Is The Hobbit OK for My Kids?
Dr. Timothy Paul Jones
as told to Mike Nappa
Dr. Timothy Paul Jones is a big ol’ nerd—and an expert on the life and literature of the late J.R.R. Tolkien. He’s also a distinguished theologian, a professor at The Southern Baptist Seminary, and editor of the Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry.
So we couldn’t resist. PopFam recently asked Dr. Jones what he thought parents should know about The Hobbit films and book. Here’s what he had to say…
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The best aspect of fantasy stories like Tolkien’s The Hobbit is how these works of art echo God’s work of redemption—even when they don’t intend to do so.
Fantasy books and films present us with a world where good and evil clash with one another; in this, they admit the reality of a cosmos that, despite its fall into darkness, groans for that moment when evil is defeated and the fallen are redeemed. Fantasy stories almost always hinge on a sacrificial act of some sort in which a hero becomes a substitute for creatures who don’t deserve it; in this way, these fantasies reveal an inescapable awareness of our need for a Savior.
Perhaps most importantly, fantasy can awaken in us an inner sense that we are living in a world where something is out of place, in a world where the ways things are is not the ways things are supposed to be. Ever since Adam and Eve took their first taste of cosmic treason, there has been a yearning for paradise in every human heart. Our primeval parents left the Garden of Eden, but somehow Eden never left us; our souls still bear the scars of their ancient exile.
Tolkien in particular had a clear sense of how fantasy awakens this sense of displacement within us. “We all long for [Eden], and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature,” Tolkien said, “is still soaked with the sense of exile.” Fantasy films and literature like The Hobbit are one of the ways that we become aware how deeply we long for paradise lost.
But this is also one of the greatest dangers in fantasy: Since the best of fantasy films and literature tap into this deep sense of exile, they can shape our worldview without us even recognizing it. Fantasy slips “past the watchful dragons” of our conscious minds and heightens our longing for Eden—but (especially when an author is not operating from a Christ-centered worldview) this means that fantasy can also distort our sense of what is capable of satisfying this longing.
In The Hobbit, Tolkien clearly recognized how this restlessness can drive us toward redemption—or feed the darker side of our souls. He framed the yearning in terms of “Tookishness” (named after a clan of rather abnormal hobbits) and described how “something Tookish woke up inside [Bilbo], 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.” But the same Tookishness that inspires Bilbo’s quest is also what tempts Bilbo to try to satisfy his yearning with material possessions.
Truth be told, we all have a tendency toward Tookishness. Fantasy can help us see our Tookish tendencies as signposts that God intends to guide us toward Him—but fantasy can also offer false resolutions for our longings.
A “Fundamentally Religious” Work?
The Hobbit is overwhelmingly favored by Christian groups, but some parents worry that the explicit, ongoing violence of the story desensitizes kids to real-world violence and inspires dangerous imitators. They also worry that Bilbo Baggins—himself a thief—is not a positive role model. Those things are worth discussing.
Part of the favor of the Christian community stems from the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings originated within a Christian worldview. In fact, Tolkien took the term “Middle-earth” from an Old English poem about Christ’s ascension!
J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and when asked about the religious perspective of his work, Tolkien described The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
I would suggest that this is no less true of The Hobbit. Although the work is certainly no allegory (Tolkien despised allegories) the characters are deeply symbolic, representing humanity’s deep sense of exile as well as our struggle to not center our lives on the pursuit of earthly wealth or power.
Despite the origins of The Hobbit in a Christian worldview, I would agree that a blanket endorsement is undeserved. Here’s why: Such endorsements can unintentionally provide parents with a false comfort, the idea that they can place this book or movie or digital download in front of their children without having to engage in critique or conversation about it.
As parents, our time with our children is so brief; during those fleeting moments when they are in our households, we have the God-given privilege of shaping their worldview—and part of shaping their worldview includes discussing deeply the music and the media that are influencing their minds, helping them to think biblically and to recognize lies that the culture and even well-intended Christians may be trying to tell them. This responsibility applies to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia no less than it does to The Avengers or The Hunger Games.
A Fundamentally Violent Work
Yes, The Hobbit is violent—war always is. When it comes to on-screen violence, I suggest that how the violence is framed matters far more than how explicit the violence happens to be. Scripture describes violent acts, sometimes in shocking and graphic detail. But Scripture is simultaneously clear that such violence is a tragic result of sin, never to be taken lightly and certainly never to be smirked at or treated as entertainment. Most importantly, every act of violence in Scripture foreshadows the ultimate act of violence, wherein God Himself on the cross became both the recipient of His own wrath and the victim of humanity’s violence.
Considered in light of Scripture, when a film depicts violence, the question to raise is not simply, “Is there too much for a Christian to watch?” but “Does the violence have a purpose? Does it show the horrific cost of sin and evil? Or is the violence intended to terrify or even to entertain? Was life treated as precious or as expendable? Was there any sense of sorrow even over the death of the wicked? Was revenge presented as satisfying? Or was revenge seen for what it is, as an empty victory that does as much damage to the avenger as to the offender?”
I’m not suggesting, of course, that every level of violence is appropriate for children of every age! It’s quite likely that Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Battle of the Five Armies, near the end of The Hobbit book, is inappropriate for children younger than middle school. What I’m emphasizing is that the way violence is presented in a film is far more important than the degree of the violence. It’s violence that’s framed in a free and flippant fashion that leads to desensitization and potential imitation.
That was one of the differences between The Lord of the Rings books and the films. In some cases in the films, the scripts wove lighthearted comic relief into scenes of intense violence in a manner that Tolkien handled quite differently. Even when humor arose in the context of conflict in The Lord of the Rings books—in banter between Gimli and Legolas, for example—there was a deep sense of gravity as well. In some cases, this sense of moral context wasn’t transferred well onto the silver screen.
Tookish Role Models
As for Bilbo’s character, yes, he’s a burglar and a bit of a trickster, much like Jacob in the book of Genesis. But that’s precisely the point:
The hobbit becomes a hero not because his ethics or efforts are so pristine but because a greater power has chosen to work through him. This benevolent providence that works in spite of Bilbo’s character is made quite clear as prophecies are fulfilled in ways that Bilbo could never have planned. Reflecting later on these events, the wizard Gandalf points out that “there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ringmaker” in Bilbo’s quest.
At the same time, Bilbo’s burgling is not thievery of that which rightly belongs to someone else. Bilbo Baggins is—in his own words—an “honest” burglar; he sets out to recover a treasure that a dragon pillaged from the dwarves long ago.
Bilbo does struggle at times with a touch of Tookishness, yearning for wealth and adventure, but in the end, he shows mercy to the evil creature Gollum and seeks peace instead of personal gain. When it becomes clear that the dwarves’ greed will lead to war, Bilbo gives away a particularly precious stone in an attempt to bring elves, men, and dwarves together. In the end, Bilbo’s actions cause the dwarven leader to admit that “if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
In the end, Bilbo takes only two small chests of treasure and declares to the dwarves, “How on earth should I have got all that treasure home without war and murder all along the way, I don’t know. And I don’t know what I should have done with it when I got home. I am sure it is better in your hands.”
A Parent’s Perspective
With the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the three films in this Tolkien trilogy are likely to provide foundations for fruitful family discussions about magic and morals, wealth and war, and more.
After all, the purpose of fantasy films and literature is to point to something greater and better. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t enjoy these works on their own terms. What it does mean is that this initial level of enjoyment is only the first step on the way to a greater joy which calls us to glimpse traces of God’s work of redemption in these human works of fantasy.
That’s why conversations with parents are so essential when children read fantasy novels and watch movies! Part of our responsibility as parents is to help our children to distinguish the truth from the falsehoods, even in the best literature and cinema.
Tolkien’s hobbit fantasies—and fantasy in general—remind us that we are exiles from a paradise that once was; only the gospel can show us that, in Christ, we are also pilgrims on the way to a world that is yet to be.
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All Hobbit-related graphics in this article provided by New Line Cinema. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
The Hobbit - Orc
The Hobbit - Bilbo Baggins
The Hobbit - Preparing for War
The Hobbit - Smaug the Dragon
The Hobbit - Bilbo