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  • A Hobbit’s Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth by Matthew Dickerson, and: A Hobbit Devotional: Bilbo Baggins and the Bible by Ed Strauss
  • Donald T. Williams
A Hobbit’s Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, by Matthew Dickerson. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2012. xii, 260 pp. $16.99 (trade paperback). ISBN 9781587433009.
A Hobbit Devotional: Bilbo Baggins and the Bible, by Ed Strauss. Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2012. 319 pp. $9.99 (paperback). ISBN 9781616267438.

Here are two new books about Tolkien in which the author of the first could be (but probably isn’t) talking about the second. Matthew Dickerson warns of the danger of trying to “reduce” Tolkien’s writings to “any one particular lesson, or to a disguised (or ill-disguised) tract on some political, religious, or philosophical topic—or to an allegory.” The problem with this approach is not so much that the politics or religion or philosophy might be falsely imposed on the text, which does in fact have “applicability” to such things, as that the writer might “miss the story as story” (12). And it is in the story as story that any applicability (Tolkien’s own word) is to be found.

Dickerson’s virtue is not that he avoids political, philosophical, and religious lessons. He highlights quite a few. But he finds them by paying close attention to the details of plot, character, diction, and texture in Tolkien’s writing. Strauss, on the other hand, does not. His book is really mistitled. It is not so much material for devotionals that he finds in The Hobbit as Sunday-School lessons. His sixty short chapters follow a pattern: note something that happens in The Hobbit, find something similar that happened to someone in the Bible, and draw a practical application to life. Example: Hobbits love comfort and do not meddle with the outside world; the Israelites at certain periods of their history were similarly insular; Bilbo learns better from his Adventure; therefore, we should care about the people around us and not ignore them. Most of the other lessons are equally innocuous. One can hardly imagine that Tolkien (or anyone else) would have objected to caring about the people around us, or even found this an illegitimate “application” of The Hobbit. The real question is why anyone needs to have such things pointed out, and the real problem is the potential [End Page 250] to trivialize the story (and the Bible!) by reducing them to such platitudes. Such a book is of interest to Tolkien scholars only because they want to know how readers of all kinds react to the legendarium. A few minutes with Strauss will tell them all they need to know about a certain kind of pietist.

Dickerson gives us a book we can sink our teeth into. It is a revision and expansion of his earlier work Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003). The earlier title was much more accurate. The new one would lead us to expect a very different book: from epic battles and moral victory to discovering enchantment? But almost the entirety of the original study has been retained. The new material—about maybe 15–20 % of the whole—is worthwhile. It updates the argument, deals with studies published in the last decade, and rounds the discussion out in useful ways. But A Hobbit’s Journey is still mainly about the ethics of war in Middle-earth, not about “finding enchantment” there as such. Chalk one up to the marketing department.

Dickerson’s main thrust, then and now, is wrestling with one of the common criticisms we hear from Tolkien’s detractors: that The Lord of the Rings glorifies war and violence. So he carefully looks at the battles, at how they are described, and at how the heroes respond to them, participate in them, think and talk about them, and feel about it afterward.

In the process of his careful reading of these passages, Dickerson not only shatters the criticism but notices a significant pattern. Gandalf, Frodo, Elrond, Aragorn, Faramir, and...


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