There are two types of story that a Christian author can write: a Christian story, and a story that is told by a Christian. The first may have characters living in Biblical or modern times, chasing the love of their life, investigating a murder or embarking on a life-changing journey – it doesn’t matter. What they will have is a distinct position on God, Jesus, the Bible… etc. In short, Christianity is a visible force directing the story. The second type is quite different. The characters are not Christian. In fact they may not even live in a universe where Christianity exists. But the faith of the author still shapes the way the characters live – whatever they consider to be noble, right, pure, lovely. Christianity becomes the invisible force directing the story, and that’s the journey J.R.R. Tolkien took when he invited children to embark with a hobbit on a journey to the Lonely Mountain.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the technicolour rendering of a world framed by Tolkien’s faith. The tale centres on Bilbo Baggins, a miniature of a stay-at-home English gentleman who is persuaded to accompany thirteen dwarves and Gandalf the wizard on an alarming quest. 170 years ago the dragon Smaug devastated the Dwarvish mountain stronghold of Erebor and seized its vast treasure. Thorin Oakenshield is determined to regain his people’s gold and needs a ‘burglar’ to assist him. Despite his conservative leanings Bilbo is persuaded to accompany the dwarves on their perilous journey, and step one is crossing the Goblin-infested Misty Mountains. But only Gandalf is aware that an even darker power is lurking behind the dangers the adventurers will confront.
An Unexpected Journey is the first of a three-part retelling of The Hobbit by Middle-Earth master Peter Jackson. You won’t see anything even vaguely cross-like anywhere in its 166 minutes that might point to Tolkien’s faith. Yet reflections of the Christian’s journey permeate the plot because they are part of the way Tolkien saw his world.
Consider the motivation for the entire story. We’re used to seeing Hollywood characters set out on adventures because they see a reward at the end of the road. If Skyfall taught us anything it reminded us that men like James Bond always know what they want and are prepared to tackle anyone to get it. But Bilbo is far more reluctant hero:
Gandalf: “You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.”
Bilbo Baggins: “You can promise that I will come back?”
Gandalf: “…No. And if you do, you will not be the same.”
Bilbo, like every Christian, is the often unwilling participant in his own adventure who ends up benefitting despite himself. Tolkien understood we often resist the best things for us, and God is far more aware of what we need than we are.
Bilbo’s unlikely travelling companions are another example. Thorin may be a hero well realised by Jackson but Tolkien’s expedition also includes Bombur, a fat and ungainly dwarf, the elderly brothers Balin and Dwalin and a higher than normal proportion of whingers. Yet this was the team Thorin tells viewers he won’t do without:
“I would take each and every one of these dwarves over the mightiest army!”
Tolkien, a regular attendee in his Catholic parish, was familiar with the foibles of the church and the sort of people God has chosen to fulfil His Great Commission. In Tolkien’s world it is the weak and the foolish that shame the wise and the strong.
Finally, think about the epic forces that move behind Bilbo’s journey. The darkest force in An Unexpected Journey is not the dragon at the end of the road but the Necromancer threatening the safety of all Middle Earth. Tolkien has Thorin suggesting it’s time the dwarves took that dark figure to task, but Gandalf responds:
“Don’t be absurd! He is an enemy far beyond the power of all the dwarves put together. The dragon and the Mountain are more than big enough tasks for you!”
It’s not for the dwarves to accomplish the salvation of Middle Earth. No, their job, like that of the average Christian, is to apply themselves to the chore before them. Tolkien’s heroes are forever forgetting the big picture to concentrate on the task at hand, and finding unexpectedly that their personal journey contributes to the salvation of many they never even meet.
Tolkien wasn’t interested in allegory but as a Christian he did provide us with stories that work very much like Jesus’ parables. His fantastic tales delight our imaginations, but they resonate with our hearts because in them we catch the scent of something much more significant. Writing about his close friend’s art, Robert Murray observed:
“A good story need not have a ‘message’ yet Tolkien often acknowledged that most great stories abound in morally significant features which are applicable to the experience of readers far removed in time and space.”
The sheer spectacle of The Hobbit may see it become Australia’s biggest release for 2012, but its longevity as a film will rest on its unexpected ability to reflect divine truths. And with the whole country trooping off to see this latest quest there’s never been a better time to draw their attention to the life-transforming journey they might also embark on.