I was very young when I read the Narnia books – so young I can’t remember a time I hadn’t read them. I loved them, and I still do. At about 11 or 12 I read the Hobbit, as it seemed to be a similar kind of book. It really hit the spot, and I instantly transferred it to the top of my favourite book league table. It stayed there until I got onto Lord of the Rings at the age of 14. If I am honest, Lord of the Rings is still my favourite book.
(I am not honest very often, I usually say Paradise Lost if anyone asks. I am not bothered about the snobbery some people have towards the Lord of the Rings. It just seems a bit lame to chose a book that so many other people would also chose.)
Having read and reread these books since childhood, Narnia and Middle Earth seem very real to me. And initially I also felt like I was on the same wavelength as the authors and that they and I shared progressive values and sympathies. And I managed to miss a really and obvious point about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I simply never realised that Aslan is supposed to be Jesus. It just never crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I was about 18 that I saw it pointed out in print somewhere. Once it was drawn to my attention it was, of course obvious.
I went on to discover that both C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien were Christians. Not only that, but far from being forward looking and modern they were lovers of the archaic and highly suspicious of the modern world and its technology and even of science itself. My reading of them was about as totally wrong as it was possible to be. I still loved the books, but I had to distance myself mentally to some extent from the authors. Back then I was a believer in science, progress and reason and I still remain true to that today. I have always identified with the left and liberal causes and believed that things are in the long run getting better. I have tended to regard conservatives in general and particularly religion as a barrier to progress. Although my basic views haven’t changed much, I have got a bit mellower and less partisan over the years. In real life I have failed to detect any correlation between people’s political position and how intelligent, likable or trustworthy they are. I have come to accept that while I have a set of beliefs and ideas that I haven’t really deviated from, there are plenty of other options around that I can respect. Many things that seemed idiotic when I was twenty, now make sense even if I still don’t actually accept them at fifty.
I hope you’ll excuse this long preamble because I think you need a bit of historical background on me to understand why I am asking this question. How could someone read the Hobbit and see it as a socialist story? I did, and I can’t believe that my experience can have been completely unique. Tolkien was a man who would have been happier living in the Middle Ages and whose highly conservative form of faith was central to his life and outlook. How does he write something that chimes totally with a progressive atheist? Lets see.
For a start, it isn’t at all obvious from reading the Hobbit that Tolkien is a Christian. Religion is never mentioned. There are no churches. There are no temples. There are no overt references to God. Slipping into the Hobbit from the real world I grew up in, this was great. Sundays free to enjoy with a clear conscience. No boring Bible. Just an interesting world to have adventures in. Brilliant.
But it isn’t just that there is no moralistic God imposing his ethics. This is a world where magic exists. Gandalf is a wizard who has powers that he can use for good. They are quite limited powers. He can’t create things out of nothing for example. So it is magical, but it isn’t arbitary. In that respect, it is a lot like technology. You can do lots of things with it, but you can’t suspend the laws of nature. It feels like the way the real world works, just a different set of rules. The world of the Hobbit does not fly in the face of reality it just gives you an alternative reality that you can buy into. The things that happen don’t feel like miracles.
The other thing about the hobbit is the cast of creatures we meet. Okay, hobbits were obviously just small boys allowed to live away from their parents so they could smoke and eat as much as they liked without getting told off. I didn’t have a problem with that when I was 12. A part of me is still 12 so I have kept that one going. But the other inhabitants of the imaginary world all have a very particular character to them. They all seem to be drawn from English folklore, or maybe northern European folklore. Dwarves, elves, goblins, dragons, eagles all seem to have a very particular pedigree. You don’t see any creatures with a connection to classical Greek mythology. There are no centaurs or cyclops or anything like that. There is nothing with a Christian connection either. An angel would really look out of place.
This seemed like a pretty radical approach. Fairies and elves and the like were one of the many things that the Church was against. One of the big motivations for the Church of England to get into mass education in a big way in the Victorian era was to wipe out the folk lore of pixies, fairies and elves that had persisted in England since the conversion to Christianity. To read a book where these taboo creatures despised by the authorities were wandering around with no apology – and above all as serious characters with sensible motives – well it seemed to me to be frankly subversive.
And then there was the politics. Or rather, there was the lack of politics. Bilbo Baggins lives in a society where people just live together. There was no obvious government or authority. If he felt like it he could go off with a gang of dwarfs for a spot of burgling. He didn’t need a passport. He didn’t need to evade officials at the border. It was the personification of anarchy, in its most positive sense. Bilbo was not a prince, just a regular guy. Later on in the book he is dealing on equal terms with kings just like any good democrat. It all seemed very much like an ideal society free of bosses and hierarchies.
So in the class ridden world of seventies Britain with the Church still influential, reading the Hobbit was like a little rebellion in itself, and also a vision of what a better world could be like. I had no idea when I read it that this was almost the polar opposite of what its author would have thought. Tolkien was still alive at the time I started reading his books. I wonder what he would have made of it to know that not far from him was a small boy being inspired in exactly the opposite direction from what he would approve of by his own work.
But Tolkien was always clear that the big thing about his writing was telling a story. He wasn’t writing propaganda or trying to make a point. He was telling a story. And in that he succeeded brilliantly. And in the end, everyone no matter what their outlook on life enjoys a good story.