December 15th, 2013


Leah Libresco on morality in fantasy

I’m supposed to be sleeping, or at least tidying up the packing (so nearly there!), but I thought some of you might find Leah’s recent post over at Patheos on the way different fantasy series relate to morality.

To my great shame, out of the books and series she mentions, I’ve only read the Harry Potter books and of course The Hobbit. I read Narnia in middle school but found it too allegorical for my tastes and never reread as an adult so I don’t think that counts. that said, I think her basic point here is a good one. Raising the stakes doesn’t have to mean bitter, fate-of-the-world type possible outcomes, and I’m with Leah on Harry Potter: as much as I loved the series and as much as I would have read all of those thousands of pages just to see Snape’s true story unfold, I was deeply disappointed with the way Rowlings handled Harry’s virtue in that final book, particularly his willingness to use a Cruciatus with no apparent regret.He was so ready to stick to his principles even when it might mean his death as a kid, and did it in the final book without a qualm, making those principles seem almost like a childish thing. Which was just disheartening, because they’re not.

(Major spoilers for The Hobbit book; minor for DOS film)

HobbitBilboFaceBigPostersoloHDfullThis is why I find it so interesting she points to The Hobbit as an example here but doesn’t really develop it. Because while I haven’t read The Wizard’s Dilemma (a fault soon to be remedied), I have read The Hobbit many times, and Bilbo strikes me as a character who does a remarkable job of holding onto his virtue. Just before the Battle of the Five Armies Bilbo steals the Arkenstone; turns it over to Gandalf, Thranduil, and Bard; and then rather than hiding behind enemy lines goes back to take his position with his companions. He only ‘deserts” when Thorin chases him off, and even at that point where he could have perhaps fled the battle he takes a last stand with the people he recognizes as noblest, most good: Thranduil and his elves, and Gandalf. He also is able to think well of Thorin and honor him on his death-bed even after all that happened, and after the great battle, after he’s given up his claim to a share of the treasure-horde, he still feels he has a debt to pay to Thranduil and pays it (interestingly, a “a necklace of silver and pearls” given to him by Dain which reminds me vaguely of the gemstones referenced by movie!Thranduil for some reason).

The only treasure Bilbo brings back with him are from the troll-horde. That fits, because you never get the impression that book!Bilbo is all that driven by wealth, as he’s quite rich already. Rather, it seems to be a moral impulse toward adventure, toward doing something noteworthy and experiencing the larger world and (in the movies, at least) helping strangers get the home that’s been taken from them. not that money is itself a bad motivator, but Bilbo seems to recognize its proper place. He wants his share as a recognition of his worth, but he also is willing to give it up when he thinks it will prevent a bloodbath. I even suspect he’d rather give up his share than see all those good people of Laketown suffer the way they do. In the book in particular, he has much more reason to be genuinely fond of them than he does in the movie. Even years later at the Long-expected Party, he thinks back in fondness to that point in his adventure.

It will be really interesting to see how Jackson handles this or (more likely) in just what way he’ll fundamentally mess it up. So far we’ve been given two main examples of Bilbo’s use of violence: when he was willing to fight to save Thorin at the end of AUJ, and when he attacked the spiders in Mirkwood, including that baby spider I described in my recent review. The first one was a mark of his worth; the second genuinely disgusted him and he seemed to repent of it. But given the way these flicks are going (the soaring decapitated heads? Really?), I’m guessing Bilbo will have some great act of heroism (meaning violence) to perform in TAB. For my money, though, Bilbo nailed the courage thing when he gave generously in a way that put him in danger; returned to his friends because that’s where his loyalty was; and fought beside the people he recognized as good when he was driven away from his companions. That’s virtue enough for anyone, most of all a hobbit who never had any reason to expect to make these kinds of sacrifices.


On a different note, I’m working on an essay on the Thranduil of the books and I’ve collected up some of the major quotes about him. If anyone wants to look over them and let me know if I missed anything, I’d be grateful. I’d be even more grateful if you’d just talk shop with me. Tell me a bit about how you imagined the character before the movies, and why. I’ll be traveling tomorrow, so I may not answer right away, or even at all, but if you guys want to discuss this character in my absence and give me something to read when I get back to a computer, I’d really appreciate it.

(I may use what you say in the essay I’m working on, so if you’d prefer I didn’t please do mention it in your comment.)

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.