Thursday, December 20, 2012

Four Life Lessons from "The Hobbit"

        As some of you may have heard, the first movie of The Hobbit came out last week (see my review here). In recognition of this momentous occasion, we’re going to look a little closer at the story. Tolkien (as you may remember) was a devout Catholic and always infused his stories with his faith. As you can imagine, you can learn a lot from one of the most brilliant Catholic minds of the twentieth century. For now, however, we shall limit ourselves to the ones that can be found in the first third or so of the book (corresponding roughly with what’s in the movie).

1.     Leave Your Comfort Zone

When we first meet him, Bilbo Baggins is a solidly ‘respectable’ Hobbit. You could know exactly what he was going to say on any subject without bothering to ask him. His concerns were primarily eating, reading his mail, and keeping his lovely hobbit hole nice and clean.
Then, one day, he meets Gandalf the Wizard who is looking for someone to share in an adventure he is putting together with 13 dwarves intent on reclaiming their kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo, at first wants nothing to do with it…until one of the dwarves voices the opinion that he is “more like a grocer than a burglar.” That, coupled with the dwarves song of gold and adventure, makes him determined to go and prove himself.
These days we’re often told that we’re “okay, just the way we are.” Bilbo and I are here to tell you that’s nonsense. Of course you’re not okay just the way you are; if you were, you wouldn’t be telling yourself that! It’s like what Tolkien’s friend Lewis said about the phrase “I’m just as good as you:” it’s one of those things that no one would say if they actually believed it. Do you think any saint, or any great man: Peter, Francis of Assisi, Francis de Sales, Theodore Roosevelt, or John Paul II ever once in their lives said “I like being me; I am comfortable with who I am”? Of course not! They were great precisely because they were always uncomfortable: because they were never satisfied with themselves, they were always seeking to improve.
The fact is, there is always something you need to improve, always boundaries you need to cross. If you’re comfortable with your life, it probably means you’re doing something wrong. God doesn’t want us to be comfortable; He wants us to be Saints. An insular, respectable life is generally not a sign of great sanctity.
I hardly even know where to begin with the awful word ‘respectable.’ Christians should never be respectable! To be respectable means to be in line with the times, to be a thoroughly normal child of the Xth-Century, and God forbid we be that! We ought to be a sign of contradiction to the world; we ought to be obnoxious, non-conformist, and improper. In other words, we should never be a perfectly ordinary person of our times. If we are, it means one of two things: Jesus has come and again and the world has ended, or we’re not living as we should. Trust me, you’d know if it were the former.
At the beginning, Bilbo really is more like a grocer than a burglar. He’s (let’s face it) a pampered, upper-class wimp: much like many of us. But he has the desire to be something more, and it is that desire that sends him running out the door without his pocket handkerchief.
What’s your hobbit hole? What comfortable, easy refuge is keeping you respectable, and what’s the desire that will drive you out of it?

2.     Honor Your Responsibilities

 Bilbo and the dwarves are, at first, not what we might call ‘friends.’ They don’t like each other very much. The dwarves are apt to dismiss Bilbo as useless, and Bilbo is, well, apt to be useless. Yet they are friends, because ‘friends’ is what they have committed to be. They’re comrades; mess-mates. And however they feel about each other, they have responsibilities towards one another.
Thus, when Bilbo escapes the goblin mines without his friends, he makes up his mind that, if he can’t find them outside, it’s his duty to go back in and look for them (“and very miserable he felt about it”). The fact that he probably won’t be able to find them (magic ring or no magic ring), that they might be dead for all he knows, and that they don’t even like him very much anyway doesn’t matter; he committed to them, now he has to fulfill his duty to them.
But then, he stumbles across them in the woods to find that they are discussing the very same thing: going back in to look for Bilbo. And, unlike him, they adamantly don’t want to. They complain to Gandalf that Bilbo’s useless anyway, and that they won’t be able to find him, that he should have kept up, and so on and so forth.
Once again, Bilbo shows us the right thing to do, while the dwarves (who are ostensibly the more experienced and dedicated adventurers) show us what not to do. Bilbo knows his duty and sticks to it, no matter how much he’d prefer to do otherwise. The dwarves, on the other hand, plead changing circumstances to excuse themselves. Duty does not change with circumstances or with feelings; it is constant no matter what, and our only concern should be to do it to the best of our abilities.

3.     Get Creative

That isn’t to say, of course, that changing circumstances don’t need to be taken into account. Our duty may remain the same, but our situation does not. So, the effect is something like this; we have two points: the fixed point of our responsibility and the moving point of our situation. In between is the shifting, Cube-like maze of circumstance. So, we have to get creative.

This is my default solution.
Bilbo finds himself alone and lost. His responsibility is to find and (if necessary) rescue his friends and escape the mountain. In addition to the fact that he’s stuck in a labyrinthian cave network with goblins prowling around and no light source, he meets Gollum, who thinks he might like to eat Bilbo. So, Bilbo improvises and when Gollum suggest they have a game of riddles to decide whether he will show Bilbo the exit or having him for dinner, he agrees. The only way to the outside is through Gollum, so Bilbo accepts the situation and tries to find a way to make it work for him. Then, when it looks as though he might lose the game, Bilbo accidentally hits on the solution; to think outside the box and ask a question Gollum couldn’t possibly guess: “What have I got in my pocket?”
                  Now, the clever thing about the pocket question is that the important thing is less to make Gollum guess wrongly (since the only way he could guess correctly is by sheer luck), but to make him try to answer. Once he tries to answer, it shows he accepts the question and thus binds him to his promise. Gollum, less adept at such things than Bilbo, takes the bait and loses (it’s the same principle behind things like roulette and shell-games: the trick isn’t in making the other person lose, it’s in making them play at all). 
                  When circumstances seem overwhelming, sometimes the best thing to do is to get creative and try something completely different. To ‘cheat,’ as it were.

4.     “Vanquished Enemies Should be Spared”

G.K. Chesterton listed this as one of the things no sensible person ever has or ever will question. If you have beaten someone and have a chance to finish him for good, you should always ere on the side of mercy.
After Bilbo has won the riddle game (“pretty fairly”) and, in fleeing the enraged Gollum discovered the power of the Ring, he finds himself in a position where the only way he can escape is to somehow go through or around Gollum. Remembering Gollum’s willingness and intent to murder him, Bilbo considers simply killing him. But his basic decency wins through; it wasn’t a fair fight by any stretch, and besides Gollum was already so miserable and alone that Bilbo couldn’t find it in his heart to kill him.
Bilbo’s mercy, note, was done because he could sympathize with Gollum. He “caught of glimpse” of Gollum’s miserable, lonely life and it made him feel for the poor creature. It is easy, in these days of the internet: of faceless names comprised of odd phrases strung together with random numbers, to lose all sympathy for other people. Whenever we’re tempted to lash out, to make crass, hateful comments, or to attack people who disagree with us, we should pause and try to imagine what their life, their mind, their world is like. In short, we should show pity to those we meet.
                  Much later, at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo (seeing the tremendous damage Gollum has done in the mean time) wishes that Bilbo had killed him when he had the chance, earning him a rebuke from Gandalf:
                  “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand! Pity and mercy: not to strike without need…I daresay he does deserve [death]! Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment, fearing for your own safety.”
                  All too often we find ourselves far too eager to pass judgment, to ‘strike without need,’ to take what seems to be the easiest, safest way out, regardless of how it affects others. At such times we should remember Bilbo and the pity he showed an enemy that he had every reason to despise.

Tune in next year for part two: Never Laugh at Live Dragons!
Vive Christus Rex!

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