Friday, September 28, 2012

The Hobbit

by Sheila Connolly

If you haven't heard, today is the 75th anniversary of the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien's book, The Hobbit.

At least, in the United Kingdom.  It took a while to make it to this country.  I still have my copy, a paperback from 1965.  I blush to admit I thought the whole premise sounded silly—short guys with hairy feet?—so I didn't read it until 1966.

The Ring Trilogy hit me like a bolt of lightning when I was an impressionable sixteen-year-old.  My best friend, who had discovered it first, gave me a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring as a birthday present in May, and I tore through it—and then ordered The Hobbit and the second and third books of the trilogy (hark back, o readers, to the day when there were no online bookstores, and physical bookstores were widely scattered and unavailable to someone not yet old enough to drive).  The books arrived on the last day of school that year, and I read them all in a mad rush.  I recall bursting into tears at three o'clock one morning when the corsairs of Umbair unfurled the flag of the king…  Okay, I was a nerd.

Maybe it's hard to remember the innocent days before Dungeons & Dragons, or the Harry Potter series or George Martin's series, but Tolkien gave birth to a genre that captured a generation.  A scholar of impressive credentials, he created multiple languages within the books, Elvish tongues based on his own academic field.  More important, he tapped into venerable literary traditions that embodied the eternal conflict of good versus evil, and made them sing again.

I never forgot the books.  Once a nerd, always a nerd?   I reread the trilogy every summer for at least a decade; I nearly wept when one volume was left out in the rain (and I rushed to replace it). Even now I find myself referring to various elements from the stories.  For example,"mathoms." I live in a house filled with them.  In case you've forgotten, a mathom is a hobbit birthday present.  To quote from the Fellowship of the Ring, "Hobbits give presents to other people on their own birthdays.  Not very expensive ones, as a rule, and not so lavishly… it was not a bad system.  Actually…every day in the year was somebody's birthday, so that every hobbit…had a fair chance of at least one present at least once a week.  But they never got tired of them." Doesn't that sound like a lovely system? (I have a sneaking suspicion that they "regifted.")

Whenever I've traveled any significant distance, I find myself repeating:

        The Road goes ever on and on
        Down from the door where it began.

And then there is "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger,” which for some reason I find a very useful phrase. It's a much more polite way of saying "butt out."

In many ways the books have informed my own writing.  I always felt that Sam was the true hero of the Trilogy, and Frodo was kind of a prig.  That taught me the importance of the sidekick, because no hero can succeed without help: wizards are handy, as are kings and princes, but it's the good friend who saves the day. 

If there's a downside to Tolkien's writing, it's that his female characters are less memorable.  He celebrates the heroic quest, but it's mainly the male characters who take the lead.

But the flaws don't matter, because the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. So let us celebrate the anniversary that marks the beginning of something wonderful. Who would have thought that a race of short creatures with hairy feet would travel so far?


Edith Maxwell said...

I didn't discover the Hobbit and the Trilogy until grad school and then wondered why it took me so long!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, the whole point of a mathom was that it WAS inevitably regifted again and again. My mother had been doing that my whole life with what she called "hostess gifts," but I'd never had a word for it before.
I'm looking forward to Peter Jackson's first installment of The Hobbit, and my husband is sick with excitement waiting for it. The first time we saw Lord of the Rings, he said out loud, "I've been waiting for this for 35 years!" and cries, sighs, and grunts of affirmation echoed all around us in the movie theater. My one concern about the movies is that, unlike Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit was a book with a lot of charm and humor in it, and I'm afraid they'll cut that out to make it more seamless with Lord of the Rings. One more tidbit: I read the whole Rings trilogy aloud to my son when he was about 9, and he liked it, but it didn't stand up as well to oral retelling as Richard Adams's Watership Down, which became his favorite book. He's now reading that one to his own two little girls.

JJM said...

I was about the same age you were, Sheila, when I first read Lord of the Rings -- back in the days when the back cover still had that notice that you should be buying this edition and no other (copyright problems!). So there I was, end of The Two Towers ... and me with no money to buy Return of the King, and a week to go before I got my next allowance. So I went to my father. I read him that final paragraph, ending with "Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy." And I made my plea. My father not only advanced me the allowance, he came home that evening with a copy Return of the King for me ...

Did I ever mention I had the greatest parents ever?! :) --Mario

Leslie Karst said...

My father read the LOTR to my brothers and me back in 1962-63 when we were living in South America during his sabbatical year (I was six at the time). I later re-read the books on my own and became obsessed with them, memorizing the poetry, signing my name in Elvish runes, and wearing a button that read "Frodo lives" (hippy nerd). I was leery of anyone attempting to translate Tolkien's lyrical writing into a film, but Peter Jackson did a darn good job.

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