Today is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, also known as Hobbit Day. It’s a day to be celebrated with seven meals (first breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper – although I should note this tradition comes from the movies, not the books), dancing and singing, smoking a pipe (if you’re so inclined), and perhaps a Hobbit or Lord of the Rings movie marathon (I recommend the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings).
In some ways, I identify a lot with J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous creation, the diminutive race of hole-dwellers who love to socialize with friends and family and sing, mature at age 33 (I still have four more years!), enjoy giving gifts, and don’t like to know about the bad news outside their circle but are moved to action when they do. I’m quite a bit shorter than most of my family. I actually enjoy British food, as well as a good cup of tea. I love a cozy home. I don’t like reaching outside my comfort zone, but when I do, I grow. (In that way, we’re all like hobbits.)
On the other hand, hobbits are humble and enjoy a simple life, two things that, like most humans, I struggle with. In fact, I believe that as Christians, we can learn a lot from the hobbits. Here are four lessons I’ve taken from the books (and, let’s be honest, the movies that I’ve seen again and again).
1. There is evil in the world, and we shouldn’t ignore it.
J.R.R. Tolkien knew this better than anyone. He fought in the brutal trenches of World War I, and it changed him. He began writing about Middle-Earth “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire,” as he is quoted in The New York Times, and he lost two of his friends at the Battle of the Somme.
The hobbits do not trust outsiders, and they do not, generally, keep up with the goings-on of the outside world, believing that what happens out there will not affect them in the Shire. Even before the epic battles of “The Lord of the Rings,” though, Tolkien takes his first hero, the homebody Bilbo Baggins, out of his comfort zone and into the dragon’s lair – literally. And Bilbo grows in the process. While, of course, conflict is necessary for a novel to exist, Tolkien could have created a breezy novel about the day-to-day conflicts among hobbit neighbors. Instead, he created an adventure story, a fairy tale – a hero’s quest. His heroes battle true villains, and he does not shy away from the evil they face.
I often feel that I would prefer to ignore the news, to stay inside my circle of friends or family and ignore the terror of the world. But there are two problems with this approach to living. First of all, each of us faces evil in our lives, regardless of whether we live in a war-torn country or a violent street. Subtler evil, like a small ring, can damage our souls if we let it. Second of all, as we see with Bilbo and especially with Frodo, if we can do something to change the world, we should. From prayer to volunteering to philanthropy, “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
2. Mercy will save the day.
In the end, it’s Gollum who leads to the destruction of the ring. The irony is that Gollum is a villain throughout the story, beginning in “The Hobbit,” and would keep the ring forever if he could. But, as Bishop Robert Barron points out, if Bilbo had not been moved by pity and decided not to kill Gollum, as he had the opportunity to, the evil of Sauron would never have been defeated. “That evil is best engaged through pity is a deeply Christian and profoundly counter-intuitive insight,” Bishop Barron writes.
Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.
Frodo, then, also shows great pity and compassion for Gollum, despite Gollum’s obvious outward and inward ugliness. And, again, the fact that Frodo has shown mercy to Gollum is rewarded – when Frodo can no longer resist the temptation of the ring, it’s Gollum who, albeit inadvertently, destroys it for him. “His exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum,” Tolkien wrote in a letter, “gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.”
3. Value the simple things.
A chief antagonist in “The Hobbit” is not a person or a creature but a disease: Gold Sickness, or Dragon Sickness. It’s caused by exposure to large amounts of treasure, such as Thorin’s company find in Smaug’s lair. Its symptom is intense greediness, even to the point of violence:
Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.
Greed, gluttony, lust, envy … We do not need to be face-to-face with a dragon and his hoard of gold to be stricken with these real forms of dragon sickness. Bishop Barron writes that dragon sickness “bedevils many people in contemporary society, those who know the value of everything and the worth of nothing.”
In the end, Thorin regrets his greed and recognizes, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Bilbo returns home with some treasure but is content and happy in his hobbit hole with his pipe and his kettle.
4. Be a friend.
I’ve written multiple times here that Sam is my favorite “Lord of the Rings” character. He is a good friend – and by that I mean that he demonstrates self-sacrificial love for Frodo and, indeed, for all of Middle-Earth. Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., points out that Frodo and Sam don’t know how the battles are raging outside of Mordor. They don’t know that Gandalf has returned. They have no reason to hope that, even if they destroy the ring, their friends and their home have not been destroyed anyway. Yet they continue on.
“In some sense,” writes O’Malley, “it is Sam that shows forth the greatest icon of self-giving love. He alone is unaffected by the power of the ring. Because, he recognizes that his sole desire is to be a friend to Frodo, whatever it may require.” O’Malley concludes that there is no single symbol of Christ in “The Lord of the Rings” because we are all called to love like Christ.
We each write our own story (some of us literally). We can write it without God. But, as in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” it is harder, but infinitely more rewarding, to write it with God. To love like Him, to seek justice rather than treasure, the good of the other above the good of the self – this is our motivation as protagonists.
Will your ending be a good one?