J. R. R. Tolkien, one of the greatest Christian writers of the 20th Century, some would say of any century, was a man of great conviction. A modest, unassuming man who not only “talked the talk” but also “walked the walk,” as he led a life of quiet but deep belief, raising his four children to follow the faith his own mother had raised him in, and helping to lead his great friend C. S. Lewis, who was an atheist at the time, to accept Christianity. Looking back on his life at the age of sixty-one, Tolkien wrote to a friend how deeply grateful he was for having been brought up in the Christian faith. “A faith,” he wrote, “that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know.”
In an interview, Tolkien told the American scholar Clyde Kilby, “I am a Christian and of course what I write will be from that essential viewpoint.” Tolkien’s faith had an impact on his fiction, not in a light, superficial way, but in a fundamental, underlying way. Whether you are reading The Hobbit or planning on going to see the first of the three films this December, here are five things to watch for.
#1) Watch for Something More than Luck
When Gandalf tells the dwarves that Bilbo has been chosen to be the fourteenth member of their company so they can avoid the unlucky number of thirteen, we are not really meant to that think this is the reason Bilbo is meant to go along. The Hobbit is full of so-called lucky occurrences—from Elrond looking at Thorin’s map in just the right light on just the right day when the moon-letters are visible, to Bilbo’s riddling game with Gollum when a fish—which is the answer to Gollum’s riddle—just happens to land on the hobbit’s toes, to the company being outside the hidden dwarf door in the last light of Durin’s Day. Perhaps the “luckiest” of all the seeming coincidences comes when Bilbo, crawling about in pitch black tunnels under the Misty Mountains, just happens to put his hand out in the darkness and set it down on the ring. “A magic ring!” the narrator exclaims. “It was hard to believe he really had found one by accident.” And of course, what may have seemed like an accident at the time, in looking back was something far more than mere luck. As Gandalf tells Frodo later in The Fellowship of the Ring, “Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker.”
Christians have similar experiences in their own lives, where some strange coincidence may seem at the time like just that—a coincidence. But later, we see it was not a coincidence at all but an unseen Providence guiding and working in mysterious ways.
#2) Watch for a Special Kind of Purpose
Before we are ten minutes into The Hobbit, it is clear that there are two sides to Bilbo: his adventurous Took side and his home-loving Baggins side. And his Baggins side has been ruling and controlling his life for too long. He needs to be freed from his excessive need for comfort, safety, and predictability. And an adventure is just the thing that will do this. Gandalf sends Bilbo to help save the region around Lonely Mountain from the Desolation of Smaug, and in helping others, Bilbo himself is helped. Tolkien’s point is that this principle which is true in Middle-earth is true in our own world as well. Christians, young and old, who have gone on a mission trip, have served meals to those less fortunate, or have been part of any sort of ministry, soon realize that they are the ones who are blessed. We, like Bilbo, learn the age-old truth that it is in giving that we receive.
Editor’s note: Dr. Devin Brown is the author of the new book The Christian World of The Hobbit from Abingdon Press. For more about the book, visit its webpage at this link: The Christian World of The Hobbit. This three-part series on Five Things to Watch for in The Hobbit continues next Sunday, and concludes December 2. The Hollywood Jesus review of his book can be found here: An Essentially ‘Christian’ Story. For information about a series of interviews with the author on The C. S. Lewis Minute, click this link: Podcast Series with Devin Brown.