Pearce and Tolkien believed that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were fundamentally religious and Catholic works. Apparently critics had either missed or resented this interpretation. Pearce paraphrased Tolkien in suggesting that the real reason for critical prejudice against Tolkien’s and similar works had grown out of a particular hostility toward Christianity.
The failure to see and understand the hidden meaning of Tolkien’s works, parallels an episode within the pages of The Hobbit where the company of dwarfs and even Gandalf could not see, let alone interpret directions on an ancient map. Elrond did see, understand and read that hidden message because he viewed it on a midsummer’s eve under a crescent moon. These were the same conditions in effect when the message was first inscribed. Similarly, to fully grasp the hidden meaning of The Hobbit, the tale must be read with Catholic eyes.
Who better to uncover the hidden meaning of The Hobbit than noted Catholic author Joseph Pearce, who wrote biographies of J. R. R. Tolkien and two of the major influences in Tolkien’s intellectual and literary development–Hilarie Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. To further support his assertions Pearce delved into many of the sources used by Tolkien in writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings allowing him to share Tolkien’s perspective.
Pearce opened his arguments with this statement:
Apart from the story’s status as a Christian bildungsroman, charting Bilbo’s rite of passage from ignorance to wisdom and from bourgeois vice to heroic virtue, The Hobbit parallels The Lord of the Rings in the mystical suggestiveness of its treatment of Divine Providence, and serves as a moral commentary on the words of Christ that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). In these three aspects, it can be truly said of The Hobbit, as Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings, that it is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”
Critics faulted The Hobbit for “the continued presence of biased fortune” or incredibly good luck whenever needed. In response Pearce explained that Divine Providence aided those who opened themselves to the influence of Grace, particularly by a show of mercy even to their enemies. Pearce turned the tables on those critics, blind to Grace, who faulted The Hobbit for the excessive influence of “luck,” but who in their own turn explained the “enormity and complexity of the cosmos” as the effect of “chance alone.”
Dragon Sickness, a recurring theme evoked the image of the avaricious and arrogant Smaug the Terrible buried in a pile of stolen dwarf treasure, but its symptoms included Bilbo’s clinging to the comfort of his Hobbit hole and eventually “The Ring.” Pearce reminded his readers of Tolkien’s description of Elrond’s virtuous disposition and that he did “not altogether approve of dwarves and their love of gold.” Pearce warned against modern contamination with Dragon Sickness as applied to the human tendency toward “bourgeois vice” whereby individuals clung to life within a “comfort zone.”
Gandalf’s apparent abandonment of the company of dwarves brought about Bilbo’s coming of age as adversity prompted ethical decisions and the flow of Grace allowed the Hobbit to grow beyond his comfort zone to realize his true capabilities. In the end Bilbo profited from the adventure, despite his personal suffering and loss.
Through Bilbo’s Journey Pearce offered his readers a spiritual commentary as well as a literary guide to Tolkien’s work. Bilbo’s Journey, a storehouse of topics worthy of spiritual reflection deserves multiple readings that offer both inner peace and a more complete understanding the Catholic roots of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.
Pearce, Joseph. Bilbo’s Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning of The Hobbit. Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press. 2012.
(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)