There is a lot of insight that one can gain from skillful entertainment. The vivid portrayal of a fictional world can often cast shadows and implications on our own world. After all, those of us who are creative individuals, especially those of us who imagine vivid worlds, often do so with particular worldviews and particular experiences. This morning I had the opportunity (finally!) to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and in doing so I had the opportunity to ponder some of the differences between the gorgeous and lush and full portrayal of Middle Earth in another excellent Peter Jackson film and the vastly more spare portrayal in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. I was also left to ponder some of the more resonant themes of the movie and the book to my own personal life. After all, those works that strike a chord with us do so because there is a connection between what we read or see and what we have lived that allows us to identify even in imaginary worlds.
There are a lot of deeply resonant themes for me in the portrayal of the world of Middle Earth. For one, there is the tension between homesickness and a love of adventure in Bilbo Baggins, a fairly modest but decent and brave Hobbit torn between two tendencies within his background. There is also the tension between his love of home and the sad state of the drawven refugees who make up the lion’s share of the adventuring party of the novel and movie. There are cultural miscommunications between elves and hobbits and dwarves and wizards, each of whom has their own agendas. There is also the fact that although Gandalf is a planning and scheming sort of being, there is a deeper will and divine providence that exists beyond his modest abilities to control, a divine providence that provides for the battling of evil through simple deeds by simple beings like Hobbits.
One of the biggest problems of our world today is that the issues and struggles we deal with seem so massive that we are overwhelmed in our ability to cope. We simply do not see how great evils can be countered by simple acts of kindness and mercy and love repeated by thousands and tens of thousands and millions of ordinary and not very heroic people around the world. The bravery that is necessary to shake the foundations of evil and corruption in this present evil world is not so massive. It does not require violence, often merely the bravery to stand up and speak as to what one has seen and experiences, to lay down the standard of right and wrong and to hold ourselves and others accountable to that standard. To shine a light on the evil deeds and corruption of this world is to threaten it, as evil thrives where there is silence and darkness, the chance for the wicked to hide or cover up their deeds and present to the world the illusion of goodness without its animating reality. And while some deeds may be far too mighty for us, showing mercy and love and kindness and speaking in sincerity and truth and openness is not beyond any of us, no matter how modest our means or abilities. And those acts in such a dark world as ours can be greatly revolutionary.
There are profound differences between the book The Hobbit and its portrayal in this first movie of the Hobbit trilogy (a difference that is consistent with the distinction that must be drawn in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy of movies as well). Peter Jackson revels in showing the massive spectacle of glorious and uncertain battle, with gorgeous set-pieces and death and carnage and loss. J.R.R. Tolkien, despite portraying a very violent world in Middle Earth, was far more restrained in his accounts. He was a man, after all, who had seen brutal and ugly carnage in the killing fields of the Western front of World War I. He probably suffered great trauma from those battle experiences–it would not be a surprise if he suffered (as I do) from what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from such horrors. In writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he choose as his narrators in battle scenes people who did not see a great deal of the horrors of battle and who were often knocked unconscious long before the battle was decided. He covered plenty of warfare and battle, but did not paint it in detail, perhaps because of how personal his own experiences were as a soldier on the front lines who understood little of the grand scheme of battle but understood the small and simple acts of bravery and camaraderie that are present within the ordinary soldier. And so he writes about warfare as a soldier, not as a general, and certainly not with any pretensions to God-like omniscience. Even his wisest of characters–Gandalf and Lady Galadriel among them–are certainly aware of the wide scope of their ignorance and lack of knowledge about the will of God within their world. No such humility is to be found in a movie portrayal that acts as if it shows all that is vital and important to paint the picture clearly for its audience.
There was another unexpected lesson I took from watching the movies today. In looking at the previews of the movies before watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I saw an endless chain of apocalyptic portrayals in upcoming movies and television shows: Defiance, Oblivion, After Earth, Epic, and Pacific Rim all portrayed immense and apocalyptic destruction in their own way and the bravery and courage of human beings among a hostile environment of alien invasions or the horrors of an earth that has slipped beyond our control. To have seen one such movie trailer would have been notable enough, but to see every single one hammer the same points over and over again was quite alarming. We live in an age that is gripped by fear and a realization of immense danger and threat. We cannot always articulate our fears or the dangers of our world, or understand their source or know what to do about them, but we seem to be longing for encouragement and models of bravery in difficult circumstances. Whether we look to history (Lincoln) or fantasy (The Hobbit) for these models of bravery, courage, and moral decency in a world of corruption and evil, we are driven by the apparent absence of godly models in our own dark age to seek solace and inspiration from another place. And that is something that makes me feel profoundly sad, that we can so obviously understand that we need help from elsewhere but not draw the implications of that realization as to our own culpability in the state of the world as it now is and in our inability to make things right on our own.