Hidden Providence in The Hobbit
Posted On September 01, 2023
Written by Dr. Keith Mathison, professor of systematic theology
If you have ever read The Hobbit, the classic book by J.R.R. Tolkien, you might have noticed how many times luck plays a major role in the story. Tolkien doesn’t hide it. He actually draws attention to it. References to chance, luck, and things happening just in the nick of time abound throughout the story. If I were to mention every instance of such “luck” in The Hobbit, this blog post would become a small book itself. I will mention merely a handful of instances.
Bilbo and the dwarves show up in Rivendell on the one night when the “moon letters” on the map would be visible. They escape from the fire around the trees because the eagles happen to be flying nearby. In the pitch darkness of Mirkwood, Dori finds Bilbo “by sheer luck,” and later Bilbo finds the dwarves by luck. They are at the mountain on the one day that the sun illuminates the keyhole in a secret door. And so on.
Of course, the most dramatic stroke of “luck” occurs when Bilbo is crawling around in pitch darkness and just happens to feel a cold metal ring lying on the ground. This stroke of “luck” would eventually end up having ramifications not only for Bilbo’s survival but also for the fate of the entire world.
What is going on in The Hobbit? We get the first substantive indication that more than luck is involved on the very last page of the book when Gandalf says 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?” So, after all the references to luck and chance, Gandalf indicates that it was never mere luck. But what was it? Some kind of fate?
No. The Hobbit takes place in Middle-earth, part of a fictional theistic universe. Tolkien is using the device of luck and chance to say something about divine providence. This becomes much more evident in The Lord of the Rings. In that book, when Gandalf explains the ring’s history to Frodo, he makes a telling statement: “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
The word meant, which Tolkien italicizes twice, implies intent, and intent implies a being that can intend. Intention implies goals, design, planning, and all of those imply intelligence. The fact that the one who meant for Bilbo to find the Ring was able to work events in such a way that Bilbo did find the Ring indicates great power. All of it points to an invisible divine hand at work. All of it points to divine providence.
Tolkien uses a children’s fantasy story to do something similar to what the author of the biblical book of Esther did. God is never mentioned explicitly in the book of Esther, and yet God’s presence is made everywhere evident by means of His invisible providential control of events. Tolkien does the same. God is never explicitly mentioned in The Hobbit, but divine presence is made evident by the repeated appeal to apparent luck and chance. The steps of Bilbo and the dwarves were being guided all along by an invisible hand. They didn’t see it as the events occurred. Gandalf finally had to reveal it to Bilbo at the end of the adventure.
When we are in the middle of events, we too can often forget that God remains sovereign and that He remains in control. Some events may appear to us to be no more than good luck or bad luck or random chance. But we, as Christians, ought to know better. The events of our lives were planned by God. They were and are meant for a purpose. We may not know all of that purpose until the last day, but knowing that there is a purpose? Well. That is most certainly an encouraging thought!