Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Divine Providence in "The Hobbit"

I should warn you right up front that this post will ooze with intense nerdiness. I'm a total J.R.R. Tolkien fanboy and have even joked that his veneration would be the only condition by which I would consider converting to Catholicism. While I may not actually be that extreme, I'm devoted enough to have a set of Lord of the Rings PEZ candies as the centerpiece for my room.

Likewise, I'm eagerly awaiting the release of The Hobbit movie(s). In anticipation for the films, I've re-read the book so that I can criticize Peter Jackson's changes more intelligently. It's been years since I've read the book and I noticed some things that had escaped me the first time around.

I had never realized that one of the major themes of the book is "luck". While initially skeptical that their pint-size burglar will be of any worth, Thorin and Company eventually begin to respect Bilbo Baggins as one of the most valuable members of the enterprise. It's Mr. Baggins that rescues the Company from such strapes as giant spiders, overly skeptical wood-elves and eventually the dragon himself. The qualities that allow Bilbo to perform such feats include wit, stealth, courage, wisdom and disproportionate amount of good luck. His excessive luck is referred to several times in the book.

However, at the very end of the book (literally the last page) there's a twist of sorts. It's revealed that Bilbo's luck was not luck at all. The last bit of The Hobbit jumps ahead a few years to find the fruits of Bilbo's labors. The North is rid of many evils and the free folk live in peace and prosperity.

Upon discovering this, Bilbo exclaims: "Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!"

To this, Gandalf offers a rebuke: "Of course! And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?"

Hinted in these words is a very interesting thought. Bilbo's luck was not "mere luck". It was purposeful and designed to fulfill a larger end. Some would call this fate. Christians call it providence.

I really do believe that providence is a major theme in Tolkien's works. This theme is picked up in The Lord of the Rings. Interestingly enough, the first time Bilbo's "luck" comes into play is in his discovery of the One Ring. Thus, if luck is a tongue-in-cheek expression for providence, then we learn that God purposed the Ring to fall into the hands of the hobbit. It is in this context that Gandalf would assure Frodo that there are greater powers in the world than that of evil and that the younger Mr. Baggins was meant to have the Ring.

In many respects, the Tolkien canon is similar to the Book of Esther in that God is never explicitly mentioned and yet His sovereign hand is seen everywhere if one looks for it. Unlike in the movie, Tolkien has the Ring destroyed not by Frodo but by the providence itself. In the end, only a sovereign God can defeat evil.

For our part, it's vital that we embrace our role  as little pieces in God's bigger plan. We cannot determine the times in which we live. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

This is the attitude of Bilbo. In explaining the larger purposes of the hobbit's quest, Gandalf says to him: "You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"

And then the last line in the book is: "Thank goodness!" said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

Bilbo is relieved to discover that he's just a little fellow used for a far grander purpose than himself. So should be the attitude of all followers of God Almighty.


  1. Totally nerdy and extremely Biblical.
    God's providence is "not mere luck."
    God is incontrol and has a far greater plan then we can see.
    Loved this, thank you.

  2. I'm already planning a movie-day with my friends when The Hobbit comes out. I remember trying to explain the Biblical parallels of LOTR to my very skeptical friend, but I haven't thought much about the parallels in The Hobbit. Your discussion of luck vs. providence was well done. Although I believe we have a great deal of choice in life, it is true that there is also a great deal of Plan--and, as Bilbo expresses, it's a comforting thought!

  3. I hate to be "that guy", but I believe Biblo would be a misspelling. Or is it a clever word play? :) Great post though. I've always enjoyed the themes of both the prequel and trilogy.

  4. Good catch, Ben. I'll correct that :-).

  5. Well if you look at Tolkien's beliefs, it's very easy to see the Christian elements in his story and it should be no surprise as to why. Tolkien was creating a mythology and in his belief, all mythology is based, at its core, on the truth of the Bible. That's why the Christian world view seeps into LOTR and all that Tolkien wrote. He didn't do it on purpose, but it merely happened because it was an extension of his faith and world view, much in the same way C.S. Lewis wrote about Narnia.

  6. That's very true. Tolkien's Christian worldview really did saturate all his works.

  7. Yaasha Moriah: I'm also making plans already for movie watching :-). It is true that God's providence does not in anyway subtract from our moral responsibility or authenticity of our choices. But like you said it's comforting to know that even then, God is in charge :-).

  8. Anonymous: Exactly so! If I remember correctly, Lewis' conversion occurred on the heels of a discussion with Tolkien (and someone else) in which Tolkien explained that the Bible is the summation and source of mythology. Lewis borrows this theme in his book The Pilgrim's Regress, in which he compares mythology to pictures which represented truth. The pagans eventually forgot the story behind the picture, so they made up their own story for it. In that way, mythology is fiction with a core of fact. Small wonder that Tolkien (and Lewis) so easily wove Biblical realities into his mythologies.