Wed. December 12
The First Man to Read The Hobbit
Somewhere in a bank in Washington, D.C., there is a safe deposit box with my father’s edition of The Hobbit. My father may have been the first person in America to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy, the precursor to The Lord of the Rings.
My father’s edition of The Hobbit is a first edition, first printing edition, copyright 1938. Dad was ten when The Hobbit was published, and Tolkien’s books became my father’s favorite literature. In The Hobbit, both the book and Peter Jackson’s new film, there are lessons about God, art, and conservative engagement with the popular culture.
First, the film version of The Hobbit. By this point, Peter Jackson is a master filmmaker, and the film version of The Hobbit is magnificent. Like many others, I was concerned that Jackson has decided to take what is a children’s adventure story and turn it into three movies. But by adding material that adds foreshadowing of the events in The Lord of the Rings, he has made a complete and compelling first film.
Did the film look the way I imagined the characters and events in The Hobbit looked when I read it for the first time in fourth grade? Yes and no. My Middle-Earth has always been smaller in scale and less literal than Jackson’s; it looks more like the drawings Tolkien did himself. But for me that’s not a problem. I’m able to compartmentalize, keeping a place in my imagination for my Middle-Earth, knowing that is differs from Peter Jackson’s. And Jackson has made a magical film that will reward repeated viewings.
I also want to note that Jackson truly gets what The Lord of the Rings is about. Where many filmmakers, particularly action directors, would have skipped over the deep Catholicism of Tolkien’s work, Jackson dwells on it. One of the great speeches, and ultimately the most important one, in The Lord of the Rings is when Gandalf the wizard tells Frodo that he, Frodo, should not be eager to “mete out death and judgement.” Frodo had grown exhausted with Gollum, the pathetic creature who has been destroyed by the evil ring, and wishes that Gollum had been killed. Gandalf replies: the fate of many may be tied up in the fact that Bilbo, Frodo’s uncle (and the main character in The Hobbit) was merciful. Indeed in the end, it was Bilbo’s mercy that saved all of Middle-Earth. (There is also Tolkien’s love of the Virgin Mary, manifest in the Elvish queen Galadriel, but that’s a different article.)
Of course, my father was ahead of his time with his love of Tolkien–he also bought first editions of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s–and it was through him that I first learned that popular art could also be high art. Dad was the most well-read person I have ever known, a brilliant man who in the 1950s was hired right out of college by Life magazine and went on to a storied career at National Geographic. He had read everything. And yet on the bookshelves that lined his den, he placed Tolkien’s work in a place of honor, alongside Shakespeare, Milton, Moby Dick and J. D.Salinger. My brothers and sisters and I discovered early that fantasy and science fiction could be great literature, and, in fact, through metaphor and use of alternate universes, could powerfully teach us lessons about the most important things in life: honor, courage, friendship, and faith. I grew up without a barrier between high, middlebrow, and so-called low art. Dad is probably the reason I have no problem calling rock and roll great modernist art, worthy to be placed next to Picasso, Mark Rothko, and Hemingway.
Since the election, conservatives and people of faith have called for those who want to see the timeless values of faith, courage, loyalty, and the reality of objective evil to get more involved in the arts. The popular culture is where the battle over the larger culture will take place (it should be said that those same conservatives have not financially supported my own film project; I’ve found that many on the right are all talk and no action on these things). Whatever his politics, Jackson has made a great film that celebrates the values of faith, family, home, courage, and modesty. And mercy. Over and above everything else, mercy. Dad would have loved it.