Screwtape Letters and The Hobbit

Screwtape advises Wormwood on the modern human mind and how it differs from those of the past in Letter One:

 “At that time the humans…still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning.  But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that.  Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head.

So how does Bilbo Baggins factor into this?  Well, CS Lewis did dedicate the book to JRR Tolkien when it was first published in the 1940s.  But aside from that…

Malcolm Guite writes in a recent post about running to catch his plane:  “I was obliged to pass through all kinds of searches and high security electronica at various airports. Now I had forgotten I would have to do this and had set off on the adventure, like a certain middle aged hobbit before me, without so much as a pocket handkerchief, but with the usual assortment of bits and pieces in the pockets of the trousers, waistcoat, and old tweed jacket I happened to be wearing when… I dashed for the plane.”

Guite happens to have in his pockets an assortment of pipes and pipe cleaning devices, which render a bit of concern to the security folks.  To Guite, it was a perfect time to reflect on Gollum’s question to Bilbo in The Hobbit (“What has it got…”) and GK Chesterton’s famous essay “What I Found in my Pocket.”  GKC ponders on each sundry item and the eternal possibilities of each.  At the top of the post, he shows a picture of Bilbo running to join the dwarves from Peter Jackson’s upcoming movie.

Having read his post, and thinking about this first post about the Screwtape Letters, I realized that Bilbo had, prior to his mad dash and through the encouragement of Gandalf, been moved into a course of action by a chain of reasoning which would alter his life forever, even if he wasn’t cognizant, and even hostile, to the reasoning and action initially.  Therefore an undercurrent of Screwtape’s first letter exists in Bilbo’s transition.   I argue that this wasn’t purely rational, but more of a poetic reasoning, bordering on instinct, which stirred the deepest core of his being.

We read at the beginning of the Hobbit that Bilbo thinks adventures as “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things.”  Yet Tolkien takes some time to relate Bilbo’s ancestry, and that deep in Bilbo’s bones there perhaps lay a bit of “Tookishness,”waiting to emerge.  Gandalf, apparently, sees this in Bilbo, and has arranged, without Bilbo’s consent, to have him as part of an adventure with 13 other dwarves.

If this new course of action is to take place, something which would bind Bilbo to his prior action must be forfeit.  Bilbo’s sedentary life revolves around comfort and food.  Thus, when the “throng” of dwarves arrive,” they proceed, quite rightly in this sense, to eat Bilbo out of house and home.  They demand Raspberry jam and apple-tart, mince-pies and cheese, porkpie and salad, red wine, eggs, coffee, cakes, ale. When Gandalf calls out to him to just “bring out the cold chicken and pickles,   Bilbo states “’ [He] Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!’ thought Mr. Baggins, who was feeling positively flummoxed, and was beginning to wonder whether a most wretched adventure had not come right into his house.”

Which it had, of course, but before Bilbo can even consider going on said adventure, the food supplies of his comfortable home are rapidly depleted.  It is almost as though Gandalf is subtly setting up a transition from the comfortable and ample provisions of dear old Hobbiton, to meals which “didn’t come as often as  Bilbo would have liked them (Ch. 2).”

The plainly physical obstacle or desire removed, Bilbo then experiences a poetic epiphany which showcases Bilbo’s change of path and reasoning.  He hears of strange and wondrous things as the dwarves begin to tell of past adventures:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up–probably lighting a wood-fire–and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again.

He got up trembling.  He had less than half a mind to fetch the lamp, and more than half a mind to pretend to, and go and hide behind the beer barrels in the cellar, and not come out again until all the dwarves had gone away.”

I love that last part.  Here the core of his being is stirred to new heights, and he wants to hide.  But the spell has been cast: he is looking at things in a new way.  Far from “a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing around in his head, (Screwtape)” Bilbo experiences clearly a single focused desire far beyond his humble hobbit home, seeing, perhaps for the first time in his mind’s eye, caves, mountains, waterfalls, and dragons.  There is poetic reckoning here.

And in the end, after a bit of a freak-out (“Lightning, Lightning!”) and some negotiation via his “business manner,” off Bilbo goes, albeit late, to join Thorin and the dwarf party.

“To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf’s hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.”

But we as readers recognize and remember, however, for we too join Bilbo on his adventure, just waiting for that narrative moment when he finally agrees, and the story may truly begin.

What a contrast from Screwtape’s patient, the “sound atheist,” which he uses as an example to Wormwood to point out the necessity of keeping people mired in “real” life, a life devoid of an untold myriad of potentialities!

“I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defense by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch.”

Screwtape’s patient is unable, or unwilling to “believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before [his] eyes.” Screwtape shows him a newsboy selling the paper, and a bus passing by, and convinces his patient of remaining sedentary in his comfortable “real life.” His life remains ordinary, and ultimately, ignorant.

What might have happened, someone may posit, if Bilbo had decided not to go?

No story.  No adventure.  No stirring of the Tookish poetic inside his soul.

And what of us?  What incompatible philosophies and distractions do we allow to dance about in our heads?  I declare myself the worst of this lot.  Whether thinking about the next errand, mucking about online, worrying and fretting about minor things, letting my mind drift during conversations instead of being in the moment, the willingness to turn on the TV and allow wave after wave of insignificant advertisements and talking head point of views interrupt whatever peace of mind and sense of adventure the Lord desperately desires to plant in my soul.  And then I wonder why I am so stressed out.

Rather, with Grace offered, let me listen to the possible Took inside me, who so often looks out the window onto a glorious day and sighs, citing responsibilities and restrictions and distractions rather than immersing in contemplation, and the possible adventure which lies ahead.

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Off to Oxford

I am pleased to report I have won a scholarship to attend the English Literature Oxford Summer School program at Exeter College in July.  I’ll be spending three weeks under the spires where JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and the rest of the Inklings taught and created their works.  Just imagining I’ll be in the place which was the genesis of Narnia and Middle-Earth gives me the chills.  The scholarship was provided by the English Speaking Union of Central Florida, and you can find their website here.

My wife and I journeyed to England this past summer (2009), and I was able to record some video focusing on Oxford to show my students in the fall.  Here’s a brief discourse on Addison’s Walk at Magdalene College, where CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien used to take long walks: