose in The Hobbit as the Ring serves in The Lord of the Rings. It represents the addictive attraction of sin and its destructive consequences, best summarized in an understanding that the thing possessed possesses the possessor -- or, as the Gospel says, where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).

Bilbo's journey, although fantastical, is portrayed as one we should all not be too unfamiliar with.

"At the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo is too attached to his possessions," Pearce asserts. "He is a creature of comfort addicted to the creature comforts. Though he finds it difficult to leave his home and possessions behind, his journey allows him to discover the greater meaning and purpose of life. The Hobbit illustrates the priceless truth that we only become wise men when we realize that we are pilgrims with a purpose."

Along with the spiritual struggles, the main character gives us a glance at the light at the end of the tunnel.

"Bilbo Baggins represents us all," the acclaimed biographer proclaims. "He shows us how to grow in virtue and courage and become who we are meant to be. It is the Christian journey of self-sacrifice out of love for others, and abandonment to providence and grace."

And to better understand the spiritual nature of the story, he adds it's essential to know the faith of its creator -- J.R.R. Tolkien.

"Tolkien was a lifelong practicing Catholic who perceived reality through the perspective of Christian realism -- i.e. through an understanding that man is homo viator (a pilgrim on his way toward God)," the author of 15 books explained. "Man's life is a journey with a purpose. He must see his life as a quest for heaven, which can only be attained by the embrace of self-sacrifice and the willingness to lay down our lives for our friends."

Drawing on Christ laying down His life for man, Tolkien wanted to show readers through Bilbo how man is called out of his comfort level, sin and indulgences to make bold sacrifices and become more like Him.

"Only by embarking on this pilgrimage through the perilous realm of life can we grow in wisdom and grace, attaining the heroic virtue of the saint," Pearce related, in order to divulge the core of Tolkien's faith and the heart behind The Hobbit and the subsequent trilogy. "In this way, Bilbo's and Frodo's journeys can be seen as synonymous with the life journey of all of us. The hobbits are Everyman figures."

But what exactly was it that drove Tolkien to write The Hobbit and its sequels?

Pearce

"In the specific mundane sense, he began writing The Hobbit for the delectation of his own children, and he began writing The Lord of the Rings [triology] as a sequel, at the request of his publisher," informed Pearce, writer in residence and visiting fellow at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. "In a deeper sense, Tolkien saw stories as a reflection of the truth, which held up a mirror to man, showing man in a new and insightful light. In this understanding of the power of story to reveal the truth, he was following the primal example of Jesus Christ who taught many of his most important lessons in the form of parables."

Re-casting the line-up

With the spiritual weight behind the novels, does Tolkien overtly represent the Godhead or other biblical characters in The Hobbit?

"Tolkien does not write formal or crude allegories," contends Pearce. "There are no personified abstractions in his stories of Middle-earth. In a much more subtle way, several characters remind us of Christ or the Christian in aspects of their characterization or in their actions. There are no obvious Christ-figures in The Hobbit, though in The Lord of the Rings Gandalf (in his 'death,' 'resurrection' and 'transfiguration'), Aragorn (in his taking of the Paths of the Dead, his healing powers and his kingship), and Frodo (as the 'cross' bearer who goes through death/Mordor to Mount Doom/Golgotha) are all partial figures of Christ. Although there are no obvious Christ figures in The Hobbit, Bilbo is a very powerful Everyman figure, representing the Christian on his pilgrimage through life."

Pearce notes that there are some other key spiritual distinctions that should be made when analyzing the characters.

"Gandalf is not such an obvious Christ-figure in The Hobbit as he is in The Lord of the Rings," Pearce points out. "He is more like a father-figure. There are only hints of the gravitas that he will possess in the later epic. Thorin signifies one who is afflicted by the dragon sickness, as are the Master of Lake-town and the Sackville-Bagginses at the story's end. Smaug, of course, like all dragons, is demonic."

The author of Bilbo's Journey also drew on the dichotomy between the wizards Gandalf and Saruman.

"The most important difference is signified by the symbolic meaning of the color white," Pearce stresses. "Since evil, in the Christian and Augustinian understanding of the word, is defined as the absence of the Good -- i.e. a privation having no intrinsic reality of its own -- it is best signified by black, which is the absence of all light. White, on the other hand, is all the colors of the spectrum in unified presence, thereby signifying the power of the Good. Saruman loses his desire to be white, i.e. good, and desires to be known instead as Saruman of Many Colors, ignoring Gandalf's warning that he who breaks a thing (in this case the unity of white light) has departed from the path of wisdom."

The dark wizard is said to represent the exact worldview that is taught in schools and embraced by today's society ─ moral relativism or secular humanism.

"Saruman's 'many colors' signify relativism, a belief that there is no unified goodness and that the unity of objective truth can be broken and fragmented into a multitude of differing opinions," the native-born English author contends. "In reality, such breaking of the unity of goodness does not yield a rainbow but only darkness. Gandalf, in following the path of unadulterated goodness, inherits the mantle of Gandalf the White, whilst Saruman shrivels and is 'gollumized' into the pathetically dark figure of Sharkey." 

And everyone's favorite schizophrenic ─ rather, demon-tormented ─ villain?

"Smeagol's metamorphosis into Gollum signifies the effect that sin has on the soul," claims Pearce. "The Ring, symbolic of sin, leads to the decay of the human soul, transforming the sinner into a pale and pathetic shadow of the person whom they were made to be and meant to be. When we put the Ring on, when we put sin on, we enter Satan's or Sauron's world of shadows. If we do so often enough we become slaves to our sin, desiring our sin more than anything else."

According to Pearce, this made for the perfect segue into the spiritual dynamics between Bilbo and Smaug.

"At the beginning of The Hobbit Bilbo is suffering from the dragon sickness, which is to say that he is addicted to the possessions that he has gathered around him in his home," Pearce divulged. "By the end of the story he has recovered from the dragon sickness and is able to enjoy his possessions in a detached way. He possesses them; they no longer possess him. In this sense, we can say that Bilbo is Smaug-like at the beginning of the story and Christ-like at the end."

Comparisons made

Are there any notable similarities or distinctions to be made between John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and The Hobbit?

"The obvious parallel is that Bilbo, like Christian, is an Everyman figure whose journey is representative of the journey of the Christian through life," responded Pearce. "The important difference is that The Hobbit is a story and not a formal allegory. It contains no personified abstractions and is, therefore, more subtle and also, in my judgment, a greater work of literature."

And out of the Trilogy and The Hobbit, which one does Pearce believe is the people's favorite?

"The Lord of the Rings is indubitably the greater work," the Tolkien scholar insisted. "It is more popular, as can be gauged by the fact that The Lord of the Rings has sold in greater quantities than The Hobbit in the years since they were each first published."

From the sanctuary to the cinema

With the religious themes and epic battle between good and evil, what makes Tolkien's work so alluring, even to a secular crowd?

"If I speak at a college about unlocking the Gospel, 15 people will show up, but if I speak about unlocking The Lord of the Rings, 300 show up," Pearce said. "People put their guard up against Christianity, but these books get beyond that. Everyone who reads them will be more disposed to Christianity."

The Hobbit introduces unexplained phenomena without spelling out the spiritual significance, disarming many who have an aversion to all things religious.

"Another important dimension of The Hobbit, which I discuss at length in my book, is the use of the word 'luck' as a euphemism for Providence and the spiritually dynamic relationship between free will and the consequences of our actions," said Pearce. "[P]rovidence and grace are presented as luck, but at the end of Bilbo's quest, Gandalf asks him, 'You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck?'"

But does Peter Jackson capture Tolkien's spiritual journey in his movies?

"I have not yet seen the new movie version of The Hobbit, but I suspect that the spiritual dimension will be largely lacking," reasoned Pearce. "Although Jackson's movie version of The Lord of the Rings was wonderful to watch and reflected much of Tolkien's original story, it would still be fair to say that much of the deeper spiritual meaning was not conveyed. It's as though a shadow had fallen over the brightness of Tolkien's work and the virtue that glows forth from it."

Even though the big screen version of The Hobbit is likely to lack the spiritual elements found in the book ─ similar to its predecessors ─ Pearce maintains that the gravity of the journey and its life-changing effects cannot be overlooked ─ especially after reading his analysis.

"Overcoming vices and evil, or 'dragons,' in The Hobbit is not just the result of outward actions, but the inner changes that have occurred," argues Pearce. "Bilbo's Journey gives readers the opportunity not just to better enjoy the movie, but also to apply its lessons to their lives as Christians."


Michael Haverluck is a freelance journalist based in Washington state.

This column is printed with permission. Opinions expressed in 'Perspectives' columns published by OneNewsNow.com are the sole responsibility of the article's author(s), or of the person(s) or organization(s) quoted therein, and do not necessarily represent those of the staff or management of, or advertisers who support the American Family News Network, OneNewsNow.com, our parent organization or its other affiliates.

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