The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot
The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way
Hobbit Lessons: A Map for Life’s Unexpected Journeys
The Christian World of The Hobbit
Tolkien: How an Obscure Oxford Professor Wrote The Hobbit and Became the Most Beloved Author of the Century
Tom Copeland is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Biola University.
Teaching at Christian liberal arts colleges, I have wondered if there is a role for myth or fiction in teaching truths about the social realm, and whether as a result of encountering such stories, students might respond with more enthusiasm to great ideas in politics – and maybe even enjoy the conversation. I plucked The Hobbit and Philosophy from a bookstore shelf in Oxford, drawn by the idea that the authors might provide tools for engaging my students. Likewise, I was excited to find in The Hobbit Party an exploration of the ways in which literature can speak to politics and philosophy.
Devin Brown explains how this works. “The main purpose of Tolkien’s stories of imaginary beings in an imaginary world was to provide a better understanding of our world and the real beings who inhabit it.”1 In other words, by using an imaginary world – the fantastic – as a way to make familiar things strange, Tolkien is able to comment upon the state of the ‘real’ world. C. S. Lewis wrote that by embarking on the journey to Middle Earth, “we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.” Tolkien himself described his hobbit story as “a study of simple ordinary man, neither artistic nor noble and heroic” and indicated that his novels did have “applicability” to modern life.2
The works of J. R. R. Tolkien do make familiar things fantastic. In the books reviewed in this essay, we see how familiar things such as politics, philosophy, free markets, free will, and virtue are made strange and wonderful in Middle Earth, and thereby gain insights into the modern world. We will see whether the reader, like Bilbo, will have gained anything else in the end.
The Hobbit Party
Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards, lifelong friends and Tolkien enthusiasts, have detected a gap in the Tolkien literature, addressing the politics and economics woven throughout Middle Earth. They argue that not only should one read Tolkien as literature, but one can also glean wisdom from his political views, though that wisdom is not allegorical or didactic (Tolkien himself disliked allegory). Thus Witt and Richards tackle a variety of political issues that arise from Tolkien’s writings, including freedom, power, the market, and just war. Some issues were clearly at the forefront for Tolkien, such as virtue and choice, death and deathlessness. Others are clearly implied, such as just war. Finally, others are merely hinted at, such as distributism and environmentalism. The authors do well to address all of these. They do so with winsome writing and erudite discussion, including references to social thinkers such as Plato, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Alexis de Tocqueville, to literary figures such as Walt Whitman, Alfred Tennyson, and Edgar Allen Poe, to social scientists such as Michael Novak and Karl Polanyi, and to development economics and papal encyclicals.
There is always a danger of reading too much between the lines, but the authors delve into Tolkien’s own words, especially his letters, to interpret him. They are careful not to assert more than is warranted in the stories or letters. But the authors do have a message. Noting the parlous state of politics and culture, the authors assert: “What Tolkien does, what his novels can do, is beckon us up the rocky path of hard choices – the only path back to freedom still available to us.”3 Witt and Richards mine Tolkien’s stories and find a rich store of support for limited government, property rights, free markets, and the rule of law.
The book thus belongs to a new subfield of Christian arguments for the free enterprise system, highlighted by books like Arthur Brooks’ The Road to Freedom, Robert Sirico’s Defending the Free Market, Peter Greer and Phil Smith’s The Poor Will Be Glad, Scott Rae and Austin Hill’s The Virtues of Capitalism, and more. Jay Richards’ own Money, Greed, and God is a popular title in this group. The Hobbit Party is a welcome and entertaining addition to the field.
The Vision of Freedom
In the first half of the book, the authors outline the vision of freedom “that Tolkien got and the West forgot.” They get right to the point. Chapter 1 is titled “In a Hole in the Ground There Lived an Enemy of Big Government.” We see in the Shire a pastoral community with no taxation system and only a few “shirriffs” to enforce property rights – what the libertarian calls ordered liberty. The vestiges of royal power are limited in the Shire, where the ancient laws of the king are followed out of habit, not force. In the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, we learn that “The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government’… Families for the most part managed their own affairs.”4
In fact across broader Middle Earth we do not find the king’s dragoons or a royal constabulary keeping order; there are only the scattered Rangers and the Istari (special guardians) Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond. Following the principle of subsidiarity, the Shire and the various kingdoms of Middle Earth are largely self-governing. Tolkien was indeed skeptical of political power, writing to his son Christopher that he leaned toward “Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs).”5 Witt and Richards believe that Tolkien’s fictional society reflects his own political preferences.
While Tolkien’s limited government is not based on the individual rights of classical liberalism, property rights figure prominently in The Hobbit. Central to the plot is the vast hoard of treasure in Mount Erebor, protected by the miserly, aristocratic dragon Smaug. Who owns it, or what portion of it? Thorin and the dwarves have a primary claim, but so do Thranduil and the elves, and Bard and the folk of Lake Town. Bilbo the burglar is entitled to a 1/14th share of the treasure, but does that include the Arkenstone, and does he have a right to give it away? The competing claims would make a great essay question on the LSAT.
Contractual rights are also important to the free market and the ordered society. Witt and Richards highlight the famous contract between the dwarves and Bilbo, a contract complete with shareholders, legal terms, signatures, payment details, and a life insurance provision. Later in the story there is an unspoken contract with bearish Beorn to return his ponies, and Gandalf reminds the dwarves that they have a morally binding commitment to obey the terms. Property rights and contractual rights are supported by social norms concerning “proper” behaviors like honesty, hospitality, and punctuality. All of these, the authors claim, are rooted in Tolkien’s “theological vision of man and society.”6 And in Tolkien’s stories, one finds “rebukes to that whole morally slipshod vision of property and society” found among both progressives and conservative politicians – most definitely not the vision of freedom that Tolkien got.7
Freedom and Power
Readers of The Hobbit do not know that the ring Bilbo “luckily” finds in the goblin tunnels is actually the One Ring, the Ring of Power, the artifact which must be destroyed to preserve Middle Earth (in The Lord of the Rings trilogy). The power of the ring is the power to compel – the power of ultimate political authority. Gandalf, Aragorn, Galadriel, and Faramir all are tempted by the power of the ring to do good but refuse its allures. Sadly, Boromir gives in to temptation, splits the Fellowship, and dies as a consequence.
But perhaps the greatest lesson of the ring is not how Sauron would use it – great power for great evil – but how his lesser rival/ally Saruman would use it. Saruman tells Gandalf, “We must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.”8 We see the effects of such coercive paternalism when Sharkey (Saruman) “orders” the Shire as he wills it, near the end of The Return of the King. Saruman’s elitist voice echoes in our age. It is the ‘Washington Consensus,’ the progressive statist, the voice saying, “I’m from Washington and I’m here to help.” That is what Isaiah Berlin feared, in his famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”:
We recognize that it is possible, and perhaps at times justifiable, to coerce men in the name of some ideal (let us say justice or health) which they would, if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt. In other words, it is possible for me to conceive of myself as coercing others for their own sake, perhaps even on their behalf. I am then claiming that I know what they truly need better.9
The answer to such intrusive use of power involves limited government, limited not only in scope and reach but limited by separation, enumeration, and balance of powers. Importantly, it also involves individuals – leaders – making hard choices which limit their own power and which lead to freedom.
Freedom and Free Will
In a marvelous chapter, Witt and Richards engage the problem of choice and the problem of evil. Drawing on Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, they argue that Tolkien has a double-faceted view of evil; that is, one that resides in the tension between a Boethian or Augustinian view and a Manichean view: with free creatures who are created good but who choose evil. The possibility of choosing evil is essential. The authors suggest that responsibility and virtue both depend on being free – without freedom, there is no heroism or courage.10
Such virtues as courage come through practice, through repeatedly making the right choices. The authors rightly point to Thomas Aquinas and his concept of freedom for excellence, the idea that we are more free when we choose to do what is good. We may in fact be free to choose evil, but that choice only places us in bondage to that evil. To be truly free, we must choose what is virtuous or good, what is in line with God’s laws. Freedom for excellence is a powerful antidote to many “freedom of choice” claims today, and deserves to be taught alongside the negative and positive liberty of classical liberalism.11
While characters in Tolkien’s stories must make individual choices, perhaps none greater than Bilbo’s choice to spare Gollum’s life in the goblin tunnels, the freedom to choose is located within society and under God. The free society never forces one to make evil choices. It allows the individual to make free choices in the market, and to be both creative and fruitful.12 Furthermore, freedom only exists because of the Creator, whose divine providence is at work in the world. That idea is taken up more fully in Devin Brown’s works.
Freedom and Free Markets
A key element of the vision of freedom is the free enterprise system, which has come under heavy fire for global financial crises, rising income inequality, and a variety of excesses. Popular critiques of capitalism argue that the entire system is built on greed, an idea based on an egregious misreading of Adam Smith but rooted in recent experiences with bad capitalists. Leftist scholars have tried to read Tolkien as a Marxist, but the novels and his letters make clear his disdain for socialism. Instead, one finds in the Shire a number of anachronistic – mostly Victorian – innovations made possible by the creative energies of capitalism, like the postal system, afternoon tea, and lighting tobacco with matches.13 Seven years after his adventures, Bilbo learns that trade is flourishing among the Mirkwood elves, the dwarves of Erebor, and the men of the rebuilt Lake Town and Dale. Throughout the novels there is no indication that Middle Earth is governed by anything like central banks, tariff regimes, tax authorities, regulatory agencies, or Sarbanes-Oxley.
Yet The Hobbit Party is not a Tea Party manifesto. The authors are quick to critique “international corporate-government cronyism” and admit that one should not make too much of the free enterprise sources of the Shire’s happiness. Bilbo, after all, is not a capitalist, industrialist, or entrepreneur; he is merely an industrious hobbit. Witt and Richards draw an important conclusion:
While many see greed as the necessary and essential core of a market economy, the final third of The Hobbit undermines such a view. It suggests instead that greed, miserliness, and dishonesty are actually inimical to enterprise, since they undermine the very freedom that makes wealth creation possible.14
Here again the authors join a growing number of voices arguing in favor of the free enterprise system and against crony capitalism. Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center captures the essence of the moral case for capitalism:
Properly understood, the case for capitalism is not a case for license or for laissez faire. It is a case for national wealth as a moral good; for the interest of the mass of consumers as the guide of policy; for clear and uniform rules of competition imposed upon all; for letting markets set prices, letting buyers make choices, and letting producers experiment, innovate, and make what they think they can sell — all while protecting consumers and punishing abuses. It is a case for avoiding concentrations of power, for keeping business and government separate, and for letting those who can meet their own needs do so. It is a case for humility about our ability to know, and therefore about our capacity to do.15
Witt and Richards – and likely Tolkien – would agree. After making the case for “the vision of freedom that Tolkien got and the West forgot,” the authors turn to a series of ideas that are prominent or controversial in Tolkien’s writings.
Wendell Berry in Middle Earth
I do not know what Wendell Berry thinks of fantasy literature, but if he were a character in Tolkien’s world, he would likely be a hobbit. Or maybe an Ent. Berry is perhaps the best-known American spokesman for the localist movement and an inspiration to environmentalists. Wendell Berry the Hobbit would be right alongside Merry and Pippin in Scouring the Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings, battling the mechanistic and technological forces of evil and restoring the land from its ruinous devastation. Witt and Richards suggest, however, that Tolkien was not an early environmentalist or a latter-day Rousseau, as some Christian writers suggest, and that it is a misreading of Tolkien to say that “Tolkien = Shire = Localism.”16
Rather than a critique of modern capitalism, they say, the Scouring of the Shire should be recognized as a critique of modern socialism. The ugliness and destruction of nature wrought by Sharkey and his henchmen (the “gatherers and sharers”) is best compared to the environmental devastation of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. However, on this I would agree with Wendell Berry that the destruction of nature by some modern capitalists – take mountaintop removal mining, overfishing, or treatment of fracking fluids, for example – might well rouse the Ents as much as the destruction of Fangorn Forest.
While Tolkien was not an environmentalist as such, he certainly had a love of God’s handiwork in nature. One cannot encounter Tolkien’s woodland elves and long-striding Ents, mighty rivers and roaring falls, soaring mountain ranges and fertile fields, without sensing the man’s love of the created world. And yet Tolkien was not a Romantic. Cities and human cultures play a prominent role in his fantasy world. Indeed, “Tolkien’s religion begins in a garden and ends in a great city, one with mighty walls, a river, and the Tree of Life.”17 Perhaps the green Shire and the white city of Minas Tirith are closer than they appear on a map.
On War and Death
Despite his own harrowing experiences in the trenches of World War I, Tolkien was not a pacifist. Neither was he a hawk. As the authors suggest, he “clearly held to the twin truths that war is not to be sought, but neither can it be wished away.”18 In Tolkien’s tales the noblest characters follow the principles of Just War theory, both jus ad bellum and jus in bello. The idea of Just Cause is especially clear in the novels, as the Free Peoples of Middle Earth unite against the menace of Sauron, even though they recognize that their probability of success is low. From the powerful scene at the Council of Elrond when Frodo offers to take the Ring to Mount Doom, to the poignant moment when Aragorn does not follow Frodo and Sam across the Anduin, the heroes demonstrate courage in the face of incredible odds.
Witt and Richards suggest that modern Just War reasoning needs just such a ‘modified’ theory of courage. Sometimes the Just War rule of probability of success can become an excuse for weak resolve or risk aversion. Such thinking may be evident in the current Administration’s reluctance to intervene further in the fight against ISIS, or to face down Russia in Ukraine. However, as Tolkien himself said, his stories may be applicable to the modern world, but they are not an allegory that suggests the proper course of action in every Just War debate.
In the final chapter of The Hobbit Party, Witt and Richards turn to the non-political topic of death. They explain that not only is it a central theme of The Lord of the Rings (according to Tolkien himself) that is worthy of study, but “his insights into the matter bear directly on the question of the free society.”19 They draw together the stories of Númenor, Atlantis, and the Tower of Babel as pursuits of deathlessness, where the protagonists, like Sauron and the One Ring, seek to escape an effect of the Fall. The authors conclude with a bracing application to politics: “Tolkien understood that human death is a consequence of our Fall into sin, a final rebuke to every utopian planner seeking to fashion the new man through either politics or science.”20 Utopian designs universally end in failure, whether undertaken on a massive scale like the Soviet Union, or on a small scale like the nineteenth-century Harmony Society of western Pennsylvania. There is a warning here to the progressive statists found in Saruman’s camp, to “avoid the folly of pursuing a Heaven here on Middle-Earth.”21
Yet Tolkien, Witt, and Richards send their readers off with some comfort and hope. The vision of the lands to the West, “white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise,” promises ultimate healing to Bilbo and Frodo. This vision of heaven and its Maker is what inspired Tolkien himself, and it should inspire us to courage, to hard work in our callings, patience, and wisdom, “even as we labor creatively for the greater good.”22 The authors leave us with this gentle nudge of our ship away from the Grey Havens, opening our vista to the West and the end of all things. But it is also a bittersweet dessert at the end of an intellectual feast, leaving us wishing for even more wisdom, and more hope.
Like Tolkien’s fantasy itself, Witt and Richards have taken the familiar – the argument for a free society and free markets – and made it strange and therefore both accessible and wonderful. They do this by digging deep into the earthy wisdom of Tolkien, offering up growth-inducing Ent draughts to the reader. There is a taste of that wisdom even in the Epilogue. Max Weber and Tolkien both spoke of the “disenchantment” of the West – the loss of “a deep rapport with the created order, characterized by a sense of wonder too often missing from modern life.”23 The authors conclude that as Tolkien “made clear in word and deed, he believed that to seek our culture’s reenchantment was a fitting labor for our time.”24 The Hobbit Party is an important contribution to that labor.
The Hobbit and Philosophy
Where Witt and Richards are humble and tentative in their reading of Tolkien, the editors of this book, Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, are bold and brash in reinterpreting Tolkien in imaginative ways. From the opening paragraph, where Bassham compares Bilbo’s journey to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, readers knows they are in for a rollicking and sometimes strange ride, something akin to the dwarf party at Bilbo’s house, where you just know that food will be thrown and dishes will be broken. The book is an attempt to utilize popular culture “to teach and to popularize the ideas of the great thinkers.”25 Thus the book is a collection of essays, some exploring the philosophy of The Hobbit – if not actually of Tolkien himself – and some simply using the novel as a jumping-off point to other philosophical principles.
But there is also a subtle warning early on. “Tolkien was a profoundly learned scholar who reflected deeply on the big questions.”26 Indeed! In fact Tolkien has answers to some of those big questions in ways that reflect his Christian faith, literary genius, and philological interests. Some of the essays are quite good, and take Tolkien’s faith seriously, but a number of them stray from the path of wisdom. Some take Tolkien’s stories in such novel and strange directions that I was at a loss to understand how the authors could have so misconstrued what Tolkien was about.
I found the answer half way through the book, in Tom Grimwood’s chapter on hermeneutics. He distinguishes ‘intentionalism’ – a commonsense understanding of what the author intends for his words to mean – from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s theory of meaning, where “our interpretations are always situated in a particular historical context.”27 We bring our experiences and predispositions to everything we read, so understanding comes through a “fusion” of the author’s viewpoint and that of the interpreter. Gadamer admits that it is a mistake to interpret things only through our own lens, hence there must be a “dialogue” to create meaning.28 Grimwood’s explanation helps to justify the Buddhist readings of The Hobbit found in the first set of essays, among other odd moves to be found in the book.
But it seems clear that J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis would have leaned toward intentionalism. Lewis commented on the tendency of readers to “find” all kinds of meanings in others’ works:
As we know, almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough. This will be especially impressed on anyone who has written fantastic fiction….Apparently it is impossible for the wit of man to devise a narrative in which the wit of some other man cannot, and with some plausibility, find a hidden sense.29
With that concern in mind, let us embark on a brief journey through The Hobbit and Philosophy. (The following section titles are taken from the book itself.)
Part One: Discover Your Inner Took
All four essays in this section of the book take The Hobbit primarily as a point of departure to discuss Buddhist religion. In chapter 1, Gregory Bassham tells the tale of Bilbo as one of personal growth, including growth in wisdom and virtue. But he misquotes Tolkien, putting the line “after all you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all” into the mouth of Bilbo. This is not a Socratic “know thyself” moment for Bilbo; rather it is a line spoken by Gandalf, pointing out that Bilbo’s adventures are not the result of luck but of providence. Bassham does a better job describing Bilbo’s growth in virtues like courage, resourcefulness, compassion, and generosity, and correctly points out that Bilbo grows in virtue thanks to practicing it via habit formation. He links that virtuous practice to its Aristotelian source, but does not connect it to Aquinas and freedom for excellence as do Witt and Richards.
The next chapter strays even further afield. Michael Brannigan tries to reconcile Bilbo’s “apparently conflicting yearnings for security and adventure” through the lens of Daoism, suggesting that the tale is “ultimately a parable of Bilbo’s awakening to his true nature as a Took as well as a Baggins, as an adventurer and a risk taker as much as a seeker of comfort and familiarity.”30 The author believes that Daoism also explains the contrasts of ascent/descent, mountain/valley, light/dark in The Hobbit. He even suggests that the problem with greed (as seen in Thorin) is that “we lose sight of our original nature, our Tao.”31 But greed is acting in accordance with our sinful nature. Tolkien is not describing mankind in a state of nature or a pre-Fall condition; he is describing us as we are in our sinfulness. Yet Brannigan insists that the hobbits represent Taoist sages while the Big Folk symbolize a fall from grace or the state of nature. His solution is to be free from attachment, a clear echo of Buddhism and a sharp contrast to a Christian view of our attachment and devotion to God.
Eric Bronson’s chapter explores the link between place, time, connectedness, and walking. It is a meandering journey through walking to meditate, walking away from it all, walking slowly, and walking to practice virtue. Like some walks, this chapter ends where it began without having accomplished much. The last chapter in the first section by Dennis Knepp on Bilbo the “cosmopolitan hobbit” (a ‘citizen of the world’) wanders through the ideas of mutual obligation and respect to cultural diversity, drawing only vapid conclusions. And here I will take one chapter out of sequence, from the second part – the chapter on greed by Anna Minore and Gregory Bassham blithely equates greed with self-interest, ignoring Adam Smith’s real argument, misreads crucial lines by Tolkien’s characters, and veers again into Buddhist analysis and advice (their final conclusion is “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”). In sum, all of these chapters ignore the clear intentionality of meaning in Tolkien’s world, reading Buddhist principles into the text in imaginative but unhelpful ways.
Part Two: The Good, the Bad, and the Slimy
The essays in the second part of the book (minus the greed chapter) find firmer footing. Charles Taliaferro and Craig Lindahl-Urben place Tolkien in the Platonic tradition, warning of the pursuit of glory for its own sake. Glory in the classical world was superseded by the glory of God for early Christians, but Tolkien looked at Beowulf and found pagan or pre-Christian glory under the Christian veneer of the story. Thorin and Aragorn do attain glory through heroism, but the authors suggest that Tolkien still offers a critique of the glory tradition, where “proper glory is defined and deepened by a fundamentally Platonic (and Christian) identification of glory with virtue, including the virtues of humility, kindness, sociability, and unselfishness.”32 The next chapter in the book, on pride and humility, explores how Tolkien illustrates an Aristotelian virtue theory of morality, in which pride is the cardinal sin. Laura Garcia is one of the few authors in this volume to recognize the deep import of Tolkien’s Catholic faith, and the chapter engages in a worthy discussion of pride in Aristotle and Aquinas.
David Kyle Johnson turns to Just War theory, familiar ground after reading Witt and Richards, providing a simple and clear explanation of the principles of Just War theory while pointing out some of the gray areas, questions, and challenges. He analyzes the Battle of the Five Armies in Just War terms, and then asks whether Tolkien really endorsed Just War thinking. He concludes both from the novels and from Tolkien’s letters to his son, that yes, Tolkien felt that even a hopeless battle ought sometimes to be fought. It would have been useful for Johnson to introduce relevant Just War theorists like Augustine and Aquinas into the discussion, but this is an eminently readable chapter and just the kind of teaching tool for which I was looking.
Beauty permeates Tolkien’s writing, and in a lovely chapter, Philip Tallon addresses the moral dimensions of aesthetics in Middle Earth. He connects proper aesthetics to Augustine’s view of virtue as the “right ordering of the loves,” pointing out that aesthetic appreciation and craftsmanship are positive moral indicators for Tolkien: good creatures love what is beautiful (like elves and their songs and swords), whereas evil creatures love only ugliness (like goblins and their cruel machines). Tallon concludes that beauty and art are not only good in and of themselves, nor only a sign of moral health, but they are a means to awaken ethical concern for things and others outside ourselves – “they fire the imagination and kindle in the heart a desire for higher, nobler, and more difficult things.”33
The final chapter in this section is perhaps the highlight of the book. David O’Hara says that play is not a lack of seriousness, and it is not laziness or childishness; rather it is both an instrumental and a teleological good. He explores the link between leisure and learning, between play and education, citing how thinkers from Xenophon to Maria Montessori have emphasized play as a way to learn while having fun. O’Hara points out how Bilbo’s play at “quiet games of the aiming and throwing sort” helps him in his adventures, and how Gandalf’s somewhat more serious play with fireworks proves useful when escaping wargs and goblins. Indeed we can thank Tolkien’s love of playing with words and languages (perhaps playing when he should have been grading papers) for his lifelong devotion to telling the tale of Middle Earth.
Part Three: Riddles and Rings and Part Four: Being There and Back Again
The third and fourth sections of the book are mixed both in direction and quality. Houghton College’s W. Christopher Stewart discusses the role of magic in Tolkien, and how technology, like magic, is born of impatience and a desire for power. He rightly suggests that “the problem is that all too often we develop and deploy technologies more rapidly than we develop the conceptual resources to reflect on their implications.”34 Grant Sterling’s chapter on providence and free will in The Hobbit is a useful response to Randall Jensen’s poor chapter on luck. Gandalf claims that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.” Sterling suggests that this is Providence, a “manifestation of the hand of God – ‘Eru Illúvatar’.”35 Turning to the problem of divine foreknowledge, he discusses open theism and compatibilism, rejecting both in favor of Tolkien’s “Boethian Solution” that God is outside of time. Finally, Jamie Watson’s chapter on decision-making and moral reasoning provides a clear and helpful explanation of expected utility theory, conditional probability, decision trees, the prisoner’s dilemma, and more. The chapter is a good example of O’Hara’s notion of play and learning, and despite its technical language seems “true” to Tolkien and not a forced reading like some others.
The Hobbit and Philosophy, like many an adventure and many an edited volume, has its highs and lows. While the first chapter promises to popularize the great thinkers by bringing together Bilbo and Plato, the book as a whole falls short. When the authors follow Gadamer in interpreting Tolkien through their own lenses of meaning, as in the many chapters finding Buddhism in Middle Earth, they stray into the Misty Mountains, where “most of the paths were cheats and deceptions and led nowhere or to bad ends.”36 But in the chapters where the authors more or less accept Tolkien’s intentionality of meaning – especially about things like beauty, providence, and just war – there they serve as useful guides on rocky trails.
Tolkien, Hobbit Lessons, and The Christian World of The Hobbit
Where the first two books are weighty like a serious debate between Elrond and Gandalf, the three books by Devin Brown share the lighter conversational touch of a hobbit gathering. That is not to say that they are unserious, but rather that they are gently written and intended for an even wider audience. Brown’s biography of Tolkien reads more like a family tale than a pure biography, and the homely advice found in the other two books is very much in keeping with the spirit of Tolkien.
In the biography, we learn of Tolkien’s childhood, the loss of his parents, his early interest in languages, his mother’s conversion to Catholicism, and how his love of nature – even of particular trees – shaped his writing. Some of these aspects of Tolkien’s life are well known, but Brown offers other tidbits, such as how an encounter with a German painting inspired the idea of Gandalf. Tracing many of these private experiences in Tolkien’s life, Brown invites the reader to go back to the novels to see how the effects of those experiences are woven into their tapestry.
Brown unveils a significant turning point in Tolkien’s life when he was just 22. At a “council” with his closest literary-minded friends, Tolkien came to understand that the group had been given a “spark of fire” to rekindle a light in the world, “to testify for God and truth.” Furthermore, he came to see himself and his writing as potentially “a great instrument in God’s hands,” indeed that God might make him “a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things.” The understanding that he earned from the council was life-changing, as he saw “a tremendous opening up of everything for me.”37 That sense of divine calling certainly must have helped Tolkien through some of the long days in his lifelong effort to tell the tales of Middle Earth.
Later, Brown relates the familiar story of how Tolkien, grading exams to earn a bit of extra money, found a blank page in an exam and scribbled: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” the sentence that launched stories which would be published millions of times over. But The Hobbit very nearly did not get published, either, and only by an unlikely chain of occurrences did it make it to the desk of publishers Allen & Unwin. Brown suggests that Tolkien might well have been describing this very providential happenstance when Gandalf tells Frodo that “what at the time seems to be mere chance, looking back later may be seen as the workings of something greater.”38 The wonder of his marvelous tales, the joy and inspiration, and the desire to emulate virtue and wisdom that he brought to hundreds of millions of readers, all surely attest to the work of a greater One in bringing Tolkien’s Middle Earth to the world.
Through the other two short books, Devin Brown offers assistance to help those readers make sense of Middle Earth. In The Christian World of the Hobbit he addresses Tolkien’s famous comment in a letter to Father Robert Murray: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”39 It is fundamentally or essentially religious, and its presuppositions are Christian, though the Christian message is embedded or absorbed into the story, not foregrounded. Tolkien said this a number of times, and his friends/critics W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis were in agreement. The intentionally and fundamentally religious nature of the works stands in marked contrast to the hermeneutical approach of The Hobbit and Philosophy, where fundamentally non-Christian principles are read into The Hobbit. While Brown cautions his readers against ignoring the Christian aspects of Tolkien’s tales, he also warns us against finding Christian aspects everywhere, in places the author has not put them.40
In The Christian World of The Hobbit, Brown deals with providence, the development of virtues like courage, mercy, and wisdom; choices and motives; the problem of greed; and ultimately, what it means to live an “abundant life.” In Hobbit Lessons: A Map for Life’s Unexpected Journeys, Brown engages the Christian message more subtly, focusing more on “the journey.” Here he helps the reader think about seeking adventure, the importance of friendship, a proper attitude toward the things of this world, and how a journey into the wider world is necessary for children to grow up. I shared this book with my middle-school daughter (already a huge Tolkien fan) after our family moved across the country last year, and she was touched and inspired by Brown’s insightful comments.
One common theme developed by Brown in both of these books is the idea of the sacramental ordinary – all the good things of nature, food, friendship, and art that have far more worth than gold and glory. This is hinted at in Thorin’s dying words to Bilbo in The Hobbit, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”41 Brown highlights a scene from The Two Towers where one of the Riders of Rohan asks, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” Aragorn responds, “A man may do both….The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”42 Brown concludes, “In Aragorn’s response we can hear Tolkien’s own voice, suggesting that the ordinary world we live in every day is as full of wonder as the material typically thought of as the stuff of legends, and thus, is equally deserving of our reverence.” He suggests that the presence of the sacramental ordinary in Tolkien’s writings may be inspired in part by G. K. Chesterton’s sense of the wonder and value of ordinary things.43 One finds the idea of the sacramental ordinary in a number of modern writers, but rarely is it presented in a rich Tolkien-like fictional scenario.
I had been searching for teaching tools to engage students with great ideas in politics through fantasy, and several chapters in each of the books would indeed make for excellent classroom discussions. One challenge may be that students today are more likely to have seen the film adaptations than to have read the books. In his speech “On Fairy Stories” Tolkien himself said:
In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature….But Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy. Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama, when that is presented as it should be, visibly and audibly acted. Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited….Drama has, of its very nature, already attempted a kind of bogus, or shall I say at least substitute, magic: the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story.44
Many of the deeper lessons to be drawn from Tolkien can be accessed only when one is reading the text itself. But the creative use of short film clips, which more students are likely to have seen, in conjunction with readings from these texts, might work well enough to provoke discussion of the important ideas discussed in all these books.
Beyond direct classroom usage, these books have other merits for Christian scholars. What each of them does is a reasonable reversal of Tolkien himself; that is, they take the strange – fantasy fiction – and make it familiar. The books encourage scholars to take a look outside their normal disciplinary and pedagogical boundaries, and reach for ideas and texts that tell important truths but from a far different perspective or located in another world. Of these books, Witt and Richards do the best job of incorporating both scholarship and Tolkien’s writings into their arguments, although Brown does so quite well and with engaging writing. The Bassham and Bronson book is of very mixed quality scholarship and use of Tolkien. They are all to be applauded for their creative efforts to bring fantasy literature into the ‘real’ world.
I also found something else in reading these books. As the narrator says in The Hobbit, “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. … You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”45 I found something in the concept of the sacramental ordinary that made me reflect more deeply on my field of political science.
The idea of the sacramental ordinary is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’ claim that you have never met a mere mortal. Social science qua science can, strangely, de-humanize humans. They become objects of our studies, not subjects. Even if we are speaking of particular humans (say, politicians) we can dehumanize them, or refer to them as if they were some abstraction rather than a real person. Political science and economics as disciplines tend to reinforce this view that humans are objects (or rational choice-making machines) to be studied or acted upon; sociology and history perhaps do less to dehumanize humans.
An appreciation for the sacramental ordinary should have implications for the social sciences. It should re-humanize people, encouraging us to consider public policy, for example, in terms of its impact on individuals and families, not on ‘workers’ or ‘voters,’ as important as those roles are in the lives of individuals. It should alter how we consider ‘human subject research,’ and how we write about those ‘subjects.’ We should see that there is something special in communities when people come together – not merely as hipsters who buy locally grown produce and live in gentrified mixed-purpose zoning areas – but something special that might be a combination of Wendell Berry’s ideal locale with the idea of shalom. We should consider the giving of ‘assent’ via casting a vote as an important philosophical move, and perhaps take more seriously the practical and philosophical impacts of large numbers of people failing to assent to the community’s structure and values. We should evaluate how seeking the sacramental ordinary might affect our local food culture, local recreation and the arts, and the role of local businesses in the market and as employers.
On the other hand we should avoid over-sacramentalizing earthly things. Those who take the idea of “community” as sacred can fall victim to the desire to engineer such communities, to behave as Isaiah Berlin feared by compelling people to act against their wills because only the elite know what is best for others. Community does arise from spontaneous order, as Witt and Richards might say, not from centralized planning. Those who seem to feel that localism is next to godliness sometimes ignore the historical and economic evidence for the success of global trade and free markets. It is hard to source locally the brown paper bags needed for the farmer’s market, or the gasoline needed for the truck to get fresh produce there. Globalization offers access to markets and capital for entrepreneurs in poor countries who create jobs and wealth, and who want trade, not aid.
If we are to re-humanize the social sciences, re-establish the value of liberal arts education, as well as re-enchant our culture, we need more scholars like Brown, Witt, and Richards, and we need more Tolkiens to engage the deepest truths and make them strange and wonderful. Rummage through that pile of exam papers on your desk, and look for a blank page…
Cite this article
- Devin Brown, The Christian World of the Hobbit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 27.
- Ibid., 28.
- Witt and Richards, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 16. Witt’s own gift at storytelling is clear in the powerful stories of entrepreneurs in the PovertyCure video series, for which he was the lead writer.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 16.
- Ibid., 44.
- Ibid., 50.
- Witt and Richards, The Hobbit Party, 72. The authors also draw interesting parallels between Tolkien’s One Ring and the invisibility ring in Plato’s tale of Glaucon in the Republic, as well as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man.
- Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty.” (1958). Text as submitted to Clarendon Press. Accessed March 15, 2015, http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/tcl/tcl-e.pdf.
- Witt and Richards, The Hobbit Party, 87-90.
- For a useful introduction to Aquinas on freedom for excellence, see George Weigel, “A Better Concept of Freedom,” First Things (March 2002). http://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/03/a-better-concept-of-freedom.
- Witt and Richards, The Hobbit Party, 103.
- Ibid., 26.
- Ibid., 66.
- Yuval Levin, “Recovering the Case for Capitalism,” National Review 3, no. 10 (2010): 121-136.
- Witt and Richards, The Hobbit Party, 127-128.
- Ibid., 145.
- Ibid., 118.
- Ibid., 168.
- Ibid., 183.
- Ibid., 184.
- Ibid., 185.
- Ibid., 186.
- Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, eds., The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 3.
- Tom Grimwood, “Philosophy in the Dark: The Hobbit and Hermeneutics,” in Ibid., 183.
- Ibid., 184-185.
- C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 99-100, quoted in Devin Brown, The Christian World of the Hobbit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 33.
- Michael Brannigan, “‘The Road Goes Ever On and On’: A Hobbit’s Tao,” in The Hobbit and Philosophy, eds. Bassham and Bronson, 20, 23.
- Ibid., 27.
- Charles Taliaferro and Craig Lindahl-Urben, “The Glory of Bilbo Baggins,” in Ibid., 66-67.
- Philip Tallon, “‘Pretty Fair Nonsense’: Art and Beauty in The Hobbit,” in Ibid., 127.
- W. Christopher Stewart, “‘The Lord of Magic and Machines’: Tolkien on Magic and Technology,” in Ibid., 156.
- Grant Sterling, “The Consolation of Bilbo: Providence and Free Will in Middle-Earth,” in Ibid., 208.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (New York: Del Rey Books, 1996), 55.
- Devin Brown, Tolkien: How an Obscure Oxford Professor Wrote The Hobbit and Became the Most Beloved Author of the Century (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 52-53.
- Ibid., 93.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ibid., 32.
- Tolkien, The Hobbit, 290.
- Tolkien, The Two Towers, quoted in Brown, Hobbit Lessons, 149.
- Ibid., 149-150 (emphasis in the original).
- J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 6-7, accessed March 17, 2015, http://www.rivendell-community.org/Formation/Tolkien_On_Fairy_Stories.pdf.
- Tolkien, The Hobbit, 58.