- January 8, 2013
WASHINGTON (RNS)—Readers or viewers who dare to journey with Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit—either in J.R.R.Tolkien's beloved 1937 novel or through the first installment of Peter Jackson's film trilogy based on the book—travel in a world constructed on Christian principles, said Devin Brown, a professor of English at Asbury University, a Christian liberal arts college near Lexington, Ky.
But that doesn't mean The Hobbit should be taken as a kind of subliminally evangelistic work. Brown, for one, enjoys the story for its own sake as a terrific adventure. But, he said, understanding the work in the context of Tolkien's deep Christian faith can give a deeper appreciation of the tale.
"Tolkien once wrote a friend, 'I am a Christian, and whatever I write will come from that essential viewpoint,'" Brown said.
The Hobbit centers on the diminutive Baggins, "an everyman who has no ability, a total dolt who has no skills," as Jane Chance, professor emeritus of English at Rice University and editor of Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, put it.
At the beginning, it is not clear why the reluctant Baggins has been tapped to help lead the grand adventure. Baggins "does not know his ability," Chance said, "but he knows he has the character to develop into the kind of hero who can rescue a civilization."
Brown, author of The Christian World of the Hobbit, teaches a class at Asbury on the works of Tolkien and his close friend, Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. He also was one of the consultants on the third movie made in the "Narnia" franchise, Lewis' Christian allegories aimed at children.
Tolkien, he said, was among the influences in Lewis' life who helped the former atheist open his heart to God.
"There's a famous walk they took," Brown said. "Tolkien said to Lewis: 'You like these stories, these myths that tell us who we are and why we are here from Icelandic and the Nordic countries—from everywhere but from the New Testament. Maybe you should think of the stories in the New Testament as myths that became true.'"
Tolkien was a Roman Catholic whose mother converted to the faith and raised him in it. His father died when he was 3, and his mother died when he was 12, leaving him an orphan. Yet he remained a devout Catholic throughout his life and it helped shape his literature, Chance said.
"He blended Roman Catholic influence with Celtic, Anglo and Old Norse mythology," Chance said. "He mixes all that together. You have to see him as a Medievalist, and you have to see him as a Catholic."
That's not to say that The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings are explicitly "Christian" tales. Definite undertones of Christian theology are present throughout the two Tolkien books—both "deeply religious in their subtext," Chance said. "You're not going to find that on the surface."
And that may be the point, said Christopher Bryan, emeritus professor of New Testament at the School of Theology at the University of the South at Sewanee in Tennessee. For Bryan, a story can and should be appreciated on its own terms.
"People tell stories because they would like you to enjoy the story. I don't think you have to go looking for Christian meaning or Jewish meaning or anything of the sort," said Bryan, who attended lectures by Tolkien and Lewis in the 1950s as a student at Oxford.
"Of course, there are moments when you think, 'Gosh—that's what this is about,' but I think it is absolutely wrong to read for them. And I think it's disastrous to tell stories in order to teach meaning."
Christian themes are more subtle in Tolkien's works than in those of Lewis. In Lewis' "Narnia" series, for example, the kingly lion Aslan is an overtly Christ-like figure, complete with sacrificial death and resurrection.
Tolkien, however, "did not feel you should be explicitly allegorical or Christian," Chance said. "That doesn't mean you can't create a Christian subtext. That's what he does throughout his writing."