The final installment of the Hobbit films (and of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien-based movies) opened this weekend. While I concur with the critical voices of the Hobbit trilogy that the story was strung out artificially out of corporate greed and that the violence of these films was excessive, betraying the essence of the Hobbit as a children’s story, I commend Peter Jackson for continuing to portray faithfully Tolkien’s vision of the nature of evil and understanding of the corruptibility of human nature.
The newest Hobbit film tells the story of the aftermath of the dwarfs’ recapture of the Lonely Mountain. Having driven the dragon Smaug from their ancestral home, the dwarfs can now reclaim the hordes of gold and other treasure that were guarded by the dragon. Thorin, the heir to the dwarf throne and leader of the company, soon succumbs to “dragon-sickness” – an psycho-spiritual condition, akin to greed, induced by the gold. The “dragon-sickness” manifests itself in stubborn pride (Thorin refuses to listen to the council of friends) and in self-centered obsession with his treasure (he also refuses to give over any of it to those making legitimate claims on it). Though Thorin is the rightful king, he is not sovereign: the gold is sovereign over him to the point where he will sacrifice both his integrity and his friends to it. He sacrifices his integrity by not honoring his promises to the men of Lake Town, promises he made publicly to reward them for their help after his people were originally invaded and exiled by Smaug. He is willing to sacrifice his friends by plunging them into an unnecessary war against the men and elves making claim on the treasure.
The story makes Thorin’s folly clear: he is taking something that ought to be valued more (integrity and friends) and subordinating it to something that ought to be valued less (treasure). The consequences are unmistakably disastrous. Renowned 4th century theologian Saint Augustine understood that all humans participate in Thorin’s folly. He understood that human’s hearts are profoundly sick with disordered loves: that is things we ought to love less, we love more, and vice versa. Augustine writes that we need to re-order our loves:
But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)
In other words, an objective economy of things exists (integrity and friends are really more important than material riches) and our personal valuing of things (our loves) ought to be in harmony with this moral order. When our loves are not aligned with this objective order, they are disordered. This disordering is the essence of sin and it inevitably unleashes destructive forces into our world: our hidden disordering in our hearts results inevitably in the disordering of our lives. As C.S. Lewis observed, when our loves our disordered it destroys our enjoyment of everything:
The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.
The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.
It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?
Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made.
. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.
Of course, God occupies the highest place of this order; people follow. This is why integrity (who we are before God’s all knowing eye) and friendship is more important than material things. Only we order our loves rightly can we relate to God, people, and things as we ought. C.S. Lewis again echoes Augustine’s theme:
To love you as I should, I must worship God as Creator. When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.
Ordering our loves rightly is an ongoing struggle won by repentance. This is what Thorin has to do: turn from regarding his gold as most important and put his integrity and friends in their proper place. Only then is his will enabled to do what is right. May God help us do likewise!