Dickerson outdoor column: Of hobbits, the outdoors and love of Christmas

This past weekend I watched Peter Jackson’s latest spectacle, “The Hobbit.” Though the film revels in violent action, and in that way is very different from Tolkien’s classic book of the same name, the book and film do have a few things in common.
They tell a story about people who have lost their homes, possessions, jobs and even their dignity. You might say they were victims of an economic downturn, forced to live on the streets. But as stark as that image is, it might not be stark enough. It might be more accurate to say they are refugees of war, victims of a terrible slaughter by a ruthless fire-wielding terrorist, living in a foreign country, longing to return home. These are the dwarves. And things are bleak for them.
It is also a story about another character who has a nice home but has lost instead his youthful love of adventure and the outdoors — who has become soft and addicted to comfort, and even a bit snobbish, eating too much food and spending too little time outdoors; who is out of touch with nature and with the wider world. This is the hobbit Bilbo Baggins.
Thanks to an old (though slightly disreputable) friend of the family, however, Bilbo finds himself on an outdoor adventure that will include backpacking, rock climbing and mountaineering, caving, exploring, river rafting, hunting wild animals, being hunted by wild animals, and lots of camping outdoors and cooking over a fire.
As Bilbo gains experience “roughing it” — living without a pocket handkerchief, eating only two or three rather than six meals a day, sleeping on the ground, and fleeing from nasty but intelligent wolves — he becomes more sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, the homeless dwarves. He decides to help them reclaim their home from the greedy, wealthy, and very powerful venture capitalist who has possessed it. That’s the dragon, Smaug, who while having very little appreciation for beauty does know a great deal about the commercial value of all his investments.
But what, you might ask, does this have to do with Christmas? It turns out that Tolkien’s earliest inspiration for his Middle-earth stories came from an Old English poem called “Crist,” and in particular to a reference to star called Eärendil: a morning star that shines as a beacon of hope at the darkest time of night, just before the coming of dawn.
Christmas is fundamentally about the Incarnation: the time when the infinite and eternal Creator of the entire universe enters as a finite creature into his own creation, and defeats evil from within. While there is no Christmas (as such) in Tolkien’s Middle-earth writing, there is a promise of Christmas: glimpse of the Incarnation that also comes at a time of darkness and despair in the First Age of Middle-earth, when forces of evil have dispossessed and terrorized the world.
In Tolkien’s lesser-known tale published in his book titled “Morgoth’s Ring,” a mortal wise woman named Andreth is conversing with the wisest of all Elven kings, Finrod (the late brother of Galadriel, a slightly more familiar name to fans of “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings”). Andreth shares a hope among the race of Man that one day the Creator will enter into Middle-earth and save it from the forces of evil. She wonders if there is any truth and hope to the promise and whether Elves have heard of such a hope.
Finrod, though he has never before heard the prophecy, responds that it must be true. For the loving Creator will not allow darkness and evil to triumph in the end. And yet, as Finrod reasons, the only way to defeat evil without destroying the universe itself is for the Creator to enter into his own work. Thus is born in Middle-earth the hope of the Incarnation. Like the morning star Eärendil in the poem “Crist” that inspired Middle-earth, it comes as a promise of light when all is darkest. Joy in the midst of sadness. The hope of Christmas.
May you have a joyful and hopeful Christmas this year. And a meal worthy of hobbits.

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