J. R. R. Tolkien’s stories may be a cash-cow for the movie industry, but they also might be one of the most effective evangelistic tools we have.
The second installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, is released today. The movie is the fifth in a line of extremely successful movies based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s books set his fictional world, Middle Earth. They dependably draw large audiences, have stunning special effects, and are well-loved by almost everyone. Perhaps most incredible about them, however, is that they are absolutely, thoroughly, and completely permeated with Catholicism.
J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and while his books are not allegories, they are reflective of the way he viewed the world.
“Tolkien always affirmed that his imagination was fed from the wellspring of his Catholic faith.” says Paul Gondreau, Professor of Theology at Providence College. “Not surprisingly, then, many of the dominant themes of The Hobbit (and of the Lord of the Rings, as The Hobbit marks the prelude to the later trilogy) are deeply Christian ones.”
“These include: the reality of good and evil and that good always triumphs over evil; natural law (in one famous writing Tolkien maintains that the laws of ‘second creation’, namely, literary mythology, must imitate the laws of nature of the real world) and of the moral and physical havoc that disregard for the natural law leaves in its wake; the Pauline sense of the ‘folly of the Cross’, wherein God's chosen instruments of salvation are always a smack against human ‘wisdom’ and the ones we would least expect (such as the hobbits, and Bilbo in particular); life is a journey and ‘here we have no lasting city’ (Heb 13:14); the Johannine themes of light and darkness (‘Mirkwood Forest’); the biblical theme of man's stewardship over the created order, which entails our treating the environment, inclusive of our bodies and the animal kingdom, responsibly; and the like.”
Award-winning journalist Tim Drake agrees Christian themes undergird the story. “Catholic professor and writer, Joseph Pearce, argues that The Hobbit is about the Christian journey of self-sacrifice out of love for others, and abandonment to providence and grace, a theme that is portrayed through Bilbo's actions throughout the story. I would agree with Pearce.”
Comfort is Boring
So then why is it embraced by our secular culture? Professor at Thomas Aquinas College Andrew Seeley thinks it’s because secularism is drab in comparison to the dramatic world Tolkien envisions.
“Our society has made a high art out of obtaining comfort. We don't want adventures, not real adventures that involve danger, and strangeness, and uncertainty. The Hobbit stirs in us, especially in the young, the desire to leave behind the safe, comfortable life, to find the unbelievably beautiful, to be fierce against terrible evil.” He adds, “I think Pope Francis would approve.”
Author Fr. John Bartunek says he first read the story just before becoming a Christian. “I read this book first as an adolescent, the very same year that I became a Christian. What moved me about the book way back then is actually connected to what made me want to become a Christian.”
“In The Hobbit, an ordinary guy (Bilbo Baggins) gets swept up into an extraordinary story – an adventure. […] He discovers that there is a bigger story going on, an age-old battle between good and evil, and he feels called to become part of that story, or rather, to play his part in that story. In generously taking the risk to do so, he discovers a deeper meaning in his life. That’s exactly what I discovered when I met Christ, through a local Bible Church. All of a sudden, the horizons of a much bigger story – the story of salvation itself – opened up before me. I saw that by calling me to follow him, Jesus was inviting me to take part in the great adventure of building up his Kingdom, and that call resonated in my soul more deeply than anything I had ever experienced.”
Important Lessons for Today
“The greatest lesson is this,” writes author John Zmirak. “Find greatness in the ‘little way’ that God has laid out for you, in living out your vocation and serving those around you, in acting justly, working hard, and loving faithfully.”
Edward Mulholland, Assistant Professor of Modern and Classical Languages at Benedictine College, highlights the battle between good and evil that is evident in The Hobbit. “[P]eople need to believe that there are things worth fighting for, even when the odds seem stacked against us. Such conflict is the true wellspring of adventure. […] Every generation needs to fight the battle so that justice may prevail. It is never a given in a fallen world.”
Church historian Fr. C. John McCloskey agrees with Mulholland. “There are wars worth fighting for. There is good and evil and there are supernatural creatures greater than us. The virtue of hope is never wasted when the fight is between good and evil.”
The following Aleteia Experts contributed to this article:
Fr. John Bartunek, LC, is an author of The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer and other books. He has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on CNN, Fox, and the BBC and has appeared on Larry King Live, Hannity, and the Laura Ingraham radio show.
Tim Drake is the New Evangelization Coordinator with the Holdingford Area Catholic Community in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. He is an award-winning journalist, the author of six books on religion and culture, and a former radio host.
Paul Gondreau is a Professor of Theology at Providence College and is the Faculty Director of Providence College Center for Theology & Religious Studies. He is also an associate editor of the journal Nova et Vetera.
Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC. His personal website is www.frmccloskey.com.
Edward Mulholland is an Assistant Professor of Modern and Classical Languages at Benedictine College and a frequent contributor to the blog of the Gregorian Institute at Benedictine College.
Andrew T. Seeley is a Professor at Thomas Aquinas College and the Executive Director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. He co-authored Declaration Statesmanship: A Course in American Government.