Review: The Christian World of The Hobbit

July 16th, 2012

J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved Middle Earth is famously devoid of religious practice. Nonetheless, the world of The Hobbit is—by the author’s intention—a decidedly Christian place.

Author Devin Brown, whose previous books include explorations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia fantasies, dismisses the notion of trite parallels between Middle Earth and mid-Twentieth Century Europe. After all, Tolkien himself derided allegory in fiction. In The Christian World of The Hobbit (Abingdon, Oct. 2012) Brown does assert, however, that Tolkien’s Catholic faith is a necessary and perhaps irresistible influence on his writing.

Brown calls Tolkien’s writing “fundamentally Christian,” an argument he builds by first examining some pertinent biographical details. Tolkien’s mother died while he was still young, and a local priest made sure he was educated and brought up in the church. Tolkien in turn embraced the church which took him in. Religious observance was a key part of life for Tolkien and his children, and his circle of friends included such famous believers as Lewis, who converted to Christianity thanks in no small part to Tolkien.

The Christian influence on The Hobbit plays out in three general ways, according to Brown. First is the idea of providence. Tolkien frequently uses coincidence to move the plot forward, and his characters often speak of their luck along the way. But, Brown suggests, such references are a bit of an inside joke between author and reader. Bilbo and his companions may speak of luck, but they are reminded by the wizard Gandalf of a larger guiding force that seems to be working through their choices toward some good end.

Likewise, purpose plays a significant role in The Hobbit. Bilbo’s adventures benefit him as an individual, of course, although not in terms of treasure or other material success. Rather, Bilbo learns to live without essential comforts and to face his enemies with both compassion and courage. The forces at work for his personal growth then use his transformation for the good of the larger world, which benefits from his courageous action.

Finally, according to Brown, Tolkien’s moral landscape reflects some of the deepest Christian convictions about right and wrong. The characters face complex moral issues with no easy answers, and yet they are guided toward the best choice by a sense of “ought to,” even when they fail to respond to that nudge in the direction of good. The hobbit and his companions do not refer to a single standard for moral behavior, but they are nonetheless judged by both their actions and their motives, even in the face of their enemies.

Brown concludes with a chapter regarding Tolkien’s legacy as both writer and evangelist. The Hobbit (and the subsequent The Lord of the Rings) have had enormous influence in literature and film in the seventy-five years since its publication, reaching people who would never consider themselves religious with a worldview that is Christian, through and through.

A Lilly Scholar and professor of English at Asbury University in Kentucky, Devin Brown treats Tolkien’s writings with a reverence akin to scripture. His latest book is well-researched, well-organized, and worth reading for anyone who cherishes The Hobbit as (to paraphrase Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis) an unexpected yet indispensible world.

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