“Welcome to Middle Earth.” I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that sign flash in my imagination and joined Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, elves and dwarfs once more on an unexpected journey.
I still have my first copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit; it is a battered paperback, printed back in the day when the book cost just 95 cents. My latest copy features a picture from Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Hobbit, released Friday, and I paid $14 for it. Times have changed – or have they?
To borrow from the movie dedication in The Wizard of Oz, “For 75 years this story has given faithful service; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.”
What is this “kindly philosophy” that continues to have such power over us? Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic but, unlike his great friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien didn’t want to create an allegory of the Christian faith in Middle Earth, as Lewis did with The Chronicles of Narnia. Instead he allowed us to glean the Christian faith indirectly, making such discoveries for ourselves.
Both Tolkien and Lewis regarded the use of fairy tales and myths as foreshadows of the gospel. As writer Ralph Wood notes, “The essence of fairy-stories is that they satisfy our heart’s deepest desire: to know a world other than our own, a world that has not been flattened and shrunk and emptied of mystery.”
We enter into this Otherworld to learn more about ourselves and return home, hopefully wiser, stronger and braver for the journey. T. S. Eliot put it this way: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Tolkien just called it There and Back Again – a Hobbit’s Tale. It is in this Hobbit’s tale, and the hobbit himself, that I see myself most clearly.
Although it would be nicer to compare myself to the fair elves or Riders of Rohan, I am in fact a hobbit. Most of us are. We may dream of great adventures, but the reality is that when adventure comes knocking we are more likely to respond as did Bilbo: “Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today!”
We would rather stay in our cozy hobbit hole than risk what lies outside our door and discover who we are truly meant to become. As Gandalf says of Bilbo, “There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.” And that sounds like gospel to me.
When Jesus called his first disciples to follow him, they did so immediately. I have to wonder: If they had fully understood the call of Jesus, they might have responded, “Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you.”
Adventures change you, challenge you, but they also allow you to become your best self, the person you were meant to be all along.
The greatest and most challenging adventure I know is following Jesus. Rather than losing myself, I discover myself. Jesus sees in me so much more than I can see for myself, and in him I become more than I ever thought possible. I yearn to grow into the image of God.
The journey isn’t easy (no worthwhile journey ever is), but there is magic to be had in answering the call to follow Jesus. As Bilbo sang, “The Road goes ever on and on down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone and I must follow, if I can.”
THE REV. CYNTHIA TAYLOR IS THE PASTOR OF CHURCH OF THE HOLY COMFORTER IN MARTINEZ.