Understanding The Hobbit

The first of the Hobbit film series opens on Boxing Day in Australia. “The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey” will be followed by “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (2013), and “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” (2014).

These films form a prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, sharing author, director and many actors.

The author of the books on which the films are based, J. R. R Tolkien, was a well-known Christian, and establishing how Christian themes run through his stories is helpful for us if we get a chance to discuss these movies with our friends.

Here is a short guide to his writings by some Christians who have studied Tolkien.

The origins of Middle EarthChristianity Today
Middle Earth – the world of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings came into being in the trenches of World War One. J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher discovered some early verse “scribbled on the back of a paper setting out the chain of responsibility in a battalion.”

In a lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien explained  “a real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life [by] war.” The story of how distaste for one world led this soldier to discover another is told in Christianity Today’s “Tolkien: Man Behind the Myth”

For more, head to Christianity Today. This report is part of a low cost Christianity Today e-book “J.R.R. Tolkien: The man behind the Hobbits”.

Gandalf: The resurrection story
Gandalf, who spans both Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, opens up the theme of resurrection – a desire for life beyond death.

“The resurrection of Gandalf (in LOTR) was one of the great moments in my reading childhood,” and perhaps one of the most relieving scenes in modern fiction, and now cinema,” writes Bible Society CEO Greg Clarke in a paper on the CASE (Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education) website. “The hobbits are not alone; the Balrog did not triumph; the great hope and security of Middle Earth is not lost, but is stronger than before. And more powerful, and more impressive, and more comforting than ever. Gandalf the Grey became Gandalf the White.”

To read the full paper, click here.

Fairy stories and the Bible

(1) How do “fairy stories” sit alongside the Bible? In two papers published by CASE, Greg Clarke and Dianne Speed, senior lecturer in English at the University of Sydney, examine how theology resonates through J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing, particularly Lord of the Rings.

Clarke offers Tolkien’s own corrective to the idea that a fairy tale is a made up stories about small animals:“a fairy-story contains events, words and ideas that are magical or fantastical, but in a serious way such that it seems real.”

“When Tolkien talks about the Great escape –it is a an escape from death,” Clarke observes.

He concludes that “In the strange sense of fairy-stories, LOTR is true. It tells us the truth using the genre of fairy-tale, using fantasy, using the imagination. And it is a strange, strange truth about human knowledge that it often lodges inside our imaginations.”

Speed examines the creation theme in Tolkien, or how the dimension of eternity lies just beyond LOTR. “Recurrance”— an ongoing struggle between evil and good, and “Longevity”—the ancient origins of wizards and elves  are for Speed “pale imitations” of eternity.

Read the full papers here.

(2) Jean Williams “Why I read my Children stories” on the Matthias Media site says“I stood under my favourite oak trees today and stared upwards, heavy dark branches and deep green leaves reaching into the blue of the sky. For a moment I was far from here, in the Enchanted Wood or Narnia or Middle Earth.

(3) Greg Clarke interviewed Christopher Mitchell on seven greats of Christian literature including The Hobbit’s J.R.R. Tolkien. Mitchell is Director of the Marion E. Wade Centre at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. The Wade Centre is a major research collection of materials by and about seven British authors: Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

Mitchell talks about the authors’ public discussion of Christianity can be found here.

Mitchell also discusses how Christianity affected the authors’ writing here.

Other Voices:

  • The Green Left Weekly dismisses Tolkiens’ “Feudal Socialism”.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described an ideological trend during the formative years of capitalist development that they characterised as “feudal socialism”. The old feudal aristocracy, in reaction to their ejection from political power, criticised the new capitalist class’ exploitation of the emerging working class.

But, as Marx and Engels observed, “the feudalists forgot that they exploited under circumstances and conditions that were quite different, and that are now antiquated”. The result was “half lamentation, half lampoon, half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history”. Read more here.

  • The University of Sydney will offer a Tolkien ‘The Hobbit’  course in January. Click here for more.