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Soundings: a faculty reflection

January 25, 2013

Expanding Horizons: Historical Imagination and The Hobbit

"In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” With this line, written on a blank page of a student essay he was grading at the time, J.R.R. Tolkien began The Hobbit.

Years later, after Tolkien’s fame was secured by the success of The Hobbit and his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, Tom Shippey would declare Tolkien “Author of the Century.” Even today, the improbable popularity of Tolkien’s work continues, with the first film based on The Hobbit continuing its run in a theater near you. Initially, however, literary critics hated Tolkien’s work—they found it silly and bizarre and completely irrelevant. They wanted Hemingway’s despair, Faulkner’s tangles, Salinger’s angst—anything but what they got from Tolkien. What Tolkien, an Oxford scholar, gave them was Bilbo and Frodo Baggins of Bag End, Hobbiton, the Shire. They wanted horizons they already knew; what they got was another world entirely.

It would be nice if “expanding our horizons” simply meant traveling. Then, once we had reached the horizon, we could count our horizons expanded. However, it is entirely possible to expand our physical horizons but to remain small-minded. Hard Rock Cafés worldwide count on that very fact. No, “expanding our horizons” is largely an act of imagination. To begin to understand even one other person’s life, we must take into account such things as psychology and history, religion and landscape. The way we begin to appreciate such things is by getting outside ourselves and walking around in another person’s smelly shoes.

As Christians who must try to see the world for what it was, for what it is now, and for what it will be later, imagination is especially important. Core 399 students read portions of Walter Brueggeman’s The Bible Makes Sense, in which Brueggeman implores Christians to read the Bible with “historical imagination.” For Brueggeman, history and imagination must inform each other as we read Scripture. Reading Scripture as events that happened in history prevents us from going wild in our imaginations about what the Christian life means; reading with imagination prevents us from sealing off God and his promises as something in the past. The story of Scripture continues, and we need imagination to see ourselves as the people of God in the present.

So, what does this have to do with The Hobbit? In classes where we study Tolkien’s work, I ask this question: Why do we hold up Tolkien as a Christian author? There’s no mention of Christ in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, nor is there mention of religion, certainly not of religion as we know it. If Gandalf is a Christ figure, he must be among the weakest Christ figures in literature. Sure, the books are moral, and good triumphs over evil, but that qualifies Tolkien’s work as Platonic as much as Christian. 

What makes Tolkien’s work an example of Christian art, I would argue, is his historical, biblical imagination. Tolkien lived and worked in a dark time, when the world faced new horrors such as “the routine bombardment of civilian populations, the use of famine as a political measure, the revival of judicial torture, the ‘liquidation’ of whole classes of political opponents, extermination camps, deliberate genocide, and the continuing development of ‘weapons of mass destruction’” (Shippey 324-5). Tolkien looked at this world and knew that important things—the possibility of talking donkeys and slain giants and virgin births and, well, “gospel”—had been lost. So, he created an imagined past that, in the midst of this horror, might help, in his words, to “re-enchant” the world. 

Little has changed since Tolkien’s time except, perhaps, that we have grown accustomed to the horrors that were in his day “new,” that we’re satisfied as long as these horrors stay comfortably away from us. But the antidote to horror, too, has stayed the same: that we understand the possibility of “gospel” in our lives and in the world, that we imagine what the world was and what it might become, that we use imagination to re-enchant the world. 

There is little work more important at Dordt College than that we sharpen such a historical, biblical imagination.

Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle Earth. New York: Mariner Books, 2003.


Howard Schaap's imagination studies have taken him from the remnants of Minnesota's tall grass prairies to Tolkien's Middle Earth to the open-air markets of Laos—places that he tries to bring into the classroom for students in English and core classes.

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