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26 October 2012

Tolkien's world

Tolkien's world

About 80 years ago, an Oxford professor sat down at his desk and impulsively wrote an odd little sentence: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

It was a tale, as he was later fond of saying, which grew in the telling. What began as a story for his children became a classic, giving birth to an even more famous series of sequels, and helping to set the stage for the fantasy genre as we know it. 

Thanks to Peter Jackson’s much-loved adaptations, JRR Tolkien is still very much on our cultural radar. The Lord of the Rings films managed to satisfy nerds and newcomers alike, combining spectacle with thrilling action and emotional depth. It’s not surprising that expectations are running high for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in a new planned trilogy of Tolkien films.


Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a stay-at-home hobbit with few heroic qualities, and no desire at all for adventure. He’s an upstanding member of the community, and like most hobbits, considers comfort and food to be life’s most important concerns. He is entirely unprepared for the chaos about to be unleashed on him by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and a company of dwarves led by the irascible Thorin (Richard Armitage). Before he knows what’s happening, Bilbo has been roped into a quest to steal the treasure hoard of legendary dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).

What follows is a dangerous journey through the wilderness and over the Misty Mountains, along with a string of extraordinary encounters. Outside the familiar confines of the Shire, Bilbo comes face-to-face with trolls and elves, giants and goblins. Some of these episodes are filled with beauty and wonder, while others scare him senseless. The most significant, of course, involves the exchange of riddles in an underground cave - a meeting that will come to define not only Bilbo’s own life, but the entire fate of Middle Earth. 

The Hobbit has its roots in the realm of fairy tale, a topic on which Tolkein – a scholar of myth and ancient language – was something of an expert. But it’s inarguable, too, that his personal experiences played a part. A veteran of the First World War, he knew how it felt to be an ordinary man swept up in conflict and terror. All of the Middle Earth stories are haunted by the sense of lost innocence which Tolkein carried from his time as a soldier. 


Unlike his friend and fellow author C.S Lewis, Tolkein did not set out to write allegory. Though a devout Catholic, he rejected the idea that his writing should offer direct parallels to Christian belief – there is no Aslan figure in Middle Earth. Instead, he allowed his faith to flow organically through everything he wrote, shaping the foundations of the world he created. 

Middle Earth is presented as a place created good, but now fallen, subject to evil forces which are looking to corrupt and destroy. Unlike the typical fairy tale protagonist, Bilbo (and later Frodo) isn’t an embodiment of virtue, but a complex being capable of selfishness as much as heroism. Free will and destiny are both at work – prophesies direct characters’ paths, but their smallest choices matter too. And evil is defeated, in the end, not by military force or tactical advantage, but through someone so apparently insignificant that the enemy overlooked him. Foolishness shames the wise, and weakness shames the strong. 

Working in and above all this is an unnamed benevolent force. What appear to be lucky coincidences are, Tolkein implies, glimpses of an intelligent, redemptive power. ‘Maybe Bilbo was meant to find the ring,’ Gandalf suggests to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring. ‘Which means that you too were meant to have it.’ All of this adds up to what the author called eucatastrophe: the joyous reversal, thanks to grace from outside the characters’ own capabilities, of the catastrophe brought about by evil. 

Fans will flock to the Hobbit films just as they flocked to The Lord of the Rings, hungry to immerse themselves in a world where these things are a reality. We all long for a eucatastrophe which isn’t limited to fiction. As Tolkein said of Jesus’s resurrection, the event which he believed his stories ultimately echoed: ‘There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.’ 

Sophie ListerThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is released in cinemas on 14 December.

Sophie Lister: is a researcher and writer for The Damaris Trust. For more articles and study guides see culturewatch.org and toolsfortalks.com

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