“Do you know the way the dragon twists people’s words around?” my son was saying.  “He tells them a little of the truth and then twists it around to weaken them.”  We were sitting around the kitchen table talking about Smaug, the gold-loving, doubt-evoking dragon in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  Jonathan had been curious about a particular adage in the book, “Every worm has a weak spot.”  Discussing that proverb led to a mutual confession of our own weaknesses.  “That thing that Smaug does to people, I think that happens to me sometimes,” Jonathan admitted.  “People say things to me and what they say may be partly true, but they twist it to make it hurt me.  Like when Steven makes fun of me being home schooled.”  He paused a minute and then added, “That really weakens me.”

I sat and stared at the young man before me, my 9-year-old philosopher.  How horrible that Steven, a much older, public-schooled friend, would make him feel so bad.  How wonderful that he found a way—through a character in Tolkien’s classic—to express it to me. 

Opponents of fantasy say that it creates an unreality that’s not healthy for kids.  I say it gives them an outlet to express very real fears and concerns.  And so it was with The Hobbit.  When I picked it up from the library shelf one day, I thought my kids and I would enjoy it for a few weeks and then be done with it.  But five months later, we were still reading.  Not because it’s an enormous book (my husband read three Tom Swift books to my son and daughter in the time it took me to read The Hobbit to them), but we were savoring it, letting its images linger, unwilling to depart from Tolkien’s great imaginative world any sooner than we had to.

The focal point of the novel is a diminutive creature named Bilbo Baggins.  Bilbo is a hobbit, a creature with hairy feet, a fruity laugh and a preference for safety and routine (adventures, after all, “make you late for dinner”).  That all changes one day when a wizard named Gandalf and thirteen dwarves show up at his hobbit hole.  The Tookish part of Bilbo (a less respectable branch of the family tree, one that actually succumbed to adventure from time to time) is slowly awakened.  Bilbo is hired as a burglar, to steal back the treasures hoarded by the dragon Smaug.  En route, he and the dwarves run into all kinds of obstacles:  trolls, wolves, elves, goblins, giant spiders, a bear-man and an amusing little creature named Gollum (who hisses and refers to himself as “precious”).

Besides giving Jonathan an outlet for his fears, The Hobbit also gave his imagination a jumpstart.  Usually a prolific writer, Jonathan had hit a dry spell for nearly half a year.   But The Hobbit had sparked a revival, and Jonathan was again trusting in his ability to create—although he did borrow freely from Tolkien’s images and style.  He sat at the computer for hours (even forgoing a few football games with friends), composing an epic about a character named Gnome.  Unlike Bilbo, Gnome was a rather tall fellow; like Bilbo, Gnome had a dislike for adventure (“He preferred to work in his office,” Jonathan wrote). 

Taken with the charm of Tolkien’s storytelling, Jonathan emulated the master:  “If you want to know what cram is,” Tolkien wrote, “I can only say that I don’t know the recipe; but it is biscuitish, keeps good indefinitely, is supposed to be sustaining, and is certainly not entertaining …” (p. 207).  “If you want to know what Gnome is,” Jonathan wrote, “it is hard for me to say, but his head is shaped like a watermelon, his feet are webbed, he is not very well built but can lift incredible weights. …”   There were differences, too.  Greatly disappointed that Bilbo was not the one to actually slay the dragon Smaug, Jonathan was intent on setting things right.  He realized the only way Gnome was going to defeat his story’s dragon was to fly, so he pulled down a biography of the Wright Brothers from the shelf and read it from cover to cover for ideas.

When he wasn’t content with the plot he was weaving, Jonathan started on a second story, this time Gnome had an alter ego, a boy named Steven (yes, the name of his friend who questioned our choice to learn at home).  He originally wrote Steven as a sort of bad guy—he grabs the mayor by his shirt collar in one scene—then changed his character to the hero.  A generous offer, in my opinion, but also a very healthy working out of complex feelings for his Smaug-friend. 

Jonathan also realized that to become a great writer you have to read great writers.  He noticed that when he began to write again, he borrowed not only from Tolkien, but also from two other favorite authors:  J.K. Rowling and Clyde Robert Bulla.  I was quick to point out (with perhaps more relish than was called for) that none of the novels adapted from the Pokémon movies made it into his mix. 

We read the final chapter of The Hobbit on a cold, rainy March morning, curled up by the fireplace.  We were sad to say goodbye to our friends (but thankful that Tolkien didn’t let the story stop there).  As I looked back over the last months, I realized what an impact that little guy had had upon my little guy.  Bilbo had encouraged Jonathan to start writing again, to trust his imagination.  Bilbo had broken the Captain Underpants curse, and Jonathan was choosing to read C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew instead.  And Bilbo gave Jonathan the courage to confront a dragon of his own, one who twisted words to make him doubt. 

But the most important thing I hope Jonathan learns from Bilbo Baggins is that it takes courage to say yes to adventure.  It’s so much easier at times to just stay where we are, in those tight little corners where routine outweighs risk.  When I looked at the path the hobbit had started us down—the fact that Jonathan had time and space to explore the different interests sparked by the book—I was reminded of the adventure I said yes to four years ago, when I tossed Jonathan’s kindergarten application in the trashcan.

Adventure can be scary and unpredictable, but the more you continue in it, the more you lose that sense of fear and doubt (and the less you care about being late for dinner). You begin to gather up your internal resources with confidence.  And then one day, you realize that when you gave up the hobbit hole of a traditional classroom, you introduced your son to the whole world.

Amy Hollingsworth received her B.A. degree in psychology and English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her M.A. degree in Education/Counseling and Human Services from Regent University. Amy  teaches psychology at Mary Washington College while continuing to home school her two children, Jonathan (9) and Emily (7).  She and her husband Jeff, a pastor, live in Fredericksburg, Va. She has written extensively on home schooling and parenting issues for The American Partisan, Christianity.com, Home Education Magazine, Reconciliation Press Online and numerous educational Web sites. Her article, "Behind the Mask:  What the Phantom of the Opera Taught Us," was recently featured in the book Christian Unschooling.

You can email Amy at amyhollingsworth@yahoo.com

Original publication date: November 2, 2001