Three Hobbit-Related Book Reviews
by Joseph Pearce
Many regard Joseph Pearce as today’s premiere Catholic biographer. He’s profiled many literary icons like Shakespeare, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. His book on J.R.R. Tolkien remains my favorite Tolkien biography. Thus I was excited to hear about Pearce’s new book on The Hobbit, published alongside its December film adaptation.
Bilbo’s Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning of the Hobbit (Saint Benedict Press, 144 pages, paperback) goes beyond the fantasy to unearth the profound Christian truths hidden within Tolkien’s classic work.
Tolkien himself described the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which The Hobbit precedes, as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” This underlying dimension is often noble, as in the virtue and self-sacrifice we spot in Bilbo, the dwarves, and the elves. These characters, Pearce notes, embody Jesus’ beatific teachings. But there are also darker dimensions like the pride, lust, and greed we see in figures like Smaug, which affirm Jesus’ warning that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).
When examined through this Catholic lens, The Hobbit becomes a multi-layered spiritual journey:
“[The Hobbit] is a rite of passage from ignorance to wisdom and from bourgeois vice to heroic virtue. Its main character, Bilbo, represents each of us journeying toward God and moral perfection.”
Pearce also shows how this journey is aided by religious forces like providence.Though Tolkien never mentions God throughout his fiction, his characters consistently face dire odds but emerge through the help of so-called “luck.” Yet this is no mere chance, Pearce explains. Tolkien’s aim was to show how God is constantly operating in the world, and even today guides history with intention and love.
Bilbo’s Journey closes with two interesting appendices. The first offers a short summary of Tolkien’s important essay, “On Fairy Stories,” and the second presents Pearce’s own thoughts on the importance of wonder. Readers may actually be helped by reading these appendices first, before the rest of the book.
In all, Bilbo’s Journey is a timely, invigorating read by a foremost Tolkien scholar. Pearce’s own background in Catholicism and English literature enable him to uniquely probe the hidden meaning of Tolkien’s classic work. Whether you read this book alongside the film or the original book, it will shine new light on an old story.
by Louis Markos
Moody Publishers, 240 pages, paperback
It’s not surprising that Louis Markos likes C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. After all, millions of people admire the two Inklings. What is unusual is that he’s also an English professor at a Baptist university. The two literary giants typically draw liturgical Christians and evangelicals. It’s rare to find Baptists who admire both men. This isn’t to say they’re incompatible with Baptists, just that Tolkien’s devout Catholicism and Lewis’ high-Church Anglicanism usually rub Baptists the wrong way. Yet Markos is the rare example of someone who finds not just congruity, but suitability, but congruence.
I’ve been following Markos’ work for years, including two excellent books on Lewis. He’s become one of my favorite non-Catholic Inkling experts and his newest book, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Moody Publishers, paperback, 234), continues that trend.
Markos argues that the iconic works of both Tolkien and Lewis do more than entertain. They help the reader inculcate classic virtues like courage, valor, trust, and friendship. By following Frodo’s moral development, for instance, our own courage and persistence are strengthened. The opposite is true, too. By studying the villains throughout Middle-Earth and Narnia, we can detect sin in our own lives and destroy it. Tolkien’s Sauron provides one example of sin, in this case pride, exposed through the Light of humility:
“The reason Sauron has not guessed the true purpose of the Fellowship is not that he is a fool or even that he is prideful, but that he simply cannot conceive that someone would willingly forsake power. He is completely blind to the ways and motivations of goodness; such Light is too bright for his darkened eyes to fathom.”
Markos’ primary focus in the book is on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but he closes each chapter with a brief sojourn in Lewis’ Narnia:
“I believe that the most effective way to draw out of The Lord of the Rings its golden treasures is by holding The Chronicles of Narnia beside it as a sort of literary philosopher’s stone.”
This decision should delight Inkling fans who receive books on Tolkien or Lewis, but rarely both together.
As Peter Kreeft says in his Foreword, “Life is a story, and therefore moral education happens first and most powerfully through stories, e.g. through books.” On the Shoulders of Hobbits will show you how to do that—how to stimulate your own moral development—through these powerful, enchanting stories.
by A.K. Frailey
iUniverse, 176 pages, paperback
With the recent Hobbit film release, dozens of news book have hit the market. Many examine Tolkien’s Middle-Earth adventures through the lens of Christianity, and specifically its virtues, but few take A.K. Frailey’s path.
Her new self-published her book, The Road Goes Ever On: A Christian Journey Through the Lord of the Rings (iUniverse, paperback, 163), is anything but amateur. It carries an imprimatur from Bishop Thomas Paprocki and the interior layout is professionally designed.
What sets her book apart, though, is the interesting framework. The early chapters gaze on Tolkien’s stories through the the theological virtues—faith, hope, love. She then she uses the four cardinal virtues, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the seven deadly virtues as alternate lenses.
However, my favorite angle comes in the final third of the book. Frailey pairs twelve of Tolkien’s major characters to Catholic saints. She examines the courageous Frodo in light of St. Thomas More; the prophetic Gandalf in light of Moses; the broken Boromir in light of St. Augustine; and the bold Eowyn in light of St. Clare. Frailey uses Tolkien’s fictional characters to point to real-life heroes who in turn point to Christ. When she compares Faramir to St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, she brings Christ-like purity into focus:
“Both the character of Faramir and the reality of Thomas show us different versions of a pure mind and heart that does not desire the things of this world. They are the examples we should look to first for they show us an uncorrupted path and they are the ones we should offer to the pure innocence of our children.”
In Frailey’s book, the journey into The Lord of the Rings spirals ever deeper with each new lens. By providing several angles through which to gaze on Tolkien’s masterpiece, Frailey brings new color and life to Tolkien’s perennial classic.