30 October 2012

Two books on The Hobbit

J.R.R. Tolkien's dislike of allegory is legendary.  In his foreword to the second edition of The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote:
But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.  I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.
He wrote these words after a great many people were trying to make a one-to-one connection between the reality of our physical world and the world of Middle-earth, making such claims as "the ring is the nuclear bomb" or "the anger of the Ents is against industrialization."

These many years later, some wonder what the difficulty is with such claims.  To these questions, Tolkien responds:
I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
What is more, Tolkien rather bluntly states, "As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none.  It is neither allegorical nor topical.  As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches."  He did not write an allegory, but a feigned history.

Nevertheless, every reader is naturally drawn to connect to the world of Middle-earth and the adventures of hobbits, wizards, men, elves, and dwarfs.  This one Tolkien means by "applicability"; each reader is free to apply the tales to his own day and to read out of them - or into them - what he wishes.

This week I have happily read two new books exploring Middle-earth, both of which seek to apply the lessons of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to our own day.

In a letter written to Father Robert Murray, S.J., who noted a "positive compatibility with the order of Grace" in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote that "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously so in the revision."

Though he spent only a small amount of time writing about Tolkien's Catholic faith, Devin Brown took this simple statement as the launching point of his The Christian World of The Hobbit.  The book itself is easily suited to a popular audience, even to those who - for whatever unfathomable reason - have not yet read The Hobbit.

In five chapters, Brown leads his readers in a consideration of the workings of grace and morality in The Hobbit, with a particular - and intriguing - focus on the growth of Bilbo Baggins from the moment he left his comfortable Hobbit hole to the moment he returned.

Brown summarizes his thesis in the final chapter of the book, saying,
The Hobbit is both a children's tale and something more.  The Providence, purpose, and morality in The Hobbit go against the grain of the modern mind-set.  In The Hobbit, Tolkien brings his readers into a world filled with meaning and purpose where they find stark contrasts between right and wrong.  The same audience who might scoff at the Christian worldview in a different context find themselves embracing it in The Hobbit.
I suspect he is quite right.

For those looking for a more scholarly exploration of The Hobbit, Matthew Dickerson's A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth provides a great deal of food for thought.

Both books are good, but I enjoyed Dickerson's much more, in no small part because it delves deeper into the morality of Middle-earth.  Exploring such important - and timely - issues as torture and war, freedom and responsibility, Dickerson's oft-repeated refrain is that for Tolkien, a military victory is less important than a moral victory.

In his introduction, Dickerson writes,
This book explores some of those truths that can be glimpsed in Tolkien's very successful works of fantasy literature.  They are truths that are as applicable today as when Tolkien lived and wrote.  The central question this book addresses is, What can we learn from hobbits and from their vision of the Good Life, and how does that apply to our own present situation?  In particular, we will look at the hobbitish pursuit and practice of peace, even in the midst of a world at war.  And we will start with the question of what actions war does or does not justify.
I had a difficult time putting this book down and recommend it highly.

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