Tolkien, Great Reversals, and Hobbit-like Humility

Pride can creep into a pastor’s life just as easily as it can anyone else’s. One moment, we have just preached a sermon calling people to humility, and the very next moment, we are fishing for people’s compliments toward our clever exposition. In the pulpit, we have implored people to not trust in their own accolades and accomplishments, but the very next day, we can be seen at a network get-together comparing our credentials and church sizes with other local pastors. Left without a challenger, pride makes us into self-exalters who forget that we are here to magnify God and not ourselves. Pride makes us into self-dependent Sauls, believing ourselves to be spiritually a full head-and-shoulders taller than those around us. It makes us into Pharisees, claiming perfect sight, while in reality we are blind and in need of Jesus opening our eyes just like everyone else. It makes us into Herods, who foolishly grasp onto our sense of self-importance and grandeur.

Though not a pastor, J.R.R. Tolkien can help pastors, like me, who are tempted often toward pride. Tolkien’s works are saturated with a subtle warning against self-exaltation. He creatively borrows from the biblical theme of a Great Reversal, in which the proud and lofty are brought low and the humble and needy are exalted. In Farmer Giles of Ham, for example, it is the pudgy, poor, uneducated Farmer Giles who overcomes the dragon and is later crowned King; meanwhile the arrogant, noble-blooded, self-entitled King is sent home humiliated and poor.

The theme extends into Tolkien’s The Hobbit in which it is Bilbo Baggins, a fearful, unassuming hobbit who does the most for the success of the dwarves’ quest to the Lonely Mountain. The proud and self-sufficient Thorin Oakenshield ends up imprisoned and in need of rescue, not by his crew of mighty dwarves, but by the hobbit whom he so easily dismissed at the beginning of the epic. It is Bilbo who shows courage in facing the dragon. It is Bilbo’s love for his friends that leads him to take bold measures in an attempt to make peace between high-minded elves and stubborn dwarves. Though he was the smallest of the characters, by the end of the story, Bilbo proves to have the largest heart and firmest courage.

The Lord of the Rings expounds on the theme even further. Tolkien juxtaposes his righteous characters with their prideful alter-egos. Gandalf, the humble “grey pilgrim,” ultimately proves wiser than the self-exalting Saruman the White. Gandalf, according to Tolkien, “was not proud, and sought neither power nor praise…and desired not that any should hold him in awe or take his counsels out of fear.”[1] Saruman, on the other hand, who was “as great as fame made him,” eventually loses his power and dies in humiliation by the hands of one named Wormtongue.[2]

The noble but humble King Theoden dies in honor fighting as an ally of Gondor’s true King and speaks of enjoying an after-life feast in the halls of his fathers. His foil, Denethor the Steward of Gondor, desperately clings to his own power and dies in disgrace in the tombs of his predecessors. In an essay about the palantíri, Tolkien describes Denethor as a man who trusted in his own strength and was brought to despair at the thought of Sauron’s coming invasion.[3]

A comparison can also be made between Aragorn and the power-craving Sauron. Aragorn refuses the temptation of the ring, which offers unlimited power, knowing that it will lead only to death and destruction. It is this same ring that Sauron endlessly seeks but never grasps. By the end, it is the dirty and homeless “Strider” who is exalted to the heights of Minas Tirith, where he is given dominion over Middle Earth. In contrast, it is Sauron, the self-exalter, whose tall tower comes crashing down as his dominion is ended.

The exaltation of the hobbits illustrates the theme of reversal most clearly. Throughout the epic of the ring, the hobbits are constantly mocked and underestimated. They are seen as weak and in need of protection. Ironically, in the end, these little hobbits stand tallest in the kingdom. The last are made first as the entire kingdom of men and elves kneel to them in honor. At the end of the journey, evil is not defeated by mighty armies or battle-proven champions like Boromir; neither is it defeated by the cunning of elves like Elrond, whose wisdom proves to be helpless against Sauron. Instead, the victory over evil belongs to humble hobbits. When the dust of battle has settled, even their enemies are forced to confess to the halflings, “You have grown…Yes, you have grown very much.”[4]

Tolkien’s subtle theme of reversal corresponds with the reversal so often spoken of in Scripture. In the context of Jesus’ incarnation, Mary praises God who “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). Christ came in complete humility taking on the form of a servant to die for the lowest of mankind. The result of his sacrificial, servant-like death is that he has been given a name above every name. He made himself the lowest, but it will be to him that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he alone is Lord. He who was the Suffering Servant is crowned to be the eternal King.

All this goes to show that those humble themselves will be exalted by God in the end. God treasures humble-hearted servants. Therefore, pastor, be a hobbit. Lower that high head; deflate that proud chest; silence arrogant proclamations of your own power and wisdom. Be weak and unassuming. Do not cling to a self-made throne of importance and Twitter followers. Do not hope in impressive armies of church members and tithers. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Pet. 5:6).  You may be mocked and thought of as little; but remember, in the end: humble hobbits stand tallest in the kingdom of Christ.