Also watch our exclusive interview with Joseph Pearce and a sneak peak of one of his courses on the J. R. R. Tolkien classic.
Just one verse each day.
The following is an excerpt from Joseph Pearce’s 2012 book, Bilbo’s Pilgrimage, which analyses the works of J. R. R. Tolkien from a Christian perspective. Aleteia is pleased to present this article today in conjunction with the theatrical release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s first work of fiction, The Hobbit, is often overlooked in favor of its epic follow-up, The Lord of the Rings. And not without reason: The Lord of the Rings carries a depth of meaning and an overall quality that outstrips its predecessor. It is also a publishing phenomenon; since its initial publication almost sixty years ago, more than 150 million copies of The Lord of the Rings have been sold. Furthermore, Tolkien’s epic has triumphed over all its literary rivals in numerous opinion polls. A survey organized jointly by a major bookselling chain and a national TV network in the UK in 1996 revealed that The Lord of the Rings topped the poll in 104 of the 105 branches of the bookstore, receiving 20 percent more votes than its nearest rival, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. It triumphed in similar fashion in other surveys conducted by the BBC, by national newspapers, and by literary societies. Perhaps its ultimate triumph in the age of the Internet was its being voted best book of the millennium by Amazon.com customers, signaling its conquest of the final frontier of cyberspace.
Not surprisingly, in the wake of the book’s phenomenal success, Peter Jackson’s three-part movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings became one of the most successful films of all time. In December 2012, a decade after The Lord of the Rings was premiered, the first part of Jackson’s three-part adaptation of The Hobbit was released in movie theaters around the world. As the second installment hits theaters this weekend, Bilbo Baggins will once again take the limelight from Frodo, his more famous and illustrious nephew. These are indeed heady days for the relatively simple children’s story, originally published in 1937, which would pave the way for its author’s far more ambitious epic, published almost twenty years later.
It should come as no surprise that Jackson’s movie is not strictly speaking a children’s film. The producer forged his reputation as a maker of gruesome horror movies and does not do Disney schmaltz (Deo gratias!). Containing a degree of violence and an array of monsters – including giant spiders, trolls, orcs, a fearsome dragon, and the incomparably creepy Gollum – the film is not for the very young or the timid. Younger children, who might have enjoyed the book, will find the violence a little unsettling and the visualization of the monstrous the very stuff of which nightmares are made.
On the other hand, it should be stressed that The Hobbit is much more than a simple children’s story, and that any dumbing down of the gravitas of its moral dimension would do much more damage to the integrity of the work than the graphic depiction of violence and the frightening presentation of the monstrous. At its deepest level of meaning – and great children’s literature always has a deep level of meaning – The Hobbit is a pilgrimage of grace in which its protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, becomes grown-up in the most important sense: wisdom and virtue. Throughout the course of his adventure – and every pilgrimage is an adventure – the hobbit develops the habit of virtue and grows in sanctity. Thus The Hobbit illustrates the priceless truth that we only become wise men (homo sapiens) when we realize that we are pilgrims on a purposeful journey through life (homo viator).
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Apart from the story’s status as a Christian bildungsroman, charting Bilbo’s rite of passage from ignorance to wisdom and from bourgeois vice to heroic virtue, The Hobbit parallels The Lord of the Rings in the mystical suggestiveness of its treatment of Divine Providence, and serves as a moral commentary on the words of Christ that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). In these three aspects, it can truly be said of The Hobbit, as Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings, that it is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”
On one level, Bilbo’s journey from the homely comfort of the Shire to the uncomfortable lessons learned on the Lonely Mountain, in parallel with Frodo’s journey from the Shire to Mount Doom, is a mirror of Everyman’s journey through life. It is in this sense that Tolkien wrote in his celebrated and cerebral essay “On Fairy Stories” that “the fairy-story . . . may be used as a Mirour de l’Omme” or as “the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man.” In short, we are meant to see ourselves reflected in the character of Bilbo Baggins and our lives reflected in his journey from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain. How is this? Clearly, we are not hobbits, literally speaking, nor could we ever journey with dwarves through the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood, encountering goblins and elves en route, except vicariously by allowing our imagination, as readers, to follow in Bilbo’s footsteps. In order to see the story as Tolkien wishes us to see it, we have to transcend the literal meaning of the story and ascend to the level of moral and anagogical applicability.
For the Christian, who spurns the nihilism of the existentialist, life is charged with meaning and purpose and is at the service of the final goal and purpose of every human life, which is its being united with the Divine Life of God in heaven. This being so, every life should be a quest to achieve the goal of heaven through a growth in virtue, thereby attaining the power, through grace, to overcome the monsters and demons which seek to prevent the achievement of this paramount goal. It is in this way and with this understanding of the meaning and purpose of life that we are meant to read The Hobbit, and it is in this way alone that we find its deepest and most applicable meaning.
Daniel McInerny, editor of Aleteia’s English edition, conducted an interview with Mr. Pearce, which can be viewed here:
Mr. Pearce has also led a course through Saint Benedict’s Press’s “Catholic Courses” on The Hobbit. The following is a sample taken from one of his lectures:
Bilbo’s Pilgrimage is published by Saint Benedict Press and is available now for purchase. Aleteia would like to extend its heartfelt thanks to Saint Benedict Press for allowing us to publish this excerpt from his book.