learning from Bilbo

On his death-bed, the dwarf king, Thorin commends Bilbo’s blend of courage and wisdom, adding, “if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Food and cheer are transitory pleasures, which take their value from the moment and the company. The Hobbit is actually as much about food or lack of it — as well as the fear of being eaten — as it is about the shiny solidity of metal. The dwarves are continually tightening their belts or existing on cram.

Just as Bilbo teaches the dwarves the value of sharing their gold, so they teach him at their first encounter — the unexpected party — the value of sharing food and distributing it as widely as possible. What, one wonders, was one bachelor hobbit going to do with a larder as full as his obviously was with mince-pies and cheese, seed-cakes, pork pies, cold chicken and pickles?

Economics is not a party, and the Incarnation is not a political program, but I believe The Hobbit has something profound to offer us at this festive season about the true use of the bounty and beauty of the earth, which is to distribute it in such a way as to enable and make visible as many relations between producers and consumers, and fellow-workers as possible in contrast to the barren golden abstractions and glamour of money-markets. Ruskin wrote, “there is no wealth but life” and the hobbits are so successful a race as enablers and burglars because deep down they know that too.

But even the comfort and the fellowship of the Shire must be given up, “made strange” and riddled, so that one can travel “there and back again.” When Bilbo brings us back with him from the Lonely Mountain, ordinary hobbit and human life can itself be received back as a gift, and seen as such, so that its comforts may be shared with others.

Alison Milbank, in a wonderful essay on the theological economics of The Hobbit — the book, that is, not the films

why Gandalf and Elrond were wrong

I’m sure this has been said before, but … I don’t think much of the advice given by Gandalf and Elrond during the great Council at Rivendell. Glorfindel’s suggestion that the One Ring be cast into the sea is instantly rejected by Gandalf, and that rejection is echoed by others, after which Elrond says, “We must send the Ring to the Fire.” But I believe Glorfindel’s idea is by far the best one offered at the Council. Let’s look at the two objections to it, starting with the second, Galdor’s.

Galdor argues that “the flight to the Sea is now fraught with the gravest peril. My heart tells me that Sauron will expect us to take the western way, when he learns what has befallen.” But Galdor speaks as though there were just one “western way.” In fact there were many. It would indeed have been foolish to try to take the Great River all the way to the sea, but why not try a more northerly course? At this point Sauron’s military might was concentrated in the South, where he had not yet even been able to overcome the armies of Gondor. The North was beyond the reach of his power, especially since the Nazgûl had been unhorsed and rendered temporarily powerless. Again, Elrond speaks of “the western road” as though the Road itself is the only way, but we know it isn’t: earlier in the story Frodo and the other hobbits see Elves moving Westward through the woods. Moreover, Aragorn had just led the hobbits across a largely uninhabited region with nothing to trouble them except the Nazgûl; why shouldn’t he lead them back roughly the same way? They could be at the Grey Havens before Sauron could re-deploy the Riders. Certainly this would be far less risky — almost infinitely less risky — than marching into Mordor and heading straight for Mount Doom.

So Galdor’s argument fails. What about Gandalf’s? The great wizard says, “It is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.” One might dispute whether taking a million-to-one shot at ending a great menace forever — remember that, as Gandalf says much later in the story, other evils will come, since “Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary” — is really superior to taking a much more likely chance to avoid it “for a passing age of the world.” But I will waive that point. Let’s agree that Gandalf is right and they must think of the longest term. Are they doing so wisely?

It is clear, I hope, that the chances of getting the Ring to the sea are far, far greater than getting the Ring into the Cracks of Doom. But once the Ring is dropped into the sea? Gandalf only says, “There are many things in the deep waters; and seas and lands may change.” But this is vague. How likely is it that any of those “many things” would find the Ring in the overwhelming vastness of the ocean? And in the highly unlikely event that something did find it, what are the chances that that would lead to its being returned to Sauron? And if indeed “seas and lands change,” is there any reason to think that they would change in ways that would lead to Sauron’s recovery of the Ring? They might well change in ways that would bury the Ring still deeper. And again, we have to consider these possibilities in light of the vastly more likely, indeed certain, perils that accompany any attempt to enter Mordor and get to Orodruin.

Yes, in the end things worked out, but only because, as Gandalf hints near the beginning, “there was more than one power at work” in these matters; not because Gandalf and Elrond were wise counsellors. Their counsel was poor indeed. Too bad Glorfindel didn’t win the day.

P.S. Some of my tweeps are getting upset by this. Don’t take it too seriously — think of it as an exercise in playing’s Melkor’s advocate. I really do understand why they made the decision they made, but I think the alternatives are passed over too quickly. Gandalf and Elrond say they do not offer a “counsel of despair,” but it certainly looks like they that’s what they offer; and I think they should spend some time explaining why they believe it is impossible to resist Sauron in any other way.