With the upcoming semester only a few days away, I have been doing what many geeky Catholics do for refreshment of spirit: re-read Tolkien. I finished The Hobbit yesterday, and completed Book One of The Lord of the Rings about an hour ago. Some miscellaneous thoughts:
– Tolkien, more than any popular writer I can think of, has been something of a slow-burner for me. When I first started reading him as an adolescent, I found his stories and worldbuilding interesting and moving, but unfortunately told with a rather dry, Donnish cough. In comparison, people like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King were cases of love at first sight. It took time for me to see the merits of his style (which is actually far more economical than most people give him credit for) and of what seemed at the time to be his very quaint, old fashioned worldview.
– I knew for a long time that he was a veteran of World War I, which killed most of his friends. But it took reading some of his letters to see glances of some of the suffering, alienation and anguish he went through, even as an older man, in spite of his often hobbitish aura. But this is true for all of us – we all have more profound wounds than are often visible to others. The glimpses into his prayer life are also moving:
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament….There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.
– The Hobbit is a children’s book, but I can think of some reasons for why if it were published today it would cause a minor moral panic – too violent, too scary, too much smoking and drinking, (heck, it even makes a rather memorable joke about decapitation and golf) etc. The Hobbit is not a safe book, but it is unsafe in almost all the right ways. We will meet pitiful, dangerous people like Gollum, and sadistic tyrants like Smaug. The real thing is often far more frightening than these creatures, but, to paraphrase Chesterton, the value of these stories lies not in telling us that dragons exist, but in telling us that they can be overcome. Tellingly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a school that includes The Hobbit on its curriculum. Part of that is likely the old Genre Fiction Is Not Serious Lit attitude. But the paranoid crank in me would like to see this as another example of how elementary school and high school are systematically designed to stifle your child’s imagination, moral or otherwise.
– No, I will not allow myself to go on a bitter rant about elementary school and high school here.
– The society of the hobbits is very conservative and borderline anarchic (political offices are for the most part limited to the honor of the title). Of course, it is also a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist society. As has been mentioned a couple of times on this blog, I tend to view both capitalism and the modern state with a high degree of cynicism and suspicion, while not really seeing how they can be done away with either; I am also doubtful of all the idealistic schemes on offer. Reading the early chapters of LOTR reminds me that I should take more time to understand better where the anarcho-monarchists, distributists, et al. are actually coming from. Tolkien himself seemed to venture in that direction a bit.
– There is a parallel universe where Hayao Miyazaki directed The Hobbit movie. Maybe one of its inhabitants can lend me a DVD.