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Seeing Christ in 'The Hobbit'?

12/14/2012 10:51 am ET | Updated Feb 13, 2013

Where is Christ in The Hobbit?

This question might have caused author J. R. R. Tolkien to have fits, given his notorious distaste for allegory. Yet, some background on the celebrated creator of hobbits and the bestselling Middle-earth books suggests that there is at least some legitimacy in posing the question.

Tolkien was a devout Catholic. While he eschewed allegory and sought to remove explicit religion from "The Lord of the Rings," his personal letters and published essays show he considered his books to be deeply theistic, and he thought fantasy literature must convey religious truth. He was surprised that theistic aspects of his writing did not receive more notice, and he once commented that of the various biographical aspects of his life, his Christian faith was the only significant fact in understanding his works.

So the broader question of whether Tolkien's writings should be considered "Christian works" is complex. As I point out in "A Hobbit Journey," there is no easy answer, and, depending on what one means by the question, there are some good reasons for answering yes and some for answering no. Given the fundamental -- we might even say crucial -- centrality of Christ and the Incarnation to the Christian faith, in many ways the question does come down to whether we can find Christ in Middle-earth.

So where, indeed, is Christ in "The Hobbit"? If by that you mean some sort of allegorical Christ-figure -- like Aslan in C. S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" -- then the answer is, nowhere. It is more appropriate to look for the medieval hero Beowulf in one form or another in Tolkien's books than it is to try to find some allegorical Christ.

But what if we look for Christ in a different way? What if we look for Christ in "The Hobbit" in the same way we look for Christ in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: not as an allegory but as a reflection. Whenever we see somebody living out love for their neighbor by being a good mother, father, husband or wife, feeding the poor, eschewing exploitation, or taking care of God's created world, we see Christ. When any of us imitate Christ, Christ can be seen in us.

In that sense, there is one very important way we can see Christ in "The Hobbit." Tolkien's works are heroic fantasy; they provide a model of what it means to be a hero. It is a model that sharply contrasts with many competing models. Consider the recent superhero blockbusters. This past year I watched "The Avengers" and "The Amazing Spider-Man." I've also seen several films about Batman, the X-Men and a variety of others. Some of these I have enjoyed immensely. Others, not so much. I just watched trailers for next year's "Iron Man 3" and "Man of Steel." I will probably watch both of these.

Now, the very word superhero gives us a clue to what these movies are about. They provide a model of what it means to be a hero. And what it means, according to this vision, is to have extraordinary powers. It means to be strong. Very strong. By "virtue" of their great strength, these superheroes defeat their enemies and save the world. Yes, they sometimes have to use their wits. And I won't deny that among the best of these there is moral virtue also exemplified. But when it comes down to it, it is their powers that win the day.

Not so with Christ. Christ came as a lowly, suffering servant who gave up all his power and became one of the weak. He did not grasp earthly authority and overwhelm his enemies with force; he laid it aside. And that, I think, lies behind Tolkien's own portrayal of real heroism. His most important heroes are, after all, hobbits: the small and weak of the world. They do not fit the classic mold of heroes. They are not frightening in battle. Only frightened.

Yes, one could say that Bilbo acquires the Ring and thus gains some extraordinary power. And he uses it to defeat the spiders and rescue his friends. But he does not rush in and overwhelm the dragon Smaug by sheer might. Nor does he save the day at the Battle of Five Armies. He does, however, choose to give up his claim to the cakes in his pantry in order to show hospitality to guests. And later, on a grander scale, he humbly lays aside his own share of treasure in order to bring peace. In the Battle of Five Armies, he is essentially irrelevant. He is not a superhero. Yet he is Tolkien's hero.

Perhaps most important of all the ways in which Bilbo Baggins is heroic is this: in a very quiet moment, he lays aside the advantage he could have had over Gollum and, at great personal risk, chooses instead to show mercy. And by that act of mercy, the world is later saved. In that model of heroism, we can indeed see Christ in "The Hobbit."