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Posts Tagged ‘The Hobbit’

As my thoughts are now on the annual holiday, considering Christmas and the great story of the nativity of our Lord, I have discovered another real gem from J.R.R. Tolkien:  Letters from Father Christmas.  The third of Tolkien’s books published posthumously (in 1976), it is an enjoyable little book; the audio recording comes in at slightly under 2 hours.  (From a library, I read an audio edition that provides different voices for the different characters of Father Christmas and the Polar Bear; the print versions include illustrations.)  These were Tolkien’s letters as “Father Christmas” to his children, starting in 1920 when his oldest son John was three years old, through 1943 (a short, last letter to Priscilla, then age 14).  These letters show the wonder and joy of Christmas for children, and a father’s great love for his children, as well as Tolkien’s creative genius.  As I read these I was reminded of Tolkien’s more “business” letters written during these years — the publishing of The Hobbit and then his start on the Hobbit sequel.  That book (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) often indicates how busy Tolkien was with his family and work responsibilities, but here in Letters from Father Christmas we see where he spent some of that time that the publishers wanted 🙂.

It is fun to get caught up in the enjoyment of Christmas, “looking along the beam” as C.S. Lewis described the actual experience of an event: the presence of God, feelings of joy and wonder, and other emotions and feelings.  From my previous post, that series on C.S. Lewis described the difference between looking along a ray of sunlight (the enjoyment and actual experience) versus “looking at the beam,” which is the contemplative, analytical approach, the thinking about the thing.

So here I am writing about the experience of reading Letters from Father Christmas, after a recent experience of the actual enjoyment.  These letters tell various stories about Father Christmas’ adventures at the north pole, with the elves and other characters who work with him, and especially tales about “North Polar Bear,” sometimes referred to “P.B.” — various accidents and mishaps of a hilarious nature.  Along the way, Tolkien mentions the back story of Father Christmas, in Saint Nicholas who is remembered every year on December 6, and includes several stories about goblins, characters with other languages and even some runes, hobbits, and a character named “Ilbereth” (similar to Middle Earth’s Elbereth).  Tolkien interacts with his children’s gift requests, sometimes sending two or even three letters per year (evidently some years the children started writing to Father Christmas in November or even September, Lol!), expressing (as Father Christmas) his love for them, while also telling about all the children throughout Europe and America that he visits, and the “timetable” of how fast he is able to deliver presents, such as being able to deliver presents to 1000 homes per minute with his sleigh and reindeer.  Father Christmas also reminds them of other children throughout the world who are suffering and in need, including the hard economic times of the early 1930s and then especially during the war years of Christmas, the letters from 1939 through 1943, the World War II years in England.

Reading Tolkien’s Christmas letters is refreshing and delightful, something to get the focus back on the annual Christmas holiday, to be a child at heart.  This focus is so needful in our modernist/post-modernist world when some people advocate to not celebrate Christmas at all.  “It’s a pagan holiday!”  — actually it is not, as clearly explained in this online article: December 25 was selected by the early church for specific reasons, including that it is nine months after March 25 (which is also a very significant date in Tolkien’s works, as the date that the One Ring was destroyed with Gollum on Mount Doom), and had nothing to do with incorporating pagan holidays.  Or as another example of this modernist tendency, a local Baptist church has selected for its Christmas sermon texts this year, three New Testament theological texts that speak about the Incarnation (Hebrews 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15, and John 1:14-18) and only these three texts — and is exegeting these texts verse by verse, talking “about” the Incarnation (the “looking AT the beam”) as described in these texts, with no mention of the actual story of Christmas.  (Nothing wrong with these texts in and of themselves, but the Incarnation and Christmas story is so much more than the intellectual only, doctrinal aspect.)

The Incarnation (Christmas as we remember it each year) actually happened in our space and time world, and involved real characters, and a story with multiple events – a great wonder and a story to be remembered at this time of year, as we meditate on and appreciate the fact of Christ’s coming to Earth and becoming one of us, a real flesh and blood man.  A story that we will never exhaust the meaning of, as we annually remember the birth of our Lord, remembering also the real people involved: Mary, Joseph, Herod and the wise men, the shepherds and the angels, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Simeon and Anna and the others who witnessed the events at the time of Christ’s birth.

Have a very blessed Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

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In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis makes quite a point in describing Eustace, that he had read all the wrong books.  From the first page of the story we learn that Eustace liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.  Then, after Eustace ran off by himself and then ran into the dragon’s cave, this special note:  Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books.  They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.

A similar plot scenario comes up in the sequel, The Silver Chair, though implied rather than directly stated.  Since that adventure only happened within 2-3 months of Eustace’s return from Narnia, and he still lived with his parents and still had to attend that progressive school, it could not be reasonably expected that Eustace would have had the time to acquire and read enough of the right books to prepare him for his second visit to Narnia.  Jill, likewise, by the fact of attending the Experiment House, no doubt had parents similar to Harold and Alberta, who had not allowed her to read the right type of books.  Thus we find that both Eustace and Jill think it would be a great idea to visit the “gentle giants” and apparently had no clue of the possible danger of being eaten by giants.

All of this raises an interesting point: what books should Eustace have been reading, to have been prepared for entering a dragon’s lair?  Voyage of the Dawn Treader was published in 1952 (and The Silver Chair a year later), but the England side of the story is set during World War II, the summer and fall of 1942.  On an Amon Sul podcast that I listened to recently  (episode #022), the guest Richard Rohlin mentioned Eustace not having read about dragons.  He then said that a few people he knew had looked at this question and concluded that the only book of that type that was around, that the children in Lewis’ day could have been reading that would have told them about dragons, was The Hobbit.  Thus, Rohlin saw this mention in Lewis’ book as a coded reference to his friend Tolkien’s writing; and then to follow the chain, Tolkien himself of course, in The Hobbit, had allusions to Beowulf.  (In this previous post I mentioned one interesting allusion to Beowulf, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.)

That is an interesting idea, and could be true to a point.  Certainly elsewhere C.S. Lewis included references to Tolkien’s works, and much more direct ones.  The main character in his Space Trilogy, Ransom, after all, was a philologist.  And C.S. Lewis mentioned “Numinor” in his Space Trilogy — a reference which Tolkien said (in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) came from the audible sound of the word as Lewis had heard Tolkien’s writings, when Tolkien would read aloud to the Inklings — and thus a misspelled version of Numenor.  But in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis mentions Eustace reading “the wrong books” and that is “books” (plural), which would indicate that Lewis knew of many other books that Eustace could (and should) have been reading.

Certainly the general books of pagan mythology have been around, though school children in mid-20th century England may not have been reading those.  A look at Goodreads and its lists of popular children’s fantasy books, by decade, gives us additional possibilities from the 1930s list.    Yes, The Hobbit is on that list, along with familiar titles including Mary Poppins, and a King Arthur collection, T.H. White’s Sword in the Stone; this Arthurian legends book includes one reference to dragons, the legend of “St. George and the Dragon.”  Earlier that decade, though, another book was published, The Book of Dragons: Tales and Legends from Many Lands.  Since this book was an anthology of existing tales, it may not have become as popular over the years, but no doubt it served its purpose for that generation of children: retelling the existing dragon lore, to the next generation of English-speaking children.

So, while it’s nice to think that C.S. Lewis intended a reference to The Hobbit in his description of Eustace not reading the “right” books, it seems that in this case C.S. Lewis was thinking in more general category terms.  Certainly The Hobbit would be included, as a book published just 5 years before Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace had their adventure.  But a school boy in that era would have had at least a few other choices of books, so that he could have learned something about dragons.  Sadly, though, Eustace’s parents had kept such books away from him, and also thoroughly brainwashed the kid so that he did not even have the desire to read them.

Readers, are there any other fantasy books that you are familiar with, published in the 20th century, to add to the list of books that Eustace should have been reading?  Any further comments about the books that Eustace and Jill ought to have read?

 

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For consideration in this post:  a brief story told in the Lord of the Rings Appendix A, provides a background “link” story that connects The Hobbit to Tolkien’s full legendarium.  In addition to the obvious connection point of Bilbo’s magic ring leading to the later adventures, this story tells about Gandalf’s meeting with Thorin at Bree, just prior to the beginning of The Hobbit.

The back-story to that meeting, in the Appendix, tells us the fuller history of the Dwarves to that point, and Thorin’s great ambition – contrasted with Gandalf’s deepening concern for the greater world affairs.  For even before An Unexpected Party (chapter 1 in The Hobbit), Thorin had anger in his thoughts:  The embers in the heart of Thorin grew hot again, as he brooded on the wrongs of his House and the vengeance upon the Dragon that he had inherited.   He thought of weapons and armies and alliances, as his great hammer rang in his forge; anger without hope burned him as he smote the red iron on the anvil.

Meanwhile, as Gandalf saw it, for the defense of the northern lands against Sauron, and any attempt of Sauron to regain the lands of Angmar and the northern passes in the mountains only the Dwarves were in that area.  And beyond them lay the desolation of the Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect. How then could the end of Smaug be achieved?

I recently read Appendix A, soon after listening to the Amon Sul podcast, episode 11 “Oft Hope is Born When All is Forlorn” — which specifically addressed this topic.  Indeed, here in this simple, seemingly minor plot connector, J.R.R. Tolkien provided another illustration of a biblical principle.  With reference to Thorin, as described in Genesis 50:20, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to the saving of many lives.

Thus, through the Providence of a “chance” meeting in Bree, Iluvatar’s purposes were accomplished.  For though Thorin went on the journey with evil purposes, and then turned to evil selfishness and hoarding of the treasure, the Dragon Smaug was killed by the men of Dale.  The kingdom under the Mountain was restored, even as Gandalf had desired.  Thorin later repented, but he along with his two nephews Fili and Kili perished, as casualties of the Battle of Five Armies near the end of The Hobbit.

As Tolkien tells us in Appendix A:

In the late summer of that same year (2941) Gandalf had at last prevailed upon Saruman and the White Council to attack Dol Guldur, and Sauron retreated and went to Mordor, there to be secure, as he thought, from all his enemies. So it was that when the War came at last the main assault was turned southwards; yet even so with his far-stretched right hand Sauron might have done great evil in the North, if King Dáin and King Brand had not stood in his path.

‘I grieved at the fall of Thorin,’ said Gandalf; ‘and now we hear that Dáin has fallen, fighting in Dale again, even while we fought here. I should call that a heavy loss, if it was not a wonder rather that in his great age he could still wield his axe as mightily as they say that he did, standing over the body of King Brand before the Gate of Erebor until the darkness fell.

So we can find so many types and illustrations of biblical precepts, throughout Tolkien’s epic saga of Middle Earth.

Any further thoughts, readers, on this story?  Can you think of any other similar plots in Tolkien’s work, that illustrate the idea that “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”?

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