“Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”
This quote, found in Carpenter’s Biography of JRR Tolkien, comes at the conclusion of Tolkien’s defense of faith and the Bible as the True Myth to C.S. Lewis. I’ve highlighted the last portion as it bears directly on the current chapter. “Not at Home” deals directly with the vice of greed and even the vice of materialism.
Materialism is often simply understood as an over reliance on material or physical goods for our welfare often linked directly with greed. It becomes a matter of finding joy in ownership, which quickly devolves into being slaves to ownership. On a more theological level, materialism is the reliance on physical matter to explain the world and reality, rejecting divine and spiritual modes of thought.
When the dwarves enter the cavern and begin to see the treasure, they are immediately pulled in. They are enflamed with a passion and fierceness of ownership, “[forgetting] fear and even caution…[lifting] treasures…[and] caressing and fingering them” (TH 277). They are lost in the mesmerizing power of the horde. The dark undertones of this pull are only vaguely hinted at, but will be fully revealed in the chapters to come.
Let’s return to Bilbo.
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, Tolkien often uses repetition in his novels, particularly The Hobbit, for emphasis, to show growth, to establish interlacements or to create a foil. Bilbo’s finding of the Arkenstone set me on a train of thought which at first seemed a dead end, but upon further reflection elucidates Tolkien’s view of materialism.
I found many echoes of Tolkein’s larger mythology of the Silmarils in this chapter. First, in the tunnel, as before, Bilbo is struck by a sudden “strange lightening of the heart” which encourages him to return to Smaug’s lair, to not give up (TH 271). The moment beautifully captures the peace one may receive in prayer, a peace Tolkien himself probably experienced from time to time. For many, this immense peace, this sudden lightness is the closest we may come to hearing God. And so the phrase struck me. In The Silmarillion, Ulmo and the Valar often come through visible signs, verbal utterances, dreams and even physical form. Now, in Bilbo’s time, there is just a sense of peace. It is an echo of Tolkien’s Catholic faith. In the Bible God is sometimes visible and active in the world in burning bush, the pillar of fire, the voice from the heavens, and the Transfiguration. However, in everyday life, we have to rely on faith, we have to find the little miracles ever present around us; a process Tolkien espoused in his theory of recovery.
Leaving the tunnel, Bilbo sees a “pale white glint, above him and far off in the gloom,” beckoning to him (TH 272). After gathering himself, Bilbo asks for light, and once he gets it, sets off for the glint in the darkness. He finds the Arkenstone, a “great jewel…dug from the heart of the mountain…it took all the light that fell upon it and changed it into ten thousand sparks of white radiance shot with glints of the rainbow” (TH 275). By some instinct, he takes it, wishing to claim it alone as his payment, but knowing that may not be.
Though natural, and only intensifying the light gathered from without, the Arkenstone echoes its great ancestors, the Silmarils, which shone of their own light. The Silmarils are holy relics, not only as depositories of the light of the Trees of Valinor, but as they are hallowed by Varda. They are sanctified in the holy light of creation and further consecrated by the blessing of Varda, such that “no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them” (S 67). Because of this sacred nature, the history of the Silmarils demonstrates the nature of materialism and the proper way to approach material goods.
When Morgoth claims the Silmarils, after murdering Finwë, he is burned terribly by their touch. So too, even when held aloft in the iron crown, they weight greatly on his brow. Yet when Beren takes a silmaril, he is unaffected, for he claims it out of love, and sacrifice for another. The purity of his action is proved by the fact that thought he Silmaril burned Carcharoth with unquenchable fire, “the hand of Beren [is] yet incorrupt” (S 186).
The further tales of the Silmarils show the folly of material lust. There is the forging of the Nauglamir, deviously meant to lay claim to dwarvish work as a mount for the Silmaril, which leads to the death of Thingol and the fall of Doriath. Lúthien wears the Nauglamir, increasing her beauty, but in this act of apparent vanity shines too bright and quickly dies to leave the rings of the world. So many stories of the Silmarillion act as cautionary tales; material goods must be used with right intention otherwise you are made slave to them and fall into evil as the initial quote so artfully expressed.
So how does this relate to Bilbo and the Arkenstone?
It is a question of right intention. The Arkenstone may be fully natural, and lack the sacral qualities of the Silmarils, but it holds the same dangers. Initially, Bilbo toys with the idea of claiming the stone for himself, but he realizes that the stone is not to be bargained with. Yet at the same time he fails to mention its discovery. It is obvious that this find may cause a great flowering of the treasure lust in the dwarves, and even lead to strife. Ever practical, I think Bilbo realizes now is not the time and as time passes fear holds him in silence. The scene is set for one of Bilbo’s most heroic moves, where his sacrifice will show himself of perfect quality, like Beren.