When Adventure Comes Calling: Celebrating 80 Years of The Hobbit
The road goes ever on and on ...
Adventures. They’re out there. They threaten to replace your cozy, comfortable life with new people, strange places and fierce battles. And if you have enough Tookishness somewhere up the ancestral line, you just might fall into one.
That’s what happened to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. The J.R.R. Tolkien classic was first published 80 years ago today, on September 21, 1937.
Thanks in no small part to Tolkien’s elaborate Middle Earth, I was captivated by the concept of adventure from a young age. I gobbled up stories of knights, swords and dragons. I feasted on tales of children falling into other worlds and somehow saving the day. I wanted to be that character. The underdog facing an indomitable foe. The one willing to travel, to fight, even die for the cause.
As I got older, I began to understand that adventures are real. No, I don’t mean hiking through Big Bend National Park or having manure wash over you while you ride through the ocean on horseback in Jamaica (another story for another day). I mean the adventures of everyday life.
I wouldn’t exactly say I related to Bilbo when I first read The Hobbit as a child. Bilbo just wanted to say home. Had I been transported to Hobbiton that shiny green morning, I would have jumped as soon as a wizard named Gandalf said “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure.” Sign me up!
Adventure or Escape?
But those kinds of adventures — the literary, fantasy, make-believe ones — aren’t really adventures for us. They’re escapes. Because they involve people and creatures and circumstances we’ll never encounter.
When adventure comes knocking in our world, our disdain for “nasty disturbing uncomfortable things” weighs heavy.
Still, something deep inside us flickers. Call it Took. Call it Narnia. Call it an existential need for meaning in life. Even as we tell ourselves not to buck the status quo, to keep quiet and be “respectable” just like all our townsmen, we can’t quite. So what then?
As we celebrate the gift of Bagginses, Oakenshields, and dragons named Smaug on their 80th birthday, let’s dwell on another gift: What Bilbo taught us about real life adventure.
It’ll Make You Uncomfortable
Discomfort. We don’t like it. We’d love to just sit on our front porch, (feet) hair neatly combed, breakfast in belly and pipe in mouth.
Okay, an our world version of that might read so: sit on our couch, life neatly in order, paycheck in bank and a lazy weekend up ahead. Yep, that sounds about right. And while that’s a really comfortable situation, it will never get us anywhere.
Sitting on the porch won’t help us improve. An “enormous” breakfast won’t help us make a difference. And lazily smoking our pipes certainly won’t help us step out in faith and sacrifice for someone in need.
Unfortunately for us, discomfort is required when adventures are had.
You Might Not Be ‘Respectable’ Anymore
We’re like Hobbits in another way. We like to be respectable. We want to fit in, to be liked and well-spoken of. It’s just human (and hobbit) nature. If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Hobbiton, you should know Hobbits must remain respectable. How? Don’t do anything “unexpected.”
It’s awkward when what’s expected of us contradicts what we believe. In our world, that happens a lot. Just ask anyone who’s been bullied, disowned, sued, fired or worse for doing what he or she knew to be right. Suddenly we’re caught between our respectability, so to speak, and our convictions.
We can’t really say Bilbo entered his adventure with strong convictions. But his convictions slowly grew. And he paid the price. As Tolkien tells us, “He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained — well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”
It May Be More Important Than You’ll Ever Know
At the end of any real adventure, we’ll reemerge with at least a couple scars, plenty of anecdotes and a few souvenirs. And what we pick up along the way just might be the key for something much more important in the future.
I watched Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy before I read The Hobbit. So I was surprised, at first, that aside from one riddling chapter and cool disappearing powers, the One Ring played such an … insignificant role. Bilbo’s adventure, in fact, wasn’t about the ring at all. Or was it?
The thing about adventures is that, well, excuse me: the road goes ever on and on. We can’t see what’s ahead. Even if we think the objective is merely to rob a dragon’s lair, it might be a goblin-induced detour that leads us to the real thing. And sometimes we won’t realize the significance of the detours, the scars and the souvenirs until much, much later down the road, when it joins some larger way, where many paths and errands meet.
We long for adventure. We’re desperate to stand up for good. We want to vanquish evil with the help of a few bearded friends. Not because we read The Hobbit as kids and endlessly reread it still. But because God made us for adventure. He calls us away from comfort to explore a world.
The problem isn’t that such adventures don’t exist in our world. It’s that we’re Bilbo before Gandalf sends him off with the Dwarves, too afraid to answer the wizard on our doorstep.
Read the first chapter of The Hobbit here, via The New York Times.