The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

There was a fabulous question posed over at The Rabbit Room this morning that all good Tolkies will hail with a joyful recognition: Are you a Took or a Baggins?

It reminded  me of this piece I wrote for YLCF a couple of years ago after my first wild and lovely sojourn in Middle Earth had come to an end:

When Philip and I finished the last book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy I sat in silence for some time, the tears chasing one another down my cheeks, wrapped in a lovely melancholy over the end of the Third Age and the pilgrimage of the fair folk beyond the Grey Havens. I couldn’t stop brooding over what it must have been to have had a mind like Tolkien’s: crammed with such beauties and terrors: the birthplace a world so real that a reader’s heart literally breaks over not being able to journey there and see the shining heights of Minas Tirith or race on a flying charger across the plains of Rohan or chat with a hobbit beside a companionable fire over a pipe and a pint. What a master Tolkien was. It is not lightly that I say I thank God for him. Truth lives in his work, at times shimmering and glowing, at times piercing with the sharp and often painful flash of lightning.

Long afterward I am still mulling over the insights that continue to appeal to me, blooming under my feet as it were, like the lowly, lovely elanor in the glades of Lothlorien, smiling up at me as I walk along the way. There are vast stores to be mined here, and great critics have done it better and more thoroughly than I ever could. My reflections are of a humble nature, and perhaps simplistic in the light of the scholarly treatment already devoted to this work. But I cannot help but make this story mine through the acknowledgment of its verities, claiming its meanings and symbols for my own.

The Lord of the Rings is not a perfect allegory or anything of that sort, any more than Lewis’ Narnia was. And that’s why I love it so, why I believe it carries such power at its heart. He doesn’t spell everything out for us; he doesn’t merely recast true but familiar stories in a different mold. He makes us think, and ache and search—he speaks first to our hearts and then our heads, in a way that, for me at least, was a humbling and intensely personal experience.

Imperfect analogies have a force that their cousin, the allegory, sometimes lacks. They demonstrate the universal potency of Truth, under other circumstances than our own, on unfamiliar ground, even in different worlds. There are pictures and symbols of the Christian life, with all its raptures and perils, woven throughout The Lord of the Rings. Frodo’s quest spoke vividly to me of the supreme challenge of Life in this fallen world. I saw in the hardships that he and his friends encountered an image of each faithful Christian’s experience upon the earth, ‘creeping upwards’, often upon hands and knees, sometimes even carried by fellow pilgrims. A life blinded by tears; a mission that those closest to us may never understand or even recognize. (One of the most poignant moments in the films, to me, was the wistful look that passed between the four hobbits, at home once more in the Shire, as they sat in the Green Dragon surrounded by kith and kin that had absolutely no idea what Frodo and his friends had been through for their sakes. And the gentle sigh of acknowledgement that they never would know.)

As believers, the most intense battles often rage within the secret of our own minds and hearts, and yet they can be no less terrifying than the fires of Mt. Doom, or hopeless-seeming than that last valiant diversion at the Black Gate of Mordor. Our enemies are not orcs and trolls, but ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’. Our aid lies not in elves and wizards, but in the prayers of our compatriots, in angels from heaven, in, above all, the promised help and presence of the Holy Spirit. But reading these books has made me long to ‘fight the good fight’ with more perseverance than ever. It has reminded me of the valor required of the servants of Christ, and the futility of any campaign waged against the victory He has already secured. It has made me long to throw my hat in the ring for Beauty and Truth and Goodness, not only for the sake of this tired, hurting old world, but because I believe in that which is to come.

Of all the tools at a writer’s disposal, none, perhaps, is more effective than that great device of perspective. An author must consider carefully the vantage point from which his tale is to be told: which character or characters will lend their inmost thoughts to the reader and which ones will be more remote, supplying only actions and gestures and words to convey their response to the unfolding events. In Tolkein’s hands, point of view is the blade of a sure swordsman, striking true to its mark with a keen thrill of insight. From our first acquaintance with Bilbo Baggins to Sam Gamgee’s last contented statement, the effect unfolds with great simplicity and authority, until we realize at the end that the characters we identify with more than all the others are the hobbits. They are the only ones that we get inside of; they are the ones that awaken our deepest sympathies and over whose triumphs we rejoice most ardently.

I can’t help but believe that this was entirely intentional: of all the marvelous creations of Tolkein’s fancy, hobbits are the most like us. Frodo and his ilk are the least likely of heroes; they are little and simple and great fanciers of creature comforts. But their halfling stature conceals a sturdy soul forged of steel, capable of rigors and valors unlooked-for in the common hours. In the hobbits, Tolkein paints an endearingly accurate picture of the average Christian and what he or she is capable of; they illustrate most poignantly the exquisite heavenly irony of God using something so puny as a human on a divine mission.

Like us, hobbits are very much of earth. And yet their nature sings of eternal adventures—irresistibly so. In The Hobbit, the placid Bilbo is first awakened to this inner yearning by way of the mysterious songs of uninvited dwarves around his fireside:

And as they sang…something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick…

No matter how quiet and ordinary and Baggins Bilbo may have desired his life to be, the untamed blood of his Took ancestors would not lie dormant in him forever. We, too, are often surprised by longings that flame unexpectedly within our prosaic earth-bound little bodies, soaring heavenward like vanishing sparks and taking with them any hope of our being content on a mere temporal plane again. Some latent Tookish trait wakes up to the essential Romance of being alive and being in Christ, and with a shout of joy and a brandishing of heavenly steel, we’re up and off on the adventure of eternity, without a thought of the tame, terrestrial existence we’ve left behind. It’s that great pilgrim spirit of Christianity that proves we are citizens of another country and have sworn our allegiance to another King:

And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11: 13-16

Like Frodo and his friends, we’ll all have our battle scars to show at the end of days, no less valid for the fact that our Lord may be the only one who knows of them. And like the hobbits, we’ll celebrate with a joy to which all our joys have been but a prelude when we finally see our King come into His kingdom. It’s that blessed hope that makes of this life an epic adventure, with an ending that lends a reflection of truth to the finest fairytales and puts the poets’ best dreams to shame. And the fact that we already know the climax of the story doesn’t take away one shade of the surprise.

Godspeed, my friends, on our common Quest. May you know what is the hope of His calling and the exceeding greatness of His power to us who believe…