The latest trailer for director Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is all about Bilbo Baggins’ archetypal recruitment for a mission and the irrevocable change it will produce in the reluctant warrior.
“You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back,” Sir Ian McKellen’s pitch-perfect wizard Gandalf the Grey tells Martin Freeman’s diminutive Bilbo.
“You will promise that I will come back?” Bilbo asks.
“No,” replies Gandalf, “and if you do, you will not be same.”
It’s an excellent point of entry into Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s tale, which is about what happens to perfectly comfortable citizens thrown hobbit-long into a wider warring world. Like most timeless mythic fantasy, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — which share similar geographic and thematic trajectories, from the bucolic Shire to Middle-earth’s various hearts of darkness — are rooted in earthly experience.
Tolkien’s, to be exact.
Like Bilbo and Frodo, Tolkien was a countrified Old Toby-smoker thrown into conflict. For Tolkien, it was the mechanized meat-grinder of World War I, where he witnessed the harrowing Battle of the Somme. And yeah, he had some hefty tales to tell when he came back, forever changed after losing almost all of his friends and barely escaping with his own life.
“Gentlemen are rare among the superiors, and even human beings rare indeed,” Tolkien mournfully observed (and that was just during boot camp).
While it may be a temporal accident, it is no irony that Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of Tolkien’s work have arrived in a world at war. The first installment of the award-winning The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, with its ominous geopolitical nightmare of domination and determination, landed almost exactly three months after 9/11. The Best Picture-winning third installment, The Return of the King, arrived months after the pointless Iraq War stomped what was left of America’s post-9/11 global goodwill to dust.
And this December, the first installment of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy will turn up at our malls during a sinister period of seemingly perpetual war.
Gandalf’s smartest lesson for Bilbo — who, breaking the fourth wall, becomes us all — wisely brings up the rear of The Hobbit‘s latest trailer. It’s a timely message: If we leave our comfort zones and head into the wars raging outside our doors, we’re not coming back the same. If we come back at all.
This article originally appeared at Wired.