By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
December 2012 means Christmas and hobbits, and they are more closely connected than you might think. Mid-December marks the premiere of the first of three films based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s popular children’s book, The Hobbit, which will be released over the next year and a half. Tolkien once wrote that the sequel to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, was a “fundamentally religious” book. The same can be said about its prequel.
As with all film adaptations, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit will have its differences with Tolkien’s original book. In fact, Jackson has taken a great deal of material from the Appendices Tolkien wrote for The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and added it to his movie trilogy. But Jackson’s first venture into Middle-earth was faithful (if not perfect), and I am hopeful that he will follow in kind with the Hobbit movies.
Still, if you have read the book, expect the movies to contain much material that is not in the book itself. The first of the films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is slated for release on December 14. At the writing of this article, it doesn’t yet have an MPAA rating. Like the LOTR films, this trilogy will have its share of action violence and frightening, ugly creatures. Parents will need to find out more before taking younger children to see them. But Tolkien’s story is one Christians can enjoy without suspicion.
A couple of months ago I wrote of how Tolkien’s explanation about the nature of myth helped C. S. Lewis convert to Christianity. Conversely, Lewis encouraged Tolkien by writing a review of The Hobbit (where he predicted the book might become a classic), by publishing a famous lecture Tolkien gave about the nature of fairy tales, and by encouraging him to finish LOTR.
Tolkien was a committed Catholic from very early in his life, but Protestant Christians reading his works will find echoes of that same Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis wrote about. Tolkien envisioned the world of The Hobbit as a pre-Christian world where God has not yet revealed himself to man through special revelation. But, as Devin Brown points out in his recently released, The Christian World of the Hobbit (Abingdon Press, 2012), God is at work in the world, guiding lives and events toward the good.
Careful readers, for example, will notice the extreme good luck Bilbo Baggins experiences on his journeys, a good fortune which for some would seem too unrealistic to be believable. But this is Tolkien’s point. His Middle-earth is a reflection of our world as Christianity sees it, and Christianity sees the providential hand of God working mysteriously in all things.
Another of The Hobbit’s themes reflects an idea in Scripture: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6). The hobbits of Middle-earth are certainly among the least of these. They are a tiny people in a world of generally larger beings. Others in the story consider them insignificant.
But like the “still small voice” with which God greets Elijah in 1 Kings 19:12 (King James Version), so do hobbits become central to the plan for defeating evil in all of Middle-earth. Bilbo’s actions ultimately lead to the destruction of the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, and a far greater evil, the dark lord Sauron, in LOTR. More than just luck, the numerous happy coincidences in Bilbo’s adventures accumulate to show that Bilbo, like us, has a purpose in this life, one being guided by a supernatural hand.
The Hobbit is also a world of right morality. Bilbo frequently faces the need to make difficult moral choices, and every indication in Tolkien’s world is that there are right choices and wrong ones, and such choices have far-reaching consequences. Bilbo’s most important choice, to have mercy on Gollum rather than slay the creature, is in part what leads to Sauron’s demise in LOTR.
But Bilbo also makes very important choices about wealth and the temptations of greed. While he first goes on his journey in search of promised treasure, he rejects almost all the wealth he gains after seeing what greed does to dragons, humans, dwarves, and even elves. Bilbo surrenders covetousness for a love of what Brown calls the
“sacramental ordinary,” a love of and ability to see the wonder in all good things in God’s creation.
Read The Hobbit to your kids and grandkids. It was written by a man whose Christian vision comes subtly through the story. As for the first of the Hobbit movies, check out the rating and reviews, ask your friends who saw it if they recommend it, then prayerfully decide if it’s something for you and your family. I’m hoping it is.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.