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I am in Hollywood heaven now, for two of my favorite stories, Les Miserables and The Hobbit, stories I have read multiple times each since I was a teenager, are both on the big screen!

These stories have haunted, shaped, and formed me for a long, long time.

I am rereading Les Miserables for the fourth time, and will be posting thoughts, quotes, and themes that stand out to me on my Twitter site samartin01. I am also kicking around another post entitled, The Theology of Les Miserables, so stay tuned!

There is a powerful lesson to be learned from the life trajectory of Jean Valjean (the protagonist in Les Mis) and that of Smeagol-turned-Gollum, the tragic, pitiable character who is outwitted by Bilbo Baggins for the One Ring in The Hobbit.

To begin, a little background on Smeagol. As his story is fleshed out, we find that he was once a hobbit who found a magical ring–a ring that can make its wearer invisible.

It is important to note that J.R.R. Tolkien borrows this story from the Ring of Gyges story told by Socrates in Plato’s Republic. In The Republic, Socrates’ questioners try to trick him by asking this question:

Suppose a shepherd named Gyges were to find a ring that made him invisible, giving him the capacity to do whatever he pleased without consequence; what reason would Gyges have to ever be moral? In other words, why would anyone be moral if he knew he could get away with any action no matter how base, vile, illegal or immoral?

The answer, I believe (as Tolkien alludes to), is Smeagol, for, as we find him, he is not a wealthy, happy, successful, unencumbered individual living freely off his unfettered selfishness; rather, he is a base, vile, small, tormented shade of himself living in total darkness, eating raw fish, afraid to face the light. Indeed, even his very identity is debased; he is no longer Smeagol the hobbit but is, instead, known as no more than the guttural sounds of his own consumption: “Gollum”.

Gollum

Contrast Gollum’s story with that of Jean Valjean, the convict whose soul is transformed by forgiveness, grace and mercy into a man who pursues virtue, sacrifice and Godliness at every turn, at great cost to himself, over and over again. Multiple times throughout Hugo’s masterpiece, Valjean has the chance to stay silent, to run, or to choose rational self-interest, but every time Valjean chooses the higher, harder road of virtue. End the end (without giving too much away), Valjean is transfigured into a saint, leaving behind a large wake of blessing that stretches outwards through countless lives down into multiple generations.

Jean Valjean rescuing the young Cosette

The lesson is plain:

A life of unfettered self-interest damns its possessor to a literal non-existence, robbing the self of its very self and substituting a life of pain, addiction, torment, sorrow and, in the end, unrecognizable loss of identity.

On the other hand, a life of intentional sacrifice leaves behind a legacy of blessing and influence that both transfigures its possessor and transforms those with whom it comes into contact, literally making (fice) holy (sacra) all it touches.

The home of the first is darkness, the second, light. One is the path of desire, the other, fulfilled longing. One the way of the world, the other the way of the Cross. One is vain folly and reckless pleasure, the other, a long, hard, steady, obedient climb in the same direction.

One is self-inflicted Hell, the other, the very essence of Heaven.

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