Lessons from Bilbo

Readers familiar with Tolkien’s adventures in Middle-earth know Bilbo from The Hobbit, which that takes place prior to the adventures of Frodo and the Fellowship. It introduces us to Gandalf and Bilbo, two exceptional friends who encourage one another in a grand adventure. The hobbit journeys forth and encounters dragons, trolls, dwarves, mountains of treasure, battles, wolves from the west, and the creature Gollum, from whom he takes the Ring that becomes pivotal in The Lord of the Rings.

Little-assuming the golden band is of any more worth than as a trinket with the power to make the wearer invisible, Bilbo takes it home to Bag End.

Life is a great adventure.

A central theme to Tolkien’s works are the art of storytelling. His books are full of references to earlier tales. Hobbits thrive on stories, the more dangerous the better. They’d much rather read about an adventure than to live it. Bilbo went on an adventure to create his own story. Most hobbits feel satisfied with humble lives. They would rather smoke pipe weed and gather for a pleasant tale around the bar than don a sword and journey into the unknown. But all his life, Bilbo craved for the lands beyond the Shire. In the book, as much as Gandalf loves the relaxed habits of hobbits, he finds Bilbo’s excitement refreshing and dispatches him on an adventure. Bilbo isn’t just hearing stories; he’s living them!

Life is the chance to embark upon grand adventures. More reclusive hobbits ignore those chances in favor of sameness. In time, they may wish they had gone on more unknown paths. Others take up the sword and spring into action. They bring home stories of derring-do to entertain us and cause us to marvel at their courage.

God wants us to reach our fulfillment and live to the fullest. Our journey may not involve slaying a dragon or accompanying thirteen dwarves and a wizard into the unknown, but if we never walk through the door of opportunity, sooner or later it will close altogether.

 Don’t fear of life. Be careful, make wise decisions, and enjoy it.

The importance of tales.

Throughout his adventures, Bilbo couldn’t wait to get home and tell everyone about them. The creature in the cave and his riddles, the dragon, the mountain of gold, his escapades with the elves, dwarves, and other races of Middle-earth. The magnificent battle against the wolves, and the history of his elven-blade. They are all fodder for his memoirs, a transcript of his life. Bilbo wants to contribute to literature. Hobbits value stories above all else. To them, stories are the fabric of time. They teach lessons by honoring valor, courage, and good triumphing over evil. This is a theme we see throughout the series. Frodo and Sam muse on whether others will mention them in folklore. Tolkien wrote many songs and stories into the books. He valued their importance.

A story can teach a lesson while it entertains. At first glance, we may believe this one is a dark fairy tale full of elves, dwarves, hobbits, romance, adventure, danger, and the never-ending battle for good against evil. But when we step closer, we realize the profoundness scripted into every scene. Important lessons of moral courage, guidance, compassion, forgiveness, honor. Examples of genuine love, and the parallels between Tolkien’s beliefs and the woodlands of a realm known as Middle-earth. We meet unforgettable characters engaged in self-sacrifice as they fight to rid the world of evil and destroy the Ring.

Stories are, have always been, and will always be, important. Never underestimate the power of them. They have a vast influence on society. Charles Dickens’ novels about orphaned boys and the evil practices of boarding schools and orphanages in northern England caused a complete cultural revolution and impacted thousands of lives. The public closed down hundreds of schools for negligence and abuse. C.S. Lewis was the first Christian to breach the gulf between fantasy and theology with his series of fairy tale allegories. His other works (the Space Trilogy, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters) are religious masterpieces. They’ve influenced the belief of thousands of Christians worldwide and remain some of the most popular literature available. Tolkien has a fan base of millions. Scripture uses stories to reach through to us. Jesus told parables (allegories) to illustrate the kingdom of God.

Why did Jesus talk so often in stories? Because people understand stories. They might learn ten times more from a well-written tale than six months of sermons. Stories can be profound because of the messages they carry to their consumers, who digest them without thinking. Stories are powerful, profound, and important. Tolkien shows us virtue, honor, courage, and everything he believed good. Gandalf, Frodo, and the characters of Middle-earth have long lived in our hearts and minds because of the painstaking work he put into his story. Every story has meaning. It is telling us something, and it can be a good lesson or a bad one.

Light can shine through even the dustiest window, but it’s our job to wipe off the glass. Tolkien’s strong Catholic beliefs found its way into his work. He did not intend to reflect his theology, but because he was so steeped in his faith that it took over every aspect of his worldview, it bled through into the text. What bleeds through into the fabric of your life’s work?

 Leaving behind our burdens.

Alas, the most lingering impression of Bilbo in this trilogy are the two instances where he embraces his sinful desires. The first comes when Gandalf asks him to leave the Ring behind; Bilbo lies and says he left it on the mantelpiece. Wait, no… it’s still in his pocket. This turns into anger. Why should he give it up? When Gandalf orders him to leave it behind, Bilbo becomes possessive and accuses his old friend of only wanting it for himself. We glimpse again this selfish desire when he demands Frodo give him the Ring in Rivendell. Yet, in both instances, Bilbo overcomes his sinful impulse, leaves the Ring behind, and continues unhampered on his way. It took great courage to let go of it and walk away.

Often we cling to the things that terrify us because they’re all we know. There comes a time in every person—or hobbit’s—life when we have to release whatever we’re holding on to and take our first step toward freedom. The scene of Bilbo packing to leave the Shire reveals the Ring’s influence over him. He has one hand often in the pocket to reassure himself it’s still there. The widening of his eyes and the intake of breath as he fingers the golden band expresses more than a thousand words. Bilbo has transformed from a loving, friendly hobbit to a self-centered and suspicious one who doubts his oldest and dearest friend. The Ring causes strife and discontentment among all who bear it. It shows the effects of sin on the soul, and the swift corruption of one who tinkers with it.

Gandalf rebukes him for his selfish insecurities. It’s only through prodding that Bilbo removes it from his pocket and lets it drop to the floor. We see his inward struggle. Bilbo turns his hand slowly, loathing to release it; but once he drops it and turns away, a weight lifts off his shoulders. He is once more the cheerful halfling. Squaring his shoulders, his thoughts return to his book and his new adventure. He will not have the Ring for protection on the journey, but this no longer concerns him. He has already forgotten it.

If you think something has power over you, whether that’s addiction or a selfish thought process, it’s nice to know that just as Bilbo left something that controlled him behind, we can choose each minute of every day to walk away from those thoughts and behaviors. The power is ours. And if we fail or stumble, there is always a second chance. It’s never too late.

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