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Theistic Philosophy and Tolkien’s Hobbit, Part 3: Setting and God’s Providence: Berkeley

Published Monday, August 17, 2020 By Anthony G. Cirilla

Character and plot are, of course, inextricably intertwined, because it is the actions of characters which substantially define plots – even when the plot is profoundly informed by natural disasters, our interest is captivated by the human response to those events. What happens provides the basis from which the character acts and responds, and subsequent character behavior further changes the story: so the action of the plot and the quality of the character develop concomitantly. But setting provides the fundamental basis by which we experience the reality of the actions undertaken by the characters, for it is the sense that they are really in some place, and sensitivity to the atmosphere of those places, which provides the compelling sense that a story, even an imaginary one, is in some sense “true” – what Tolkien refers to in On Fairy Stories as “Secondary Belief”: “To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft” (49).

Few fantasy writers ascend to Tolkien’s mastery of this skill, which is why Middle Earth continues to stand out as a setting which compels the imagination long after the books initially saw printing in the middle of the 20th century. Setting is where characters, as Paul would put it in Acts 17, “live and move and have their being,” and much as Bilbo lives and moves and has his being in the language of Tolkien’s world-building, we live in the divine imagination of God’s creation. Acts 17 is in fact, according to George Berkeley himself, the basis for his philosophical rejection of the concept of prime matter, articulating as he does the notion that God communicates directly to us through his creation (an idea that he also found in Romans 1, which Descartes also regarded as central to his perspective).[1] Just as Berkeley’s philosophical system emphasizes that every experience in Creation points to its Creator, Bilbo’s experiences in Middle Earth point him to the realization that reality depends on a mysterious benevolence beyond his control.

Berkeley’s initially puzzling claim that prime matter does not exist parallels Bilbo’s discovery of a meaning in the structure of his world that goes deeper than the immediate question of his safety and satisfaction.  When Berkeley argues that matter does not exist, it must not be mistaken for arguing that things do not exist. He writes in his A Treatise, “[T]he sun that I see by day is the real sun, and that which I imagine by night is the idea of the former. In the sense here given of reality, it is evident that every vegetable, star, mineral, and in general each part of the mundane system, is as much a real being by our principles as by any other” (39). What he denies is the existence of “inert senseless matter” or, put another way, a “senseless, unperceived substance” (55). This is Berkeley’s famous dicta that to be is to be perceived: “the very existence of an unthinking being consists in being perceived” (63). This is not solipsism: “It does not therefore follow from the foregoing principles, that bodies are annihilated and created every moment, or exist not at all during the intervals between our perception of them” (44, italics mine), because though we may come and go, existing realities are perceived continually by “the eternal mind of the Creator” (64).

This provides a philosophical basis for why Tolkien insists in On Fairy Stories that “if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them” (10). Elves, we could say, are the human imagination’s intuitive grasp of the idea that thought inhabits even the most secret places, an intuition we materialize by populating hidden forest glens and shadowy grottos with clandestine observers. It is no wonder then that as Bilbo passes from the sphere of his familiar world in the Shire on his path to Mirkwood that he encounters elves: “ ‘Hmm! It smells like elves!’ thought Bilbo, and he looked up at the stars. They were burning bright and blue. Just then there came a burst of song like laughter in the trees” (57). Bilbo reflexively looks heavenward as he intuits the presence of hidden observers, elves who serve as a reminder that even the wildest places in Middle-earth may be inhabited by perceiving beings. As what The Silmarillion calls the First Children of Iluvatar, they are local manifestations of the grand truth that the whole history of Middle Earth is known to its Creator as was recounted in the Ainulindale.

The “unsuspecting Bilbo” we encounter at the beginning of The Hobbit becomes increasingly aware that the meaning of events as they happen to him must be interpreted in the larger framework of the meaning of the world around him, an insight which is of a piece with Berkeley’s philosophical rejection of prime matter. For Berkeley, just as we infer the existence of conscience within other men based on our experience of their shape and behavior, once we eliminate the confusion produced by belief in prime matter, we immediately realize that each sensation we experience in the material world is directed by Providence: “[T]hose things which are called the works of Nature, that is, the far greater part of the ideas or sensations perceived by us, are not produced by, or dependent on the wills of men,” and since they cannot have their reality in something fundamentally insensible and inert (for to be must be to be perceived), “There is therefore some other spirit that causes them, since it is repugnant that they should subsist by themselves” (89). So just as we take the movements of a human body to be directed by the will of a human mind, “everything we see, hear, feel or anywise perceive by sense, [as] being a sign or effect of the Power of God” (91). Our material setting is thus not in any respect removed from God by an uncreated prime matter unknown to the Creator, but instead is the created (i.e. non-pantheistic) manifestation of “a spirit… which continually affects us, on whom we have an absolute and entire dependence, in short, in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (91).

Although Bilbo does not contemplate the existence of God in The Hobbit, he grows into a deeper appreciation of the world as a place imbued with intelligible significance. On his journey back to the Shire, stopping to rest in Rivendell, he hears the elves sing, “Sing all ye joyful, now sing all together!” invoking the familiar hymn, “O come all ye faithful,” for Christian readers, an archetypal signal that Bilbo has learned to adore something more fundamental in the world than his own material needs. This awareness is reflected in his own poem, alluded to earlier, which he recites upon returning home: “Roads go ever on/under cloud and under star,/Yet feet that wander have gone/Turn at last to home afar” (283-284). Gandalf remarks, upon hearing this, “You are not the hobbit that you were” (284).

That Bilbo has come to glimpse faith in providence as manifested in the wandering roads of Middle Earth is gestured at in his words to Balin: “Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” Bilbo interprets his own life at first in a setting of insensible things, but comes to learn that he lives in a world of prophecy – a world whose past, present, and future are under the observation of a knowing intelligence. Gandalf, fittingly as a Maia in disguise, affirms this proto-theistic take on setting which Bilbo has begun to develop: “And why should they not prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” (286) A manifestation of that hidden spirit which is beyond “mere luck,” the Elves serve as a threshold from the safe world of the Shire to the dangerous world of Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain, and the movement back creates a chiasmic structure so that the plot of Bilbo’s character development overlays the setting.

In other words, the setting is not an inert, objective landscape over which his life occurs – it is instead what Jordan Peterson would call a “map of meaning” over which Bilbo’s character develops. As such, as Gandalf reminds Bilbo at the end of the narrative, the Hobbit cannot understand his story only in light of his and his fellow creatures’ perspectives: he must see that Middle-earth itself yields perspective, and he is comforted by this perception. Gandalf says, “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!” (287) Accepting this reminder, Bilbo replies, “Thank goodness!” (287) Thank Goodness, indeed. Behind the setting of Middle Earth, much to Bilbo’s gratitude, there is reason to suppose an author perceiving the structural core of the world which informs, but is itself not reducible to, the agendas of the characters who act within it.[2]

Theistic philosophy has allowed us to see that the basic elements of character, plot, and setting help us to develop our imaginations in a way which better perceives how our identities, our actions and our place in the world should be understood in the light of God’s goodness, truth, and beauty. Without doing violence to the narrative by turning it into an allegory, we can instead use who the story of The Hobbit happens to, how it happens, and where it happens, as the philosophical basis by which our imaginations are enriched by encountering this narrative. With the character development of Bilbo throughout the novel being the entry point by which we become invested in the plot to which he is subjected, our attention towards his plot-driven identity formation is flanked by the symbolic substructure afforded by the world Tolkien envisions. We can depict theistic philosophy as producing a cruciform narratology in this way:

Ɍ is representative of the reader, whose attention rests on the character (or characters) and what happens to him (or them), with that attention flanked by the symbolic substructure which may arrest the reader’s attention but which overall serves to give an imaginative space for the character’s development to occur. Applied to The Hobbit, we can put it this way:

As the Bilbo’s interactions with questions of goodness proceed, the Boethian perspective provides insight into whether he is seeking godly goodness or not, and Cartesian philosophy tracks how the plot incentivizes Bilbo to find a framework for adjudicating truth values. In the midst of this, it is the setting, from Berkeley’s perspective, where the arrangement of Bilbo’s actions find their order in the narrative, producing the experience of beauty which results from reflecting upon how the Hobbit and his actions live, move, and have their being in the joint imaginative efforts of author and reader. This provides, of course, opportunity for readers to assess their own lives, as in a cruciform mirror for the imagination, to consider their own place within these conceptions according to the literary framework made explicit by the interpretive labors of theistic philosophy.

To conclude not only this post but this series on The Hobbit, I believe that we can see a cruciform structure emerging in the narrative when approached from the standpoint of theistic philosophy.[3] Bilbo’s character and the plot to which it is subjected is the narrative energy which keeps our attention rapt as the story unfolds, and our attention to his story is flanked on either side by the accentuating power of the setting in which Tolkien casts him. Without having to force an allegorical reading out of the novel, we are able through theistic philosophy to maintain the integrity of The Hobbit’s structure while also perceiving the impact it has on an imagination. Fundamentally, the narrative produces an imagination which longs for something more in the world, as Bilbo does when he hears the Dwarf’s song for the first time.

Theistic philosophy, when applied to narrative, can in this way help shape our imaginations into cruciform vessels which desire to be illuminated ever more brightly by what Christ accomplished on the cross. Naturally, this paradigm cannot be imported wholesale into any given class, but it does provide a pedagogical point of view from which I seek to help students to rationally bear their imaginations in a more Christlike and more Christ-centered fashion. As readers, we seek the good which characters seek to manifest in their pursuit of the truth required to prevail in their challenges, the setting lays across their path to provide the coherence of the narrative which makes it beautiful. Perceiving the good, the true, and the beautiful in the text this way can be termed the cruciform image within the literary experience. As we become more practiced at the process of perceiving this structure, we develop the inward virtue of imagination, an aspect of the crossbeam of love for God and neighbor which we strive to bear and present to the horizontal beam, Christ, upon which all our labors must be fixed lest they be labored in vain.

[1] Costica Bradatan’s The Other Bishop Berkeley: An Exercise in Reenchantment reads the philosopher’s work as more in line with the theological traditions of the Church Fathers and medieval scholasticism than is generally understood.

[2] I have discussed these passages previously in a post on the influence of Beowulf on Tolkien, published in Speculative Faith, as well as on my blog, The Boethian Acolyte.

[3] See my previous posts (part I and part II) on the concept of “cruciform imagination.”

  • Anthony G. Cirilla