J.R.R. Tolkien said of his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, that it was “of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” The same could be said of his earlier work, The Hobbit.
Although The Hobbit can be seen as a prequel, of sorts, to The Lord of the Rings, its relative levitas stands in idiosyncratic contrast to the gravitas of the latter work. This is due to the fact that The Hobbit was written specifically as a children’s book, whereas The Lord of the Rings outgrew its originally intended role as a sequel. As Tolkien wrote the latter book, it took on epic and mythic proportions, “growing up” into adulthood with respect to genre.
The “fundamentally religious and Catholic” dimension of The Hobbit is to be found in its treatment of the “dragon sickness,” which serves the same catalytic moral purpose as does the power of the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Essentially, the dragon sickness is the possessiveness of things, especially gold and gems, which has a detrimental effect on the moral health of the one afflicted with it, as well as a destructive impact on others.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
As the name of the sickness would suggest, dragons are particularly prone to the dragon sickness. Smaug squats on his hoard of treasure, jealously guarding it. He is trapped by it. He cannot leave for fear that a thief might steal something in his absence. Ironically, he is a prisoner of the very thing he is guarding. He is possessed by his possessiveness of his possessions.
As the moral applicability of Smaug’s possessiveness suggests, the dragon sickness does not only afflict dragons. It affects people. It affects dwarves. It affects hobbits.
At the beginning of the story, Bilbo Baggins is suffering from the dragon sickness, though he doesn’t realize it until later, and nor do we. It’s through the experience of the sufferings and dangers of the quest, and the self-sacrificial spirit that such suffering and danger enkindle, that Bilbo comes to understand why the adventure was necessary for his own moral growth and maturity.
When we first meet Bilbo, he is a creature of comfort addicted to the creature comforts. He is squatting on all the comfortable and comforting things with which he has surrounded himself. We are told in the very opening paragraph of the story that Bilbo lived in “a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
Like Smaug, the hobbit is possessed by his possessiveness of his possessions. The dragon lives under the mountain, the hobbit lives under a hill (indeed, the hobbit lives in a part of Hobbiton called Underhill). The difference between the dragon suffering from the dragon sickness and the hobbit suffering from the same affliction is, therefore, merely one of scale (pun intended!).
The reason that Gandalf tells Bilbo that the adventure with the dwarves will be good for Bilbo, the physical dangers notwithstanding, is that Bilbo needs to gain a detachment from his material possessions by detaching himself from them. He needs to escape from the comforts of home in order to experience the fullness of life, which involves the willing embrace of discomfort and suffering as a means of self-sacrificially serving others.
In short and in sum, Bilbo Baggins has to learn how to love; he needs to learn the necessity of laying down his life for his friends. The politeness of domesticity is not enough; he must take up his cross. He must leave the comforts of home to embark on the adventure of life, which is not merely a journey but a pilgrimage. It is the path of holiness, understood allegorically, the quest for heaven.
When Bilbo returns home after the adventure, the kettle on the hearth sounds sweeter than ever because he is no longer possessed by it. He is free from his addiction to the comforts of home. He has recovered from the dragon sickness. “My dear Bilbo!” Gandalf exclaims. “Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.”
Bilbo has changed. Indeed, he has changed so radically that the only real word for it is conversion. It is, therefore, symbolically appropriate that he is “presumed dead” by his neighbors, his having been away for so long. His return home is a return from the dead. A resurrection. Bilbo had learned to die to himself that he might live for others. It is the death that leads to the only life that matters, a life of grace in Christ.
At its deepest level, The Hobbit can be seen as a parabolic commentary on the words from St. Matthew’s Gospel that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. It is in this sense that The Hobbit can be seen as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”
Editor’s Note: This is the forty-third in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”