‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. . .” is what Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien once absentmindedly scribbled on an exam book.
When that line led him into his first book, “The Hobbit,” published 75 years ago Friday, he had no idea it would tap into our latent cultural need for fantasy.
At the time, the notion that tales of elves, magic swords, and quests as bestselling books, let alone movie or game franchises, was ludicrous. Certainly some version of fairy, horror, and science fiction has been around for eons. But not until Tolkien mapped out his “legendarium,” as he called it, later expanded in “The Lord of the Rings,” did the modern fantasy genre erupt.
We would not have Dungeons & Dragons or video games or Hogwarts, had Tolkien not written his tale of reluctant hobbits and treasure-hoarding dragons. No “Game of Thrones” or World of Warcraft, either. Led Zeppelin would not have entranced fans to follow them “over the hills and far away” to some romanticized other world “when magic filled the air,” were it not for Tolkien’s literary trailblazing.
By blending heroic derring-do with good versus evil conflicts, he not only touched the dreamers, but paved the way for other immersive, and lucrative entertainments.
Tolkien was the original nerd. He obsessed about his made-up Elvish tongues as much as his academic speciality, Anglo-Saxon and Nordic languages. Tirelessly, he populated his high fantasy world, Middle-earth, with peoples, geographies, poems, legends, and appendices. Never before had anyone proposed a more intricately crafted, believable mythos.
Tolkien took enormous imaginative risks, slaving over a literary-imaginative enterprise that lasted decades. He feared no one would care. And yet people did. His fans pestered him for details about this second life. Tolkien had struck a chord.
Seventy-five years hence, anticipation for the first “The Hobbit” movie this December proves how much we want to live in these alternate realms. Now we’re seeing every kind of entertainment girdled by one idea, one concept, one premise to rule them all: the hero narrative that Tolkien helped revive for the 20th century.
The ingredients: A story set in a magically infused, medieval-themed world. You will find humans there, but also non-humans, and monsters. Something awful must be stopped. The world’s fate hangs in the balance. Enter the lowly hobbit, unsure of his own prowess, to act out fantasies of empowerment. Along for the ride, we readers/viewers/players feel empowered, too.
As our world collides with technology, we feel a pull toward things unexplained by electron microscopes and satellites — trolls, orcs, and magic rings. Science ruined everything. Robots will take over the world.
But because Middle-earth is agrarian, and pre-industrial, conflicts set there are manageable. It is place where average folk — Bilbo Baggins — can get things done. Tolkien, shaken by his own disastrous experiences in World War I, suggested a revised history where, as writer David Brin puts it, there is “a role for individual champions.” Middle-earth, being nostalgic and uncomplicated, offers a clear code of moral and ethical conduct. You do the right thing.
Planet Earth pales by comparison. It is too big, beset with intractable problems, and run by hidden forces. We make no impact. America seems less upwardly mobile than ever. Our lands are also too small, and small-minded, and painfully unambitious, offering few crusades that feel quest-worthy. In place of clan skirmishes and castle sieges, Red Sox fight pin stripes. Red states battle blue. Inconsequential and dispiriting. None of us gets to save the day. Save for retirement, maybe — if we’re lucky.
We need “The Hobbit,” Gandalf, Gollum and the rest. And we need sequels and franchises, because we don’t want these bedtime stories to end. Which explains why Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” movie one-two punch was recently extended to three.
Bilbo is us. He is reluctant, but desires adventure. He finds his courage, and cunning, along Tolkien’s road that “goes ever on and on.” He finds his inner heroic mojo. He swings his sword Sting. He steals treasure from under a dragon’s nose.
For, if a measly hobbit can show his true mettle, why not you?
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.” Reach him at www.ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.