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Lessons in Manhood From “The Hobbit”

My husband and I recently took our thirteen-year-old son to see the film version of The Hobbit. His review: “It was a little slow. The book was much more fun.”

A few years ago, I formed a book club for mothers and sons. During our second year, most of the families were studying medieval history at home, so I decided to incorporate that theme into the book club. We set out to read Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood (also by Green), Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray, and The Hobbit. My son was eager to read the first two selections because he had learned in a church theology class that Green was one of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ compatriots in the Inklings (by the way, I am surprised at how familiarity breeds curiosity. One year my children loudly urged me to turn up a story on NPR about Debussy after listening to “The Children’s Corner” in a music class).

From the beginning, our adventure pointed out obvious differences between mothers and sons. The mothers almost universally disliked the first two books. One mother described the King Arthur selection as “the same chapter over and over again” and summed up the 400 page book as episode after episode of “and the knights went out on a quest and they smote off someone’s head.” Interestingly, it was the favorite book of the year for the young men. They saw each new quest as a thrilling adventure with brave and triumphant knights and the occasional excitement of a wicked sorceress. In our discussion, I asked the boys if there was anything that could have been changed about the book to make it even better. Their answer astounded me. Several concurred that the book could have been more thrilling and violent. Personally, I am not sure what could be more violent than a knight riding through a hall carrying his own severed head, but I will take their word for it.

Robin Hood once again divided our merry band into two camps. The boys unanimously enjoyed these episodic adventure tales. The mothers considered it a weary slog, undertaken only out of love for their sons. One mother moaned, “It’s just like King Arthur only with fist-fighting instead of beheadings.” Of course, this is precisely what drew the boys to the book. They crave adventure, physical prowess, and the triumph of the strong.

When we arrived at our third selection—Adam of the Road—the camps reversed. The mothers unanimously enjoyed this rather peaceful, sweet tale of a boy and his minstrel father. The boys hated it. It was an anti-climax after the excitement of the first two novels. There was not nearly enough danger or adventure in this tale to satisfy them. It was not the stuff of legends but of the everyday, a difference they recognized instinctively and rejected.

Finally, we finished the year on a happy note with The Hobbit which served to unite us all. Here was a book that both mothers and sons could read with great zeal and pleasure. Many of the families ended up reading it aloud together. We would not be raising sons like Eustace Scrubb who do not know what to do when faced by a dragon.

Seeing the film reminded me of our book club and stirred my thoughts about the boys’ preferences. I concluded that Tolkien offers several things which boys crave but which are too rare in today’s world.

First, The Hobbit presents the constant fellowship of a company of men (or, in this case, dwarves, hobbit, and wizard) united in a common cause. They eat together, sleep together, sing together, share stories together, and pledge their lives and fortunes to one another. Men long for this “band of brothers,” but it is hard to come by today. I am grateful that my son had several years of all-boy classes in our homeschool community. This opportunity to study and play together as boys was soul-nourishing.

The Hobbit also depicts the bravery of men facing grave dangers together. From trolls to goblin kings to dragons, there is little rest for these adventurers. As I watch this growing young man in my home, I realize how much he craves independence and adventure, how he longs to face a little danger and test his mettle.

I realize how hemmed in our young boys have become. Read Tom Sawyer, The Great Brain series, Little Britches, or Sign of the Beaver to see how different adolescence once was for boys, how they could wander far from home and practice becoming men. Although it is not quite the same, I am glad that my son and his friend used to go for hours and explore the woods and creek near our home, far from mothers and sisters.

Finally, Tolkien shows us men who are on the road to becoming legends, who are conscious of their part in history. His characters were fed on the stories of old, stories which emboldened them during their own adventures. Every man today, too, longs to make his mark on the world, but we no longer expect this of our boys or train them for this calling. Where can they go to test their mettle?

So, I pray for my son that he will be part of a brave company of men eager to make their mark on their world. I pray that these stories will embolden him to face the dragons which will surely come.

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