Stories are the oldest way to educate someone. Back in the day, kids from the tribe would gather around at the campfire to listen to their elders tell them about the evil boars, or the vicious snakes that they would learn to watch out for.
As time passed, and mankind became more complex and articulate, we began to notice patterns. Historical patterns are important, but there is one particular pattern that stood out above the rest: the Hero story. A “sacred story” (mythos) that we still tell to this day. But, there was a change in the type of hero that mankind was teaching.
Today’s heroes are lackluster, boring, and unheroic. They are designed to be inhuman, where there is no growth, no learning, no development, and no struggles. Today’s heroes come from the skies; skies that are even better than the heavens Homer’s Greek gods descended from, because even Homer’s gods had flaws that the Greek could relate to. Their inhuman perfection makes them dull.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” however, we find a true hero. Bilbo Baggins—–a Hobbit. Not a hero in the modern sense (too perfect that the adventure is really them correcting everyone else), but a real hero…..one who really needs the journey.
There are plenty of things to talk about Tolkien: his sense of humor, his knowledge of languages, the cohesiveness of his world, his beautiful prose, his love for nature, etc. What I do want to focus on are these themes that are noticeably important,
- Happiness does not come from wealth, nor power, nor pleasure, nor honor. Happiness comes from love.
- Heroes come from unlikely places
- “Dragon sickness” (addiction) is within all of us.
These 3 themes come together in a cohesive understanding of human nature in regard to: where are we going, how are going to get there, and why should we bother going in the first place. These questions were asked before Tolkien’s time, and they are still asked today. They can be summed up to the classical question that all people want answered in their lifetime: “what is the good life?” Tolkien’s answers can be shocking considering how the modern mind sees the human condition. By default, teenagers adopt modern positions, for example,
- Happiness is subjective ( I decide what makes me happy);
- Heroes are elite; and
- Since I decide what is happiness, that means I also decide what is good and bad. Therefore, I cannot do evil.
Tolkien’s book faces these challenges with the unlikeliest of heroes, a Hobbit that starts off, by default, with these positions. He dismisses Gandalf with these arguments, but they all fall flat under the wizard’s scrutiny. Human nature is not designed that way and Tolkien is set out to prove how illogical and morally bankrupt these modern arguments are.
Happiness and its Source
At the beginning of this story, the reader encounters Bilbo; a Hobbit that is respected in the Shire (Power), is rich (Wealth), is surrounded by good food and drink ( Pleasure), and is a Baggins (Fame). He has it all, but he is still unsatisfied. He understands that something is lacking in his life, but this perplexes him because he has every material need fulfilled. Then comes in Gandalf and pushes him into something Bilbo does not want to do, but really needs ——- to go on an adventure.
Comforts are nice to have, but they damage our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. We get sluggish, and we lose sight of what’s really important. Social media, TV, sweets; all these things are Sugar to the Soul. And when someone on the outside intervenes, we get defensive. Subconsciously, however, we do recognize that we do need to break the habits. But if these comforts do not make us happy, what does?
Tolkien’s answer is: love. People are designed to love one another; to desire and do good things for others. To look outside of themselves and see our neighbors as they really are. And this requires us to step out of our comfort zones. In Bilbo’s case, it is the Shire. Gandalf enlists Bilbo to help a group of dwarves get their stolen treasure back. Tolkien is subtle, but effective, in showing us that heroes are born outside their egos.
An Unlikely Hero
In contrast to the modern heroes, Tolkien’s hero is unpolished, sloppy, and unprepared. He starts his adventure dragging along, becoming, essentially, the burden of the expedition. Rarely do we ever start off being like Rey from Star Wars: flawless. She, like all modern heroes, are unrelatable; therefore, unpopular among the masses, but beloved by the elite. Bilbo, on the other hand, is a screw up, constantly getting the expedition in trouble.
Bilbo, like all of us, is left with a choice. To abort mission and return to the hazy, oblivious comfortable life, or push forward for the sake of the others who need him.
By choosing correctly, Bilbo started transforming; gradually, but surely. He gained the approval of Thorin and his group of dwarves, and he even surprised Gandalf with his courage demonstrated in the caves, his prudence for escaping the spiders in Mirkwood, and the love shown risking his life to confront Smaug. Heroes do not all fall from the heavens; sometimes, they come from the comfort of their couch.
Dragon Sickness is Within Us All
Tolkien, by introducing Smaug, made crystal clear what was hinted throughout the rest of the book: we can all become addicted to goods. This addiction, called here “dragon sickness,” turns us into ourselves, getting us, like Smaug, stuck in The Lonely Mountain. Tolkien writes metaphorically: physical acts and appearances represent the condition of the soul. Addiction can get us stuck in a cave: alone, bitter, hating ourselves and everyone else. Our minds and hearts start deforming, like Gollum, making us less than human. We turn into ourselves, disregarding the happiness that comes from the rhythm of love.
Tolkien never argued that goods in themselves were bad. He did, however, demonstrate what happens when we place goods at the center of our lives. The most prized treasure, the Arkenstone, tempted Thorin and he put it over everybody else. He went so far as to try to kill Bilbo over the treasure. Gollum was lost, deformed and so lonely he talked to himself as if there was someone else with him. The Master of Laketown was so into himself, that in the first sign of trouble, he abandoned his people, leaving a hole so big that only Bard could fill it. The elven king of Mirkwood is stuck in his pride and his disdain for dwarves, affecting his leadership.
Dragon sickness is real. It is stopping the flow of life that comes from loving and being loved. Finally, by stopping the rhythm of life, our soul becomes like water that stopped flowing: stagnant. It is this reminder that all of us are stained by this addiction that helps us see the lunacy of self sufficiency, this modern idea that we can be happy on our own. That we can only rely on ourselves. That we always have the last word. Thorin, before dying, apologized to Bilbo, declaring that mankind and the world would be better by unity, and not by isolation.
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
-The Return Journey
All these activities are intimate and require the trust that can only be gained with love. They all require letting go of ourselves and opening up to our neighbor. This is Tolkien’s remedy for our illness.
“The Hobbit,” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Penguin Random House, Del Rey Mass Market Edition (2020) J.R.R. Tolkien Estate Ltd.