Tolkien has always been a source of wisdom for approaching the fairy tale, particularly his classic essay, “On Fairy Stories,” about which I have written here before. That is, he teaches us, as an outsider or even trespasser in the land of Faerie, how to enter it and appreciate it. But on re-reading The Hobbit, I found a fascinating trick he plays on his readers: Identifying with the story and plight of Bilbo, he makes us the fairy tale, and shows us how others respond to it.
Here’s what I mean:
We’ve been part of this adventure with Bilbo from the beginning. We’ve found ourselves comfortable in the Shire and suddenly thrown, partially against our will, into an adventure with a band of dwarves and a quirky wizard. We escaped trolls, goblins, Gollum, spiders, and wood-elves; we’ve discovered a magic ring and a sword. At this point, about 2/3 of the way into the book, Tolkien makes a very deliberate story transition: “…we are now drawing near the end of the eastward journey and coming to the last and greatest adventure, so we must hurry on” (end of chapter 9, “Barrels out of Bond”).
From here, we step into Lake-town, a small wooden village of people (not elves or dwarves) a few days from Dale and the Lonely Mountain. Dale is the town and the Lonely Mountain the dwarf dwelling places that were destroyed by the dragon Smaug, and the reason for the whole adventure: The dwarves are returning to reclaim their treasure and defeat Smaug. In Lake-town, a fascinating little legend (or fairy tale) had been told for many years that the Dwarf kings Thror and Thrain would return “and gold would flow in rivers through the mountain-gates, and all that land would be filled with new song and new laughter.”
In other words, a land plunged into darkness by an evil dragon would be returned to a state of glory by the return of a king. Sound familiar?
As we journey with Bilbo, King Thorin (son of Thror son of Thrain), and the dwarves, we are journeying with the fairy tale into the land in need of magic. And here’s how we’re received. There are five responses to the fairy tale:
“But this pleasant legend did not much affect their daily business.” This editorial comment by Tolkien in Chapter 10 gives us the way most of the world responds to the old magic, the true magic of the one true fairy tale. It doesn’t much affect our daily business. This is unfortunately as true for many of us Christians as it is for the rest of the world.
“Some of the more foolish ran out of the hut as if they expected the Mountain to go golden in the night and all the waters of the lake to turn yellow right away.” Some, in other words, thought that the redemption of these lands could happen in an instant, as though a simple magic spell could automatically do away with all evil. There are at least two faults here: A certain gullible disposition that will believe almost anything, and a miscalculation about the devastation caused by Smaug. Smaug’s evil was too great to be undone because a few dwarves simply walked into town. In the same way, some do not take adequate stock of the extent and depth and power of the Fall, and think that Jesus just makes everything “ok” in an instant.
“The Elvenking was very powerful in those parts and the Master wished for no enmity with him, nor did he think much of old songs, giving his mind to trade and tolls, to cargoes and gold, to which habit he owed his position.” The “Master,” the ruler of Lake-town, was far too concerned with money, power, and privilege to pay any attention to old songs and tales that might change things. It matters not to some what kind of suffering and tragedy happens, or what kind of redemption or change might be possible, as long as one’s own power stays intact.
“It was easier to believe in the Dragon and less easy to believe in Thorin in these wild parts.” In the shadow of the Lonely Mountain, the effects of Smaug’s evil actions were so potent that it was very difficult, near impossible, to have hope or trust in old tales. The man about whom this statement was made was standing in the presence of Thorin, the very fulfillment of the legend, but believed more in the terror of Smaug than in the tale. This is the exact opposite of the foolish response above, which took Smaug’s evil lightly. These are so affected by evil and the Fall and all the terror it has caused, that hope seems an impossibility.
The fifth response, of course, is that of Bilbo and the dwarves themselves. Fairy tales, you see, will not be disbelieved. If they are disbelieved, they continue to exist. The story goes on. The tale retains all its potency. The magic still works. The gospel heals and saves even its strongest opponents and radical disbelievers. Dragons are slain because Hobbits and Dwarves press on.
In the end, Bilbo is surprised, in his conversation years later with Gandalf and Balin, that the old tales, songs, and prophecies have come true.
“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should they not prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?”
As with Bilbo, so with us in our response to the great Fairy Tale, the True Myth. We get to enter into it and be part of the story.