The Hobbit Turns 80

There are authors who write copiously, and authors who think copiously. J.R.R. Tolkien was of the latter sort, and the world he created and the creatures within it have been part of my literary world for decades. I first read The Hobbit in high school—and I liked it. Then I read Lord of the Rings and loved it. At the second reading of The Hobbit, I finally fell in love, and the love affair has continued. I look forward to many more happy readings in the decades ahead.

This article by Joseph Pearce first appeared on The Imaginative Conservative and Intellectual Takeout, and is reprinted by permission. All Amazon links in the article are affiliate links, benefitting the original publisher.

The Hobbit Turns 80

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” When Tolkien wrote these words, which would become one of the most famous and most memorable opening sentences in all of literature, he could not have known what literary power would be unleashed by his creation of the diminutive hole-dwelling creature, Bilbo Baggins. This year, as we celebrate the eightieth anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit, we can see that the book’s success has been nothing short of a worldwide phenomenon. It is now rated as the sixth bestselling work of literature of all time, with over 100 million copies sold. As if this were not enough in itself, the adventures of Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, as told in the later book, The Lord of the Rings, have proved even more popular, more than 150 copies being sold, making it the third bestselling book of all time. Only Don Quixote and A Tale of Two Cities have proved more successful in terms of sales, and one suspects that most of the success of these two titles is due to the fact that they are set texts on high school and college curricula in the Spanish and English speaking worlds, whereas, in contrast, Tolkien’s books are hardly ever to be found on the syllabi of literature courses. In other words, the books by Cervantes and Dickens are bought under constraint, as required reading, whereas Tolkien’s books are bought freely as desired reading (none of which is to detract from the worthiness of Cervantes and Dickens).

What is the secret of Tolkien’s success? No doubt, it has something to do with his power as a storyteller; his ability to spin a yarn with unsurpassed mythopoeic skill. Perhaps it also has much to do with the epic scale of his work, which puts one in mind of Homer or Virgil, placing him in their illustrious company rather than in the company of his novel-writing contemporaries. It is much more likely, however, that the success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is connected to what they tell us about ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves. As Tolkien insisted in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories” a good fairy-tale holds up a mirror to man. It shows us ourselves.

What, therefore, do The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings show us about ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves?

They show us that we live in dark and dangerous times. They show us that the power of darkness appears to be winning. They show us, as Galadriel says and as Tolkien also says in one of his letters, that history is a “long defeat.” And yet they also show us, as Tolkien adds in the same letter, that there are always occasional glimpses of the final victory of goodness over evil. They reveal that the devil, or Satan, or Sauron, or whatever other name we care to give him, is the Prince of this world and holds it in his sway. This is his domain, his dominion, which is why it is a vale of tears and a land of exile for souls seeking to serve goodness, truth and beauty, and not sin, falsehood, and ugliness. In terms of politics, the Dark Lord is always in the ascendant, which is why fools put their trust in politics.

And yet The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings show us something else, beyond the world of mere Power which is taken so seriously by those who are its servants. Tolkien’s epics show us that we are not the absurd creatures that the Dark Lord’s servants would have us believe that we are. We are not postmodern nonentities, nothing but meaningless mortals living meaningless existences in a meaningless cosmos. On the contrary, we are what history and tradition, and good theology and philosophy, have always taught us that we are; we are anthropoi and homines viatores. We are those who look beyond ourselves to the goodness, truth, and beauty of objective reality; and we are those who see our lives as a journey, a quest, an adventure, the purpose of which is to get to the heaven-haven of the reward, as Gerard Manley Hopkins would say.

As anthropoi we look beyond the darkness to the light that transcends it and is beyond it. We agree with Samwise Gamgee that “above all shadows rides the sun.” As homines viatores we know that our Life-Quest involves a long and arduous journey in which we will face many demons and many dragons, wearing many disguises, and that we can face such enemies with courage, knowing that there is One who is greater than any dragon to defend us in our struggles, if we call upon His aid.

It is this understanding of who we are which is the secret of Tolkien’s success. He shows us who we are, who we hope to be and who we are meant to be, all of whom are who we were created to be. It is for this reason that The Hobbit is still going strong after eighty years. And it is for this reason that its success and the success of its successor, The Lord of the Rings, is so worth celebrating.

This Imaginative Conservative essay was republished with permission. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore including Joseph Pearce’s Bilbo’s Journey and Frodo’s Journey. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

This post ‘The Hobbit’ Turns 80 was originally published on Intellectual Takeout by Joseph Pearce.

Start Planning for Summer Reading

Don't waste good reading time!Other than gardening, there’s no more satisfactory activity for springtime than planning summer reading. The stack by my reading chair is already teetering, but here are the first things I plan to read:

The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human BeingThe Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, edited by Richard Gamble
I’ve been dipping into this for awhile, but want to go through and read it from beginning to end. It offers selections of writings from writers such as Xenophon, Augustine, Erasmus, and C.S. Lewis, all on the theme of what it means to be an educated human being. This is a book I will probably be dragging around for many months, as it’s abundantly rich in ideas.

Gaia's Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture  by Toby HemenwayGaia’s Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway

There are certain kinds of garden books I like, and refer to again and again. They are not the “plant this here and pull that weed” type of garden book. Instead, they offer a big picture overview of what it means to create an organic, healthy, holistic landscape. Permaculture is the pinnacle of that mindset, and as a movement, it has been growing. Although I’ve read other permaculture books, this is the best balance of big picture thinking with practical how-to instructions. Although it’s not yet summer, I dip into this book early, as it makes me feel that summer is right around the corner.

Chronicles of Narnia Box Set by C. S. LewisChronicles of Narnia Box Set by C. S. Lewis

Finally, I’m re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia for the umpteenth time. Each time I read them, I enjoy them more. It was C.S. Lewis who said that “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” He was right, and the Chronicles are just one of the children’s books I return to regularly. I find many profound and interesting books written for middle-grade readers, for the characters haven’t yet fallen into the modern tedium of premature romantic entanglements, and they are still considering big ideas.

So, what are you planning to read over the next couple of months?

How to Open a New Book

Long ago, books were regarded as treasures and cared for with a measure of respect. This nostalgic excerpt details the way my grandmother taught me how to open a new book without breaking the spine. A hardcover book opened in this way is easy to hold and pleasant to read.

Should You Feel Guilty About Your New e-Reader?

Shakespeare_and_Company_bookshop-Paris-pd

Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Paris

Are you feeling a wee bit guilty about the shiny new e-reader you’re enjoying? If you’re a bibliophile, it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that you’re betraying the cause of the “real book” and local bookstores by consuming books via e-reader. But what is the truth? Are e-readers and e-books going to kill print and drive libraries and bookstores out of business? I don’t think so–at least not yet.

I love print books, and I have the library to prove it–one of the boys started counting one day, and finally quit at around 5000, and he hadn’t even started on the upstairs. (Yes, I am getting ready to thin the herd, but no, it has nothing to do with e-books.) So . . . why would I ever want to read a book on my iPad?

Frankly, I don’t. I like the feel of paper. I like writing (with pencil, of course) in the margins and inside the covers. I want to be able to easily flip back and re-read specific passages even if I haven’t bookmarked or highlighted them. I don’t like reading off a screen, and I don’t believe it’s entirely good for children, either. I like the solidity of a real print book in my hand.

But practicality intervenes. I travel a lot and I read fast. This means that if I take print books, I need to take several. I also need to anticipate exactly what I will want to be reading through the duration of the trip. Since I am normally reading a minimum of 3-4 books at a time, this is cumbersome, to say the least. Baggage and weight restrictions put a severe crimp in what I can pack, and back issues limit what I can carry. And now that I am on the downhill slope to old, airplane and hotel lighting isn’t always adequate for reading.

So now I have a small library on my iPad. I don’t love it, but it meets a need so I like it. Our local library lends e-books as well as print books, and there are always free classics available. The e-reader serves a useful purpose and as long as I can catch wireless or 3G, I’ll never run out of things to read. Will it replace my print library? No.

The infographic below (and a study by BISG, the Book Industry Study Group) suggests that I’m not alone. It seems that people who own e-readers generally read more of both types of books than people who don’t have e-readers. A reader is a reader, so format doesn’t change that. An e-reader can even keep alive the love of reading for young mothers, solopreneurs, and others who barely have time to breathe. So you can be grateful without guilt for your e-reader, (but don’t forget to support your local library and independent bookstores!).

E-books Infographic

This infographic has been shared courtesy of TeachingDegree.org.

Bored? Just Edit a Classic and See What Happens

Huckleberry Finn on the MississippiIf you’re bored, craving attention, or just want to stir up a little trouble, try releasing a new edition of a classic. Preferably, make it something well-known and beloved, like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

I’m sure that Twain scholar Alan Gribben expected a bit of controversy when he edited a new edition of Huck Finn that replaces the “n-word” with “slave,” and “Injun” with “Indian,” but even he may have been surprised by the outpouring of outrage.

I was first alerted to the controversy by shrieks of “censorship!” on Twitter. It was refreshing to see “#huckfinn” as a trending topic, possibly displacing a teeny-pop star or imploding politician. However, I had to mildly quibble with the use of the word “censorship” (see “Deciding How Peeved to Be Over New Huck Finn Edition“).

I’ve been following the discussion from various sources. One of the best articles I’ve read is by Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, who provides several compelling reasons why it’s wrong to alter art in “Don’t Censor Mark Twain’s N-Word.” The article was accompanied in our local paper by an outstanding editorial cartoon by Pat Oliphant, one of my favorite graphic commentators.

Other good articles have been showing up, including a few from NAIWE writers. You might also enjoy these additional posts and editorial cartoons:

Literature professor Scott Andrews addresses the issue in two thoughtful posts, Goodbye, cruel word and The Other N-Word.

“Tom the Dancing Bug: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Corrected to reflect modern sensibilities)” offers an amusing look at what a truly sensitive version of Huck would sound like. Oddly (or perhaps not so), it sounds like a publication of the NEA.

In “Twain Redone, Brenda Seward talks about her reactions to Twain’s writing when she read it in elementary school (can you imagine elementary school students being expected to read either Finn or Sawyer now?), and shares her viewpoint on the change.

Linda Anger, NAIWE member and owner of The Write Concept, Inc., offers another perspective inAltering the Classics.”

From NJ.com, an article discussing whether Twain might have expected controversy over his use of certain word, accompanied by three amusing editorial cartoons.

Mike Luckovich‘s cartoon on Mark Twain

If you’ve read an interesting article on the subject, or posted something, please feel free to post a comment below and share it. Altering the classics is nothing new, but it’s something that can easily get out of hand. People with good intentions bear watching!

“Half of the results of a good intentions are evil; half the results of an evil intention are good.”
Mark Twain
“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”
Albert Camus

Great Books Week- Tuesday- My Favorite Childhood Book

First, I have to say that this is way too hard. One book? Books were my companions, friends, and greatest delight. Choosing one would be like choosing which of my children is my favorite. Not possible.

However, in the interest of being a cooperative community member, I’ll share the first favorite that I can remember. It’s a book I checked out of the library endlessly, and heard and read it so much that I pretty much had it memorized. It is Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”

I loved the monsters because they looked so funny and friendly and unmonsterlike. Somehow, I understood, even at that very young age that things that seemed like monsters weren’t always scary or unfriendly. It was comforting to me, and I just enjoyed each picture.

So… that’s my first favorite. I went on to love transformation stories of every type, from Cinderella to Under the Tuscan Sun.

Now, let the wild rumpus start!

Great Books Week Blog Challenge- If I Could Have Only 7 Books…

Monday: If I were stranded alone on a deserted island with only seven books to read over the next few years, I would like to have…I’ve spent a remarkable amount of time trying to think how I’d get the maximum number of words in just seven books, but really, it comes down to content. Who and what would I want to spend my time with?Here is my list:

  1. The NIV Study Bible
  2. The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Norton or other annotated edition)
  3. The Complete Works of C.S. Lewis
  4. A History of the English-Speaking People by Winston Churchill
  5. An Enormous Anthology of English-Language Poetry
  6. A Comprehensive Annotated Atlas of the World (including star charts)
  7. An Encyclopedia of Art (Gardner’s or similar– the most comprehensive available, including music)

In addition, I’d like an enormous trunk full of blank paper and pens and other art supplies. If Robinson Crusoe could snag all the useful stuff he was able to salvage, I’m sure I’d be equally blessed!I’ve enjoyed the exercise, and look forward to reading your choices.

Free Books!

booksWhy? Why do I go through cycles of forgetting the library? I stopped by today to donate old magazines to the give-away basket and came out with amazing riches. The reading pile by my chair is teetering dangerously, but here’s what’s at the top of the stack:

Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by Ann Rice

Flip! How to Turn Everything You Know on its Head –and Succeed Beyond Your Wildest Imaginings by Peter Sheahan

Discovering the Enneagram: An Ancient Tool for a New Spiritual Journey by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert

Talent is Never Enough by John Maxwell

What Not To Wear by Trinny Woodall & Susannah Constantine (I do enjoy these prescriptive tomes, if only for the delight of reading orders, then doing exactly as I please!)

And from the discard shelf, I bought:

Listen! The Wind by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (slipcased, like new, 50 cents)

Diary of a Left-Handed Bird Watcher by Leonard Nathan

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (nice trade paperback to replace ratty one I already own, 25 cents)

The Young Visitors by Daisy Ashford (Preface by JM Barrie, copyright 1919, Ashford was purportedly 9 years old when she wrote this, and it started out quite amusingly)

The Republic of Tea: How an Idea Becomes a Business–Letters to a Young Zentrepreneur by Mel Ziegler, Bill Rosenzwieg, Patricia Ziegler

There are more, but I haven’t time to list them. I need to get outside and read a bit in the waning rays of the sun.

Imagine that, though…nourishment for mind, spirit, soul, and body– all for less than a boutique cup of coffee. Not that I’d refuse the coffee. But the library has FREE BOOKS! Why do I keep forgetting that? Go to the library, people. It’s where the smart stuff is!

Logophilia- There is No Cure

I’ve always been inspired by words. From earliest childhood, I’ve never gone out without an ample supply of reading material in case I should get stranded in some vast wordless desert. (Incidentally, I’ve observed that few things are as annoying to the impatient as the sight of someone happily engrossed in a book while waiting in a long line. This amuses me.) Words have immense power to transport us to other times and places, and they must be absorbed and wielded with thoughtful judgment.

My reading pile is always teetering (unless it’s just tottered). Some of my favorite books are Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s journals, Edith Wharton’s autobiography, Collette’s letters, Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks Journals, and countless other stories of women who wrote. I love fiction by Edith Wharton, J.R.R. Tolkein, Victor Hugo, and others; and for fun, I read mysteries and magazines.

After two decades of caregiving, a time when I wrote for bread on the table rather than hyacinths to feed the soul (Muslih-un-Din Saadi), I’m turning back to my first love, and sharpening the tools of my craft once more. Non-fiction will still be bread and butter, but it’s time to unleash the muse!