Bilbo Baggins may not be a savior, but some literary scholars and fans think he might have a thing or two in common with characters of the Bible.
Like Saul — whose name God changed to Paul — the “Hobbit” character is guided by providence and goes on a journey that changes him. And as the book of Romans says, “God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well,” Bilbo must work with a group of wily dwarves, all with different skills, to reach his goal.
“The Hobbit's” recent movie release is again stirring debate over the degree to which J.R.R. Tolkien's writings, including the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, have detectable Christian underpinnings.
A new book “The Christian World of The Hobbit” makes that case. A Creighton Prep teacher even wrote his master's thesis on the topic.
Others see Baggins and his friends as just great characters in fantastical stories with no ties to Christianity.
“As I was reading the book, I wasn't aware Tolkien was Christian or Catholic,” said Steve Gruber, a Duchesne Academy theology teacher who has two master's degrees in bibilical literature and Christian spirituality. “I thought he was just telling a good fantasy story. It's a child's story of something like 'Beowulf.'”
“The Hobbit” tells the story of Bilbo Baggins and his epic adventure undertaken with a wizard and a group of dwarves to slay a thieving dragon. The light-hearted tale, first published in 1937, was immediately popular with both adults and children and has sold up to 100 million copies.
The book's popularity led Tolkien to write “The Lord of the Rings,” which also was immensely popular and later adapted into “The Lord of Rings” film trilogy, which earned more than $1 billion at the box office between 2001 and 2003 and won seven Oscars.
Tolkien was a devout Christian, as was his writing contemporary C.S. Lewis, known for his “Chronicles of Narnia” books. Tolkien, in fact, helped spur Lewis' conversion from atheism during discussion of their writings. But Tolkien did not follow Lewis' example of becoming a noted spokesman for the faith.
When the first movie based on Lewis' books came out in 2005, Christian churches geared up for the release with sermons, Bible school lesson plans, discussions and organized trips to the multiplex. That doesn't appear to be happening with the release of “The Hobbit.”
That might be because the “Narnia” books are a fairly obvious allegory for the gospel stories of Christ. Tolkien didn't like allegory — using symbols, objects and events that represent something outside the story. There's no mention of God or church-going in “The Hobbit.”
Keith Binder, 30, is a Tolkien fan who works at Legend Comics in Omaha and studies religion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is skeptical of any overtly religious messages in Tolkien's work.
“I read about Tolkien and his relationship with C.S. Lewis,” Binder said. “Tolkien explicity states he hates allegory. The Christian messages don't pop off the page for me the way they do for some people, and I've done a lot of study in religion and film. I wouldn't call Bilbo Baggins (the central character of 'The Hobbit') a savior of any kind.”
Maybe not, but Mike Witt, a Creighton Prep English teacher who was a Benedictine monk for many years, finds not just Christian undertones, but specific links to Roman Catholicism in Tolkien's work. In fact, he wrote a master's thesis on it.
One example he gave was the use of March 25, the date when Catholics celebrate the Annunciation — an angel telling Mary she is with child. In “The Hobbit,” that date is when Gandalf and Thorin have a chance meeting that sets book's events in motion. It's also the date that 60 years later marks the downfall of Sauron, the embodiment of evil in the “Rings” trilogy.
Witt also carefully notes wording in an ancient Catholic antiphon (a chant with responses) that is also referenced in a group of Old English poems known as “Crist” by Cynewulf: “Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, above the middle-earth sent unto men.” Middle Earth is the land of Tolkien's hobbits, elves and dwarves. Earendil the Mariner becomes a fictional character in several of Tolkien's writings.
“It's obvious to me, perhaps not others, that Tolkien is a Christian Catholic author whose background influences his work but doesn't overshadow it.”
While most people don't dig into ancient texts to appreciate Tolkien, it's another layer to the author's work, Witt said.
Tolkien said in a letter responding to a priest that the Rings trilogy was based on theology and Catholic faith. But he said he wasn't conscious of that when he wrote it, only later when he was making revisions. Tolkien's religion had seeped into his work.
Devin Brown, author of “The Christian World of The Hobbit,” finds three particularly strong Christian themes in “The Hobbit”:
1. A sense of providence, a divine guiding hand in events that can seem like luck. One example is when Bilbo finds the ring with magical powers while stumbling around in the dark inside a mountain. Unlikely? Sure, but meant to be.
2. Purpose. Bilbo needs to go on the quest to grow into all he's supposed to be, Brown said. “It will be the making of him.”
3. Moral sensibility. When Bilbo is invisible and considers killing the evil Gollum with a sword, he decides it's not fair. He has pity. “Tolkien makes it clear there is a right decision,” Brown said. “It may take some thinking, but it's there.”
Julien Fielding, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says the battle of good vs. evil in Tolkien is Christian, and the Gandalf the wizard character can be interpreted as something of a guardian angel figure.
“Tolkien was interested in pagan mythology, Norse mythology,” said Fielding, author of “Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second.” The fairy- tale elements of Tolkien allowed her to love his books into adulthood, while Lewis' Narnia became “a little heavy-handed” as she grew older.
Lust for power and materialism, strong themes in “The Hobbit,” also are recognizable to Christians, she said.
“The average movie viewer doesn't know about the Christian themes,” she said. It seems familiar to them, but that's the beauty of it to Fielding. Tolkien's writings contain a universality that reaches across cultures.
“Our modern-day religious stories are about being self-sacrificing, working together for a common goal, being kind and compassionate,” Fielding said. “That's all in Tolkien.”
Robert Murphy, online campus pastor at Christ Community Church in Omaha, said he'd be hesitant to call “The Hobbit” a Christian story, but he could point to one similarity to Christianity in another Tolkien work. In “Lord of the Rings,” he said Frodo and Sam's journey to destroy the ring is like taking up one's cross.
“Their commitment, understanding of personal sacrifice and choosing the greater good over their own, that always sticks out to me.”
It doesn't surprise Murphy that the new “Hobbit” movie isn't inspiring many church activities. He said Tolkien didn't write as many works with spiritual themes.
Lewis' fiction catalog also includes a novel about a philosophical journey away from and return to Christianity and a series of science fiction novels for adults with Christian subtext.
“Context is always important,” Murphy said. “'The Hobbit' is something Tolkien wrote for ... children.”
World-Herald staff writer Kevin Coffey contributed to this report.
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