Many regard Joseph Pearce as today's premiere Catholic biographer. He's profiled many literary icons like Shakespeare, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. His book on J.R.R. Tolkien remains my favorite Tolkien biography. Thus I was excited to hear about Pearce's new book on The Hobbit, published alongside its December film adaptation.
Bilbo's Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning in The Hobbit (Saint Benedict Press, 144 pages, paperback) goes beyond the fantasy to unearth the profound Christian truths hidden within Tolkien's classic work.
Tolkien himself described the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which The Hobbit precedes, as a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work." This underlying dimension is often noble, as in the virtue and self-sacrifice we spot in Bilbo, the dwarves, and the elves. These characters, Pearce notes, embody Jesus' beatific teachings. But there are also darker dimensions like the pride, lust, and greed we see in figures like Smaug, which affirm Jesus' warning that "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21).
When examined through this Catholic lens, The Hobbit becomes a multi-layered spiritual journey:
"[The Hobbit] is a rite of passage from ignorance to wisdom and from bourgeois vice to heroic virtue. Its main character, Bilbo, represents each of us journeying toward God and moral perfection."
Pearce also shows how this journey is aided by religious forces like providence.Though Tolkien never mentions God throughout his fiction, his characters consistently face dire odds but emerge through the help of so-called "luck." Yet this is no mere chance, Pearce explains. Tolkien's aim was to show how God is constantly operating in the world, and even today guides history with intention and love.
Bilbo's Journey closes with two interesting appendices. The first offers a short summary of Tolkien's important essay, "On Fairy Stories," and the second presents Pearce's own thoughts on the importance of wonder. Readers may actually be helped by reading these appendices first, before the rest of the book.
In all, Bilbo's Journey is a timely, invigorating read by a foremost Tolkien scholar. Pearce's own background in Catholicism and English literature enable him to uniquely probe the hidden meaning of Tolkien's classic work. Whether you read this book alongside the film or the original book, it will shine new light on an old story.