In my last post, I explored the necessity of approaching life as a purposeful adventure to living hopefully – an adventure focused on doing battle against the forces of evil in the world, primarily as they are manifest in ordinary life. The Hobbit also teaches us that living hope grows fuller from faith that you are being aided in your fight against evil by higher forces for good.
To fully understand how this theme is expressed in The Hobbit, it is necessary to draw more links to the companion story, The Lord of the Rings. So I will begin this meditation with a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring; what I regard as the most meaningful dialogue in the LOTR film trilogy. It takes place between Frodo (Bilbo’s nephew) and the wizard Gandalf while making their way to the other side of the Misty Mountains by passing through the mines of Moria. Frodo notices that they are being followed by an unknown creature who Gandalf identifies as Gollum – the creature from whom Bilbo took the ring.
“It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.” – Frodo
“Pity? It is pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death; some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me Gollum has some part to play yet – for good or ill. Before this is over, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of men.” – Gandalf
“I wish the ring had never come to me.” – Frodo
“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, beside the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” – Gandalf
This idea that Bilbo’s adventure was not an act of chance, but part of a larger, hidden plan is also found in The Hobbit. We learn from Gandalf that “fate decided Bilbo would play a part” in the dwarfs’ adventure. Similarly, Gandalf speaks about “reading the signs of the time.” The major characters make decisions with a sense that they are being carried along by something greater than their own plans and purposes. Bilbo’s path to discovering the ring, though not immediately apparent, reveals that, from the larger viewpoint of the whole story, much more than chance and courageous willpower are responsible for what happens to him.
Consider the sequence of events that result in him finding the magic “ring of power.” He does not seek out this adventure in the first place, but adventure seeks him, in the form of Gandalf coming to his home and beckoning him to join the dwarfs, while also having to convince the dwarfs that Bilbo will benefit their quest. Shortly after leaving the refuge of Rivendell, the ethereal home of the elves, Bilbo and his companions, being chased by dwarfs, flee for safety into a cave, only to end up in the cavernous lair of the Goblin King. In the chaos that ensues from their capture, Bilbo falls into a ravine, landing next to the ring. The ring had just been dropped accidentally, and unwittingly, by Gollum, who had possessed it, in isolation from the rest of Middle Earth, for centuries. Bilbo was in “the right place at the right time” not by luck but by the hand of the “other forces at work in the world beside the will of evil.”
Why was Bilbo “meant to find it”? He had no idea that he was holding the power to change the future of the whole of Middle Earth, only that it was magical, able to make its wearer invisible. Only decades later is it discovered that this ring was THE RING, the ring that gave its wearer absolute power and that Sauron was seeking in order to complete his conquest of Middle Earth. Bilbo was meant to find it so that it would be destroyed once and for all. Only hobbits, because they were meek, of low stature and power, were qualified to wield it long enough to destroy. Being the weakest of races, they were most immune from its power to corrupt. The ring later passes on to Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, who learns the truth about it. But even Frodo, who manages to bear it all the way to the precipice of Mount Doom (the only place where it can be destroyed), needs an extraordinary act of providence to prevail over evil.
This is why the first part of the Gandalf-Frodo dialog in Moria is significant. Once Gollum realizes that it was his ring in Bilbo’s pocket, he sets out to hunt him and kill him in order to get it back. Fleeing from Gollum, Bilbo discovers that putting the ring on makes him invisible. While the invisible Bilbo is trying to escape the labyrinthine caves to rejoin the dwarfs, he finds Gollum standing in the way of his exit. Being invisible, he has an easy chance to slay Gollum to escape, but just as he is about to strike, he changes his mind, out of “pity.” The film does a marvelous job showing his emotional response, without the assistance of words. Only at the end of The Return of the King, the last film, do we understand how the “pity of Bilbo [rules] the fate of men.” Dangling the ring over the lava of Mount Doom, Frodo betrays his mission and, seized by the ring’s power, decides to keep it for himself, unable to freely let it go. But Gollum, tracking him through Mordor the whole time, unexpectedly shows up and attacks the invisible Frodo. In the resulting mayhem, Gollum falls into the lava, together with the ring, thus destroying it forever. If not for Gollum, even in his obsessive lust for the ring, it would not have been destroyed, and thus Middle Earth not saved. In sparing Gollum out of pity, Bilbo, who obviously could not see the larger plan of which he was a part, having only a faint sense of being called to something greatly, acts indirectly to save the world.
Gandalf directs this conversation to provide encouragement to Frodo, as he is sinking into despondency. As we engage in a daily battle against the forces of evil, both from within and from without, it is easy to succumb to discouragement, especially when the forces arrayed against us seem so strong. Facing them on our own, we have no reason to hope. But knowing that other forces at work in the world, specifically the force of God’s sovereign hand moving throughout history, to ultimately defeat evil inspires hope. The hymn “This is My Father’s World” captures such hope beautifully:
This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!