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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"The Christian World of the Hobbit"

TITLE: The Christian World of The Hobbit
AUTHOR: Devin Brown
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2012, (192 pages).

This book begins with the prediction by one of the world's most beloved authors in the Christian world, CS Lewis. He says that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" books, may very well be a "classic."  It has become an understatement. In this book, Devin Brown hones in the the key belief about how Tolkien allows his Christian faith to influence the writings of the popular Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series. Brown traces the hard life of Tolkien, who struggles with his loss of his parents, and how his Christian upbringing by his guardians forms Tolkien's convictions. CS Lewis is one of Tolkien's benefactors. Interestingly, Brown observes two different styles of Christian witness. Tolkien is more reserved and implicit compared to his illustrious counterpart. While Lewis has a personal fight for and against atheism, Tolkien's faith is a quiet one.

In Tolkien's letter to Father Murray, he confesses that his work is "a fundamentally religious" work. While Tolkien has removed religious vocabulary and terms in his books, the stories, the plots, and the characters, are plainly and fundamentally religious in nature. The Christian worldview has been embedded in the stories which make this book a wonderful guide to help unwrap and to see what Tolkien is fundamentally talking about. Some readers may be able to see quickly the Christian references in Tolkien's novels Many others may not, and Brown is eager to help this group see it more clearly. Nevertheless, both types of readers can benefit, to affirm those who are in the know, or to illuminate the uninitiated.

That said, there are still some who claim otherwise. For example, Tolkien refutes various claims, that his books represent an allegory to WWII, where Sauron represented Hitler, or mere "Christian allegories." No. The work is fundamentally Christian, but it needs to be read according to Tolkien's personality and writing styles. Two guidelines are essential when trying to understand the Christian world of the Hobbit. Firstly, one cannot try to totally ignore any Christian allusions. Secondly, readers are not to read Christian references everywhere. Instead, the story itself points to meanings of the Christian story, in a way in which the Christian story reflects reality.

In order to understand Tolkien's work, one needs to appreciate the author himself, that Tolkien is not an "explicit" person, preferring a covert manner of presenting the gospel, in contrast to his counterpart, CS Lewis. Tolkien expresses his own emotions best through his stories. He points to the presence of a God who is both seen and unseen. The rest of the book tries to reveal the Christian Worldview through Providence, the purpose, and the moral perspective of the Hobbit.

A) Providence

The author notices Tolkien's use of "luck" and "lucky" on several occasions which leads him to ponder about whether Tolkien is referring to divine providence or unexplained occurrences. The key characters in the stories are seen to exercise a kind of faith that is beyond mere "luck" especially when it comes to critical decision making, like the trip across Mordor. Perhaps, the use of the words "luck" refer to a worldview that most people has, and that the key characters have understood something that is beyond mere luck.  The clear theme is that nothing actually happens by accident. Random chances do not just happen. From the ring being picked up by the most unlikely person, to the ways in which mysteriously, the characters are led from place to place, tells of the presence of a Higher Being who creates them, who guides them, and who provides for them. Whatever coincidences happening at Middle-Earth, seems to have an overarching theme of providence from above, including the struggles with the dark forces of evil. Through the unseen hand, through the still small voice, through how planned events getting frustrated, and how unplanned things happen when least expected. Good intentions are rewarded, like how Bilbo spared the life of Gollum, and how evil intentions are not only punished, but how they unwittingly play into the hands of a Divine Being above for good. In summary, the Hobbit reveals a Divine Provider who cares for people, and guides them through the unseen hand.

B) Purpose

In contrast to some of his contemporaries who write about a world that is purposeless, Tolkien's books exhibit a purposeful endeavour, where the potential of people like Bilbo and Frodo achieves their potential through mystery and adventure. There is a theme of being chosen for a special purpose, to work out a special work of salvation for the world. It is about making use of an opportunity toward a higher purpose. With despair comes hope. With heartache comes comfort. With loneliness comes friendship and companionship. There are themes against materialism, greed, and evil. The character Gollum represents a fascinating two-sided world, one of good and the other of evil. Whether something is good or bad for us, each decision calls for discernment and wisdom. There are also theme of moral courage. It is also an encouraging book in which the smallest and the littlest person in the character of Bilbo, can be used for ultimate good.

C) Moral Perspective

The characters in Tolkien's novels display a "moral universe." There is such a thing as a "right choice" on Middle Earth. There is a point where Eomer needs to decide on the spirit of the law or the letter of the law. There is good and there is evil. There is a constant decision on whether Bilbo ought to kill Gollum or not. The burden is heavy, and the decisions to be made can be heavier still. There is conflict and warfare. There is the power of materialism that is dangerously seductive. For Tolkien, the antidote to greed is firstly in giving away stuff, secondly to embrace generosity, and thirdly to seek after the more important and "sacramentally ordinary" things. Not all glitters is gold. Not all that is dull is empty of value. Not all kinds of power can conquer, but they can surely corrupt.

Finally, Brown reflects upon this book whether it is indeed suitable for children or not, given its heavy theological slant, and the violence in it. In a nutshell, the key element ought to be truth told and truth revealed, rather than fairy tales that end up being untrue. I appreciate this quote from GK Chesterton:

"Fairytales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairytales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairytales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey"

It reminds me that what is true can be both terrifying as well as frightening. This is the real world. Instead of shielding children from the world of reality, stories ought to prepare them, to learn that this world is tougher than what fairy tales have taught, and more comforting than what the doomsday prophets have preached. What makes Tolkien's works worth reading and re-reading for people of all ages is simply this. It enables readers to learn about the reality of the world from a safe position. It also challenges readers to be courageous in making good and noble decisions in the light of tough circumstances. Throughout it all, there is an unseen Hand, a Divine Person who can provide, who can lead, who can guide, and Who can save us. This book is one of the clearest explanations of the theological underpinnings of the works of JRR Tolkien.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Abingdon Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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