J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, & An Invitation to Wonder

I am afraid we have lost our sense of wonder. The world is ablaze with wonder, and we seem far too unaware, far too blind to the grandeur of God with which the world burns. We are creatures whose appetites for wonder have been dulled by the numbing power of self-dependency. We have tethered our trust to ourselves and thereby removed any possibility to be held captive by anything beyond ourselves. But there is a way to wonder again, and J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton help us understand how.


We are much like Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien writes of Bilbo:


This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.


You see, Bilbo, like all the Bagginses before him, was all too content to leave his life uninterrupted. He had all the pleasantries a little hobbit could ask for. But in a very unexpected way, Bilbo is invited to leave his hobbit hole and The Hill behind for an adventure beyond the Edge of the Wild. In many ways, Bilbo is not unlike us. We, too, are content to leave our lives uninterrupted while we enjoy the pleasantries we are tempted to think we have so rightfully earned. We, too, like Bilbo, have unexpectedly been invited to adventure though such an invitation seems to threaten all we treasure.


This is because we, proving again to be like Bilbo, have made ourselves so big and the world so small in an attempt to fabricate autonomy. We desire to be immutable, impassable gods, captaining our own destiny and controlling our own fate. But in this there is no joy. There is no wonder. There is only disappointment because though we masquerade as self-sufficient centers of the universe, we are not. Look though we might, we find nothing in ourselves, if we are honest, that unleashes an uncontrollable, untamable wonder. And the lesson Bilbo learns through his adventure is one we must learn too. It is a lesson that unlocks a child-like wonder we can now but faintly remember.


At the end of his adventure, as Bilbo approaches The Hill, he stops and says:


Roads go ever ever on,

                Over rock and under tree,

By caves where never sun has shone,

                By streams that never find the sea;

Over snow by winter sown,

                And through the merry flowers of June,

Over grass and over stone,

                And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on

                Under cloud and under star,

Yet feet that wandering have gone

                Turn at last to home afar.

Eyes that fire and sword have seen

                And horror in the halls of stone

Look at last on meadows green

                And tress and hills they long have known.


Gandalf looked at him. “My dear Bilbo!” he said. “Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.”


Indeed, Bilbo was not the same. He had been changed. He had grown much smaller as the world around him grew much bigger—as did his sense of wonder. His little world that was once all he knew was now colored with a fresh brilliance, it shimmered with a new radiance in the light of a bigger, grander world. But it was not merely geographic perspective Bilbo gained in his adventure. Bilbo also gained theological perspective. Tolkien concludes his tale with a dialogue between Bilbo and Gandalf, the great wizard, reflecting back on all that had come to pass:


                “Then all the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.

                “Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t 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!”

                “Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.


Bilbo came to understand there was something beyond himself guiding and directing and completing the course of his adventures—and that something, Tolkien would say, is most certainly Someone.


Tolkien helps us see that to recover a sense of wonder we must be loosed from our dependence upon ourselves. We must come to know our place, our very small place, in this very big world. And most significantly, we must come to know the One who is guiding and directing and sustaining it all. Only the radiance of the glory of the eternal God—revealed fully in Jesus and echoed in creation—can evoke and sustain the child-like wonder for which we all long—regardless of our circumstances.


About this circumstance-independent wonder, G.K. Chesterton writes in his classic Orthodoxy:


Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.


Chesterton, like Tolkien, understands we have lost our sense of wonder—“for we have sinned and grown old.” Yet the eternal appetite of infancy our heavenly Father possesses, the unending rejoicing even in monotony, He makes available to us by reminding us we are very small, His world is very big, and that He is at work in all things—the mundane and the miraculous—for our good.