“Can you promise me I will come back?” Bilbo Baggins asks Gandalf in the beginning of The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey.
Fans of J.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings who have waited a decade for the movie prequel, The Hobbit, will be satisfied at long last on December 14th when it opens in theaters. Elijah Wood as Frodo, the star of The Lord of The Rings trilogy, now steps aside so that his uncle, Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, can take moviegoers on his journey, which took place six decades prior to Frodo’s adventures.
Lord of The Rings Director Peter Jackson shot the film in 3D, sending arrows, swords and axes flying at the audience. Originally, Jackson had planned to step back and let another director tackle the film. “I thought that I wouldn’t enjoy it, because I thought I’d be competing against myself to some degree,” he said. Jackson had a change of heart when realized there is a stark difference between the Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit. “This is not the Lord of The Rings,” he said. “There is a lot of charm and humor in this one that The Lord of the Rings doesn’t have.” He explained that he did not want to try to make another film like that and this gave him the opportunity to do something very different.
Joe Leterri, the senior visual effects supervisor says, “We did everything we could so that when you are watching it you are thinking, ‘Yes I am in Middle Earth.’”
“We really wanted to break down the barrier between virtual cinematography and live action film making,” said the award winning visual effects artist. “Because with films like this, it’s all about the fantasy. When you’re reading the book you can imagine these images all that you want, but when you put it on the screen we have a responsibility to create the image that is going to be as grand and as big as anyone can imagine”
In this film, Bilbo Baggins, a long shot underdog, accompanies Gandalf the Wizard and a company of dwarfs led by their outcast King Thorin, to reclaim their lost homeland, Lonely Mountain, which has been overtaken by the gold-coveting dragon Smaug.
The film’s appeal to both secular and Christian audiences is obvious. It’s an exciting fantasy adventure whose fairy tale proportions made the story a classic the moment the first hard cover of Tolkien’s book hit the shelves. But there is a deeper level Tolkien invited readers, and now viewers, to touch. Just as he called Lord of the Rings, “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” The Hobbit’s ontology is informed from Tolkien’s Catholicism.
Gandalf tells Bilbo Baggins that he cannot promise him he’ll make it back, “…and if you do, you will not be the same.” Bilbo risks not just his life in leaving his home. He’s told that a fundamental change in his nature will occur if he undertakes the journey. Just as Church teaching says the same of the sacraments and their permanent alteration of the soul, this change is irreversible. Tolkien’s longtime friend, C.S Lewis, expressed the dichotomy of the inevitable spiritual that occurs during the course of our lives perfectly in his book Mere Christianity: “And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning… into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature.”
So the change could swing either way. Bilbo has a safe, comfortable life in The Shire, but is without purpose. To find his ordained purpose, he must face both physical and spiritual trials.
Actor Ian McKellen – Gandalf in the movie – sees the story of The Hobbit as promoting the common man, highlighting the importance of every day people doing every day acts of goodness as the means to virtue. “It’s the little guy that we need,” he says, echoing Blessed Mother Teresa’s pronouncement, “We go do no great things, only small things with great love.” McKellen added that this movie taught him he that he “still has a long way to go as an actor.” That is a surprising statement coming from Sir Ian McKellen, twice nominated for the Oscar and the recipient of almost every major theatrical award in the United Kingdom and the United States. He is regarded as one of the world’s best actors.
Just as one of the greatest actors of our time is humbled by the high standard set by Tolkien, for him, the real journey is the one going on inside, not the measured by the world’s accolades. It is the message of Tolkien’s story; we are all pilgrims on a spiritual journey seeking inner growth but risking spiritual decay. It is a journey that we continue every day on the earth. It is not the battles we fight that matter as much as whether we wage them morally.
Dragon sickness– or greed – is what Tolkien used to describe the obsession of material possessions and how they can dominant our lives. In his just released book, Bilbo’s Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning in The Hobbit, Tolkien scholar, Joseph Pearce speaks of the spiritual journey. “Dragons are not merely hungry, and they are wicked. They desire the defilement of pure.” He explains that Bilbo is fighting against people with an dragon sickness, representative of greed, but at the same time he must ward off becoming prey to it itself, just as we all must do.
In the film, when Gandalf gives Bilbo a sword – the first he’s ever wielded – he teaches him a lesson in mercy. “True courage,” he says, “is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.” Bilbo learns that lesson and through his mercy spares the life of Gollum. Through such mercy, although he did not realize it at the time, the kindness will return to Bilbo when much later, Gollum will save both his life and that of his nephew.
Though it is the clash of swords and that jumps out of the movie, it is Tolkien’s moral lessons that guide the swords of the virtuous in The Hobbit, delivering audiences more than mere entertainment.
Luke Maguire Armstrong is an occasional guest contributor to The Integrated Catholic Life™. He is the author of Amazing Grace for Survivors (Ascension Press, 2008). After finishing degrees in philosophy and English abroad at La Catolica Pontificia University of Valparaiso, he did what any financially oblivious recent college grad would do… he took out a large student loan and planned to backpack from Chile to Alaska.
He stopped in Guatemala where he spent four years as the Director of Social Services Programs for the educational development organization, Nuestros Ahijados. His efforts to battle infant malnutrition were featured on ABC News 20/20’s 2010 Global Health Special: Be A Change Save A Live. His fiction, non-fiction and poetry can be found on TravelWriteSing.com.
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