by Emily Simon
Fall is the time of the year I like to reread my favorite series. Perhaps the weather and the blankets and the kitten cuddles and the pumpkin-scented everything just creates an environment conducive to reading. Perhaps the holiday season prompts us to return to semblances of home. Perhaps the crushing reality of school causes us to hide away in magical worlds like those imagined in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Who knows! But this past September, I started slowly working my way through a second full reread of the Lord of the Rings series while simultaneously attending an incredibly nerdy series of lectures on the theology of J.R.R. Tolkien at my local retreat center.
While examining The Hobbit in one of these talks, our lecturer called our attention to the rhythm of Bilbo’s journey. Contrary to what the movies would have you believe (that’s a whole other post, people), not every scene of the book involves some sort of action-packed sequence. Not only does the company indulge in feasts at times and painfully endure fasts at others, there are prevalent examples of rest and renewal scattered intermittently throughout the action. The company’s harrowing escape from the trolls is bookended by their stay in Rivendell. And after their ordeal with the goblins and the wolves, the company is offered refreshment in every sense of the word at the house of Beorn. Any adventure, and really any life that wants to embody something other than stagnation, will contain both sides of the coin: fasts and feasts.
While Tolkien would dramatically gasp at anyone who wanted to carelessly pull symbolic imagery from his characters and their world, I don’t think he could argue with the way the ups and downs of Bilbo’s journey reflect the liturgical rhythm of the Catholic Church. We too have seasons of solemnity and seasons of celebration. We too are stripped down at times and lavished upon at others. We too endure the times of wanting and waiting so that the fulfilment of our desires will be that much sweeter.
Even in our personal lives, this cycle rings true. I go through joyful periods in my life, filled to the brim with certainty and excitement and fulfillment. But there are moments (days, weeks, months) where I feel a bit like Bilbo rushed out the door with nothing in his possession, not even a handkerchief. There are entire seasons of my life where I just want to sit down and cry because just like Bilbo recently emerged from underneath the Misty Mountains, the direction and length of the journey ahead is unknown. It just goes on. And we must pick up our dead-tired feet and our second-breakfast-less stomachs and carry on.
I have a specific memory of sympathizing greatly with Bilbo’s frustrations on a trip to Italy. I had set off for the eternal city to meet a group of my friends, but had been besieged every step of the way by bad luck. After missing two flights, arriving in a foreign city completely alone, and trying to navigate public transit to the apartment where my friends were waiting for me, I was completely lost. Relying on a vague map and even vaguer directions from helpful locals, I wandered those cobblestone streets (not conducive at all to the heavy suitcase I was dragging behind me) for over an hour in the August heat for a location that was supposed to be a ten minute walk from the train station.
I remember specifically the moment where I pray/shouted at God that I simply could not endure much more. I was exhausted, hungry, stressed, homesick, and in desperate need for some WiFi to solve all my problems. And right at that moment, I happened to turn down a small side street where I miraculously saw the apartment building I had been looking for. Falling into the arms of my worried friends after a day of setbacks felt like a feast after a long fast. It felt like Gandalf had re-appeared to work his magic at the exact moment the company needed him most. Even in the less dramatic moments of my life, like when I contemplate scary things–do I have what it takes to be a published author or how will I ever meet young, eligible bachelors if we’re all quarantined for the foreseeable future–I know that when I reflect on these moments later, I’ll be able to see God’s providence slowly prodding and moving me through the fasts. He won’t let us miss the feast he’s been preparing for us all along.
Here’s the thing about writing a story infused with the “Good news,” no matter the size of the dragon waiting for us, we can take solace in the knowledge that a feast is yet to come. I think the best stories have this message buried deep within their foundations.
So to all Bilbos around the world, yearning for the comfort of home in the middle of a dark forest, DO NOT STRAY FROM THE PATH. Take confidence in the man who has walked this path before you. Just like Gandalf, he knows just when his grace is needed and he will provide. That feast, that happiness, that home you’ve been craving is still ahead. Onwards!