Lesson #3: “Very Good for You”

September 28th, 2012

Purpose in The Hobbit

As we have seen, Bilbo’s adventures are brought about not with luck, but with a special kind of providential help. They also have a special kind of purpose.

In the opening chapter the narrator sums up the tale he is about to tell of how a Baggins had an adventure. Bilbo Baggins, we are told, “may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.” In the final chapter, Gandalf tells Bilbo, “You are not the hobbit that you were.” Clearly in the end Bilbo does gain something. He becomes the person he had the potential to be. All along, his adventure has had a greater purpose than merely reclaiming the dwarves’ treasure.

Many of Tolkien’s contemporaries who wrote novels show us a world that is purposeless, one filled with people whose lives have no meaning. By contrast, in The Hobbit we find a world charged with a special kind of purpose—one which is beneficial in a particular way for both the individual and the world he is a part of. This purpose is similar to the one which is a part of the foundations of the Christian faith.

In chapter one when Gandalf tells Thorin and the dwarves that Bilbo is the “chosen and selected” burglar, it is hard not to share the dwarves’ doubts and disbelief. As someone accurately described by Gloin as looking “more like a grocer than a burglar,” Bilbo displays little in the beginning that suggests he will be an asset on the quest. His most defining characteristic at this point seems to be his excessive need for the comforts and safety found in his snug hobbit-hole—his warm fireplace and kettle, his cakes and fine waistcoats, and his pocket handkerchiefs. Five chapters later when the dwarves discover that Bilbo did not escape from the goblins with them, the consensus is that he has been more trouble to them than use.

So why was Bilbo chosen? The answer, as we discover, is two-fold. Bilbo has a greater potential that only Gandalf—and whoever has sent Gandalf­—can see. This is the basis for the entire story. The adventure is going to allow a part of Bilbo to emerge which needs to emerge. Through it he will become the hobbit he was intended to be. We could say that the adventure will be the making of him. And at the same time, Bilbo has been chosen, not just because the adventure will do him good, but because he has something good to do for Middle-earth. The two purposes go hand in hand. Through the action of helping to save those around him, Bilbo will himself be saved, saved from a life bounded and surrounded by—as readers are shown—an excessive need for predictability, safety, and comfort.

In chapter one when Gandalf first announces that he is looking for someone to share in an adventure he is planning, Bilbo replies that hobbits are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures and that he cannot think what anybody sees in them. Although Bilbo and the quiet residents of Hobbiton have no use for adventures and see nothing in them, Gandalf does. So does whoever Gandalf is acting as emissary for. While the stated purpose of the adventure is to get the treasure from Smaug, it soon becomes clear that the adventure has a purpose that goes far beyond merely getting the dwarves’ treasure back.

When Gandalf tells the disbelieving hobbit that he is going to send him on an adventure, the wizard promises, “Very good for you—and profitable too.” Exactly how will it be good for Bilbo and in what way will it be profitable?

As it turns out, the adventure is actually not that profitable to Bilbo, not in the sense that he returns home with the rightful share of the treasure he was promised at the start. Instead of a one-fourteenth portion of the enormous wealth of Smaug’s hoard, in the end Bilbo brings home only two small chests.

So if Bilbo’s adventure, in Gandalf’s words, is in some way profitable for the hobbit, it is only profitable in terms of acquiring a very different kind of treasure, which is exactly Tolkien’s point. Bilbo’s adventure is, as Gandalf says, very good for the hobbit, but not in a financial way. The real treasure he brings home is the kind that will never rust and cannot be stolen by thieves.

It is clear that whoever has sent Gandalf as his emissary to Middle-earth has not only a real purpose but also a real love for Bilbo and wants our brave little hobbit to grow and reach his full potential in wisdom, in resolution, and in compassion.

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