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Posts Tagged ‘The Hobbit’

Thorin Oakenshield

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LOTR_Hobbits

Okay, okay…let’s start with a concession: This is a big time of year for the premiere of all kinds of movies.  But as a viewer, I have always felt it strangely appropriate that all three “Lord of the Rings” films came out at Christmastime.  And now the “Hobbit” films are coming out during the holiday season as well.  Somehow, it just feels right.

And maybe it’s providential…if for no other reason, because of the Hobbits.

TreebeardThere is an interesting scene in “The Two Towers,” the second book in Tolkien’s “Rings” trilogy, in which Hobbits Merry and Pippin tell Treebeard the story of their journey.  Here is Treebeard’s response:

There is something very big going on … By root and twig, but it is a strange business: up sprout a little folk that are not in the old lists (of creatures), and behold! the Nine forgotten Riders reappear to hunt them, and Gandalf takes them on a great journey, and Galadriel harbours them in Caras Galadon, and Orcs pursue them down all the leagues of Wilderland: indeed they seem to be caught up in a great storm. (‘The Two Towers,” Book III, Chapter 4 — bold mine)

I highlighted the bold section for a reason.  With “little people” appearing during the Third Age of Middle Earth, Tolkien’s Christianity seems to be peeping through the rafters.

NativityOne of the best commentaries on Christmas comes from C.S. Lewis, who said — I believe in “Mere Christianity” — that Christ’s coming into the world as an infant, born into poverty at that, was a deeply subversive act.  Coming to reclaim mankind and the world and to free them from the tyrannical power of the devil, he had to slip into enemy territory — behind enemy lines, as it were — unseen.

And, like the Hobbits, Christ was pursued by those seeking His death from the moment of His birth.  Those familiar with the New Testament will recall the slaughter of the innocents and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.

The Third Age of Middle Earth, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, would witness cataclysmic events that would decide the fate of the world.  Against the threat of Sauron, the Dark Lord, the might of Men and Elves would not avail.

Perceiving the oncoming storm, Gandalf the Wizard intuits that Middle Earth will need the help of a people with a whole new “skill set.”  Hence, he gets the Hobbits involved.

Still from The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugWhether it is Bilbo Baggins slipping into the dragon Smaug’s lair as a “burglar” or Frodo and Sam slipping into Mordor, the Hobbits are perfect “weapons” by virtue of their smallness and ability to creep into enemy territory unnoticed.  In this way, they are able to overthrow the usurpers that possess, or seek to possess, what is not theirs.

As we approach Christmas Day, let us celebrate Hobbits…and the birth of the Little King Who slips into the lair to defeat our Smaug.

Images of Treebeard and the Nativity from Wikipedia; others obtained through a Google image search

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Hobbits are not saints — that is, they are not saints merely for being hobbits.  Their simple and unobtrusive lifestyles notwithstanding, they do have the tendency to be self-centered “creatures of comfort” (to borrow a phrase from Joseph Pearce, author of the new book “Bilbo’s Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning in ‘The Hobbit'”).

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In fact, that’s part of what Bilbo Baggins’ journey to Erebor is all about.  Along the way, he learns through suffering and adversity to put others before himself.

One thing we can say about Bilbo without being sentimental, though, is that his small stature is matched by the humble — in other words, realistic — understanding he has of himself.  He does not believe himself to be a hero capable of fantastic deeds.  In fact, he more or less says this explicitly at the end of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

Gandalf_Galadriel

So we might be forgiven for joining the Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) in asking Gandalf, “Why the Halfling?”

Indeed, why should Gandalf have chosen Bilbo to be the fourteenth companion of the dwarves on such a dangerous quest — especially when, as Gandalf insists, this quest could have a far-reaching effect on the fate of Middle Earth?

Unlike Saruman, the head of Gandalf’s Order, who believes that only great power can make a difference against evil, Gandalf believes that it is the small things that matter.  It is of just these small but innately powerful acts of kindness and love that he thinks Bilbo Baggins capable, and it is on account of these that he chose him for the quest.

As I was listening to Gandalf’s testimony to Bilbo’s worth, I was immediately reminded of the great tradition of “Little Way” spirituality.

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The most famous adherent of this mode of spirituality was arguably Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who famously said this:

We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.

And look how she changed the world.

St. Therese of Lisieux

Blessed Teresa was very much influenced by St. Thérése of Lisieux, who became affectionately known as “the Little Flower.”  Thérése entered the Carmelite Order over 120 years ago with the desire to live out as fully as possible her love for God.  What she discovered in the process was that she was only a small creature and not, of herself, capable of great things.

Far from becoming discouraged, she came to realize that it was in the small things that she must strive to serve God.  Little things done with great love became her priority, not great things done with a view toward self-perfection.

George_Bailey

Nor is it only in Catholic spirituality that people will find such wisdom.  At this time of the year, many of us become reacquainted with George Bailey, the chief character in Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Although George never gets to travel the world and accomplish the great things he dreamed of in his youth, although he is stuck in the “crummy little town” of Bedford Falls, although he is working at the “measly one-horse institution” called the Building & Loan, he comes to realize in the end that his simple life had farther-reaching consequences than he could have imagined.

Arguably, that’s what endears people to this timeless story — the fact that George Bailey makes such a difference precisely in the “littleness” of his life.

Let’s take a quick look at how Bilbo’s extraordinary littleness (and I think we can see now that this is not a contradiction) manifests itself.

thehobbitMN

At one point in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” Gandalf advises Bilbo that true courage consists not in knowing when to take a life, but in knowing when to spare one.

Beneath the Misty Mountains, Bilbo has the perfect chance to kill the creature Gollum, whom he has just beaten in a game of riddles that, if he had lost, would have cost him his life.  Filled with pity for this poor creature, Bilbo spares Gollum’s life and leaves him be.

Notice that Bilbo is not exerting any power here.  He could do so precisely by killing his opponent, but instead he chooses the way of mercy.  In just such a humble and seemingly insignificant act of kindness, Bilbo Baggins shows his true greatness.

Why am I spending so much time talking about Bilbo’s humility?  Didn’t I conclude my last post on this movie by stating that I would explore how the extra story material that Peter Jackson has included might affect the telling of Bilbo’s story?

Yes, and the hobbit’s humility has everything to do with this.

The capacity of “little lives” to make a big difference necessitates and presupposes that these lives are integral parts of something much greater than themselves.  Avalanches often begin with small stones, but it is because these small stones are part of the mountain that they can cause something so powerful.

This is where I think the extra material Jackson has included in the telling of Bilbo’s story will come in handy.  We already know that in sparing Gollum’s life, Bilbo contributed to the chain of events that would bring about victory for Middle Earth at the end of “The Lord of the Rings.”  But I imagine that as we follow this tale to its conclusion, we will discover in what other ways Bilbo’s quest fits into the great puzzle of Middle Earth’s story.

And I, for one, look forward to it.

All “Hobbit” images obtained through a Google image search; the rest are from Wikipedia.

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On December 15, I went into the movie theater prepared to be disappointed.

Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” has been criticized by some for essentially fitting Bilbo Baggins description of himself at the beginning of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”:

I feel … like butter scraped over too much bread.

Jackson, while remaining faithful to the story of Bilbo’s journey as depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” has supplemented it with material from the appendices of “The Lord of the Rings” and from some of Tolkien’s other works.  The extra storylines deal with events that:

1) Are connected to Gandalf the Wizard’s involvement in Bilbo’s quest; and
2) Will lead up to the events of the “Rings” trilogy.

In consequence, what was a pretty lightweight book intended mainly for children is being brought to audiences in three films, the first of which is not far short of three hours long.

The question is whether this was a mistake on Jackson’s part.  Connecting with the title character is somewhat harder, to be sure, when his story gets swallowed up in the midst of all this other material.

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But I would still defend Jackson’s choice.  I said I was prepared to be disappointed when I went to see the movie; happily, I was not.  Except for the sense of abruptness with which the ending struck me (which was probably unavoidable), I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For whatever flaws he has as a filmmaker (and all filmmakers have them), Jackson is a master storyteller.  As in the “Rings” films, I found that I was never let down by the narrative movements of “An Unexpected Journey.”  Like a grand symphony, the movie hits the “key notes” not in a bland progression from point to point, but in a way that calls attention to each “note” in a unique and exciting way.

As for the extra material, I would say that what it does for the story of Bilbo’s journey is place it within the context of a meaningful meta-narrative.

The notion of the meta-narrative is all-important in human life.  Many people in this age of isolation and groundlessness yearn for the reality of being part of something much bigger than themselves, sometimes without realizing it.  I think even the weird conspiracy theories we find here and there are driven by this innate hunger to give one’s life some sort of meaningful context.

This is another area in which the Catholic Faith can satisfy the hunger of the human heart.  We see everything — all of history, the story of each nation and unit of society, the life story of each person, all struggles momentary and enduring, and even the minutiae of our everyday individual lives — as part of the great Christian Meta-Narrative, which reaches both back and forward into eternity.

It is my opinion, then, that the theme of the meta-narrative has a broadly evangelical character.

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In the case of “The Hobbit,” we have the scoop on how Bilbo’s journey fits into the whole scheme of events that will give rise to Sauron’s War on Middle Earth, the journey of the Fellowship, etc.

True, Tolkien never intended to introduce folks to Bilbo Baggins or Middle Earth in that way.  In fact, he wrote “The Hobbit” before “Rings” was even a twinkle in his eye.

In terms of the cinematic representation of these works, however, audiences already have been introduced to Tolkien’s world.  How people might have perceived the “Rings” trilogy if they had seen “The Hobbit” first, told in the simple style of Tolkien’s book (which I have heard is what Jackson and his team wanted, but were unable, to do at the outset), is something we will never know.

But I think that, having been immersed in Middle Earth with the “Rings” movies and having gotten to know its principle characters and races, audiences are probably ready for another romp through this amazing world and its history, regardless of the method of storytelling.

That said, I think it would be worthwhile to take a look at exactly what this meta-narrative means for Bilbo’s story.  He is the title character, after all.  I will return with thoughts on that within the next few days (no spoilers).

All images obtained through a Google image search.

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