Book Review - The Christian World of the Hobbit

[amazon 142674949X thumbnail]

I remember the first time I entered the world of Middle-earth. I was twelve or thirteen and noticed an interesting little yellow book on my mother’s shelf. I’m not entirely sure if she ever read it or not—as that kind of book was not what I remember her reading. But I asked if I could read it and eagerly dove in. At that age I don’t believe I was even aware there was a sequel to the book. But from the first few moments I was hooked.

Fantasy literature isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and all books in the genre of fantasy are not created equal. Few rise to the level of art achieved by J.R.R. Tolkien. His books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are among the most widely read in the English language. And like countless readers of Tolkien before me, I found the world he crafted to be enchanting and alluring.

Tolkien’s world, the land of Middle-earth, is a place readers long to return to. Yet spending time in Middle-earth is not an exercise in futility or a way to check out of the here and now. In an ironic fashion, Tolkien’s world inspires noble efforts in the real world, and calls us all to live better and nobler lives.

Tolkien scholar Devon Brown, elaborates on this quality of Tolkien’s works:

[I]t might also be argued that the biggest reason his works have been so deeply loved, both in the previous century and the present one, is because they not only entertain readers—they also enrich their readers’ lives and make them more meaningful. (p. 11)

A Christian world?

Brown explores the world Tolkien made in a new book The Christian World of the Hobbit (Abingdon Press, 2012). In this work, he demonstrates how Tolkien’s Christian worldview bleeds through his written works and permeates the world he made. This aspect of Tolkien’s work is puzzling to many. His books have almost no references to God or anything remotely similar to church or religion, and yet they are hailed by many as Christian novels advocating a Christian worldview. Sure there is a fight between right and wrong, and right wins—but is that enough to classify the book as Christian?

Brown’s analysis uncovers abundant clues from the author himself, both inside the covers of his books, as well as from his own reflections and letters about them, which put this question to rest. Tolkien’s use of the term “luck” and “good fortune” is an ironic way to point the reader toward the conclusion that it wasn’t just luck or fortune, but Someone behind it all. Gandalf’s statement to Bilbo on the final page of The Hobbit makes this clear: “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventure and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” Brown points out that Tolkien as much as acknowledges this in one of his letters:

In a letter, Tolkien offers this additional statement about the veiled power at work in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: “The story and its sequel are … about the achievements of specially graced and gifted individuals. I would say… ‘by ordained individuals, inspired and guided by an Emissary to ends beyond their individual education and enlargement.’ This is clear in The Lord of the Rings; but it is present, if veiled, in The Hobbit from the beginning, and is alluded to in Gandalf’s last words.” (Letters 365) [pp. 49-50]

Additional evidence is found in Tolkien’s statements about his work being “fundamentally Christian” in nature:

  • “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letters 172). [p. 24]
  • “I am a Christian” and then adds in parentheses “which can be deduced from my stories” (Letters 288). [p. 26]

Tolkien’s work is Christian at its core, but not in a superficial manner. Tolkien despised allegory, and would frown on much of what passes as Christian fantasy today. Brown considers works of this type as merely “Christianized.” In contrast, Tolkien’s thoroughly Christian worldview shapes the very fabric of his stories in a subtle yet profound way. And Tolkien did desire his readers to entertain that worldview for themselves after encountering it in his stories.

Brown also explores the morality inherent in Tolkien’s view of Middle-earth. The struggle to better one’s self plays a prominent role throughout the story. Bilbo Baggins is no ordinary hero, conquering by his skill with the sword and enduring thanks to his bravado and courage. Instead Bilbo takes on himself and wins. He faces the darker parts of his heart head on: he steps out of his cottage to begin the adventure, he resists the greed and selfishness that entice him to abandon his companions, and ultimately he finds a life spent in service of others is the only truly satisfying way to live.

Evaluation

This book is well-written, lucid and clear. And the artistic touches throughout make it a pleasure to interact with - even in the Kindle version. It abounds with quotations from Tolkien’s work and letters, and includes pertinent quotes from other Tolkien scholars. The life of Tolkien, and his own Christian journey are recounted, as well as his famous literary society and its influence on his career. C.S. Lewis features prominently in the book - as he both knew Tolkien as a friend and appreciated his literary output (Brown is also a Lewis scholar). Throughout the book, Brown’s first-rate grasp of Tolkien scholarship is apparent and yet he manages to keep the book very accessible.

For those who have read The Hobbit more than once, Brown’s work will be a joy to read. Even if you are familiar with Tolkien’s work only through the films by Peter Jackson, reading The Christian World of The Hobbit may spur you on to read the books that have endeared themselves to generations of readers. J.R.R. Tolkien was a Catholic Christian, but his view of morality and Divine providence as conveyed through his stories, is something evangelical Christians will appreciate. Brown allows us to enter Tolkien’s universe with a well trained eye, ready to see the glimmers of the Christian worldview that permeates it all. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend it.

About the author

Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury University where he teaches a class on Lewis and Tolkien. He is the author of Inside Narnia, Inside Prince Caspian, and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He has spoken at Lewis and Tolkien conferences in the UK and the U.S. Devin has published numerous essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including those written for CSLewis.com, ChristianityToday.com, SamaritansPurse.org, and BeliefNet.com. Devin earned a PhD at the University of South Carolina and currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

[node:disclaimer body collapsed]
[node:bio/bob-hayton body]

2639 reads

There are 3 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I like the idea of challenging Christian fiction writers to aim for deeply Christian vs. superficially Christian. And I think there is plenty of value in writing that is not overtly Christian but is still deeply Christian.

But there's another category: it's possible to do fiction that is both overtly Christian and deeply Christian.

Don't think I could do it though.  I'd probably go for deeply but not overtly. 

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bob Hayton's picture

Agreed

It can be done, but is not often done well.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Yet spending time in Middle-earth is not an exercise in futility or a way to check out of the here and now. In an ironic fashion, Tolkien’s world inspires noble efforts in the real world, and calls us all to live better and nobler lives.

I was reflecting on this a bit in the car this AM...  When we're doing it right, storytelling of the serious kind (not that it can't be humorous!) is exploring and studying the real world through analogs. I think folks who struggle with seeing the value of fiction--whether of the fantastic sort or not--or who are content to write superficially, or who want to use fiction solely as a vehicle for conveying a message all have something in common: not understanding the power of story as analog, as tool for examining human nature, the nature of right and wrong and good and evil and beauty and ugliness and so on.

You really can't study anything well without sort of stepping outside of it and examining it. There is no way to do this with life except through fiction or exercises of the imagination very like fiction.

To really understand something we have to look at it (a) in relation to other things and also (b) apart from other things. If you want to appreciate a particular marble in the bag of marbles, you have to pull it out and look it over. You can't do that from inside the bag, so to speak, and you can't do it fully without removing the marble from the bag.

So one thing fiction gives us the opportunity to do is pull select ideas/phenomena out of "the real world," and look at them in a partly isolated way. Sci fi and fantasy do this all the time by imagining aliens or magical creatures. In order for these imaginary creatures to make any sense to us at all, they have to resemble things we know in the real world--and the writer can select those things and explore them by putting them in a creature that has little else familiar about it. Just one way fictional analogs can be powerful.

I recall a couple of Asimov stories in which he explored how a robot might be motivated to commit murder or some other crime (especially given the "laws of robotics" that serve as a kind of analog to the conscience).   Well... you kind of had to be there. But it's very interesting.

Tolkein does this sort of thing with Gollum and Bilbo and so many other characters, and he explores social analogs through groups like the dwarves, the elves, the Ents (!), the humans, and so on.

When Jesus uses parables, He's really doing the same thing. Isolating a particular truth in a story and examining it through analogs. The entire Mosaic covenant is storytelling through analogs, even though it describes historical events. (Col. 2.17)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.