By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Have you ever wondered what Bilbo Baggins (from Tolkien’s The Hobbit) has in common with John McClane (Bruce Willis’s Die Hard character)? Neither did I, until last February. I was rereading The Hobbit in the same month the fifth Die Hard movie came out (worst film in the franchise, by the way) and noticed a potential moral dilemma in The Hobbit that connected me to the Willis movies in a roundabout way.
Heroes We Feel Guilty Liking
The Hobbit is such a charming children’s book that it’s easy to miss the fact that Bilbo is hired to be a burglar. Gandalf prizes Bilbo (who has never stolen a thing in his life) among the dwarves for his burgling skills and convinces the dwarves that success on their journey depends on the hobbit. As the story progresses, the development of Bilbo’s heroic courage is tied directly to his successes as a thief. The more successful he is at thieving, the more noble and heroic he becomes. Nevertheless, he is an immensely moral character, ultimately rejecting the temptation of greed, and when he burgles, it’s almost always without selfish desire (and even then he later pays back what he’s taken).
John McClane is not a thief. He’s a cop. But he’s a cop who bends the rules to the breaking point, cusses up a mean streak, and ruins his family life. But he’s very good at outwitting and defeating bad guys. There is in the history of literature and film a certain kind of hero we love, despite our better judgment. McClane (and Bilbo as burglar) represents this kind of character. Indiana Jones is another example for action films, but most examples are more comic.
Whether it’s Ferris Bueller, Axel Foley, Ace Ventura, or even Bugs Bunny, there is this comic “trickster” character we can’t help but admire for his cleverness. At the same time, however, we wouldn’t want any of these people (or rabbits) in our own homes for long. I would not want a son who lied to me in elaborate ways like Ferris Bueller. I wouldn’t invite Jim Carrey (as Ace Ventura or the Mask) to my dinner table for polite conversation. I fear he’d rip my house apart.
But such characters were valued even in ancient times. Odysseus may be the most famous of these comic rascals. His solution for getting past the monstrous six-headed Scylla, for example, is not to tell his crew about her, wait for her to grab six of his men, and then tell the others to row really fast! The gods (of Greek mythology) admired him for his craft—his ability to lie.
I used to think I should feel guilty for liking such characters. But it almost looks like God liked them too—at least there was one he seemed to favor. Why did God prefer Jacob to Esau? Jacob lied, cheated, and stole his way into prosperity. He lied directly to his father, Isaac, in order to steal his brother’s blessing (Genesis 27). Then when he ran away from home, he connived against and suffered the connivance of his uncle. Still he was blessed by God. His wealth and wives and children constantly increased. He was a comic rascal, and God loved him. Why?
It’s a mystery I haven’t quite solved. But I do seem to constantly notice such characters in story. We love them because of their cleverness, their wit, their ability to overcome obstacles. We may also love them because they seem to have God (the gods, or lots of dumb luck) on their sides. Whenever the little guy is able to win out over larger and malevolent forces, we are pleased by it. It’s not too far from the kind of thing that Jesus did in facing death, which he overcame by doing something no other hero would have thought to do: he died! That’s the comic genius we like in the rascal character, isn’t it?
I wonder if God’s preference for Jacob over Esau was that Jacob had imagination (Esau couldn’t see past his stomach). And however Jacob misused his imaginative skills early in his life, maybe God saw some potential there, an ability to imagine a life lived in faith. Dorothy Sayers defined faith as “imagination actualized by the will.” She meant that faith is choosing to see things the way God does—from his point of view. Sight like that requires imagination. Jacob had it in spades.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.