A Review of
A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth
Reviewed by Timothy Stege.
The Christmas season is always a time of anticipation, and for lovers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, this holiday season holds yet another reason to countdown the days in December: the release of the ?rst installment of The Hobbit, directed by Peter Jackson. I haven’t needed a calendar to mark the approach of the release date; several days a week I walk past a bookstore in downtown Chicago on my way to work and watch as the Hobbit-themed merchandise takes up more shelf, table, and window space as the day draws nearer. In addition to various versions of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and other Tolkien works, you can get bobble head Gollums, Bilbo Baggins action ?gures, and plastic light-up Sting swords. There are, of course, multiple books capitalizing on the new ?lm that present themselves as companions or guides to Tolkien’s story and Jackson’s adaptation.
Matthew Dickerson’s A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth may have been released in the same season as all the hobbit- focused promotional books and merchandise, but it certainly is no movie promo book. It is an updated version of Dickerson’s 2003 book Following Gandalf, revised and expanded. Dickerson states that one of the motivations for revising the book is “that there continues to be new material to draw on…[which] includes both previously unpublished source material from Tolkien himself and new and perceptive secondary scholarship” (8). The book itself does not merely focus on The Hobbit, but on all of Tolkien’s well-known Middle-earth writings, as well as exploring ideas in his letters and essays and other less well-known pieces of Tolkien’s work.
Dickerson explores a range of themes in Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings; however, he does not limit himself to literary elements or character analysis. Throughout the book, he points beyond the narrative and its characters and events to the author and his worldview, making the claim that Tolkien’s Middle-earth narrative present his own philosophies: “Yet Tolkien’s philosophy permeates his works like the ?avor of a stew permeates all its ingredients. Indeed, this is true not only of Tolkien’s works but of all literature: a work of literature always re?ects the philosophy of its author” (5). Standing on this premise, Dickerson draws out several aspects of what he believes represent Tolkien’s worldview.
A large portion of the book––four of the ten chapters––is about the ethics of war and the ability to exercise sound judgment and wisdom even in times of con?ict. Dickerson makes a strong argument that Tolkien, because of the way he presents the treatment of prisoners of war by various parties throughout his books, puts forth an ethic of humane treatment for prisoners that forbids torture and extreme punishment even when used to elicit information that may be bene?cial or even save lives. Not only is torture to be eschewed, but Tolkien models warriors who ?ght out of necessity more than any real lust for it. His most noble warriors and heroes exemplify gentleness and restraint as much as or more than brute strength and force. As Dickerson describes, “Even in the midst of war, the virtue of gentleness––a virtue that seems inherently antithetical to war itself––should still be practiced, and indeed is practiced by Tolkien’s heroes” (36). Though there are many wars and much violence and death throughout Tolkien’s tales, these elements are not glori?ed in and of themselves, but afford the opportunity for Tolkien’s heroes to demonstrate wisdom, compassion, restraint, and mercy as they face these con?icts but do not conform themselves to the evil practices of their enemy.
Dickerson turns to matters of fate versus choice, and the nature of heroism in Middle-earth. He acknowledges that there appears to be an overarching sense of purpose and destiny pervading the narrative, but maintains that at the same time the characters are each of them free to make their own choices regarding their participation in the tale unfolding before them. He cites Frodo’s acceptance of the burden to take the ring to Mordor as proof of this freedom of choice. While from the start his inheritance of the ring and his role may seem laden with destiny, he still volunteers at the Council of Elrond to carry things through to completion. Dickerson writes that it is this freedom of choice that makes his actions heroic: “That it is a free choice is exactly what makes Frodo a hero whose seat belongs with the greatest heroes of Middle-earth. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a world where heroism is possible because it is a world where real choices are possible” (100). While the second half of the book explores themes of moral responsibility, good and evil, the reality of an unseen spiritual realm and a good and powerful Creator, the underlying reality of the freedom to choose powerfully shapes the narrative and, in Dickerson’s view, demonstrates Tolkien’s belief that people have the ability to choose the good and noble path.
The ?nal chapter, entitled Ilúvatar’s Theme and the Real War, explores the extent to which Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings are Christian in nature. While I appreciated every part of Dickerson’s discussion throughout the book, even where I disagreed with some of his conclusions, I think this chapter is especially well-nuanced and balanced. Beginning with why it is reasonable to say it is not a Christian work, Dickerson explores the roots of Tolkien’s work and the connections to mythology in Middle-earth–– particularly Old Norse and Germanic mythologies, which had strong pagan roots. Nonetheless, supporting his claim in the introduction of the book regarding the philosophies of the author being re?ected in an author’s works, Dickerson claims that at the same time it is fair and accurate to describe it as a Christian work because of the worldviews of the author. Rather than attempting to allegorize these tales, though, Dickerson states that a more accurate understanding of how they function as Christian tales is that of stories through a “Christian understanding of a pre-Christian time” (240).
If Dickerson’s claim about authors and their philosophies is true, then Tolkien didn’t have to set out to create a Christian tale––he couldn’t help but do so, insofar as the events and characters and values portrayed therein quite naturally embody the author’s lifelong faith. I for one feel this leaves us with stories much richer and deeper and more beautiful than if Tolkien had intentionally fashioned a tale around his own faith. Matthew Dickerson has contributed a scholarly, yet accessible, exploration of Middle-earth and Tolkien himself that also clearly demonstrates his own love for this body of work.