The Hobbit and Our World

I recently read The Hobbit again, after many years. It is a wonderful book, perfectly paced, with just the right amount of detail, action, and dialog. Written as a children’s book, it’s hard to complain about any aspect of Tolkien’s great work.

And yet, as I read the ending and the (spoiler alert!) killing of Smaug the dragon, I was a bit disappointed. After all, the company of friends — the collective protagonists — have very little to do with the death of Smaug, save for flushing him out of the mountain. The hero is a man named Bard, who shoots his black arrow into the only vulnerable spot on Smaug’s underbelly. My disappointment came from the fact that, as readers, we have little to no history with Bard. He is introduced only a few pages before his heroic act. And while he remains in the narrative until the end of the book, as a reader I didn’t feel much attachment to him. Killing the dragon and reclaiming the treasure (and the throne) was supposed to be the job of the dwarves and Bilbo, not this stranger. What gives?

As I thought about this and discussed it with my wife, I realized that this final act is not only consistent with the rest of the story, but it reflects life in our world too. Throughout The Hobbit, the traveling company receives help from many unexpected sources: Beorn, the eagles, and the elves just to name three. The company is certainly not without courage, ingenuity, and occasions of self-deliverance, but they are carried on their way at decisive moments by help outside of themselves. And so, in that way, the introduction of Bard fits.

And this is the point: help comes from outside ourselves! I’m not saying that Tolkien intended Bard as an allegory for Jesus — it is well documented that Tolkien despised allegory and chided his good friend C.S. Lewis for his Narnia books for this very reason. However, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is a world like ours. It has the moral categories that we recognize and, because of that, we can learn about our world and our condition by reading Tolkien. For help *does* come from outside ourselves. Indeed, if we do not seek help from outside ourselves, ours is a most depressing and hopeless state.

As a final note, I am curious how much back story will be given to Bard in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies, set to debut in December 2012 and 2013. It strikes me that an audience won’t rally around a hero who comes on the scene only moments before his singular, heroic act. Most movies with a great deliverance/rescue have a narrative which follows the rescuer for some time before the rescue takes place.

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