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Ash Wednesday – dragon sickness


“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Jesus. Ash Wednesday Gospel reading; Matthew 6:21)

We are today, on Ash Wednesday, this Lent, being invited to embark on an unexpected journey.

In Chapter 1 of the Hobbit the dragon Smaug is described as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm.” Early in the story we are told that dragons guard their loot as long as they live. But they get nothing out of this.

Forbes Magazine last year worked out what Smaug was worth. Smaug’s treasure was calculated to be worth over 62 billion American dollars. But he doesn’t use a penny of it. Smaug doesn’t posses his treasure – this so-called “treasure”, Smaug’s “possession” possesses Smaug.

In the Hobbit this is called “dragon sickness”. We might use another word for dragon sickness – that might be greed. But there’s much more going on. Dragon sickness is confusing means (the purpose of gold, of a treasure, is to be used for something). It is a means – not a goal in itself. Dragon sickness is turning means into the goal.

Tolkein was explicitly clear that the Lord of the Rings is a spiritual story, a religious story. The Hobbit no less so.

There are lots of people in the story of the Hobbit who suffer from dragon sickness – who are trapped, not free, addicted. Who turn means into a goal.

The Master of Laketown explicitly suffered from dragon sickness. But really when you look through the story many, many others did.

Gollum/Smeagol is a pretty obvious one. Gollum is possessed by his possession.

But did you notice Bilbo is caught up in dragon sickness?

Just look at how the story begins. The focus for Bilbo at the start of the story is his obsession not to have problems, not to have any suffering, not to carry any crosses.

Bilbo is essentially self-centered. The irony at the start of the story is that Bilbo is not much different to the dragon who has surrounding himself with treasure in his “home” in the Lonely Mountain.

Remember what Gandalf says to Bilbo: “When did doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you?”

Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday 2013

Gandalf, the Christ-figure, declares to Bilbo that he needs to go on a journey – an unexpected journey certainly; a painful journey, a via dolorosa. And Bilbo at the end of the journey will not be the Bilbo from the start of the journey. Bilbo will come back with a treasure, certainly – but it is the treasure of finding his true self.

We all share Bilbo’s dragon sickness. We confuse the goal and the means. We get things totally back to front. The dragon treats the treasure like it is the goal, the purpose. We know the gold and treasure is supposed to be the means. For the dragon the treasure is ultimately totally useless. We know this.

And yet, even though we know it, it traps us. We are like the Master of Laketown, like Gollum, even like Bilbo (when he gets the Arkenstone it possesses him).

The goal is God. Everything, everything else is the means. And we get it back to front – making other things the goal of life, and then finding we are possessed, addicted by these. Even using God as the means to get our goal.

Lent is much deeper than simply “giving something up”. Lent is the unexpected journey – with Gandalf as wise guide and each of us as Bilbo. The painful adventure and journey of Lent, where we leave behind our obsessions with the trivia of handkerchiefs, and doilies, and mother’s dishes.

Through the prayer and self-denial and generosity of Lent we may be surprised to find that we arrive at Easter changed.


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10 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday – dragon sickness”

  1. What a beautiful meditation, Bosco!

    As I began to read, I was immediately reminded that you are the chaplain at a boys’ school. And I thought of you delivering something like this to your young charges. How well you can reach out to them through a story all the boys must know. How apt for Ash Wednesday.

    And then you surprised me with that wonderful photo! Which exactly fit where my mind had gone as I read along. Again, how fitting.

    I must admit that though I’m Orthodox now, it’s confusing when the Orthodox Lent veers off in a different calendar. Ash Wednesday has a “pull” in my soul, which transcends the artificial boundaries of denomination. The Church Year does that to you. To me anyway.

    You’ve pastored all of us today! Thank you for that.

  2. I sometimes feel that you are a combination of C C Lewis & JRR Tolkien with a dose of your own droll wit.
    This is a grand reading for Ash Wednesday. I’m going to share it with my friends, I think your site allows that.
    If any of them has not read “The Hobbit”, hopefully they’ll get on it. Importantly, if they never tweaked to the
    Religiosity of it, the moral, now you’ done a superior job and then some.
    Thank you.

  3. Loved this reflection. Brought to mind another dragon in Lewis’s Narnia – Voyage to the Ends of the Earth I think. Dragon sickness is alive and well in our world!

  4. I had double bypass surgery back on 15 JAN. I am now a Type 2 diabetic taking 2 forms of daily insulin. And just this week I became involved in Cardiac Rehabilitation in a clinic where we are constantly monitored as we develop our “new” hearts (a few literally, as we have a few transplant patients among us) with an exercise regimen.

    As I walked into the hospital entrance today I glimpsed a few smudges on foreheads and remembered that today was Ash Wednesday. It had slipped my mind. I knew that the all faiths chapel was just around the corner from the elevators that would take me to the Rehab Lab, so I peeked in to see and sure enough they had ashes to go. Two brief sentences and I too had a smudge. (A little larger than I am comfortable with.) I was reminded of the significance of the day all day as my smudge evoked questions or reminded others of the day. Ashes 2 Go, I think it’s a good thing!

    Then I read your meditation on my iPad as a I walked my 20 minutes on the treadmill.

    1. Wonderful, Br. David! Where I am the city is full of builders – many politely commenting that I’ve got something on my forehead. And fascinated to hear about what it’s about. Blessings.

  5. Interesting that Tolkein has come up a few times here recently, I have always found his writing more inspirational than CS Lewis and other allegorical writers.

    I grew up in this English world where ‘doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you’.

    It’s a sense of pride and trying to keep order.
    There was such filth and degradation in poverty in earlier times in the UK. The people tried to be respectable with ‘keep the aspidistra flying’ as Orwell put it.

    But it can be cruel, this adherence to appearance, because otherwise-meaningless possessions and motives take priority over real compassion and creativity: middle-class people suffered endlessly if they fell into difficulty, trying to retain their position and their dignity, and the working class were meant to know their place-and stay there.

    I remember telling my father I would become a writer when asked what job I wanted to do early in life, ‘don’t be bloody stupid- nobody does that’ was his response.

    In fact I only ended up as a musician because when I had school courses to choose the music teacher had the shortest line and my parents wanted to get out of there asap!

    When I got my university place a few years later my father refused to pay: ‘you’ll only get married and have children, it’s a waste’.

    Tolkein had a more nurtured youth but spent some of his life in Staffordshire, where I grew up, this is a place where to this day the dialect has ‘thee’ and ‘dost’ in it, like a lot of England it’s very connected to a not-entirely happy past which is viewed idealistically now as things change, or by tourists.

    Thank God things change! I *should* be able to be a priest or a bishop if I am so-called, the very people who deny that don’t adhere to everything the Bible ‘teaches’ themselves do they…

    ‘The Inklings’ lived in a world which was not only profoundly mysogenistic, homosexuality was illegal. They created this male-only effete snobbery-world and famously mocked Tolkein for his writing about elves, so it does not surprise me one bit that Tolkein mocks his own Bilbo in domestic terms,

    ‘Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
    Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
    That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates-
    Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
    Cut the cloth and tread on the fat!
    Pour the milk on the pantry floor!’

    But Tolkein was happily married, to me his writing is very grounded. Product of his era- but realising it.


    You are right Bosco- the goal is God/ goodness.

    But we live in a world which refuses to reconcile God, tribe on tribe. Peoples who have achieved comfort want to guard it, people who see basic living conditions as a luxury are disgusted by the materialism and violence of other nations.

    Freud categorised our needs as food, shelter, love and sex. Our drive for life. Countered by ‘the death wish’ where we are self-destructive when ( I guess ) our own personal needs extend beyond the needs of our group.

    Jesus entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread which was a privilege for only the Rabbis.

    Why then are we not permitted to follow his example by those who desire not mercy but sacrifice? ‘I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.’

    What is justice but fairness and freedom? And protecting in turn those who cannot protect themselves? And following our personal spiritual calling?

    That’s the whole metaphor set for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

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