After seeing the new Hobbit movie (in 3D nonetheless), and being a bit of an Inklings nerd, I was left wondering; “If Gandalf keeps saving the dwarves with miraculous power, why doesn’t he just use that power to take them to the end of the quest?” In one instance, when the dwarves are cornered and death is eminent, giant eagles arrive to carry them to safety. Why can’t the birds just take them to the mountain?
Before I endeavor to answer that question, this needs some setup: The Hobbit is about a hobbit named Bilbo, who is invited by a wizard named Gandalf to join a company of dwarves who are going to a mountain to slay a dragon. The interesting part is that Bilbo is a homebody who rarely even leaves his garden, while the dwarves are all veteran warrior-adventurers. It’s kind of like if you got asked to be a walk-on to Seal Team 6. The warriors are annoyed to have an amateur along, and really the only person who thinks Bilbo should be a part of the company is Gandalf himself. Along the way, when the company gets into trouble (wolves, trolls, and other mystical threats), Gandalf appears to assist in the company’s victory, sometimes fighting alongside the company, sometimes using wizard skills to affect the outcome.
Okay, now back to our question about the birds and Gandalfs power:
In a particularly bad situation, the company is cornered with no escape, and Gandalf calls giant eagles to rescue everyone. At the end of an incredibly arduous 24-hour battle, the company finds themselves resting (and even sleeping) on the backs of giant eagles, who take them well out of reach of their enemies to rest and regroup.
Why doesn’t Gandalf call the birds at the beginning? Why set out along the ground in the first place?
I mean, if the goal is to get to the mountain, kill the dragon, and return victorious, wouldn’t getting there faster be better? “And then the company flew to the Mountain, slew the dragon, and returned victorious. The End.”
In a pragmatic sense (assuming the internal logic of a fantasy novel) the answer is “No.” Bilbo would likely get killed in such a scenario. Without the trolls, orcs, swordfights and Gollum he wouldn’t have gotten his sword, discovered the ring, or found his courage. In short, he’d be useless at Lonely Mountain if he arrived unprepared, and it is the Unexpected Journey itself that is preparing him.
Wikipedia says the reason the Eagles don’t offer an express ticket to Lonely Mountain is because they are sentient beings and, while happy to do Gandalf a favor, it’s just that – a favor. They have their own stories to attend to.
The Bilbo from the Shire is not the Bilbo the company needs for the Unexpected Journey. The Bilbo the company needs is formed in the course of the Journey.
Why am I asking such questions in a Theology of Culture post?
It’s a big surprise, but Gandalf really plays the role of God in these films. (Although if you want to get picky, he’s more like Melchizedek or the holy spirit) He guides, challenges and saves the adventurers, but most often works through the world they inhabit, and only rarely pulls of a wizard/miracle event to save everyone. This where the mythological framework of Middle Earth jives with biblical truth: God’s not sent us on our journeys for his good or our fortune. Whatever your goal is, God’s plan is to forge a new you out of the old you. While he protects and guides us, he’s not merely in the business of dragon-slaying. If god wants the dragons of the world slain… he could do that himself.
I, like many of you I expect, have my own crises of calling from time to time. I know where I want to go, and while I am assured that this goal is a calling from God, he hasn’t shown up to put me in the express lane to get there.
What if Gandalf brought Bilbo on the journey to transform Bilbo (and by extention, the Shire, the Company, and Middle Earth)? What if the good he is trying to bring about, and the justice he is trying to serve isn’t just the slaying of a particular dragon, but transforming the world of Middle Earth?
God has sent me on my journey to transform me. He wants a Kyle Baker that is more fully Kyle (and more fully Christ) than I am. In the process of transforming me, he’ll also transform (and bring a hint of redemption to) those I journey with, and the places we journey through.
This thought gave me incredible comfort.