Greetings, all! Today I have a special treat for you all in the form of a lovely guest post by The Philologist (aka Elisabeth). She is a woman of many talents, which include writing beautifully and playing the violin very well.
So without further ado, here is “Not the Same Hobbit”:
Most book-heroes belong to one of two categories: the learning hero or the lucky hero. The learning hero is changed by the events of the story and ends the book a different man than he began. The lucky hero, by contrast, stays essentially the same, while circumstances change around him, taking him for a wild ride. Mister Bilbo Baggins has the privilege of being both.
There is no doubt that he is grown by his adventure (as Gandalf remarks in the last chapter, he is not the same Hobbit who set out from Bag-End), yet he never ceases to be himself—the gentle, home-loving soul we met in chapter one. It is interesting to see how his neighbors view him when he gets home: queer, and not quite respectable anymore, but still a Hobbit and a Baggins. If they had seen him only a matter of weeks before brushing elbows with Elf-lords, conversing with magical beasts, and helping bring ancient prophecies to pass, they probably would not have trusted their senses.
In the course of his adventures Bilbo is awakened to the greatness of life. He experiences real danger, true friendship, and high courage. He sees far-off places and meets strange people; he learns what sacrifice is, both internal and external. The beautiful thing is that when he returns home, he does not scorn the Shire because of what he has learned. He holds onto the good qualities we saw in him at the beginning: a love of people, a love of nature, an appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. His neighbors are right in thinking he is still, in the end, a Hobbit.
Bilbo’s journey is a good analogy for a reader’s journey into a realm of fiction—particularly fantasy, legend, or fairy-tale. In such stories, we may travel to places as impossibly far-off as the Lonely Mountain is to the inhabitants of Hobbiton, and meet dangers as foreign as dragons and hostile Elves. These “pretend worlds” seemingly have nothing to do with our real lives, and are at best (we might be tempted to think) a fun way to relax and refresh ourselves for the work of the “actual world”, when in fact these stories have the power to change us as Bilbo’s adventures changed him, equipping us to better live the life we have been given.
We do not live in a merely physical world. Our world is also a world of feelings and spirits and ideas and truths and miracles. Our world is supernatural as well as natural. Yet our senses become dull easily, and we begin to live as though the spiritual were less real than the physical. We walk according to what we see, not according to “the things that are unseen”. Imaginative stories can keep us from slipping into such a mindset, strangely enough, by painting spiritual things as though they were physical. When we come into the presence of Smaug, a vast and terrifying presence, radiating heat, sending shadows leaping up the walls and a glow like fire glinting from the gold, we are cowed; and when he speaks with his dragon-tongue, proud and subtle, mixing truth with lie, we understand in a new way what temptation is. We have heard its whispers in our own hearts and minds, but now we understand it for what it is—the malicious deceit of a serpent who seeks only his own glory and our destruction. We do not simply know it in our minds; we have experienced it. Spiritual truth is often easiest for us to grasp when we imagine it in physical form, as in the parables Jesus told—the lying tongue of a dragon is only one of countless examples.
Conversely, our appreciation for physical blessings is increased when we see them through spiritual eyes. When Bilbo comes home to the Shire after his journey, he sees old, familiar things in a new light. After looking upon perilous mountains and dark forests, he looks at the hills and trees he has known all his life and they are suddenly beautiful. After coming close to death in so many different ways, he has a keener appreciation for everyday life. Frodo’s experience at the end of The Lord of the Rings is similar: he sees his neighbors, simple and silly and happily ignorant of the world, and he loves them the more dearly because he has known suffering and sacrifice. To Bilbo and Frodo colors are brighter, water is sweeter, and the sun is warmer. Their senses have been stretched to take in greatness, grief, majesty, beauty, love—and suddenly they see these things everywhere, when they had overlooked them before.
We are all born “lucky heroes”. The world around us is moved by the sovereign hand of God, and we find ourselves thrown into dangers or dropped into valleys we did not expect. But through these adventures, physical, spiritual, and even literary, we can become “learning heroes”: growing as we journey, expanding our hearts to greater loves and our minds to higher thoughts. And hopefully at our journey’s end we will find, like Bilbo, that without ceasing to be a Hobbit, we have become something more.