Over Hill (Bilbo and Gandalf) by Artist Joel Lee via Wikimedia Commons

Courageous as a hobbit

Tolkien's The Hobbit is a story to keep proposing because it speaks to us of nostalgia and of being chosen. As Peter Jackson brings it to the big screen, a teacher explains what is to be found in the epic story.
Stefano Nembrini

It often happens that I start the year, in 6th grade, by reading the first chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. When I walk into that classroom, 20 or 30 pairs of 11-year-old eyes are fixed on me, with a gaze full of trembling and curiosity, like that of one who is about to set foot outside of his home for the first time. In that moment, it’s beautiful to re-read those pages with them: not only because they narrate the beginning of a hobbit’s adventure, but because they clearly describe what is at the beginning of every adventure.

The Hobbit is already standard reading in many middle schools. And the release of the latest film version is the occasion to try once more to understand why young people like it so much, and why it’s worth proposing to them. Published in 1937, it is the tale of the events that bring Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, through a thousand misfortunes to finally confront a terrible dragon. Tolkien scatters many narrative seeds throughout the story, which he then skillfully develops in the more famous The Lord of the Rings. It was crucial that director Peter Jackson, author of the previous Tolkienian cinematographic trilogy, undertake this prequel.

“The world is out there.” In my opinion, the pivotal moment in Bilbo’s story–captured also in Jackson’s masterpiece–is that in which the timid hobbit has withdrawn into a corner of his home, worn out by the evening that has seen his quiet existence overwhelmed by ill-mannered dwarves, mysterious wizards, and tales of war, dragons, and treasures. He stays there, almost hoping that those unwelcome guests will vanish into thin air, and that everything will go back to the way it was before. But, all of a sudden, the dwarves begin to sing. The “deep-throated singing of the dwarves,” as Tolkien writes, seems to emerge from the depths of the earth where their people dwell. “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...” The song evokes faraway lands, dragons and elves, fire and swords. It evokes the mountains, unknown to the peaceful people of the Shire. And thus the noted British writer describes that instant: “As they sang, the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love (...) and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.” What is going on? Bilbo’s heart is touched by a profound nostalgia, which is able to pierce through the layer of habits and comforts that characterize hobbit life. He is invaded by the sense of something that is unknown and, at the same time, attractive. The beginning, for Bilbo, is all here, in the discretion and intimacy of that instant, in that song that touches the most hidden strings of his heart. And thus he foresees just how great, tremendous, and fascinating is the life that is calling him. I like to remind my students of this scene as they begin the adventure of school with me, which is, of course, made up of blackboards, books, and notebooks–but that’s not all. As the wizard Gandalf reminds us, “The world is not in your maps and books. It’s out there.”

The halfling hero. The first aspect of Bilbo that emerges at the beginning seems to me to be precisely this nostalgia: a sentiment that has roots as deep as childhood, when we played with wooden swords in the forest or sat around a fire and listened to stories told by our grandparents. Nostalgia for the mountains–Bilbo will say 60 years later–once reawakened, is woven into one’s life forever. Of course, even roots can die, if they are defiled by a culture that speaks so rarely to our children of loyalty, courage, and honor. And yet, even the deepest roots do not freeze–otherwise I can’t explain the relish with which the students are enchanted by the beauty of the epic. Nor can I explain the silence that evening at the movie theater, when a young audience that, just a moment before, was convulsed with laughter at the previews for the latest Christmas farce, suddenly fell silent in front of the first scenes of The Hobbit, when death and destruction come crashing down on the city of Dale, or when the dwarves sing of their all-consuming desire to have a homeland again.

The second aspect that always strikes me, and the students, is that the protagonist of this newness, of this call, is a hobbit. Why does a creature like Bilbo, a halfling, generate an immediate correspondence, a sympathy? I understood it better this morning, when my class was discussing courage. We were reflecting on how the etymology of the word–“to have heart”–does not indicate a talent possessed only by those with physical force or intelligence, but rather describes a virtue that concerns what one loves in life, and is thus accessible to everyone. It is the love of being intrepid, Manzoni would say, and anyone can love. Suddenly, a student–one of the many who are devouring The Hobbit this month, with a certain encouragement on my part–exclaimed, “It’s exactly what Bilbo is discovering!” It’s true, I told myself, and that is precisely where Tolkien’s genius lies: in making the protagonists of his epic not the wizards or the kings, but the hobbits, the halflings. Think of how much one feels like a halfling at age 11 (or 18, or 30, or 50...), how small and fragile when facing life. But it is surprising to discover that one can be a halfling and still be chosen, summoned to the most extraordinary of adventures, and even become a protagonist in history–to the point of being, though a halfling, comfort and strength for those who are bigger: “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay... Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage,” Gandalf will confess.

Life is a journey. At the center of this drama is nostalgia, then, and the courage that comes from being chosen. Of course, Bilbo is not spared the moment of decision, the responsibility of saying, “Here I am.” In the splendid scene reinvented by Jackson, Bilbo wakes up alone the morning after the dwarves’ arrival, in a clean house–everything is like it was before. It almost seems as if it were a dream, but instead it is up to him to decide. And more than anything else, what wins Bilbo over is that profound nostalgia that had captivated his heart the night before. So he leaves, forgetting even to take his handkerchiefs.

He undertakes a journey in which nothing is spared him: he will be able to taste the infinite beauty of the world, from the sparkling armor of the elves to the waterfalls of Rivendell (and here we must thank the director for his love of landscapes, sunsets, and dawns in Middle-earth). And he will have to look evil in the face, an evil that can be plainly called by its name, without the ambiguities and distortions of the world today (which led one of my students to confide that she was proud to have dressed as Red Riding Hood for Halloween, but with a face disfigured “by the wolf’s gastric juices”–this is the death of the fairy tale, because in the end, evil wins). Every step, every joy, and every wound make Bilbo more himself, more certain that the struggle lies in taking up the journey again, every instant, and in discovering oneself to be capable of compassion, as in the dark caverns of Moria.

Because of this, I maintain that Tolkien’s contemporary epic is truly precious, for us and for our children. We need to keep proposing this story, in order to remind ourselves that life is truly an unexpected journey and an adventure full of wonder.

The road is simple, in Middle-earth and every morning in class: that each of us be able to repeat for himself the words that Balin confides to his companions, in recounting the battle between goblins and dwarves that saw the young Thorin confront the terrible enemy leader: “And I thought to myself, there is one I could follow. There is one I could call King.”