The Hobbit – Mirkwood and the Narrow Road

Typically, in fantasy literature, the presence of a forest represents mystery and a transition in the story.  Tolkien uses this device in The Hobbit expertly with Mirkwood, and even offers us something that speaks of our own lives.  Tolkien often said that he did not write an allegory when creating Middle Earth and the stories contained within.  Of allegory, he said, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.”  That said, him being a Christian, it is easy enough to see his biblical worldview shine through in the pages of his books.

In The Hobbit, Tolkien never alludes to Mirkwood as a good place.  Even the great Beorn speaks of it with some trepidation.  As the party leaves the halls of Beorn, he warns them to stay on the path, for to veer from it meant certain doom.  Gandalf further affirms this warning, speaking of The Old Forest Road.  Dwarves built the road in ages past, but the road had become unusable because of its proximity to Dol Guldur, the fortress of the Necromancer.  Gandalf had the party take the path just north of the Mountains of Mirkwood.  It was a less beaten path, but the elves there seemed to hold some sort of magical protection over it.

Gandalf, upon coming to the beginning of the north path, left the party and sent them on their own.  As he departed, he left them with this comfort:  “We may meet again before all is over, and then again of course we may not.  That depends on your luck and on your courage and sense; and I am sending Mr. Baggins with you.  I have told you before that he has more about him than you guess, and you will find that out before long.  So cheer up Bilbo and don’t look so glum.  Cheer up Thorin and Company!  This is your expedition after all.  Think of the treasure at the end, and forget the forest and the dragon…”  What words of comfort from their leader!  It must not have seemed like comfort at the time, seeing as Gandalf left the dwarves with the Hobbit, whom they still did not trust.  Their trek through the forest would be long and wearisome, but at the end, there was a prize greater than any of their present afflictions.

Our own walks with the Lord on the earth are very similar.  Christ gives us a new life through the regeneration of the Spirit.  He makes us new: the old is gone and the new is come.  The Spirit within us groans for the place promised to us.  Yet, there is still Mirkwood to walk through.  Christ has gone away for a time, but he has left with us a Helper to walk us through this perilous life.  Though this earth before sin was Greenwood the Great, (Mirkwood’s name before the Necromancer) it is now Mirkwood, complete with peril on both sides of the track.  Jesus talked about this.  He said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)  We are sinful creatures that like to control our own fate.  We see the road with hundreds of years of footprints on it; we take it, because we know that it at least seems the safest.  Our sight on these things is so short, yet we readily trust our own instinct rather than the words of truth from Scripture.  Scripture says the way of life is narrow, just like the northern path.  Sure, sometimes it seems impassable.  There are times when we feel so famished that we cannot possible dream of another minute on the road.  We long to be back on the more-frequented path.  In The Hobbit, the dwarves throw aside the wise counsel of Gandalf and Beorn when the mirage of the wood elves tempts them.  The sleight of hand of the elves tricks them three times before they finally realized that veering off the path might have been a bad idea.  We are no different.  The Lord has made clear the road that leads to eternal life, but we want it the hard way.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  (John 14:6)  The way is easy in that we do not have to do anything.  Like the dwarves, we will face hardships and sufferings, but we need only keep our eyes upon the prize and we will be safe.  Anything else leads us to destruction.  Scripture says that there is a way that seems right to man, but the end of it leads in death.  The way that leads to eternal life will not always seem right, but we can rest assured that it is.

The Hobbit – No Beautiful Things

Bilbo and his fellow adventurers find themselves in quite a predicament when they choose to overnight in a mountainside cave.  The cave turns out to be no cave at all, but is the front porch of the Great Goblin!  This gives Tolkien an opportunity to tell the reader a bit about goblins and their nature.

Goblins are an evil race.  There is nothing good about them.  One thing that struck me in reading about them was the way Tolkien’s described their evil.  He said, “Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones.”  Earlier, we learn about the dwarves, their solid craftsmanship, and their love of shimmering things.  The elves create “good” things as well.  We read about Orcrist and Glamdring – two very special blades crafted for the Goblin Wars.  Tolkien also treats us to their songs throughout the book.  However, when we come to goblins, we learn that they create no good things.  In addition, they create many clever items – items meant for the destruction of many and the torture of their prisoners.

Oddly, this reminds of me of certain criminal masterminds, both recent and of years past.  Ted Kaczynski, also known as “the Unabomber,” is a good example of this.  Harvard accepted Ted at the young age of 16, where he proceeded to dazzle his professors and fellow students.  He later received a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in mathematics.  How did he use this knowledge?  To kill people.  More broadly, think of the average computer hacker.  They are a dime a dozen today.  However, to hack well, one must have a basic knowledge of several computer languages, the ins and outs of their target, and the knowledge to deal with the information once they find it.  Situations like these remind me of the goblins – an innate ability to create and think, but using it for destruction and malevolence.

Why is that?  Why can we not all be dwarves and elves and appreciate good things?  Because our sick hearts will not let us.  We are born into sin, and that sin is an all-encompassing characteristic of our nature.  Sin taints our creative juices from birth.  Humanity demonstrates this in every workplace in world, with people using knowledge, creativity, and people skills to claw their way to the top of whatever world they live in – whether it is a thriving business or a church.  Genesis 6:5 says, “The Lord saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  Because of sin’s grip on humanity, everything we do, even our thoughts are “only evil continually.”

Often in response to this passage and others like it, I will hear the following rebuttal: “Well, what about <insert good deed here>.  That is a good thing done by a good person.”  Genesis 6:5 does not say that man only does evil, but that the thoughts of his heart are evil.  Even the good they do has a foundation of evil – filled with self-serving motives and secret agendas.  We know this.  We know our own hearts well enough to know this.  When we look in the mirror and are honest, it is just the plain truth.

What hope do we have then?  Are we doomed to be like the goblins, creating devices and situations that serve us only, along with our evil desires?  Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ that he is making all things new, and that in him we are a new creation.  It reminds make of C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Eustace becomes a dragon because of his greed.  Eustace had been insufferable for the first portion of their journey, and his gluttony had finally caught up with him.  As a dragon, he was alone and miserable.  He finally saw the error of his ways, and Aslan mercifully changes him back to a boy.  How?  By tearing his “old self” to shreds.

Is that not what Christ does for us?  We like Eustace and like the goblins create no beautiful things without Christ.  Christ makes us a new creation through belief in him.  In that change, we are able to please the Lord with the beautiful things we make (or do).  Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  What a glorious thought!  That those who were once “only evil continually” have been made new in Christ.  Christ changes our hearts and minds to seek after him and see us to completion in glory.  Then, in heaven, there will be no evil things.

The Hobbit – Remaining “Tookish”

In making “spiritual” applications from the books I am reading, it is likely that some of them will be a stretch.  This one falls into that category for sure, but it is an application nonetheless.

Perhaps my favorite chapter of The Hobbit is the very first one.  From the word go, one can gather many intricacies of the main characters personalities, right down to basic likes and dislikes.  It is obvious that Bilbo is a creature that loves comfort and values a good meal over thoughts of adventure.  Bilbo is very well mannered and knows all the social niceties, even well enough to hold a somewhat spirited conversation with the great wizard Gandalf.  Bilbo adores the fine things of life, and for him, there is nothing finer than smoking his pipe after a filling meal and dreaming of the next time he will be able to do so.  Life for Bilbo depends on rhythm and predictability and he is totally fine with that.

Enter Thorin and company.   These dwarves had seen many things in their lives, particularly Thorin, who had witnessed the destruction of his home Erebor.  They took up jobs as smiths and coal miners to make ends meet, but did not lose their lust for adventure and revenge.  They stayed hungry during the years when others would have faltered.  For whatever reason, the time was now ripe for them to take back their beloved city, and they planned to do it with gusto.  Even the new recruits, Fili and Kili, who were not yet born when Smaug laid siege to Erebor, were convinced that this adventure, though life threatening, was of vital importance.

The enthusiasm and unpredictable nature of the dwarves awoke something in Bilbo.  His “Tookish” side came forth.  Though his father demonstrated a life of comfort and conventionality, Bilbo’s mother and her side of the family lived lives filled with exciting activity.  This part of Bilbo sprung to life when he became aware of his assumed role of burglar.  The song and music of the dwarves “moved through him”, and its magic touched him at his very core.  The Tookish spirit rose in him, slaying the spirit of timidity.  Again, a son of a Took longed to “carry a sword instead of a walking stick.”

Something similar happens to all of us who are Christians.  We begin our walk with Jesus on a high note, basking in the grace that we have in Jesus and relishing in all the blessings he has afforded us with his death on the cross.  We embrace the words of Paul, as we realize that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7)  We rabidly share our faith, as if someone’s eternal destiny depends on it.  We drink deep from the pages of Scripture and spend hours on our knees in prayer, sometimes not even knowing what to say, but just simply listening for the voice of the Lord.

What happens to us?  We get comfortable.  The truths of Scripture somehow becomes stale to us.  We begin to look at new Christians as “baby Christians,” which somehow places us on a pedestal that is secure and untouchable.  We think we know it all, so we become unteachable.  We still want to reach out to the lost, but under the cover of some program to makes it easy.  After all, “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures.  Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!  Make you late for dinner!”  Those things that were once important to us now fall into the “someone else will do it” pile.

How do we remain “Tookish” in our Christianity?  First, we must not lose sight of the gospel message, which is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners.  He does the work of redemption and continues to do the work of sanctification in our hearts and minds.  The Spirit began this work in us, and He will see it through to completion.  That completely frees us up to be adventurous!  Convention and security do not bind us, but we are free to take risks and live out our faith through daily practice, rather than on paper.

We also are free to be teachable.  In Christ, there are no distinctions.  We can learn from the youngest among us and will never stop learning this side of heaven.  We become codgerly when we see others as less than we are and believe we have cornered the market on maturity and wisdom.  You find a similar theme as the hobbits leave in The Fellowship of the Ring.  The Hobbiton community simply cannot believe that is any good use in adventure and upsetting the norm.  They had no idea their world was dying all around them.  As believers, we are free to do the work of ministry.  We should not look for the younger ones to do it.  How will they even know to do it if we are not working side by side with them?   If Bilbo never opened his door when he heard the dwarves knocking, Middle Earth would have fallen to Sauron.  When the Church sits back and lets “baby Christians” do the work because “they need experience,” the Church will falter.

There is much to learn from the “Tookish” side of Bilbo.  Though this side of him will lead him through troubled times, it will also save the day.  There is much to learn from that.

“You need to read more Edwards…”

As a younger man just starting in full-time ministry, I began to pursue ordination.  I met with the Credentials committee several times, and each time I met with them was worse than the previous.  Though I have retained much of my youthful pugnacity, it showed itself with much more vigor then.  I regularly bucked the system presented to me.  One such occurrence is the inspiration for this blog.

During one meeting with the committee, they asked what I had been reading when I was not reading seminary texts.  I told them, “Well, I mostly read fantasy, and I have been reading through the Harry Potter series.”  They were looking for a different answer.  After a few furrowed brows and funny looks, one of the men said to me, “You need to read more Edwards…”  He also went on to explain his own method of picking one “church forefather”, reading his entire works, then picking another.  With the other men sitting around, nodding their heads in agreement, I said, “Well, that just isn’t for me.”  Again, they were looking for a different answer.

All these years later, the presbytery (that I now work in) recently recommended me for ordination, thus ending a 7-year journey through seminary and Edwards, Luther, Calvin, and the like.  My views of ordination have changed over the years, and I now see the need for seminary training and the stupidity of my thinking as a young-20’s youth worker.  I cherish my seminary training and count it a blessing to have received it.  That said, the writings of Edwards and others still are not for me.  These writers and their works are important and even necessary for the church today, but they are not something I am going to pick up and read for pleasure.  I do not have the mind for it.  I admire those men who can pick up Calvin and read it with ease, but as many times as I have tried, I cannot do it.  Though I have waded through many academic texts over the past years, I am still a fan of fantasy.

With my recent finishing of the ordination process, I have committed to reading only fantasy for the next year.  I will have to read nonfiction texts to prepare for sermons and to teach, but other than that, I am putting nonfiction on the shelf this year.  This blog will detail my journey back into the realm of fantasy. My particular focus will be to pull the redemptive elements out of the books I read.  I plan to read works done by Christian authors, atheist authors, and those in between.  I believe that ultimately, all truth is God’s truth.  One can find redemptive elements in most all things, and fantasy literature is no different.

My goal is to post at least once a week on what I am currently reading, and bring out the redemptive elements.  I do not plan to be “preachy” but that will no doubt occur some along the way.  I will post a tentative reading list soon.

Current Reading Schedule

Here is the current list of books I’m planning to read (and in this order):

The Hobbit by Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by Tolkien

The Similarion by Tolkien

His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

A Song of Fire and Ice (5 books currently) by George R.R. Martin

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This is a good place to start for me, as I don’t consider myself a fast reader.  These books may even take me past my 12-month fantasy interlude, which is fine.  As I read these, I will also be reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis to my daughters.  The book list I generated is by no means a end-all-be-all list of fantasy, but it represents for me a few differing approaches to the genre, particularly in that some of the authors write from a biblical world-view, and some write from an anti-biblical world-view.  The others are stuck somewhere in between.  It would be easy to pull redemptive elements out of books similar to Tolkien’s series, but I want to venture off the path some.  I try to read the Hobbit once a year, and that is why I’m starting there.  It is only natural to read through the rest of the Tolkien canon before venturing out into other works, who to one degree or another borrow from the English storyteller.

I am open to suggestions, and I know many would say that I need to add this or that, but for the time being, I’m content with the list I have.

I’ll begin posting about The Hobbit soon.

A blog discussing games, family, and games with family.

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