Cooperating with Grace: The Luck of Bilbo Baggins

Unexpected Party

“Just let any one say I chose the wrong man or the wrong house, and you can stop at thirteen and have all the bad luck you like, or go back to digging coal.”

When Gandalf tells the dwarves in The Hobbit that he has chosen Bilbo Baggins as their lucky number, Tolkien has introduced his readers to one of the most important themes of all of his works. This theme that begins with the story of Bilbo Baggins comes to full fruition in The Lord of the Rings. As I come to the end of this particular reading of The Hobbit for Brona’s Hobbit/Lord of the Rings Readalong, it’s the place of luck in the story that strikes me the most.

Anyone who reads The Hobbit is bound to notice the prevalence of the word “luck.” Luck plays an integral role in the novel, not only for advancing the plot, but also for revealing a profound truth about life.

As mentioned above, Tolkien introduces the concept of luck at the very beginning of the novel when Gandalf is justifying his choice of Bilbo for the quest:

“Just let any one say I chose the wrong man or the wrong house, and you can stop at thirteen and have all the bad luck you like, or go back to digging coal.”

Bilbo is chosen to be the lucky number. And that is, in fact, what he becomes. Bilbo is almost luck incarnate. Take a look at this small sample of times Bilbo is lucky during his adventures:

Bilbo was saved by pure luck. For that of course was the answer.

It was lucky that he had come to his senses in time.

and by luck (he was born with a good share of it) he guessed more or less right

he saw that luck was with him

Luck of an unusual kind was with Bilbo then.

he had been more lucky than he had guessed

And that’s only a brief sampling of all the times luck is mentioned in the book–some fifty instances or more. And Bilbo is at the center of it all. At one point in the story Bilbo even calls himself Luckwearer, for so he is.

What do all these instances of luck mean? Is Tolkien a lazy writer, using luck to get his main character out of tough situations?

Some readers have interpreted Bilbo’s luck as an innate hobbit trait. In fact, players of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game know that halfling characters get a “luck” roll just because they’re halflings. But luck isn’t a hobbit ability like Bilbo’s talent for moving quietly. For Tolkien, luck has a deeper meaning, a meaning that originates in Tolkien’s Christianity.

The key to understanding Tolkien’s use of luck comes in the final scene of the book, when Gandalf and Bilbo are looking back over their adventures together. Bilbo expresses surprise that the old prophecies have come true, and Gandalf has to set him straight:

“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? 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!”

In other words, all those instances in which Bilbo was lucky were really the work of something bigger than himself. His luck in finding the ring, in answering the riddles correctly, in guessing which direction to take in the darkness, are all at the service of something greater, a fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.

But Bilbo is not simply a pawn at the mercy of fate. He has willingly chosen to accompany the dwarves, accepting Gandalf’s call and trusting in the wizard’s faith in him.

Bilbo may be “only quite a little fellow,” but for Tolkien it is the little fellows who make all the difference, as we will see again in The Lord of the Rings. “Little fellows” cannot do great things on their own; but in the service of a higher power great things can be done through them.

Christian theology calls this “cooperating with grace.” Like Bilbo, each of us is “only quite a little fellow.” The Hobbit invites us to ask the question, Who is the Gandalf in my life that sees my potential, that is calling me to be the “lucky number” on an important quest? What can I do in my own small way that will cooperate with the grace of God to allow something great to occur?

The Hobbit can also help us look back at life journeys that have ended. Maybe we’re leaving a job or graduating from school. Maybe we’re moving to a new city or we’ve finished a major project at work. Looking back, what “lucky” things in that journey were really the work of the Holy Spirit? What coincidences or providential events enabled us to do something really worthwhile? How did I cooperate with God’s grace through that journey?

It has been wonderful going “There and Back Again” with Bilbo. Rereading The Hobbit for the Readalong has been its own journey, and as I look back I can think of several “lucky” moments of grace:

  • I first heard about the Readalong from N@ncy, after I wrote about Tolkien for Nonfiction November.
  • The fact that Brona is even hosting this Readalong is a great grace.
  • I actually remembered the Tolkien Toast this year!
  • I did not remember until I started reading that Bilbo was 50 years old at the beginning of the story–coincidentally the same age I am now.
  • The comments from Brona, N@ncy, Rick and others have really helped to keep me blogging through this rereading.

I’m sure there have been many more moments of grace, but my hope is that by participating in the HLOTR Readalong I will be able in some small way to allow the Holy Spirit to work through me to allow something greater to occur than I could ever have done on my own.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to blog as much while rereading The Lord of the Rings, but I look forward to starting volume one of the Millennium Edition in March.

Deacon Nick

Nick Senger is a husband, a father of four, and a Catholic school teacher, vice principal and technology coordinator. He taught junior high literature and writing for over 25 years, and has been a Catholic school educator since 1990. In 2001 he was named a Distinguished Teacher of the Year by the National Catholic Education Association.

4 Responses

  1. Brona says:

    Another thoughtful and thought-provoking post Nick.

    Curiously my word for 2017 is ‘grace’ ( I am not a religious person at all, but already I have had several reminders of the religious context of my choice of word this year.

    Thinking about Tolkien’s Catholic background certainly adds ‘meat’ to many of his themes.

    • Deacon Nick says:

      Looks like a you’ve experienced what Gandalf would call more than “mere luck.” It’s a beautiful post, by the way. It appears to me that this coincidence fits the third definition of grace you wrote about.

      I had not heard of choosing a word for the year, but I really like the idea. I think I’ve unofficially chosen “zest and gusto” as words of the year after reading Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. This was terrific, Nick. I had planned to write somethinf similar, by was having a hard time getting this post right. Now I don’t have to. You nailed it 🙂

    Really enjoying your insights! Glad I get to read them for LOTR as well.

  3. blogger2016c says:

    I read The Hobbit aloud to my 11 yr old last year – hadn’t read it before. Loved your thoughts here.

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