The careful reader of Genesis will notice an odd, countercultural pattern running throughout the book. Again and again, God privileges the younger son over the elder (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben), a privileging that mirrors, and perhaps explains, God’s peculiar choice of Israel as his chosen people. Israel was the smallest and weakest of the nations: the younger son, if you will, of the tribes of Mesopotamia and the Middle East. The pattern reaches its consummation in Israel’s greatest king, the young, ruddy, distinctly un-soldierly David who attacks Goliath with a slingshot because he can neither wield the sword nor shoulder the armor of the far taller and more imposing Saul.
In crafting The Hobbit, and later The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien surely had this biblical pattern at the forefront of his mind. By choosing Bilbo Baggins (and later Frodo) as the unlikely hero of his there-and-back-again adventure story, Tolkien makes it clear that there can be great strength in weakness and great wisdom in humility. The petit bourgeois Bilbo, with his love of simple creature comforts and his risk-aversive approach to life, seems wholly lacking in the qualities necessary for a hero. Yet a hero he becomes.
None of this is lost on Peter Jackson, whose film of chapters one through six of Tolkien’s novel (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) captures perfectly the complex nature of Bilbo’s heroism. As he did in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson brings the Shire to shimmering life, replete with old world rural charm (and pettiness) and a moderate-but-not-puritanical approach to the business of living. With warmth and gentle humor that never condescend to sarcasm, Jackson allows his audience to enjoy the spectacle of Bilbo’s life being turned upside down by thirteen obstreperous dwarves.
When Bilbo and company journey out of the Shire, Jackson pulls the camera back to give us a sweeping vista that is as breathtaking as the ones that punctuate his Lord of the Rings trilogy. This bravura cinematography offers more than a pretty picture: It reminds us how small Bilbo is against the immensity of his adventure and helps us chart the labyrinthine journey that will take the timid Bilbo from grocer to burglar and homebody to hero.
Jackson balances the light and innocence of Bilbo’s adventures with a darker, more somber mood reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. Although he shows us a number of vicious battles (and the courage displayed in them), Jackson has Gandalf explain to Bilbo that courage does not consist solely in chopping off the heads of one’s enemies. Courage, Gandalf counsels, is often shown not in taking a life, but in knowing when to spare one. The lesson is not forgotten by Bilbo, who, at the heart of the film, takes pity on the miserable Gollum and doesn't kill him. Unlike Thorin, who’s too proud to seek help from Elrond because of an old grudge, Bilbo shows a capacity for humility and sympathetic understanding that fills him with the power of mercy and the courage of restraint.
This key theme is sounded again at the Council in Rivendell, when Gandalf tries to convince the skeptical Saruman of the danger the Necromancer presents and of the vital role being played by Bilbo and the dwarves. In the debate that ensues between the two wizards, Gandalf exposes Saruman’s fatal flaw, one that will lead him, in the end, to betray the White Council and collaborate with Sauron: he trusts too much to power.
Unlike Saruman, Gandalf understands that the darkness is often held at bay by ordinary folk making small, everyday decisions. Despite the power and wisdom of the wizards and the elves, the fate of Middle-earth will rest finally with little people like Bilbo and Frodo and with what Gandalf calls their small acts of kindness and love. Tolkien himself echoes this sentiment at the end of the novel when he has the dying Thorin confess to Bilbo that if “more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
That this notion is specifically and uniquely biblical, Judeo-Christian, should come as no surprise, given Tolkien’s strong Catholic faith. Though the dwarves possess courage and a sense of justice, it is Bilbo who embodies the theological (or Christian) virtues of faith, hope, and love. He shows love most supremely when he spares Gollum, but he shows faith and hope in simply persisting and teaching the dwarves to put their hope in something grander than thoughts of revenge and monetary reward.
Whether or not Jackson shares Tolkien’s faith, he shows that he understands it in a sequence that doesn’t appear in the novel, but that is true to Tolkien. At the film’s climax, Jackson has Bilbo risk his life to save Thorin from his old nemesis, a pale orc named Azog who is mentioned briefly in The Hobbit and in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. The act demonstrates, both to Bilbo and the audience, that our hobbit has found his inner hero, and it teaches Thorin not to underestimate the foolish, weak, and base things of the world, for it is often the things which are not which bring to naught the things that are.
The lesson does not end there. Bilbo shares with Thorin and his fellow dwarves that his adventures have taught him to appreciate his home more than ever and fill him with a strong desire to return. But that desire, he explains, has taught him something else: It has allowed him to see what a sad and tragic thing it is that the dwarves don’t have a place they can call home. Bilbo will remain with the company and finish the journey, not because he needs to, but because he now realizes that it his duty and calling to help the dwarves regain the home they have lost.
Though I cannot say for sure, I expect that the Bilbo who will meet us in 2013 for Part II of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy will be at once more confident and more humble than the Bilbo of Part I. He will know what he is fighting for and why it is precious. And he will allow himself and his gifts (symbolized in part by his magical ring of invisibility) to be used to protect and save his fellow pilgrims on the road.
Louis Markos, professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His most recent book is On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis.
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