The Gospel According to the Lord of the Rings: Week 3, A Lower Anthropology

Last week we talked about one of two contrasts Fleming Rutledge makes between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. That contrast was between chance and providence. In The Hobbit, Bilbo's fate seems to be driven by good fortune. In The Lord of the Rings that element of chance drops out almost completely. In The Lord of the Rings there is "something else at work" in the background, and Rutledge traces this thread as the deep theological narrative of the book.

The second contrast Rutledge makes is related to the first and has to do with an anthropological contrast.

Theological anthropology, our view of human persons, is an interesting area of reflection in my discipline of psychology. How capable are people in self-actualizing? Is self-help realistic or doomed? Are we innately good or totally depraved? And on and on.

Broadly, we can classify anthropological theories as being either higher or lower, more optimistic versus more pessimistic. A higher anthropology tends to be optimistic about human nature and capacities. At root, we're both good and capable. Just give us room to grow! A lower anthropology, by contrast, is pessimistic about human nature. Humans are fallible, sinful, and weak.

With that background, similar to last week's observations, Rutledge makes a contrast between a higher anthropology in The Hobbit versus a lower anthropology in The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, Rutledge cites a passage after Bilbo saves his companions from the giant spiders in Mirkwood:
...somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt himself a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach.
There's a humanistic aspect to this passage. Hero faces challenge. Hero rises to challenge. Hero grows and self-actualizes. This is an optimistic anthropology. It's the anthropology of self-help and the meritocracy. 

But Rutledge observes something about this passage in The Hobbit: "I emphasize this passage because it is so striking that there isn't anything like it in The Lord of the Rings." And what sets it apart are the words "all alone by himself." No character does anything in The Lord of the Rings "all alone by himself."

Now, it could be argued that Rutledge puts too much on this one passage. Last week in the comments JD Walters pointed to a different passage toward the end of The Hobbit, Gandalf speaking to Bilbo:
You don’t really suppose do you that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck? Just for your sole benefit? You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow, in a wide world after all!
I think that's quite a good point that mitigates against Rutledge's hard contrast between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

For my part, I'd split the different between Rutledge and JD's comment that "There is certainly not a switch from events in The Hobbit happening due to chance and those in LOTR happening due to purpose. Tolkien's messaging is consistent in both." Because of his Catholic faith, I think Tolkien, in his own mind, held a consistent vision across the two books. That said, I do think the anthropology dramatized in the narrative of The Hobbit is more optimistic, necessitating the expository correction by Gandalf at the end. That is, what might have been in Tolkien's head wasn't really portrayed in the story, and had to get dropped in like a deus ex machina at the end. In The Lord of the Rings, by contrast, the lower anthropology Gandalf speaks of in The Hobbit is deeply woven into the narrative. This lower anthropology isn't found through a "correction" delivered in a speech, since it is so vividly displayed and dramatized in a way it just isn't in The Hobbit. Rutledge is right that nothing like the phrase "all alone by himself" occurs in The Lord of the Rings, a passage that Tolkien seems keen to "take back" at the end of the Hobbit. All that to say, the pessimistic note sounded at the end of The Hobbit is right there at the start of The Lord of the Rings.

More on this anthropological aspect of The Lord of the Rings next week.  

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