Plastic "Lord of the Rings" Frodo and Sam figurines, posing near Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand, where Peter Jackson filmed Mount Doom and Mordor for his film trilogy. (Courtesy of the author)

Unless you’ve been living as an oppressed orc in some dark corner of Mordor, you probably know that the first installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” opens today. [Watch the trailer below]

Now, think what you want of Jackson as a filmmaker. Many adored his adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”; others found them loud, over-dramatic and pointless. Whatever your opinion, it’s clear that Jackson has tapped into a national and worldwide yearning for these fantasy epics. His “Rings” trilogy ushered in a new generation of storytelling, made Gandalf and Gollum household words, and minted its own currency of franchise gold, racking up $2.9 billion worldwide.

Tolkien’s stories reset our internal compasses and the circuits connected to our inner natures. They remind us what the good fight is, and how to fight it. They remind us about bravery, sacrifice, fellowship. They say, go on an adventure. Take a risk.

Of course, it all goes back to Tolkien. The nerdy Oxford professor and amateur storyteller set the stage when he published “The Hobbit” 75 years ago. Were it not for Tolkien, we would not have the success of other fantasy franchises today — novels, video games, TV series, theme parks — based on the worlds built by authors such as George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling and other writers who pepper their nom de plumes with initials like “R” and “K.”

Whether in literary or cinematic form, these fantasies fill a desire. We need innocent heroes like hobbits. We need to follow Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ hair-footed steps across strange lands and go on adventures with them.

Our survival as a human race depends on them. Really. Not just in Tolkien’s intricately imagined world, Middle-earth, but on this earth, too.

People tend to dismiss fantasy and science fiction and other fringe genres as inconsequential. They say, this is Never Never Land. What happens down the rabbit hole or through the wardrobe or in the dark future of the zombie apocalypse doesn’t matter. It doesn’t touch us. It’s just, well, fantasy.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 book “The Hobbit” is a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. (Sang Tan/AP)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 book “The Hobbit” is a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. (Sang Tan/AP)

But genre stories do matter. They’re our sandbox. We get to play in their realms, and work out ideas, dreams and fears. Science fiction tends to imagine a pessimistic, cautionary future. This is what will happen after we’ve polluted the planet and the robots have taken over. So, hey, let’s imagine a different path, on this earth, or some new planet. Before it’s too late.

Tolkien’s Middle-earth tales offer another salve. “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are no mere escapes. Rather, the struggles of Tolkien’s now iconic characters instruct us how to live. Do you feel like the wizard Gandalf, your brow full of worry, searching for answers to questions you barely understand? Who is tortured like Gollum by a secret addiction? Any Bilbos or Frodos out there — meek and humble folk who secretly need to find their inner heroes, become brave and save the day?

It doesn’t hurt that via these adventures in an unspoiled, natural, pre-industrial world, we get to travel back (or sideways) to a place where you and I, too, might experience wonder, magic and danger. What happens in our own 21st-century lives, while chaotic and unpredictable, tends to be explained by science, medicine and Google. Niggled to death by seemingly inconsequential details — parking, bills, shopping — we have lost our capacity to think in broader terms about how to live, or by what principles, or what could make us happy and fulfilled.

Our daily, hourlong commutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic hardly seem the stuff of epic tales.

Genre stories do matter. They’re our sandbox. We get to play in their realms, and work out ideas, dreams and fears.

In this regard, Tolkien’s stories reset our internal compasses and the circuits connected to our inner natures. They remind us what the good fight is, and how to fight it. They remind us about bravery, sacrifice, fellowship. They say, go on an adventure. Take a risk.

Tolkien didn’t invent the heroic epic genre. Folktales, Icelandic sagas, Norse myths, Arthurian legends and other storytelling traditions have offered similar instruction. But Tolkien revived it, and made this kind of old-fashioned narrative nerdy-cool again. Peter Jackson took up his mantle. How to be a hero, how to be courageous, how to be a good man or woman — or elf, dwarf or hobbit.

“The world is not in your books and maps — it’s out there,” Gandalf admonishes Bilbo early on in “The Hobbit,” trying to scoot him out the door with the 13 dwarves. Substitute “books” and “maps” for “iPads” or “spreadsheets” or “Top Chef” and you see my point.

There’s a quest we all can go on, whether big or small, whether fueled by revenge or fired by loyalty. There’s a dragon in all of us that needs to be defeated. The lesson of J.R.R. Tolkien is, have a big heart. Make friends. Find a fellowship and go defeat it.

Then, when you’re done, sit around the fire and tell great tales and sing great songs about what you’ve done.


Tags: Books, Film/TV

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  • Pointpanic

    OH please, these fairytale narratives are tiresomely out dated and reflect heirarchichal social structures. And excuse me , I live in a democracy where the people solve their problems as a community ,rather than looking for the trite archtype of the “inner hero”. So where were the “inner heros” when during the making of this film , some animals used in the film died of negligence? Where was the “good fight”? If this essay was worthy of “cognoscenti” then I have have a good barroom joke to tell you.

    • Noble Smith

      I’m so sick of people bringing up the “hierarchical social structures” line about Tolkien’s the Shire. It’s like Michael Palin’s peasant character in The Holy Grail yelling “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!” The Shire-folk lived in an egalitarian society that practiced sustainability and sufficiency (it’s all there in the prologue). And Sam Gamgee might have called Frodo “Mr.” but it’s not like he was a lowly minion existing in a hierarchical Edwardian England. Can you imagine Lord Crowley of Downton Abbey knocking back some pints and singing a drinking song with his gardener?

    • L. A. C.

      While science fiction authors imagine
      future scenarios, it’s true that fantasy authors often tend to take
      inspiration from the past, and may imagine landscapes,
      socio-political structures and characters reminiscent of those found
      in our historic, or even prehistoric, past. Some of these
      imaginative tales, however, may even combine characteristics of both
      science fiction and fantasy; for example, a story may have a setting
      and characters similar to those of ancient or medieval times, but
      take place on a different planet. What really matters is that these
      imaginative tales manifest the unique human ability to picture
      numerous possibilities, as well as to feel and to reason. We do need
      the practical-minded folks; but the work of artists and writers
      emphasizes creative imagination—which can be critical to human
      enterprises if we are not to get stuck in well-worn but not always
      adaptive ruts. The visions of artists and authors can often alert us
      to whatever we may have forgotten, may have missed, or may have
      failed to imagine—but which could benefit us. And as Mr. Gilsdorf
      points out in his article, Tolkien hardly invented fanciful fairy or
      folk stories, epic sagas, myths or legends. That kind of tale has
      been with us for many thousands of years, reaching back to the time
      of the most ancient tribes and religions. Tolkien merely revived the
      interest in, and sort of reinvented this type of tale—I believe he
      liked to call it “fairy story.” Naturally we must live in our
      modern time, and I believe it is right that we no longer accept many
      of the viewpoints, behaviors or social structures of the past.
      However, there are some people of our time who seem to be
      inadequately educated about, and/or unwilling to acknowledge the
      richness and importance of our own lengthy human history and
      historical literature. It often seems to be these same people who
      cannot appreciate the riches of the human imagination in general. No
      wonder modern fantasy and science fiction art and literature may seem
      pointless to them; I’ll bet many of the same folks can’t understand
      the point of poetry. It’s a shame; they don’t even realize what
      they’re missing!

  • Ethan gilsdorf

    noble, you’re my hero

  • Nicholas Willis

    The LOTR movies epic, dark, uplifting and optimistic. The themes of inner and outer conflict and of the ability to make a difference despite hardship ring true for myself and i think most folks. These movies came out while I was in graduate school striving to get projects working, make sense of my data, and earn that elusive doctorate in cell biology. These movies in part motivated myself and my colleagues to push on. A great discussion on why the books are relevant today and why the movies for some are cherished so much.

  • Lophius

    Minor point: the caption for the photo of the person reading The Hobbit states that it is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Actually, The Hobbit was the original (1937) work, with TLOR being published in 1954–1955, so technically TLOR is a sequel to The Hobbit. A “prequel” is a work that is published or released after the original work, but portrays events and characters during an earlier time. For example, Asimov’s Foundation was published in 1951, but his Prelude to Foundation came out in 1988. In film, the original Star Wars trilogy came out in 1977-1983, but the prequel trilogy came out in 1999-2005.

  • Frannie Carr

    Heading to the theater now!