Discovering the Hidden Meaning in The Hobbit

By Joseph Pearce

Saint Benedict Press, 2013

120 pages, $12.95

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Like all great literature, the work of J.R.R. Tolkien speaks to readers on multiple levels, appeals to all ages and stands the test of time.

Now, Joseph Pearce, a self-taught scholar who is well-known for his "literary biographies," has added his insightful analysis.

But Pearce’s analysis is anything but a heavy tome of scholarly erudition. It is intended for the non-academic reader who wants to delve deeply into Tolkien’s stories and find meaning for his or her own Christian journey: "The Hobbit is a pilgrimage of grace, in which its protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, becomes grown-up in the most important sense, which is the growth in wisdom and virtue. Throughout the course of his adventure — and every pilgrimage is an adventure — the hobbit develops the habit of virtue and grows in sanctity."

Pearce provides many examples of how The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are similar in character, plot and theme, but asserts that Tolkien’s later, longer work is more mature and well developed. Still, The Hobbit is a beautifully self-contained, independent narrative in which Tolkien introduces the themes that appear in both stories of Middle Earth: growing up, the terrible malady of "dragon sickness" (which is attachment to wealth and power) and the presence of what Tolkien calls "luck."

Pearce takes pains to defend this third element because some professional critics and discerning lay readers have regarded it as one of the greatest weaknesses of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Detractors assert that so-called "luck" gives an element of deus ex machina to the story: The hero, rather than devising his own solution to a problem, is rescued from on high by a character or circumstance which is really the presence of an author who has written himself into a corner and can’t figure out a way for the hero to save himself.

But, according to Pearce, "As Gandalf makes plain at the book’s conclusion, what had been called ‘luck’ was not really ‘luck’ at all."

What was it then? Pearce asserts that "luck" is "the invisible hand of Providence or grace," and by including it in his stories, Tolkien means to illustrate powerful truths about the "interplay between Providence and free will."

A helpful bibliography refers the interested reader to the scholarly sources consulted, as well as specific passages in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I’ve read The Hobbit several times and know that, like The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien considered it "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work."

Nevertheless, Bilbo’s Journey greatly enhanced my understanding of Tolkien’s use of spiritual and Christian symbolism. The book does contain "spoilers" of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so a first-time visitor to Middle Earth might want to read the novels first, then Pearce’s commentary.

Clare Walker writes from Westmont, Illinois.