From Infogalactic: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again is a fantasy novel and children’s book by English author J. R. R. Tolkien. It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction. The book remains popular and is recognized as a classic in children’s literature.
What makes The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so memorable is that the world Tolkien creates is wondrous, terrifying, and fascinating, yet instantly recognizable. The reader soon discovers that underneath the text, a learned, wise, and benevolent soul is joyfully at play with profound truths. I think Tolkien’s works best illustrate the insight that effective fiction reveals only the tip of the iceberg, stimulating the reader to discover for himself the story’s deeper meanings. Tolkien the scholar was an authority on ancient myths and languages, yet also a modern man who had seen war and knew the dark and bright crevices within the human soul. Tolkien the writer crafted an entertaining tale that guides the reader toward a vision that inspires both caution and hope.
That’s quite an achievement.
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Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The infantry charge was supposed to have been little more than a mopping-up operation. British artillery had pounded its targets for five days, ensuring — at least in the minds of the military staff — that the area would be defenseless. (Robert E. Lee used the same tactic at Gettsyburg, another great and tragic battle which began on July 1. Pickett’s Charge, like the Somme, was similarly conceived as a final stroke at a broken enemy, but instead resulted in horrendous loss of life.) More than 19,000 British soldiers died on the first day. One of the soldiers caught up in that battle was J.R.R. Tolkien:
According to the British historian Martin Gilbert, who interviewed Tolkien decades later about his combat experience, he came under intense enemy fire. He had heard “the fearful cries of men who had been hit,” Gilbert wrote. “Tolkien and his signalers were always vulnerable.”
Tolkien’s creative mind found an outlet. He began writing the first drafts of his mythology about Middle-earth, as he recalled, “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” In 1917, recuperating from trench fever, Tolkien composed a series of tales involving “gnomes,” dwarves and orcs engaged in a great struggle for his imaginary realm. …
In “The Lord of the Rings,” we meet Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Hobbits of the Shire, on a fateful mission to destroy the last Ring of Power and save Middle-earth from enslavement and destruction. The heroism of Tolkien’s characters depends on their capacity to resist evil and their tenacity in the face of defeat. It was this quality that Tolkien witnessed among his comrades on the Western Front.
“I have always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds,” he explained. The Hobbits were “a reflection of the English soldier,” made small of stature to emphasize “the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch.’ ”
Not only did Tolkien’s battle experience give TLOTR its grim authenticity, it also inspired in him a deep respect and fascination for tales of courage and sacrifice. Despite the terrible ordeal that WWI proved to be, its lessons, filtered and interpreted by a skilled writer, are a treasured part of our heritage. Lest we forget.
Why did J.R.R. Tolkien stick this odd figure into The Lord of the Rings? What’s Tom Bombadil’s purpose in the story?
No doubt he’s a mysterious character. Elrond, the Lord of Rivendell, confesses he knows nothing about Bombadil. Gandalf calls Bombadil “the eldest and fatherless,” and the dwarves refer to him as “the ancient” or “belonging to the ancient past.”
But theologian Dwight Longenecker argues that Bombadil is central to the theme of Tolkien’s sweeping epic, which unites Christian themes with pre-Christian European myths. Longnecker sums up Bombadil’s role in this gorgeous, remarkable paragraph:
Tom Bombadil, like paganism, is there before everything else. He represents therefore the primitive and natural instinct in man. He stands for the Neanderthal gazing in wonder at his sister the moon and his brother the sun. He points to the rustic soul connecting silently with every living thing and knowing that there is something and someone beyond. He is the child trembling at the thunder and smiling with spring rain. As such he stands for mankind, formed from the earth at one with the earth and all that is within it. He is at one with nature and at the same time the steward of creation. Tom Bombadil is simply Tom Bombadil, but if he must be compared to anyone else in the Christian cosmos, then he and Goldberry are Middle Earth’s quaint and beautiful echo of Adam and Eve.
Understanding Bombadil helps us better appreciate Tolkien’s work. By honoring and even celebrating pagan Europe, Tolkien declared that the pagan past is not some gross error or accident, nor a dead realm to be shunned or forgotten, but a vital part of who we are today. The past, says Tolkien, is full of wisdom and genuine feeling we moderns can re-discover and appreciate.
Tolkien’s theology was decidedly different from fundamentalists, such as the Puritans, who intellectualized religion and sought to “purify” themselves and the rest of society of traditional practices and beliefs. In their zeal to rid the world of its backward and sinful ways, the Puritans hung their fellow citizens as witches. How different is that mindset from today’s fundamentalists in ISIS and the Taliban, who have also declared war on what they see as a sinful, fallen world? Whether they’re blasting pre-Islamic statues or butchering “infidels,” they’re acting on their belief that the existing order must be destroyed so the One True Way can prevail.
And aren’t we guilty of the same thing when we beat ourselves up for past mistakes? Or for having made the wrong choice long ago? I’ve always believed that theology and philosophy arise from one’s self-image. Those who loathe themselves are often unforgiving toward others. Accepting your whole self means, as Dickens put it, living “in the Past, the Present, and the Future.” It’s the first step toward self-forgiveness, which leads to forgiving and loving others.
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re: the comic books article, I must admit I never recognized the archetypes represented by the Fantastic Four. Cool.
Joseph Pearce explores Tolkien’s reverence for language and heritage:
This deep understanding of language is analogous to an understanding of history. If we want to understand where we are now and where we are going, we have to understand where we have been. And what is true of history in the broader sense is equally true of the history of words. In order to really speak well, write well, or think clearly, we need to use words correctly. We need to know linguistic tradition. We need to be linguistic traditionalists. We have to be in touch with the language, its roots, and its heritage. We need to become linguistic tree-huggers! We do not necessarily have to speak very quickly; we have to speak well. We have to speak accurately, with a precision of meaning. Contrary to Peter Jackson’s tragically abusive presentation of the Ents in his film version of Tolkien’s epic, in which they appear to be dim-wits who are outwitted by the smartness of the hobbits, we know that when Tolkien’s Ents come to a decision it will be the right one, because they have been absolutely precise in the way they have used their words. They think and speak definitely, in accordance with precise definition. They define their terms and they know their meanings. They are the opposite of postmoderns and nihilists who see no meaningful roots to the cosmos because they see no meaningful roots to words.
Modernism, argues Pearce, is vandalism that fancies itself to be liberation from a constraining past. Indeed, it celebrates the murder of authenticity, as it demands that all heritage chains down the individual. Of course, what actually happens is not a glorious jail-break from nature and history, but alienation from those things Charlene Spretnak has identified as the prime Modernist targets: “the knowing body, the creative cosmos, and the complex sense of place.” If we lose those things, then we are unshielded from today’s manipulators of language and value who profit by convincing us that our identity is discretionary, and can be as sleek and desirable as the Gap jeans and Zappo shoes they urge us to buy.