This past summer my junior honors theology students read The Hobbit in preparation for their morality class this fall. While reading, I discovered why so many enjoy The Hobbit. We can connect so well with Bilbo Baggins and the other characters because they are so real, so like us. One can also find many “hidden” parallels or analogies to the Catholic Faith if they are truly sought out. What draws so many readers to The Hobbit is this central Christian message: there is a Bilbo Baggins inside of us who is faced with a decision whether or not to embrace the adventure of “life” that we have been given in order to find our true destination of eternal life.
Call to Holiness and Sainthood
In the beginning of the book, we are introduced to Bilbo, a hobbit who lives in his hobbit hole of Bag End enjoying the comforts of his home, the Shire, and his many possessions. The wizard Gandalf, Thorin and 12 other Dwarves, visit Bilbo and invite him on an “adventure.” Hobbits are naturally reluctant to drop everything and head out on adventures. Thus Bilbo battles with himself but ultimately decides to join the group to reclaim the Dwarves’ home in the Lonely Mountain (including the treasure it contains) and defeat the dragon Smaug.
Herein lies the “choice” that we face in life either up front like Bilbo or as more of a process throughout life. Our choice is to accept the call from God to become whom He created us to be, to go out on an adventure calling us out of our comfort zones and leave any attachments behind to pursue the true treasure of Heaven. When Jesus calls forth Peter and Andrew, their response is to literally drop everything and follow him (Matthew 4:18-22). Unlike Peter and the Apostles, Bilbo hesitates at first because, like us, he enjoys the comforts of Bag End and his possessions. Eventually Bilbo does join the group; one can’t help but imagine there is some sort of “supernatural” push—the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—to accept Gandalf’s invitation.
Throughout history many people, including saints, have hesitated to answer God’s call to follow Him on the adventure of life by embracing their true vocation. We can enjoy the comforts and possessions of what the world offers, but deep down inside we desire more than what this life has to offer. As St. Augustine so famously put it: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You, O Lord.” It is Christ who offers us a life of true abundance (John 10:10).
We have a sense of adventure and restlessness because we have been made for more—for a life in complete communion with God. That is why God often challenges people by calling them out of their comfort zones and into the ongoing drama of salvation history. Gandalf knew there was more to Bilbo then the humble hobbit realized. But it took time for Bilbo to understand why Gandalf chose him to join the group on their adventure.
A Simple Hobbit Becomes a Saint
The adventure will truly transform Bilbo in ways he could not anticipate. As the band sets out for Lonely Mountain, Bilbo longs for the comforts of Bag End. However, as time passes we start to see Bilbo adopt a more positive attitude toward the mission and the role he plays.
When Bilbo and the Dwarves are captured by the Goblins, Bilbo is able to “escape” and ultimately help his comrades because he found a ring that made him invisible. Bilbo’s transformation begins when he recognizes the greater good by going back to help his friends escape the clutches of the Goblins. We see Bilbo starting to draw out of himself and live for the others. We are called to do the same. As Fr. Robert Barron puts it, “the spiritual life is not about yourself.” Jesus himself gives up all the “pleasures” of this world, all of the self-interested plans and desires of individuals. Instead Jesus heals the sick, feeds the hungry, reaches out to the outcasts of society, and ultimately gives his life on the cross for humanity.
Bilbo was once a “follower” of the group, one who stood in the back and let Gandalf, Thorin, and the others take the lead, but now he sees the qualities and virtues he possesses in himself that Gandalf recognized all along. By embracing the spirit of the adventure, Bilbo becomes a new person, bolder, more daring and courageous. What is the image of Peter we see in the Gospels? At times he is very bold, but when it came to test his true faith and character, he denied Christ even after Jesus told him he would. Turn to the Acts of the Apostles after Pentecost when the Apostles receive the Holy Spirit—what is the image of Peter now? Not only does he stand before thousands in Jerusalem speaking the Gospel message; he continually puts himself in danger by proclaiming Jesus crucified and risen and later going to Rome where he himself was crucified upside down. Peter and the Apostles have to grow in their courage and faith to accept the challenge that Christ called them to as disciples. As Christian disciples, it is not easy living that out in the world today, but as Bilbo has shown us “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Not only does Bilbo recognize his own transformation, so does this fellow adventurers. When we embark on and live out God’s spiritual adventure, it is recognizable or attractive to others. When we tackle those tough moments and adventures in life with courage and perseverance, we learn more about ourselves. One could say there is a bit of holiness that shines forth that others can see. Many people sought after Jesus because they were attracted to his holiness. When we accept that call from God in our own lives, the Holy Spirit helps us to grow in holiness. Our adventure in holiness is not only a personal search, but one that invites others on the same adventure.
The Road and the Desire for Home
Bilbo starts out not really knowing what to expect on this adventure to reclaim the “long forgotten gold” under Lonely Mountain but in the end helps to reclaim much more than gold. He truly finds himself by “following the path.” There lies another insight into the Christian journey: the path to God, to Heaven, which is our true destination, will lead to happiness, but not without a little “luck.” Many times the Dwarves refer to some of the successful outcomes or results of Bilbo’s actions as luck. We can’t disregard those as pure chance. Bilbo made the right decisions in those instances and is able to receive some “luck.” This luck can be seen as God’s grace—God’s own supernatural life within us—because Bilbo chooses to follow the right path. He chooses to receive the gift of grace so as to overcome many challenges. Bilbo also is a beneficiary of “luck” or grace because of what he truly values. He realized in the end what the Dwarves miss throughout the book: that material possessions do not lead to true happiness.
When Bilbo finds the Arkenstone under Lonely Mountain he could have easily kept it for himself and slipped on the ring and headed back to the Shire. Instead, he gives it away much like he gave himself to the others throughout the story. Bilbo had truly surrendered himself to a path of service because he found happiness in giving his life away to help others. He follows the words of C.S. Lewis who said that “if the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him make it), and he may refuse.” Through self-sacrifice, Bilbo finds himself firmly on the path to true happiness. Bilbo is not seduced by greed, the “dragon’s sickness” but instead detaches himself from the world to follow the path of righteousness.
We are “pilgrims on a journey” and our destination is Heaven. On that adventure we truly find what we have been looking for, although as Bilbo found out it is not exactly what we may be seeking. In the end, Bilbo was certainly not the hobbit he was when he began the journey. Like his, our path to Heaven will also be filled with many dangers and challenges. It is through those challenges that we find our true selves and our vocation. At first we may be reluctant, but when we give ourselves up to God and receive His gift of grace, we are transformed into the person we were made to be. We are attracted to Bilbo Baggins because of the hobbit in each one of us. We are attracted to a greater destination than what the world has to offer. It is only by staying on that path to holiness that we find happiness and when we find true happiness we too, like Bilbo, will find our way home.
Editor’s note: The image above is taken from the 1977 animated television version of The Hobbit produced by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr.