Lessons from the Hobbit

With J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday tomorrow (January 3rd), I can’t help but turn to one of my favorite tales, The Hobbit, to share a few of my favorite moments in the loveable adventure of Bilbo Baggins. To “prepare” for the movie, I recently re-read the book to my 6 and 9 year-old sons, and found many rich passages to give us insight into life, and I’ll share a few highlights in this post.

From Chapter 5 “Riddles in the Dark.” The set up: Bilbo wakes up and finds himself lost and alone under Misty mountain after being chased by goblins and knocked out by running into a rock ledge. Tolkien writes,

Very slowly he [Bilbo] got up and groped about on all fours, till he touched the wall of the tunnel; but neither up nor down it could he find anything: nothing at all, no sign of goblins, no sign of dwarves. His head was swimming, and he was far from certain even of the direction they had been going in when he had his fall. He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along for a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.

What a seemingly insignificant event—Bilbo fingers the ring, and puts it in his pocket—a quiet event that had a huge impact in the lives of hobbits, men, dwarves, wizards, elves, and the history of middle earth. In thinking about this passage, I am struck by the fact that we, like Bilbo, are caught up in a story that is bigger than ourselves. Events that seem from our perspective as insignificant, may in fact be turning points in our lives. I am reminded as we begin 2013 that all of our actions have meaning—the daily choices we make can shape our destiny or the destiny of others. We have been given a great gift from God—we are self-determiners, sub-creators, and our lives and actions have meaning.

From Chapter 12 “Inside Information.” The set up: Bilbo is in the Lonely Mountain searching for the greedy dragon Smaug. He turns the corner in a tunnel and sees the dragon, atop mounds and mounds of gold. Tolkien writes,

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it.

The scene is gripping. The dragon is powerful, fierce, cunning, greedy, ruthless. Bilbo’s charge is to be the “burglar” and steal the gold back that Smaug stole from the dwarves. As he turns the corner and lays his eyes upon Smaug—in all his wealth and horridness—Bilbo has a choice: shall he be the hobbit he has been called to be or not? This choice is harder than all of the things that come after. This is true of the Christian as well. Christ calls us to follow Him, to die to self, to seek the glory of another instead of self. It is this choice, the fundamental volition to live for something greater than self that is harder than all that comes after. The Christian life is a life of hardship, adventure, turmoil, and struggle—but also a life of joy, hope, love, trust, meaning, and satisfaction. Yet to enter God’s story—or better, to discover our place in God’s story—we need to make a choice: will we find our hope, identity and purpose in following Christ and building His kingdom, or will we live for small things and seek a fame of our own? This choice, this laying down, is the “bravest thing” anyone can ever do. It is also, the only way to truly live.

Chapter Twelve “Inside Information.” The set up: Bilbo has stolen a cup from Smaug’s pile of gold. Smaug has just realized the cup is gone. Tolkien writes,

Thieves! Fire! Murder! Such a thing had not happened since first he [Smaug] came to the Mountain! His rage passes description—the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more that they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.

Tolkien exposes the irrationality of the idolatrous heart. When we tether our lives to things that cannot satisfy, we become possessed by them. We become their slave. And Smaug couldn’t stand to have one cup, a cup he never used, be stolen from his hoard of wealth. Why? Because he found his worth in possessions. This is a convicting passage to me—how much do I find my value in treasure, or success, or fame instead of the true lover of my soul? Calvin said our hearts are “idol factories”—it is human nature to take good things and make them ultimate things. In idol worship, we pervert the economy of the created universe. God has created us to enjoy the happiness He gives—and to enjoy it in creaturely response to Him. But, when these good things become ultimate things, our loves, our emotions, our thinkings become disintegrated and we starve.

The last passage of the book:

Chapter 14 “The last Stage.” The set up: Bilbo has arrived home and is talking to Gandalf about how the old songs (and prophecies) turned out to be true. Gandalf speaks to Bilbo:

“You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, do you, just for your sole benefit? You are a 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!”

The hero of the story, at the end of his journey, finds out that he is just a small part of something bigger. As we look toward 2013, let us remember that we too are part of a story—God’s story—and our job is to discover our place in that story. And what is the outline of God’s story? It is a most amazing tale—one that Tolkien points to in his own—a story of tragedy, comedy, and fairy book endings. A story of God creating a place, then a people, and giving His people a purpose. A story of man’s tragedy and divine comedy as God enters in to redeem man, and to ultimately make all things right again. So in 2013, read a little Tolkien, and then follow along with him as he points you to the real lover of your soul; the ONE who calls you to follow your own adventure where you are the main character, even though you are “only quite a little fellow.


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