Monday, March 16, 2015

"Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit" by Corey Olsen: A Review

In midst of a stalemate caused by people insisting on their rights, Bilbo has given up everything.
. . . 
Now at last we can see why the dwarves needed a burglar in their company. When it actually came to it, a burglar was not all that much help in obtaining their treasure; a bowman was what they really needed for that. Bilbo was quite handy to have around at many points on their journey, but the one task he turned out to be uniquely qualified for was connected not with the recovery of their treasure, but with the recovery of themselves. Bard slays the dragon, but it is little Bilbo who works to make the prophecies of peace and prosperity come true.

Not even Gandalf could have foreseen that his chosen burglar would play this particular role in the adventure he arranged. Yet when Gandalf meets Bilbo again at the end of Chapter Sixteen, we can see that the wizard recognizes the full significance of Bilbo's actions and fully endorses them. His comment that "there is always more about you than anyone expects!" presumably is meant to include himself, and it acts as an admission that he had no idea of the unlikely turn events have taken (249). Gandalf's hearty "Well done!" is Bilbo's greatest reward. He has more than lived up to Gandalf's recommendation. (261, 263)

Rarely do I read fiction, but when I do, the author is usually C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien. From my experience (and with my personal preferences and biases), little is better, more powerful, or better feeds my imagination more than the worlds of Narnia, Middle-Earth, or Perelandria. Following the release of the third Hobbit film, I sat down to reread Tolkien's first volume in Middle-Earth (you can read that review here). Much of the last few years, as a result, has been enjoying both theatrically and literately Bilbo and his thirteen companions.

This is what led me to discover Dr. Core Olsen's wonderful book Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Olsen writes from the perspective of both an avid fan (even a Tolkien nerd) and professor of medieval history and literature. In fact, Olsen credits Tolkien for his personal interest in the middle ages.

The book walks the reader through The Hobbit interacting with the text and its meaning. Though I consider myself a fan of Tolkien's work, I must admit how little I actually knew. Olsen opened my eyes to see the beauty of The Hobbit.

Olsen makes connections, without stretching or reading into the text, that I had failed to see before. Some of them are fairly obvious. For example, Bilbo is constantly torn between his Baggins side (who wants to stay home and eat his bacon and eggs) and his Took side (which loves adventures). That little insight alone will make the story more interesting. Another example regards the juxtaposition between the Elves and the Goblins. One should note how Tolkien leads the company from one (the Rivendale Elves) to the other.

It is here I must make a confession. I almost always skip over the many songs found in the book. In fact, I should admit that the only poetic section of the book I read is the riddles in the dark between Biblo and Gollum (and I would highly recommend Olsen's take on this great scene). Such songs, frankly, are uninteresting to me. Olsen, however, changed my perspective on this. The writer unfolds what Tolkien is actually doing through these songs. Again, the juxtaposition between the Rivendale Elves and the Goblins is case in point. What I once considered insignificant has, really, robbed me of the real meaning and beauty of the story itself.

One of the main themes of the book (beyond its take on the universality of greed) is the presence of "luck." "Luck" is Tolkien's dominate word here and so the author prefers it. Throughout the text, Olsen reminds us how constant this theme is. Bilbo was lucky to find the ring. He was lucky to figure out Gollum's riddles. He was lucky that a simple question uttered under his breath ("what do I have in my pocket?") was heard by the strange creature. Constantly Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves in surviving on luck.

For a time, such luck breeds pride in Bilbo. His arrogance is made clear in the one moment when he should have been much more humble: his interaction with Smaug. Biblo's self-aggrandizing titles reveal just how much his run of luck has gone to his head.

Yet anyone who reads the story closely and have any fundamental understanding of Tolkien's personal theology will know that Tolkien means something other than mere luck in this book. Olsen hints at this early in the book when he writes:
It would seem that there are only two sensible reactions we can have to these long strings of wildly improbably events. We can either scoff at them and find the whole story rather absurd, or we can begin to suspect that Biblo's adventure is being orchestrated by some power beyond the wizardry of Gandalf the Grey or the wisdom of Elrond of Rivendell. . . . Gently, Tolkien is drawing our attention to the fact that there is a higher purpose at work in the events of this story, and we are being prompted to suspect that the amazing luck of Bilbo and Thorin is not accidental. (67-68)
Non-accidental luck is not luck. It is not happenstance. There is a better, more powerful, word for it: providence. The Hobbit ends with this thought in his conversation between Gandalf and Bilbo. Fittingly, Olsen unfolds this theme more fully for us at the end of his volume. He writes:
Biblo expresses some surprise when he hears that "the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!" (276). In Gandalf's reply, the wizard finally addresses openly a truth that has been increasingly clear as we have studied Bilbo's story. "You don't really suppose, do you," he asks, "that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?" Gandalf confirms that what Bilbo and the narrator have been calling "luck" the whole time was more than simply chance. Bilbo's adventures ahve been "managed" by divine Providence for a purpose far greater than the enrichment of one small hobbit. As we have seen, Bilbo was one of the chief instruments, contributing to a symphony whose score incorporates everything from the tea parties of hobbits to the motions of the moon and the stars. 
Bilbo's reaction is a perfect snapshot of Bilbo after his journey. He was learned wisdom and humility and his cheerful "Thank goodness!" shows that he is quite satisfied to learn that he has not really been the protagonist of his story, after all (276). Bilbo is at peace, and our final image of him is a fitting one. Bilbo, laughing around his parlor table in Bag-end with Gandalf and Balin, hands the tobacco jar to his friend, as they all smoke their pipes together in contentment. (304)
This is what makes The Hobbit such an popular book. Not only does Tolkien show how easy "dragon-sickness" can corrupt us all (from dwarves to elves to dragons to hobbits to men), but he unveils before our mind's eye that history is God's story, not ours.

What makes Bilbo great is that he is not great. He's a Hobbit, not a King, a wizard, a dragon, or even a dwarf. He's a halfling. A nobody. The shape-shifter, Beorn, doesn't even know what a Hobbit is. The mighty Smaug is perplexed at who Biblo is. After all, he had never eaten one of his kind before.

Bilbo succeeds not because he is this mighty burglar or because he possesses a powerful ring, but because there stands above the story a divine Creator. Christians should celebrate this. Though Olsen, I believe, could have interacted with Tolkien's faith a little more, the author does not shy away from it (he does so more in his podcasts at Tolkien Professor).

In the end, those who love Middle-Earth in general and The Hobbit in particular will thoroughly enjoy this book. I was already a fan. Now I am much more.


For more:
"The Hobbit" by J. R. R. Tolkien: A Review
A Few Thoughts on The Battle of the Five Armies
"The Fellowship of the Ring" by J. R. R. Tolkien: A Review
"The Two Towers" by J.R.R. Tolkien: A Review
"The Return of the King" by J.R.R. Tolkien: A Review
Longing for Eden: Tolkien's Insight into the Longing of Every Human Soul
An Encouraging Thought: Gandalf on Providence
How to Read J. R. R. Tolkien
Clash of the Gods: Tolkien's Monsters Documentary
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Dramatized Audio
"Beyond The Movie": A National Geographic Documentary on the Lord of the Rings   
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