I wish to comment on a book that almost never speaks the word “love” but which portrays love through the fellowship and deeds of its characters: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I first read this book while suffering from a most uncomfortable virus known as “chickenpox.” I was nine years old, highly contagious, and locked in my room when I found a book on the shelf called The Hobbit. An oft-repeated phrase from the book has remained with me over the years: “tightening one’s belt.” Bilbo Baggins and the 13 dwarves often ran low on food during their long journey, but they simply said “let us tighten our belts and carry on.” Many a time over the last fifty years I have repeated those words to myself in tight spots. I didn’t know the way forward, and didn’t know how I could press on, but I knew that I could “tighten my belt” and carry on, because there’s always a way.
I reread The Hobbit last week in three days, while at a remote monastery a thousand feet above a rugged stretch of the Pacific coast. It’s the first time I’ve read it since watching Peter Jackson’s movie versions of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. All my Tolkien fan friends disparaged Peter Jackson’s movies, but I still enjoyed them immensely at the time. Rereading The Hobbit, however, I realize how comparatively flat and dull the movies are compared to the book. Rereading The Hobbit at age 60, I discovered again, as did the boy in bed with chickenpox, the wonderful depths and brilliant colors of Middle Earth.
If you know Hobbiton only through Peter Jackson’s movies, I encourage you to read Tolkien himself. The movies really do distort Tolkien’s characters. Take the elves, for instance. We first meet them in Chapter 3 where they are singing and laughing, poking good-natured fun at the dwarves’ long beards as they stump into Rivendell. Tolkien’s elves are merry, full of innocence and trust. In the movie version, the elves are dark and dour, frowning and boorish fellows. He gets the dwarves wrong too. In the movie they are snarky Celtic badboys, covered with tats and body piercings and dreadlocks, but in Tolkien they bear the innocence of children, almost always honest and good-natured.
Why are Peter Jackson’s movies so dang serious, and why do they try so hard to be dark? I suppose because darkness sells movies for us who have never experienced the cataclysm of war. We try to experience war vicariously through dark movies, but Tolkien actually fought in the First World War. Most of his university mates perished in mud-clogged trenches or in furious yellow clouds of mustard gas. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in 1937 as all of Europe watched Germany rearming for a second, worse war. Tolkien portrays the darkness of Mordor, the despair of Gollum, and the massive Orc wars, but not as the essential story. His books maintain a lightness of spirit, an assurance that Bilbo and Frodo and Sam will eventually return to Hobbiton and “scour” the Shire of any remaining darkness. While Peter Jackson and associates attempt to portray war with CGI, Tolkien describes the battles between light and darkness from experience. And in his experience, the sun always rises after a dark night. A luminous assurance that “where sin abounds grace abounds all the more” undergirds Tolkien’s stories.
We know that Tolkien held a strong belief in God, but I’m not sure about Peter Jackson, or the hundreds of Hollywood professionals that produced the Lord of the Rings movies. I’m pretty sure their faith in Divine Providence is less than Tolkien’s, for whom the end of the story is certainly heaven. The end of the story in the movies is … hard to say. Probably just another lucrative sequel.
I am grateful to Peter Jackson and his many associates for producing the Lord of the Rings movies (much better, in my opinion, than the three later Hobbit movies). The movies afford glimpses of goodness and truth and beauty in Middle Earth, and perhaps in our own earth too. I hope the movies lead many to Tolkien’s books themselves. I am asking myself why it took me 20 years to reread The Hobbit, but I am certainly glad that I did.