More than seventy-five years after J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, the glory and majesty of Middle-earth continues to draw millions of readers, and more recently, moviegoers. This week, theaters prepare for Friday’s opening of the acclaimed new movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Partly, Tolkien’s enduring popularity can be explained by the way he artfully touches the greatest themes of our collective experience of this world. Tolkien draws on themes of glory and majesty and kingship — intangible and abstract realities not easy to tap in art — and deeply embeds those themes into Middle-earth.
On a massive scale in The Lord of the Rings, and on a smaller, but no less significant, scale in The Hobbit, we encounter the longing for the right king to emerge from the shadows and to recapture his rightful empire, an ancient yearning older than mythical kings like King Arthur.
Today, kings are mostly marginalized to meaningless pageantry. But there remains in kingship an enduring significance that is inescapable, something deeply burned into our souls, something telling us the world will only prosper when it’s ruled by the true king.
Where no kings reign, evil reigns. Tolkien knows this. This is what makes the Misty Mountains so treacherous for the company of Bilbo, the dwarves, and Gandalf, the travelers in The Hobbit. From the outset of their journey together, the wise wizard knows full well that to travel “over those great tall mountains with lonely peaks and valleys where no king ruled,” meant danger and “fearful adventure.”
No foot treads casually through realms unruled.
The kings must return, and the returning king in The Hobbit is Thorin, the true king of the Lonely Mountain and its vast caverns of golden wealth. When we enter the story, Thorin has been displaced by a wicked usurper, a liar and a stealer, the dragon named Smaug who is “the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities.” Smaug’s mutiny is driven by his wrongful claim to be, in his own words, “the real King under the Mountain.”
He wasn’t, but his false claim sets up a climactic declaration later in The Hobbit: “I am Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror King under the Mountain! I return!”
The Hobbit should be read (or viewed) as a clash of competing kings, and when the rightful king returns, evil is imperiled. The great dragon Smaug must be struck down, and he will be, and rumors of his death will unleash waves of lesser evils, all vying for the wealth of the Lonely Mountain.
All these evil, greedy marauders must be driven from the Lonely Mountain, and such victory is tied to kingship.
The king is come unto his hall,
Under the Mountain dark and tall.
The Worm of Dread is slain and dead,
And ever so our foes shall fall.
If the great dragon falls and the true king returns, all other foes are doomed. The return of the king and the death of Smaug bring revolution to Middle-earth. As The Hobbit ends, we read of the Misty Mountains, the range of mountains once unruled, now governed by Beorn, the shape-shifing man/bear. Under Beorn, the Misty Mountains will be expelled of goblins and Wargs, evil will retreat, and men will travel through the Misty Mountains in peace.
Kings in Middle-Earth
This is how Middle-earth works. Unashamedly, Middle-earth is a world of kings. In his book The Philosophy of Tolkien, Peter Kreeft perceptively picks up on this point.
Though we do not have kings in America, or want them, our unconscious mind both has them and wants them. We all know what a true king is, a real king, an ideal king, an archetypal king. He is not a mere politician or soldier. Something in us longs to give him our loyalty and fealty and service and obedience. He is lost but longed for and will some day return, like Arthur.
In The Lord of the Rings, Arthur’s name is “Aragorn.” When we read The Lord of the Rings, he returns to his throne in our minds. He was always there; The Lord of the Rings only brings him back into our consciousness from the tomb of the unconscious, where he was sleeping. (44–45)
Tim Keller builds on this point in a sermon on Psalm 2:
We have to have democracy because human beings are so sinful that none of us really are fit to rule. But we need a king. We were built for a king.
The reason for the old myths, the reason for the new myths (all the superhero myths are new myths about kings), the reason we adore kings and create them is because there is a memory trace in the human race, in you and me, of a great King, an ancient King, one who did rule with such power and wisdom and compassion and justice and glory so his power and wisdom and compassion and glory were like the sun shining in full strength. We know we were built to submit to that King, to stand before and adore and serve and know that King.
That’s what the Bible says. The Bible says there is a King above the kings. There is a King behind the kings. There is a King beneath all of those legends. Even the greatest kings are just dim reflections of the memory trace in us.
Tolkien taps into this deep ache within us. We were made by a King, and we were made to be ruled by him. And when the right king reigns, prosperity will again reign over the land. The biblical prophets understood this (Isaiah 60), and it is this prophetic longing Tolkien puts into the mouths of the Dwarves, who solemnly, longingly sing,
The King beneath the mountains,
The King of carven stone,
The lord of silver fountains
Shall come into his own!
His crown shall be upholden,
His harp shall be restrung,
His halls shall echo golden
To songs of yore re-sung.
The woods shall wave on mountains
And grass beneath the sun;
His wealth shall flow in fountains
And the rivers golden run.
The streams shall run in gladness,
The lakes shall shine and burn,
And sorrow fail and sadness
At the Mountain-king’s return!
Thorin, the returning king in The Hobbit, is no Aragorn (the returning king in The Lord of the Rings). Thorin is a flawed king, egotistical and cranky, and yet he carries the hopes of the ancient prophecy.
Hope and letdown are intertwined in our kings. All of our kings will go wrong somehow (1 Samuel 8). Too often, our kings grow selfish. And even the most selfless of our kings will die. They are slayed in battle (like Thorin), or they are slayed by the ticking clock (according to Gollum’s riddle).
And therein is the problem: in the end, none of our kings will do.
The Return of the King
And so we find ourselves caught. We don’t want kings, but our modern disdain to be ruled by them cannot snuff out this “memory trace in the human race.” As much as we modern, king-rejecting, independents may reject the thought, we really do know we were made to be ruled, made to be governed by a perfectly righteous King, a king worthy of all our obedience and service, who will finally usher in perfect peace and unleash rivers of joyful abundance so great that piles of gold coins will fade to metaphor.
This is the allure of Middle-earth.
We are drawn to Middle-earth by this swelling, ungratified longing for the Day when the true King will return to evict the vile dragon and reclaim the land he has, in reality, always possessed (2 Timothy 4:8).
The prophetic songs are in place.
Even so, come Lord Jesus!