Bilbo’s Journey by Joseph Pearce: Book Review
Now that Peter Jackson is releasing his film versions of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, we can expect a lot more attention to the book… or at least to the story as it’s presented in the films. Given that the films are almost certainly going to be popular, parents, teachers, and ministry leaders, who may or may not have ever read the book or enjoyed fantasy literature, may well find themselves wondering whether there’s something of value in Tolkien’s story (absolutely yes!) and how to help younger readers benefit by it. Bilbo’s Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning of The Hobbit (St. Benedict Press, 2012) by Joseph Pearce is a short, accessible guide to The Hobbit that will be of help in that regard.
Initially, I was a bit put off by the subtitle “Discovering the Hidden Meaning of The Hobbit” since it seemed to imply an allegorical or ‘cracking the code’ approach to Tolkien’s book — which Tolkien would have abhorred (and rightly so). Fortunately, this turns out to not be the case. Though Pearce makes a nod toward treating The Hobbit allegorically in the first chapter, the book is an extended unpacking of the moral and spiritual significance of The Hobbit in a way that brings out insights for readers while still remaining true to Tolkien’s engaging story.
Tolkien’s story of the genesis of The Hobbit (jotting down “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on an exam-paper) is in some ways deceptively simple. It’s easy to assume that the story simply unfolded from there, without much thought or plan, when in reality he worked extensively on drafting and revising the story, with many alterations in character and plot. (In this way, Tolkien is rather more like his friend and fellow Inkling CS Lewis than we might expect.) The just-jotting-down-a-story context encourages readers to dive into the story without preconceptions, but it also means that The Hobbit is sometimes unjustly dismissed as being a simple story.
Bilbo’s Journey is thus well suited to readers who may not realize how much depth a children’s book can have — or who may have previously overlooked the depths of The Hobbit, since it is less complex than The Lord of the Rings. Pearce unfolds a number of important themes that run throughout the book, themes that (when we are aware of them) will enhance our experience of the story.
One of the most significant of these themes is the workings of grace, which Pearce notes is given the literary disguise of ‘luck’ in The Hobbit. Pearce’s discussion here is helpful in bringing out depths of meaning for the reader to appreciate, in such a way that subsequent readings of The Hobbit will be enriched.
Pearce’s discussion of the common threads between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (themes such as kingship and providence) was quite interesting as well. He also discusses the idea of the “dragon-sickness” and its significance for a Christian reader, rightly linking it to Matthew 6:21 (“where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”). I disagreed slightly with Pearce’s analysis at times – for instance, I am not convinced that Tolkien is as critical of Bilbo’s initial spiritual condition as Pearce suggests. However, overall I find Pearce’s reading to be sound and informative.
Two appendices are included that are quite useful, and indeed would serve as a good introduction to the book; I would encourage readers to read these first, as they set the context for Pearce’s analysis. Appendix A is a short piece that introduces readers to the ideas in Tolkien’s important essay “On Fairy-Stories”; Appendix B is a piece reflecting on gratitude, wonder, and the kind of truth found in fairy stories, and is exactly the sort of thing that is helpful for readers who are unsure of the value of fantasy for children (and adults).