"The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You've Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way" has apparently been published in anticipation of the upcoming movie "The Hobbit", which will appear in American theaters on December 14, 2012. "The Hobbit" is J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel to his book "The Lord of the Rings". Overall, I believe that co-editors Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson tried their best to do justice to the philosophical themes present in this beloved children's book. There are a number of very good essays here. In addition, ideas from Eastern philosophies were presented, which is the exception in collections such as this. Unfortunately, this collection of essays lost its way, and it suffers from enough defects to make this a merely mediocre entry in the Wiley-Blackwell "Philosophy and Pop Culture" series. There were too many essays that were either poorly-written or were more social commentary or literary analysis than philosophy. Quite a number of the essays exhibited a style of writing that appeared to focus more on name-dropping than on developing an identified philosophical theme. Finally, the "curse of the book's editor" appeared not once, but twice.
The main idea behind this collection of seventeen essays is that Bilbo Baggins' adventures in "The Hobbit" provide situations wherein philosophical themes can be identified and explored. In Part One, "Discover Your Inner Took", Bilbo's decision to leave his home and venture forth to find The Ring raise questions about growth and human potential, change versus stability, enlightenment, and cosmopolitanism versus provincialism. In Part Two, "The Good, The Bad, and The Slimy", moral issues are explored: glory (the earning of praise through violence), pride versus humility, possessiveness, what makes a "just" war, aesthetics as an indication of morality, and the meaning of play. In Part Three, "Riddles and Rings", the essays explore Tolkien's position on technology, the paradox of fiction, and hermeneutics. In the last section, "Being There and Back Again", the essays explore the nature and moral importance of luck, divine providence and foreknowledge versus free will, decision-making, and innocence versus experience.
In the "Introduction", editors Bassham and Bronson chart the course that they will take in these essays, and begin by making a good analogy between Bilbo Baggins' leaving his home in the Shire to Plato and the parable of the cave. This is followed by editor Bassham's essay "The Adventurous Hobbit". Here, Mr. Bassham explores growth and human potential in terms of Bilbo Baggins' growth in both wisdom and virtue. How do such changes come about? By deepening our self-understanding and by broadening our experiences (through pain and suffering, and travel). Moral development can also occur quickly, as in religious experience (William James) or gradually, through habit and training (Aristotle). An excellent essay (although I found both the Lance Armstrong quote on page 13, and the reference to "Philosophy for Dummies" in Note 16, page 18, humorous).
Unfortunately, Mr. Bassham's joint effort with Anna Minore, "'My Precious': Tolkien on the Perils of Possessiveness" had no real development of theme, just a survey of ideas, from Plato to Acquinas to Tom Morris, and also Buddhism and Taoism. Co-editor Eric Bronson's "Big Hairy Feet: A Hobbit's Guide to Enlightenment" was more sociology than philosophy, and went on a name-dropping spree through both Western and Eastern philosophy. This essay was all over the place, and did not enlighten me at all. Thus, the "curse of the book's editor" struck twice, something that even lightning can't do
MOST EXCELLENT ESSAYS
Beside Mr. Bassham's "The Adventuorus Hobbit", four other essays were a pleasure to read. Interestingly, they are chapters 12 through 15, which reinforces an observation that I have made in the past, that really good essays, and really bad essays, seem to come in streaks.
Amy Kind's "Inside 'The Hobbit': Bilbo Baggins and the Paradox of Fiction" compared and contrasted the ideas of two contemporary philosophers, Colin Radford and Kendall Walton, on the emotional responses readers have to fictional characters and events. Are emotional responses to fictional events rational, or are these emotions even genuine in the first place? Contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum's ideas provide a third approach, in that emotional responses to fictional events allow us to cultivate our moral character.
Tom Grimwood's "Philosophy in the Dark: `The Hobbit' and Hermeneutics" looked at the question of how meaning is created and communicated in fiction. A good compare and contrast essay that invoked contemporary philosophers, concluding with Hans-Georg Gadamer's idea that our interpretations are always situated in a particular historical context.
Randall M. Jensen's "Some Hobbits Have All the Luck" looked at the nature and moral importance of luck. Can one be more lucky than good? Here, Aristotle's and Thomas Nagle's ideas are explored.
Grant Sterling's "The Consolation of Bilbo: Providence and Free Will in Middle-Earth" explores the contradiction of a world where both divine providence and foreknowledge are supposed to co-exist with individual free will. Mr. Sterling looks at a number of philosophers, most importantly A.N. Whitehead (there are no truths about the future) and Boethius (God is outside of time, and thus doesn't have foreknowledge). An excellent essay.
HOBBIT-LING, STUMBLING ALONG...
Chapters 3, 4, 7, 16, and 17 were dismally disappointing. As noted above, co-editor Eric Bronson's essay fell flat-footed. Dennis Knepp's "Bilbo Baggins: The Cosmopolitan Hobbit" was rambling social commentary on cosmopolitanism versus provincialism. It went nowhere. As noted above, co-editor Bassham's and Anna Minore's essay failed to develop its theme.
Jamie Carlin Watson's "Out of the Frying Pan: Courage and Decision Making in Wilderland" had no philosophy. It seemed as though the author was merely going through what he knew about probability, information theory and decision-making theory. This essay couldn't make up its mind just exactly what it wanted to talk about, whereas I for one couldn't decide if "decision making" had to be hyphenated or not!
Joe Kraus' "There and Back Again: A Song of Innocence and Experience" asks the question of what it means to understand the innocence of youth from the point of view of later experience. A great theme that relates directly to Bilbo Baggins, and a well-written essay - if one were studying the poets Wordsworth, Blake, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I also don't need a vignette from the personal life story about the author's children. Remind me again what the mandate of these essays is. It's what exactly and "popular culture"???
This collection of essays will probably ride the wave of enthusiasm connected with the upcoming movie "The Hobbit". So be it. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for this collection of essays sank, more so given that the "curse of the book's editor" struck twice. But I have to confess... the ideas in books in this series, ideas upon which philosophers have long brooded... have put a spell on me... I'm bewitched... I can't stop reading these essays... warts and all. Precious essays... my precious... essays...
Three stars. John V. Karavitis.
(P.S. When you mention a prior book in your own series, please get the title right. Dennis Knepp's biography should read "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", not "The Girl in..." - page 253. Typos are a no-no.)