Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Lessons from The Hobbit

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

Mr. Bilbo Baggins, protagonist of Tolkien's novel The Hobbit, is involuntarily recruited to participate in an adventure.  He is not the adventuresome type (or, rather, he doesn't believe himself to be) and would much prefer the comfort of a second breakfast and his feather-bed.  Yet, to Bilbo's astonishment, he finds himself on a most unexpected and dangerous journey.

His companions are a company of twelve dwarves, the leader of which is Thorin Oakenshield.  Their destination is the Lonely Mountain, Thorin's homeland where the dwarves had long ago mined an underground home and crafted precious treasures of gold, silver, and gems.  Yet, all had been stolen from them: a fierce and terrifying dragon named Smaug took control of the mountain, killing and pillaging all in his path. 

The dwarves are now determined to reclaim their long lost treasure, even if it means risking their lives.

Past trolls, goblins, giant spiders, and wolves the dwarves and Bilbo persevere.  They journey through the dark and dreaded Mirkwood Forest.  And yet, as fearsome as these dangers are, they are nothing to be compared with what awaits them on the Lonely Mountain.

Indeed, Tolkien builds the suspense as the dwarves and Bilbo finally reach the desolation of Smaug, the ravaged territory claimed by him in which no one dares venture.  

It was a weary journey, and a quiet and stealthy one.  There was no laughter or song or sound of harps, and the pride and hopes which had stirred in their hearts at the singing of the old songs by the lake died away to a plodding gloom.  They knew that they were drawing near to the end of their journey, and that it might be a very horrible end.  The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair.  There was little grass, and before long there was neither brush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished.  They were coming to the Desolation of the Dragon ...

Bilbo, aided by the ring that makes him invisible, ventures alone down the dark tunnels of the mountain until he finds Smaug, fast asleep on a bed of gold and riches.  Enlisted as Burglar of the group, Bilbo fulfills his job responsibilities and seizes a goblet.  Returning to the dwarves, they are overjoyed at seeing a small portion of their treasure restored ... until Smaug awakens and immediately realizes that one of his prized possessions is absent.  

It seems the battle of all battles is begun.  The dwarves and Bilbo barely escape with their lives as they hide in an interior tunnel as Smaug smashes and obliterates the side of the mountain they had first entered.  Smaug then seeks vengeance on Lake-town, whose human residents had aided the dwarves.  And it is there that the loathsome dragon is actually shot and killed.

The plot had taken a most unexpected turn.  Tolkien had been very methodical in the unfolding of events.  Bilbo and the dwarves would alternate between danger and a period of safety and regrouping as they traversed the land.  It had been clear that Smaug was the biggest threat ... or was he?  I was a little let-down that Smaug had been destroyed so quickly.  Where was the battle?  Where was the all-consuming fire of the heinous beast?

What I had not foreseen was that the ultimate battle was a much greater one--more deadly than warfare with a scaled, winged reptile.  And the battlefield is interior.

Once Smaug absented himself, Bilbo and the dwarves explored the treasure.  Thorin in particular was searching for the Arkenstone, the most magnificent gem of all that was fashioned in the very heart of the mountain.  (Unbeknownst to him, Bilbo--in true burglar fashion--had earlier secretly pocketed the gem, considering it his promised portion of the wealth.)  

The dwarves were overjoyed to once again hold in their hands the precious objects that had been theirs long ago.  But something about touching the gold and having it in their grasp awakened certain desires and feelings ...

But also he did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts.  Long hours in the past days Thorin had spent in the treasury, and the lust of it was heavy on him.  Though he had hunted chiefly for the Arkenstone, yet he had an eye for many another wonderful thing that was lying there, about which were wound old memories of the labours and the sorrows of his race.

Once Smaug is destroyed by the Lake-men, they come to the Lonely Mountain.  They want a portion of the treasure to help rebuild their homes, which had been destroyed by Smaug's wrath.  Their leader, the slayer of Smaug, also explains that a portion of the gold had long ago been promised to the city and rightfully belonged to them.

It was all very reasonable and just.  Distributing some of the wealth in such a way would still leave an outstanding amount in the hands of the dwarves.

Yet, Thorin rejects the requests and promises war upon any who seek his treasure.  He is King Under the Mountain and the gold belongs to him.

Tension mount and weapons are sharpened.  The battle is not with the dragon, but with those who should be allies and friends.  And it is all wildly spinning out of control because the interior battle inside Thorin's heart has been lost.

Greed and lust reign in the heart of him who could bring peace to a region that had long been plagued by Smaug.  

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil ... " (1 Timothy 6:10).

How often have we seen the destructive nature of money and the lure of wealth?  It divides families: money is the leading cause of disagreement in relationships.  How many celebrities, with a personal wealth in the millions, begin a downward spiral of destructive behavior?

The foil to Thorin is, of course, Bilbo.  When the party sets out from Bilbo's house as the narrative opens, it is Thorin who appears the leader.  He and the other dwarves complain about the burden Bilbo is to their group.  But as The Hobbit proceeds, Bilbo comes forward as the unexpected head of operations.  His cleverness and courage come to the dwarves' rescue multiple times.

And when Thorin is defeated by the love of money, Bilbo's simplicity is his defense.  The treasures in Bilbo's heart are not lofty, but they are precious.  His treasure is home with its green fields and hot tea kettle.  

Thus, when they are at the brink of war, Bilbo gives the prized Arkenstone to the Lake-men, in hopes it would be sufficient leverage to make peace with Thorin.  The hobbit forfeits his share in the treasure--his reward for the perilous quest--for a greater good.

Is it not a great wealth to be happy and content with little?

Tolkien's Middle Earth is, without a doubt, very different from our Earth.  However, the central battle of his novel is one being waged today.  How much do I value money?  Do I let it control and direct my life and actions?  Am I able to detach from what I possess and keep my heart centered on the much greater treasures in heaven?

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

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