With the first part of director Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy (“An Unexpected Journey”) due out in theaters at the end of this year, the beloved children’s book is getting some renewed attention and interest. Even so, “The Hobbit” is often dismissed by many, even fans of Tolkien, as being an enjoyable, but minor, diversion that merely sets the stage for the serious work that is “The Lord of the Rings.” I’ve always been uncomfortable with this characterization and even as a child had a strong sense that there was a real profoundness to the story. Both the depth and the breadth of the world Tolkien created can be seen immediately in his detailed and evocative portrait of the Shire, which when quickly invaded by Gandalf and thirteen dwarves expands into a sprawling landscape of an entire world.
Writing in the U.K. Telegraph, in a piece entitled “The Hobbit: What has made the book such an enduring success?,” eminent Tolkien scholar Thomas Shippey helps confirm my childhood intimation and reveals the genuine meaning that exists in “The Hobbit.” Dr. Shippey draws out several examples of this meaning, but the one that struck me most forcefully was where he recounts Bilbo’s “moral courage” in deciding to turn over the Arkenstone:
Bilbo decides (on his own again) that his dwarf companions have got it wrong in their greedy defence of the dragon treasure, and so secretly gives away the greatest treasure of all, the Arkenstone, to his friends’ besiegers, to use as a bargaining point. And then he goes back to be exposed, in the end to confess, because they’re his friends still.
This episode always disconcerted me as a child in a way that few other childhood stories did or could. It made tangible the reality that are times when there are no easy or obvious answers, virtues such as loyalty and prudence can appear to conflict, and even the best of choices involves tradeoffs. Bilbo’s sense of honor in his decision to return to the Dwarves and share their fate, after what they would almost certainly regard as a terrible betrayal, further made clear that this was something deeper than a diverting children’s story.
There are many sources of this depth of meaning in “The Hobbit” such as Tolkien’s own powers of storytelling and his immersion in folklore and mythology. But at the end of Dr. Shippey’s article, I think he points to the core of what makes “The Hobbit” and the rest of Tolkien’s work so rich:
Some time in late 1914, Tolkien and three of his schoolmates decided they would bring about a cultural revolution in England, seemingly through poetry. It was a project of astonishing self-confidence for four young men just out of school, and a Birmingham grammar school at that. Within three years two of them were dead and Tolkien was in hospital, invalided from the Western Front. They succeeded, though. Tolkien may not have brought about a revolution, but he did set up a counter-revolution, quite against the literary tide of irony and self-doubt.
As many have pointed out (such as Bradley Birzer’s in his brief, but profound, book “J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth”), it was Tolkien’s Catholic faith and belief in the traditional, transcendent moral order that illuminates all his work, including “The Hobbit.” This is the true source of the complexity and wisdom found in the stories he told and his motivation in trying to bring about a poetic cultural revolution. Dr. Shippey helps ensure that “The Hobbit” is appreciated for its role in the literary counter-revolution that still fortifies and defends the imaginations of many against the “tide of irony and self-doubt” that has swamped and washed away so much of our cultural inheritance.
– K.G. Montgomery