The Luck O' The Hobbit
For many adult readers of The Hobbit, the amount of apparent good luck enjoyed by Bilbo Baggins and his companions on their adventure can be off-putting. One coincidence, okay. But lucky break after lucky break after lucky break? Come on! Tolkien doesn't even try to conceal it. He actually draws attention to it. References to chance and luck and things happening in the nick of time abound throughout the story.
It begins in the first pages of chapter 1 when we are told that "By some curious chance" Gandalf arrived one morning. In chapter 2, when Bilbo and the dwarves encounter the trolls, Gandalf comes back "in the nick of time" to save them from being eaten. When they arrive in Rivendell, Elrond looks at the map on the one evening when the "moon-letters" would be visible, and those runes give the party information that is absolutely necessary to the success of their quest. Later, when Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves are hiding in the mountain cave, Bilbo couldn't go to sleep, and this enabled him to see the ponies disappearing into a crack in the wall. He shouted just in time to allow Gandalf to act. This would later prove to be necessary for the very survival of the party.
The most dramatic stroke of "luck" occurs when Bilbo is crawling around in pitch darkness and just happens to feel a cold metal ring lying on the ground. This stroke of "luck" would eventually end up having ramifications not only for Bilbo's survival but also for the fate of the entire world. Luck also plays a part in the riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum. A fish splashes in the water at the very moment Bilbo is trying to respond to a riddle to which the correct answer is "fish." When Bilbo asks for more time to solve another riddle, he again is "saved by pure luck" because asking for more time helped him realize that "time" was the correct answer to the riddle in question.
When Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves were trapped in the tops of the trees surrounded by wolves, it just so happened that the eagles were in the area and able to save them. Bilbo is the last to be saved and he is rescued just in the nick of time. Gandalf claims that he has managed to get everyone over the mountains "by good management and good luck." We are soon informed that it is only by "accident" that they have found themselves in Beorn's lands. That "accident" too will later turn out to have important ramifications for the adventure when Beorn comes to their assistance in the great battle and helps turn the tide. As Beorn sends them on their way, he tells them that beyond the edge of the forest they must depend on their luck and their courage. Before Gandalf leaves Bilbo and the dwarves, he tells them that "with a tremendous slice of luck" they may make it through the woods.
Incredible luck occurs several times as they pass through Mirkwood. When Bilbo and the dwarves get off the path and become separated in the dark, Dori stumbles across Bilbo "by sheer luck." Later Bilbo luckily comes to his senses just in time to avoid being wrapped up in the web of a giant spider. Trying to locate the dwarves, Bilbo "by luck" chooses the direction in the dark that leads him to the dwarves just in time to save them from being eaten by the giant spiders. Luckily Bilbo had the ring which enabled him to more effectively fight the spiders.
Luck also plays a major role in the dwarves escape from the woodland elves. Luckily, there was a water gate that the elves used to send empty barrels up the river. Luckily, there was a feast and some strong drink that enabled Bilbo to obtain the guard's keys, and this enabled him to free the dwarves from their cells. As Tolkien says, "Luck of an unusual kind was with Bilbo then." Bilbo gets the last dwarf tucked away in a barrel moments before the elves return. By luck the barrels hit the shore when it is dark. Had it been daylight, the elves say they would have looked inside to see why they were so heavy. While listening to the raftsmen, Bilbo discovers that it was lucky that they had left the main trail through Mirkwood because that was no longer a safe way out of the forest. It turns out that the river they took by barrel was the one good way out at that time.
Another stroke of luck occurs as they are seeking for the door to the mountain because they just so happen to be there on the one day that the setting sun illuminates the keyhole to the door. Before Bilbo enters the dark tunnel, Tolkien tells us that Bilbo was "possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance." And then Bilbo himself tells Thorin, "Perhaps I have begun to trust my luck more than I used to in the old days." As he descends into the mountain, Balin bids him "Good luck!" A bit later, when they realize that the dragon is going to be a difficult problem to solve if they are to regain their treasure and their home, they ask Bilbo what they should do. Bilbo responds, "That obviously depends entirely on some new turn of luck."
Luckily, it turned out that Smaug had one bare patch in his otherwise impenetrable scaly armor, and luckily a thrush was listening as they discussed it. It was also lucky that Bilbo was paying attention because if it were not for him, the dragon would have smashed all of them to pieces, but because of Bilbo, they once again escaped certain death just in the nick of time when Smaug smashed the side of the mountain and destroyed the doorway where they had been sitting and talking. Samug himself soon faces a different kind of luck because the thrush has informed Bard the bowman of the soft spot in Smaug's armor. Bard shoots the arrow that kills Smaug. It happens to be his last arrow. At the end, just as men and elves are about to go to battle with the dwarves, they are suddenly forced to fight together against an invading horde of goblins. Lucky turn of events.
There is more, but these are some of the most obvious of the many instances of luck or chance that are found throughout The Hobbit. Some have found this irritating, an overuse of the deus ex machina device. Others have argued that Tolkien is purposefully using the device of luck and chance to indicate the pervading influence of fate. I believe that Tolkien is using the device of luck or chance to make a point, but it isn't mere fate.
We get the first substantive indication that more than luck is involved on the very last page of the book when Gandalf says to Bilbo, "You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?" So after all the references to luck and chance, Gandalf indicates that it was never mere luck. But what was it? Some kind of fate?
No. The Hobbit takes place in Middle-earth, part of a theistic universe, created by Eru Ilúvatar. Beings called the Valar, something like biblical angels, are involved in the governing of Middle-earth as well. All of this is found in the early chapters of the Silmarillion. Tolkien is using the device of luck and chance to say something about divine providence. This becomes much more evident in The Lord of the Rings. In chapter two of the first book, when Gandalf is telling Frodo about the ring's history, he makes a telling statement: "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought."
The word "meant," which Tolkien italicizes twice implies intent, and intent implies a being that can intend. Intention implies goals, design, planning, and all of those imply intelligence. The fact that the one who meant for Bilbo to find the Ring was able to work events in such a way that Bilbo did find the Ring indicates great power. All of it points to an invisible divine hand at work. All of it points to divine providence.
Tolkien is using a children's fantasy story to do something similar to what the author of the biblical book of Esther did. God is never mentioned explicitly in the book of Esther, and yet God's presence is made everywhere evident by means of His invisible providential control of events. Tolkien does the same. God is never explicitly mentioned in The Hobbit, but divine presence is made evident by the repeated appeal to apparent luck and chance. The steps of Bilbo and the dwarves were being guided all along by an invisible hand. They didn't see it as the events occurred. Gandalf had to finally reveal it to Bilbo at the end of the adventure.
When we are in the middle of events, we too can often forget that God remains sovereign and that He remains in control. Some events may appear to us to be no more than good luck or bad luck or random chance. But we ought to know better. The events of our lives were planned by God. They were and are meant for a purpose. We may not know all of that purpose until the last day, but knowing that there is a purpose? Well. That is an encouraging thought!
Illustration of Bilbo from a Belarussian edition of The Hobbit.