Bilbo Baggins and the Arkenstone

The Hobbit is a small book by J.R.R. Tolkien which preceded The Lord of the Rings by several years. Its main character, Bilbo Baggins, is the uncle of Frodo, the hero of sequels, and this adventure of more of a children’s tale than the bigger novel. Having seen the movie trilogy, including a fan edit that includes only material from the book, there are a couple of things about this story which are key life issues unaddressed by its sequel, which I’d like to tell about.

Bilbo charges out his door at Gandalf’s urging to work for a group of dwarves as a burglar (a profession he knows nothing about.) The dwarves are a tight knit group, and many are related to each other; Bilbo is a clear outsider who has to work his way into membership in the party from the beginning. Over time it happens as they all get to know and trust each other, and by the time they reach their objective, the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo is an integral part of the group and respected by all. How Bilbo does this is by appropriate openness about himself, a willingness to be helpful, creativity in times of crisis, and dependability. Bilbo becomes a trusted friend by offering trustworthy friendship.

When they get to their objective, Bilbo is the one who scouts ahead and has conversations with Smaug the dragon occupying the ancient dwarvish stronghold, which prompt the monster to attack a nearby village, an attack that leads to the dragon’s death. The unexpected vacancy in the mountain is a cause of celebration and strife the beginning of among the group. The dragon’s hoard and the nearness of the Arkenstone, the jewel that signifies Thorin’s kingship, turns Thorin into a self-serving, greedy tyrant who abandons reason and deludes himself into thinking he can hole up in the mountain with his treasure and ignore the needs of the world around him. His treasure transforms him for the worse, no question.

The desire for the Arkenstone in particular leads Thorin into his bad state of mind, and Bilbo has a problem: he’s found the Arkenstone first and must make a decision based on conflicting loyalties. As a member of the party and an employee of Thorin’s, he’s bound to turn it over under the terms of personal loyalty as soon as possible, and it’s tough for him to watch his friends search frantically for something he already has. However Bilbo understands turning in the gem will only make Thorin’s greed and madness worse, so he withholds it. In the end, Bilbo steals out under cover of darkness and gives the stone to the Elvish King and the leader of the local humans outside. They’ve come to ask Thorin to help them as fellow victims of the dragon’s rule of terror, but he denies their claim.

The Elf King was no friend of Bilbo’s since the hobbit was an invisible, unwelcome guest at the King’s court for several weeks and helped his dwarven friends escape the King’s dungeons. Bilbo knows that the King has some honor, as was as Bard of Laketown and they will use the stone to make sure justice is done and peace is restored. It’s fortunate, because their conflict is sidetracked by a huge goblin army storming over the horizon, and without this exchange, they might not have been able to come together to fight off their common foes.

We are frequently given a choice between doing the right thing and personal loyalty. Good people have been compelled into evil through the obligation of loyalty and commitment to a superior power, the list would go on forever. When we have a choice between these two things, we have to think about the situation carefully, learn all we can, and do what’s best for all concerned. Tolkien was in the British Army during World War I and understood about military discipline. I think he would tell us directly, were he around to ask, that doing what’s right is a duty before God and comes before all else and is superior to every other commitment or loyalty.

If there’s something wrong with our society today, it’s because not enough people have made this choice; many put aside the common good in favor of personal loyalties. The easy choice is to do what Nazis and others who’ve serve tyrants through the ages do: follow orders without question and let the responsibility be on the superior. However, that’s not quite right, and we can’t sign off moral responsibility for what we do just because we’re following someone else’s orders. It doesn’t matter how big our hero is or what our obligation is: if giving up the Arkenstone makes things worse and feeds human evil, we have every right and duty to withhold it, as Bilbo did.

The cost might be some lack of efficiency, and we like to think of underlings as extensions of ourselves and not independent people with consciences that may lead them away from what we want to happen. However, true service isn’t about doing what’s wanted; it’s about doing what’s needed and what is Right.

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