IS BILBO BAGGINS CATHOLIC? REVIEWING THE HOBBIT
A great Irish saint once said, "We are but guests of the world...life is a journey and we are all pilgrims along the way." Sort of sums up the Catholic belief that the journey is part of what it means to be alive and what we do with what we have been given determines how well we have accepted God’s gift of life. So does that make Bilbo Baggins Catholic? Nope. Everything in Middle-earth is set long before the coming of Christ. But as a book and a film, The Hobbit is indeed Catholic in theme, scope and heart.
The first of three movies, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a delight. Yes, it is long, but just to go back to Middle-earth and see old friends and go on new adventures is really like coming home again. There has never been anything like this in cinema history. No need to go into details about how good the acting is, or how new technology makes it even easier on the eyes, or how much money this extravaganza is going to make. You can read other reviews for that. Here, though, you can find out why this movie is so drenched with Catholic values and heart.
First, the Ordinary is really the Extraordinary. Tolkien’s true hero is always the normal guy. Bilbo Baggins is us. Nice little life, nice little income, a house, family, friends, everything he needs to be happy he has. He seems incapable of heroism. But Tolkien surrounds him with the community of the Shire who with hard work, love and care have given the little hobbit strengths he didn’t think he had. When the film brings Saruman and Gandalf together, Saruman says that only the noble can defeat evil, and Gandalf disagrees. He believes the strongest resistance to evil is given by ordinary men and women, the small folk, who day by day chase away the darkness through their daily acts of goodness. That’s why Gandalf trusts Bilbo.
Second, everyone has a destiny. One of the dramatic questions in the film is whether Bilbo will embrace the destiny he has been given. He has a choice, but Gandalf the wizard tells him there is a right choice and a wrong choice. If he goes on the journey, he will be changed; nothing will be the same again. Rather than sounding ominous, the chance to embrace a destiny intrigues Bilbo. If he stays home, the promise of change, growth, and wonder will disappear.
Third, courage, loyalty, and friendship will see a person through terrible trials. Underneath these three values lies selflessness. The greedy dwarves, the fearful Bilbo hardly look like heroes, but they rise to the occasion when faced with danger. They are not perfect heroes, but they do not discard what is noble in themselves. Instead, they act on it and achieve greatness.
Fourth, there is great beauty and goodness in the world. No darkness can extinguish the presence of the Creator’s hand. No one ever mentions God in the film, but they don’t have to. Director Peter Jackson’s spectacular use of the ethereal beauty of New Zealand drives into our consciousness that no Necromancer, no darkness, no evil can be stronger than good. The land is good, the people are good, what is dark does not belong in the world. We know that if the company of dwarves, hobbit and wizard can remain faithful to what’s good in themselves, there will be help given to deliver them from evil.
Fifth, Mercy runs throughout the film. Gandalf tells Frodo when he gives him the sword "Sting" that true heroism isn’t about taking life, it’s about knowing when to give rather than take life. In one of the climatic scenes of the film and book, Bilbo has a chance to kill Gollum, but he chooses mercy instead. He doesn’t know, but we do, that if he had killed Gollum–and the wretched creature surely deserved death–Sauron in later years would win the War of the Ring because Gollum would not be there to plunge it into Mt. Doom. It is Bilbo’s act of mercy in this film that ultimately saves all Middle Earth sixty years hence during the War of the Ring.
There will be some who might quibble that these are not specifically Catholic values. But they would be wrong. Look at our world; look at the violence we have had to endure as the year comes to an end. No atheist, no secularist, indeed no other religion stands out as clearly as Catholicism to say that these values still have power to defeat evil. Christmas tells us that always the light will prevail. Thank God. And thank J. R. R. Tolkien for telling a tale with the same values–a story to give us hope and light, here in the bleak mid-winter.