Hope is a positive orientation toward the future in which we believe at the core of our being that our past and present actions are meaningful because they are shaping for us and our progeny an existence tomorrow that is better than what we experience today. The need for hope is intrinsic to the human psyche. JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, faithfully represented by Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, teaches us that living hope springs from being possessed by a purpose higher than one’s own narrow interests of living in maxim pleasure and comfort.
Bilbo Baggins was not seeking adventure. Rather he was summoned to one by the wizard Gandalf. The company of dwarfs from Erebor was setting out to regain their ancestral kingdom from the dominion of the dragon Smaug. Decades earlier Smaug had invaded Erebor, driving its inhabitants into exile in order to take possession of the famed treasure of the dwarfs, which they had greedily hoarded in their mountain kingdom. Believing this band of thirteen dwarves needed a “burglar” to help them succeed in their quest, Gandalf recruits Bilbo, a hobbit, for his craftiness and stealth.
But Bilbo is a reluctant adventurer. Life is good in Bag-end, the name of his family estate in the Shire, homeland of the hobbits. Born into a family of means, Bilbo leads a life of comfort and ease: a spacious home (the envy of his relatives), an abundance of hearty food and drink (not to mention the Shire’s renowned ‘Longbottom Leaf’), good standing in his community. Furthermore, hobbits are an adventure-averse people.
Thus, even though Gandalf secretly organizes a meeting of the dwarfs at Bag-end to persuade Bilbo to join their cause (one of the best scenes of the movie is the arrival of the 13 dwarfs at Bag-end and the festive feast that follows), he initially declines. Dejected, Gandalf sets out with the dwarfs without him. Yet for reasons unclear in the film, Bilbo changes his mind and races from his home to make up lost ground, crying, “I’m going on an adventure!”
There is something alluring about the call of an adventure that compels him to leave home, and it is weightier than the promise of riches (his ‘payment’ for his services would be 1/14th of the Dwarf’s treasure). It is the promise of purpose, the promise of fulfilling one’s need for meaning by living for a bigger, worthwhile cause. Whereas Bilbo had a homeland, a place where he essentially belonged, the dwarfs of Erebor did not, but were sojourners, wandering restlessly. Evil, in the form of a terrible dragon, had driven them away and taken up residence in their homeland. By taking on the dwarf’s purpose as his own, his own life becomes imbued with a significance it would never have if he’d stayed home in the Shire and chosen ease and security over helping the dwarves. Joining with this company on a purposeful adventure to fight evil and restore justice by winning back what is rightly theirs orients Bilbo’s life from the present (his comfortable, easy life) toward a better future, not just for himself but for the world, and thus makes him a more hopeful person.
Purposeful adventure is not limited to fantasy tales or great historical figures. The story of The Hobbit gives us a number of reasons why such a life of hopeful purpose is one that anyone can have
- Evil is not a foreign, distant force that on rare occasions makes a terrifying appearance; evil forces exist close to everyone, threatening to enslave and destroy souls and civilizations.
Tolkien’s portrayal of evil in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings gives us insight into the true nature of evil. Evil is a personal entity, not an impersonal force, with a will and a purpose, a purpose to desecrate God’s image on earth, i.e. human beings, by enslaving and exploiting us. We see this kind of evil exemplified more in Sauron, whose presence is hinted at in The Hobbit film, than in the dragon Smaug. But there are echoes of it in the film. We learn in the prologue to the film, which describes the power and splendor of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and Smaug’s sudden, horrific conquest, that “evil seeks a foothold.” The dwarfs provided such a foothold in their insatiable greed for treasure, which had weakened them from within, thus inviting, as it were, the dragon’s attack.Thus, the seeds of evil are sown in the human heart, greed being just one way the heart is corrupted from within. Jesus understood better than anyone the propensity for evil in the heart: “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them” (Matthew 15:18-20). Given that evil resides in every heart, there is evil to be struggled against and overcome in every time and place. Therefore, ordinary life can be lived with a daily purpose of resisting and defeating evil.
- Defeating evil is not best achieved by great power or by extraordinary acts of strength.
Gandalf disagrees with the view of the venerable wizard Saruman (the head of the order of wizards to which Gandalf belongs) that “it is only great power that can hold evil in check.” That is why Saruman opposes the dwarfs quest to drive Smaug out of Erebor and why he criticizes Gandalf for his interest in hobbits. You may remember from LOTR that unlike Gandalf, Saruman could not resist the temptation of the ring. He wanted to possess the ring for himself and tried to persuade Gandalf to join forces with him to use the ring against Sauron. Gandalf refused, knowing that the power of the ring corrupts anyone who wields it, making one just as evil as the evil powers defeated with its help.The problem with using great power to defeat evil is that you gain power through power, the power will corrupt you making you as bad if not worse than the people you overthrew. This pattern is repeated throughout history, a recent example being how the new prime minister of Egypt, Muhammed Morsi, has declared powers for himself that are equal or even exceed the power held by the tyrant Mubarak, who Morsi replaced after the revolution.
- Simple, ordinary acts of love by ordinary, humble folks are most effective for fighting evil.
Gandalf instead believes that it is “the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay: small acts of kindness and love.” This is why the wizard has faith in hobbits. Though they are weak in physical stature, they are humble, kind, and trustworthy. Bilbo is an unassuming, reluctant hero. It is his humility and simple care for others that makes him an effective agent for good. Most of us aren’t warriors who fight threatening forces abroad, or police officers that fight against the forces of chaos at home. Few ever run for elected office, to try to make society more just through legislation. But we are all sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, neighbors, employers, employees, fathers, mothers, husbands, or wives. Being faithful, kind, and just in the way we love our spouses, discipline and train our children, watch out for our neighbors’ interests, honor our parents, and work our hardest to do the best job we can with integrity, does more to establish and maintain peace, safety, justice, and prosperity in society than any army or government could do. We live hopefully when we push back at the forces of evil and chaos through “small acts of kindness and love.” In this way, we should all emulate hobbits.
But like hobbits we are each small and weak in the face of darkness that at times appears so much more powerful than any good we possess. Thus we need aid in our struggle from other forces at work in the world in opposition to the forces of evil, forces that sustain our help. This will be the theme of the next post in this series.