Bilbo’s Last Goodbye

This is it for the Bagginses. At least for now, on the big screen. The Battle of the Five Armies, opening this week, is the sixth and final film in Peter Jackson’s pair of Tolkien trilogies.

First, in 2001–2003, Lord of the Rings was nearly 1400 pages distilled into about ten hours on film. Now Battle of Five Armies completes The Hobbit movie trilogy, which expands Tolkien’s single 300-page book into almost nine hours of motion pictures. You may be able to read The Hobbit in a little over five hours, but it will take you almost twice that long to watch Jackson’s rendition.

Not to add another voice with the naysayers. I’m delighted for the expansion, and Jackson’s efforts to weave white orcs and other wizards into The Hobbit, in a way that Tolkien didn’t, make the connections even deeper with the sequel. The Tolkien ultra-enthusiasts, including his son Christopher, have registered their frustrations — and likely would have done so with any theatrical version of the story. Their critiques can be pretty picky, and some have the smell of a musty hobbit hole.

Say what you may about Jackson, he has done Tolkien and us a great service. Whatever disappointments we may have with the details, he has introduced millions of new readers, and a whole new generation, to Middle-earth. Countless of us, without Jackson’s midwifery, never would have buried ourselves in the pages of The Hobbit and its trilogy-sequel.

There’s a World Out There

One of the great effects, both of Tolkien’s stories and Jackson’s retellings, is the expansion of the human soul. We have such a proclivity to settle into such small things over time. We were made for more than vicarious living through social media and ESPN. There is real adventure to be had in God’s fantastic world, real evil to fight, real moral complexities to navigate, real sorrows to bear, real redemption to celebrate. Tolkien created Middle-earth not as an escape from the real world, but as a retreat to see our reality all the clearer and come back more wide awake to our world.

Such effect on the soul is captured in the first Hobbit movie as Bilbo comes to after fainting from hearing what a dragon can do to him. “I’ll be alright,” he says to Gandalf, “Just let me sit quietly for a moment.” To which the wise wizard replies,

You’ve been sitting quietly for far too long. Tell me, when did doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you? I remember a young hobbit who was always running off in search of Elves, in the woods. He’d stay out late, come home, after dark, trailing mud and twigs and fireflies. A young hobbit who would’ve liked nothing better than to find out what was beyond the borders of the Shire. The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there.

Tolkien’s stories summon us, like the wizard’s rebuke, not to settle for our little comforts and play spaces and semblances of control, but to dream for more, to lose ourselves in some great global pursuit, to vanquish the foe, to win the peoples.

See the Invisible Hand

But on our own we will be swallowed up by such a quest. Evil in the world is real and powerful, as Tolkien so starkly portrays. And so throughout The Hobbit, says Devin Brown, Tolkien is teaching us a lesson about “luck,” mentioning the term over and over again. “Luck” is said to rescue Bilbo repeatedly in just the nick of time. But on the book’s final page, Tolkien reveals what he’s been setting us up for all along. It’s Bilbo and Gandalf again.

“You don’t really suppose, do you,” the wizard asks the hobbit, “that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” Gandalf continues, “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!” To this Bilbo replies with happiness and humility, “Thank goodness!”

In the end, the hobbit’s “luck” points beyond mere coincidence in surviving, and triumphing in such a great adventure, to an invisible Hand at work in the entirety of the story.

But even more poignant than some Great Providence at every harrowing turn is the climactic moment of rescue and resolution. Which now, at long last, we come to in this third and final installment of The Hobbit. It is what Tolkien called “the Consolation of the Happy Ending” in his powerful essay “On Fairy Stories.”

A Fleeting Glimpse of Joy

Here we finally taste “the joy of the happy ending.” But don’t think that means it comes with simplicity, and that you can see it coming. Tolkien coined a term for this happy ending that “all complete fairy-stories must have.” He called it “Eucatastrophe,” which means “the good catastrophe.” It is

the sudden joyous “turn” . . . a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of . . . sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance: it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [the gospel], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world.

In Lord of the Rings, the creature Gollum bites the ring from Frodo’s finger just as he has reached the fires of Mount Doom and turned away unable to part with his precious. The catastrophe of Gollum taking the ring and his finger turns for good when Gollum slips and falls into the fires below, accomplishing Frodo’s great mission. Watch for “the sudden joyous ‘turn’” in Battle of Five Armies. Jackson has borrowed it from Tolkien. But Tolkien would be the first to say that he borrowed it as well.

The Gleam of the Gospel

The great insight of Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” is that the Christian story “is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.” The “Joy” we experience at the sudden climactic turn from evil to good, from death to life, from utter darkness to brilliant light, is a “gleam or echo of evangelium [the gospel] in the real world.” Says Tolkien,

The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.

And so the dazzling zenith of the fairy story, as in The Hobbit,

looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian Joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men — and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

J.R.R. Tolkien, covert Christian Hedonist we might say, wrote The Hobbit for your joy — that you would experience a joy connected to the Great Joy itself. Tolkien would say that Jackson has strung us along with some foretastes of the joy at the end of the first two films, but now we come to the true “happy ending” and the moment when this tale draws closest to the Happy Ending of all history.

This final hobbit movie won’t be it for Tolkien. His stories are as popular as they’ve been, and surely he’ll have another day on the big screen. Hollywood keeps redoing the Batman, after all; the Bagginses will come again soon.

This may be Bilbo’s last goodbye under Jackson, but for Christians, here we find just a gleam, just a faint echo of the Joy that is, and is coming, and will shine and sound for all eternity, and satisfy our souls in that True Story for which we were made.