I emerged from The Hobbit with a nagging feeling, like a toddler might get after a birthday party where no one brought out cake.
"I'm confused," I said to my husband, Eric. "Why did Gandalf need Bilbo and the dwarves?"
(Aside: The Hobbit is about a tiny little character with leathery feet--Bilbo Baggins, aka a hobbit--who goes on an adventure with dwarves to get their kingdom back. The dwarves went into exile after their king cared more for gold than his subjects and a dragon invaded because he wanted all the gold. There was a battle. The dragon kicked everyone out and has had control of the gold and the kingdom ever since. Fast forward to the start of the movie, when the dwarves want their kingdom back, and they approach Gandalf for help.)
Now, I'm no Tolkien expert (that's my husband's thing), but I always thought that Tolkien used Gandalf as a stand-in for the traditional Christian God. Christians historically believe God has three characteristics--he's omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good). So I expected Gandalf would have those qualities too. And I noticed remarkable similarities at first glance: Gandalf's powerful and knowledgeable and good. He's the superlative wizard--white-bearded, clever, speaker of profound adages, the Dumbledore-meets-Morgan-Freeman of Middle-earth.
So if Gandalf was supposed to be God, I figured the dwarves and Bilbo were supposed to be us: Small (at least in comparison) and lacking in the power and knowledge needed to get things right.
As a theologian, I was taught that God empowers us to get things right through grace, so I assumed that Gandalf's role would be the same. But it seems Gandalf's the one who really does the work in this film and the dwarves and Bilbo are more like Ron and Harry might have been in book seven of Harry Potter if Hermione decided she'd rather wait out the wizarding war with her parents in Australia.
So what are the dwarves and Bilbo contributing that Gandalf couldn't do alone?
This comes up in the film, perhaps because Tolkien never answers it explicitly in the book. (If you Google, "Why did Gandalf choose Bilbo?" about 200,000 conjectures appear.) Here's the conversation that takes place between the royal elf Galadriel and Gandalf:
GALADRIEL: Why the Halfling [Bilbo]?
GANDALF: Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I'm afraid, and he gives me courage.
Gandalf's response, for me as a priest and theologian, raises more questions than answers: Doesn't Gandalf-as-God know what lies ahead, and doesn't he know that good will triumph? If he does, then why is he afraid? And if he doesn't, then is he less wise than is appropriate for a God metaphor? And if this is why he chooses Bilbo, then why does he choose the dwarves? The riches of their kingdom led to corruption before, so why return them to temptation?
"If this is what Tolkien thinks God is like, then what kind of a God is this really?" I said to my husband as we left the movie theatre, "A God who exposes us to evil for personal benefit? A God who enables us in our temptations?"
"Gandalf is using just enough influence to allow the rest of the gang to make their own way," my husband said. "They would probably die if he left them alone, but if he just went, 'Bang, mission over,' and gave them what was ultimately their destiny, then no one grows or learns. Remember that at the beginning of the film, Bilbo asks Gandalf if the adventure will change him, and Gandalf says it will, and then it's Bilbo's choice whether to go or not. Gandalf isn't forcing change, but he is giving the dwarves and Bilbo choices, hoping they'll make smart ones, knowing that they'll only grow if they do things on their own."
I put my hands in my pockets to warm them from the icy night air. "Like the Bible says--faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. So for Tolkien, God has faith in us just as we have faith in God."
As someone who isn't a Tolkien expert, I mistakenly hoped for something simpler, cleaner, a little more idyllic. It's a hard truth that Tolkien is asking us to hold--that God will let us make mistakes, that evil is something from which we grow. So much evil in the world seems senseless or pointless, that it doesn't even necessarily correlate with human experience, though sometimes it can.
So do I buy into the God-like character Tolkien offers us in Gandalf? I don't know that I'm ready to commit one way or the other. But I guess the choice to believe either way, Tolkien would say, is ultimately mine.