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A Map for Life's Unexpected Journeys
By Devin Brown
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Devin Brown
All rights reserved.
WHEN ADVENTURE COMES KNOCKING, LET IT IN
(Even If It Makes You Late for Dinner)
* * *
I am looking for someone to share in an adventure. —The Hobbit, Chapter One
Adventures come in many forms, but they always mean something new for us. And what is new is always somewhat mysterious. Sometimes we can see adventures coming down the road to us long before they arrive—the adventure of starting high school or going off to college, the adventure of a new job, the adventures of becoming engaged and getting married, the adventure of becoming a parent.
But sometimes adventures appear with no warning, when we least expect them. In the opening pages of The Hobbit, adventure seems to be the last thing on Bilbo Baggins's mind.
As Bilbo stepped out his front door after breakfast to take in the glorious day, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the grass was growing. Stretching out on the seat by his door, he lit his pipe and sent a perfectly round smoke ring rising lazily up into the blue sky above him.
He had no idea that adventure was about to come knocking.
Adventures in books and movies are loads of fun. As we read about someone else's adventures or watch them unfold on the silver screen, we are ushered into a world of excitement without ever having to leave our comfortable armchair. But who of us really wants an adventure in our own life? We may say we do. We may even think we do. But look at how we typically react when something interrupts our regular routine or requires us to do more than we normally do or be more than we normally are. On a day when we are running late, just the printer running out of ink or forgetting that we needed to get gas can bring us close to a meltdown. A morning when we can't find our homework, our keys, our phone, or our whatever is more than enough drama for us.
So while we might like to think of ourselves as the adventurous type, truth be told, like Bilbo, most of us prefer to have our lives be quite predictable, to have everything completely under control, and to know exactly where whatever it is we are looking for is at all times.
Even If It Makes You Late for Dinner
"Adventures?" replies Bilbo to Gandalf, who has shown up on his doorstep looking for someone to join thirteen dwarves on a quest to take back their treasure from the ferocious dragon who currently has it. "Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!"
And so in the opening chapter of The Hobbit, we meet Bilbo Baggins—by anyone's definition, an unlikely candidate for a quest. Someone who does not like being disturbed. Someone who likes to be comfortable or, more accurately, hates to be uncomfortable. Someone who likes to have his dinner on time.
Someone who looks more a grocer than a burglar.
Someone who, despite the fact that he has big furry feet and lives in a hobbit-hole in the imaginary world of Middle-earth, is remarkably like us.
Not only does Bilbo like having his meals on time, thank you very much, he, like all hobbits, likes having six of them a day whenever possible. And when we meet him living his comfortable, undisturbed, predictable life at the start of chapter one, it is always possible.
"Sorry! I don't want any adventures, thank you," Bilbo tells Gandalf. "Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea—any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Come tomorrow! Good bye!"
And with that Bilbo closes his perfectly round green door with its shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle, completely shutting out (or so he believes) the call to adventure he has just been issued.
Gandalf Tea Wednesday.
This is what Bilbo should have written down. But being somewhat rattled by his encounter with the wizard on his doorstep and even more so by Gandalf's absurd invitation, Mr. Baggins feels the need for a second breakfast—and which of us wouldn't?—to calm his nerves and help him return to his ordinary routine. But even after Bilbo treats himself to another cake or two, he is still too flustered to remember to record his engagement in the Engagement Tablet he uses for such things.
"Dwalin at your service!"
"Balin at your service!"
The next afternoon, hungry dwarves begin to show up at teatime, like hungry dwarves at teatime. In one sense, simply accommodating Gandalf and the thirteen unexpected dwarves is an adventure in itself for Mr. Baggins, for while he likes visitors, we are told that he likes to know them before they arrive and prefers to ask them himself. Nevertheless he rises to the unanticipated occasion and makes room in his little hobbit-hole for the entire company and sets off to find something from his cupboards and cellar to share.
As Bilbo begins to throw together this and that, we are given a hint of the great provender which lines his pantries. Tea and tea-cakes come out, of course, but as more (and more) dwarves appear, the hobbit also produces beer and seed-cakes, coffee and buttered scones, raspberry jam and apple tarts, mince pies and cheese, pork pies and salad, ale and eggs, and to top it all off—cold chicken and pickles.
So what is Tolkien's point here about good food (and the good cheer that goes with it)? One thing Tolkien is not saying is that we should all renounce the pleasures of the table and live on nothing but a handful of brown rice and a couple of beans each day.
Quite the contrary.
Tolkien makes it clear that good food shared with good friends is an essential part of a good life. In fact, in Thorin's dying words to Bilbo, Tolkien will have the dwarf tell the hobbit: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." By contrast, Tolkien's narrator will tell us that one of the characteristics of goblins, who embody the opposite of all that is right and good, is that they hate everybody and everything.
We could say that the importance of hospitality is one of Tolkien's most important lessons—one that we need to be reminded of today. Beginning with the unexpected party in chapter one with its tea cakes, seedcakes, and all the rest, Bilbo will share a good meal with all of the good people (and occasionally good animals) of Middle-earth that he meets. With each of the stops he makes, he eats his way across Middle-earth: from the refined hospitality of the elves in Rivendell, to the late night supper (of rabbits, hares, and a small sheep) roasted on the rock shelf of the eagles, to the vegetarian meals (of bread, butter, honey, and clotted cream) in Beorn's hall, to the warm welcome and feasting the company is greeted with at Lake-town.
With its 144 guests and its weeks and weeks of preparation, the long-expected party Bilbo throws at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring is even more merry (and its food even more plentiful) than the unexpected one at the beginning of The Hobbit. In the opening chapter, we find this description of the hospitality at Bilbo's great birthday celebration:
When every guest had been welcomed and was finally inside the gate, there were songs, dances, music, games, and of course, food and drink. There were three official meals: lunch, tea, and dinner (or supper). But lunch and tea were marked chiefly by the fact that at those times all the guests were sitting down and eating together. At other times there were merely lots of people eating and drinking—continuously from elevenses until six-thirty, when the fireworks started.
Over and over, Tolkien reminds us that a love and celebration of the good things of creation—and this includes good food—is a crucial part of life. This is seen in the time and care with which he describes the many delicious meals the hobbits enjoy. In fact, the case could be made that Tolkien devotes as much time to the good things the hobbits eat and drink (or wish they could eat and drink) as he does to the battles they fight. We also find Tolkien's celebration of food in the mouth-watering chapter titles he uses, titles such as "Roast Mutton," "A Short Cut to Mushrooms," and "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit."
A love and celebration of the good things of creation—and this includes good food—is a crucial part of life.
When adventure comes knocking, let it in—even though it may make you late for dinner.
How can these two principles Tolkien has for us be reconciled?
Tolkien's answer is that there is nothing inherently wrong with a fixed routine or a predictable life.
There is nothing wrong with wanting meals to be on time. The problem comes when these desires become so excessive they shut out everything else—as Bilbo does when he shuts his hobbit-hole door on Gandalf. We could say that Bilbo's problem is that he lives in a world that is bounded and limited by the need to be on time for dinner.
If something is going to make him late for dinner, he's not doing it.
In today's world, we might think of someone who starts every day—no exceptions—with getting their coffee. Someone who would be put out, really put out, if something prevented them from getting it exactly the way they wanted, exactly when they wanted it.
We might also think of someone who can't bear to be away from their laptop for more than a few minutes. Or someone for whom being out of cell phone range counts as a real hardship.
Know anyone like that?
When adventure comes knocking, let it in (even if it makes you late for dinner).
Even If Part of You Says Not To
One of the first things we are told about Bilbo is that there is more to him than meets the eye. Plain Mr. Baggins of Bag End is not nearly as plain as he appears. Not by a long shot.
One side of him, which Tolkien refers to as his Baggins side, shuts the door on Gandalf and says no to adventure. But he also has, buried (quite) deep down inside of him, a Took side, a part of him that has been waiting a long time for the chance to come out.
And this adventure will be just the thing to do it.
We are all very familiar with the Baggins side of Bilbo, because we all have one. This is the voice in us that says:
Don't risk losing what you already have. Play it safe.
Change is highly over-rated (and usually quite messy). Stay in your Comfort Zone.
Adventures are unsettling. Put on your slippers and make some waffles!
If you know that voice, Tolkien has good news for you. Lots of it.
First, there is nothing wrong with Bilbo, or any of us, being cautious. In fact, there are a number of times where Bilbo's Baggins side is critically needed, times where his good hobbit sense saves them all.
Second, more good news. As we will see, in the end Bilbo does not so much conquer his Baggins side as he redeems it by putting it in proper balance with his Took side—so that both voices have a say. As we will see, when Bilbo returns home in the end, he does not give up the comforts he has loved—his tea kettle and tea cakes, his fancy waistcoats, or his pocket handkerchiefs. In fact, he will enjoy them even more, once they are in their proper place.
Third, Tolkien tells us that deep down in even the most timid hobbit—and by this he means the most timid human as well—there is a seed of courage just ready for the opportunity to sprout. This seed is present in all the Bagginses, Boffins, Tooks, Brandybucks, Grubbs, Chubbs, Burrowses, and Hornblowers—and in all of us. And the adventure that will bring this seed to life is just around the corner.
Finally, Tolkien suggests that the status quo—staying right where we are—might not be as wonderful as we perceive it to be. It is clear that the Baggins side of Bilbo's family tree has been in a rut for a long time. ("And what's wrong with being in a rut?" they would ask.) Through his fiction, Tolkien reminds us that life is far bigger and far more wonderful than we know—if only we will open the door to it and not put boundaries or limits on what we think we can do.
Tolkien uses a revealing phrase in his discussion of these two sides that Bilbo has. He tells us that Bilbo was not quite so prosy as he liked to believe. At the start of the story, Bilbo prides himself on being very business-like (we might say grocer-like). He likes to think of himself as someone who has little or no use for the imagination or flights of fancy because he lives in the real world, the world of facts written down in prose. But, Tolkien reminds us, a life without poetry, a life where choices are always practical and businesslike, leaves out the best parts.
"I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly," Jesus stated. When we meet Bilbo in chapter one, he has life—one that is always safe, comfortable, and predictable. He is living, but he is not living abundantly. We might say that he is living on the wrong side of the comma. One part of Bilbo says to stay on that side. This part says that he should be content with merely living.
Fortunately part of him says the exact opposite.
So what is it that helps bring out the adventurous side of Bilbo, the side that has been asleep or ignored for so long? Tolkien reports that after the bountiful meal is finished, Thorin calls for some music. And then by the flickering firelight, first one and then another—the dwarves begin to sing.
The dwarves' haunting song, which features so prominently in both the book and the film, tells how they must set out before the break of day on a dark and dangerous quest that will take them over the Misty Mountains to dungeons deep and caverns old. As the dwarves sing of the far-off lands of their ancestral home, we are told that something happens to Bilbo. A whole other world is opened up to him. And he is swept away to dark lands under strange skies, to a place very different from his comfortable hobbit-hole. It is then, Tolkien tells us, that the real magic happens.
Something Tookish wakes up inside Bilbo.
Part of the song the dwarves sing tells of the marvelous treasure that once was theirs—pale enchanted gold, gems on sword hilts, objects cunningly wrought long ago. And as they sing, Bilbo feels the love of beautiful things spring into flame and move through him. But this kindling of a love of jeweled crowns and gleaming cups is not the prime effect of the song. Suddenly a desire to see great mountains wells up inside him. He yearns to hear the wind in the pines and to stand beside majestic waterfalls—to carry a sword instead of a walking stick. Most of all he is filled with a hunger to do what he has never done before and explore places he has never seen.
The dwarves' song awakens in Bilbo a longing to become the hobbit he was meant to be. And while in one sense the song seems to cast a spell over him, it would be more accurate to say that it breaks a spell—the spell of fear that has kept Bilbo from doing anything new or anything that might not be considered safe.
If it is a dwarf song that wakes up this other side of Bilbo, the side that wants to do more and be more, what is it that wakes up the adventurous side in you—your own inner Took—and keeps you from always being only practical and businesslike? Maybe it is your favorite playlist coming through the earbuds. Or a fresh breeze on the first day of spring. Maybe you are stirred by a favorite scripture verse or a favorite hymn. Or rustling leaves in the autumn wind. Or simply the encouragement of family or friends saying, "You can do it!" While each of us may have a different answer to this question, Tolkien certainly intends for us feel what Bilbo feels here and simply to be moved by Bilbo's own experience.
When adventure comes knocking, let it in (even if part of you says not to).
Despite What the Neighbors Might Think
If there is one voice in each of us that says to play it safe and a second voice that urges us to do just the opposite and say yes to adventure, there is a third voice that wants to be heard. Certainly Bilbo hears it at the start of the story and hears it very loudly. This is the voice that says, "But what will the neighbors think?"
Tolkien's narrator tells us in chapter one that the Took side of Bilbo's family—because of the way they would go bouncing off on adventures every now and then rather than staying home in their comfy hobbit-holes like everyone else—was not as respectable as the Baggins side. In the Shire, as in our own world, conventionality and conformity are valued by those who see themselves as the judges of what constitutes suitable behavior. Any kind of departure from what is considered normal or proper is frowned upon.
How deep is Bilbo's concern for what the neighbors might think? At the start of the story, it is quite deep, so deep it nearly keeps him from saying yes to Gandalf's invitation to adventure. Tolkien makes a point of telling us that when Thorin addresses him as their fellow conspirator and calls him a most excellent and audacious hobbit, Bilbo is so completely flummoxed, he opens his mouth but no words come out.
Conspirator? Audacious? What would the neighbors say!
"This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected," Tolkien reports on the opening page. He then adds, "He may have lost the neighbours' respect, but he gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end."
Excerpted from HOBBIT LESSONS by Devin Brown. Copyright © 2013 Devin Brown. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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