JANE: So, Alan, last time, when we were chatting about how you and Robin went to visit Hobbiton, it became evident that J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Ring” novels – as well as The Hobbit – meant a great deal to you.
I hate to admit it but, while I enjoyed them, they’ve never been among my favorite novels – not even among my favorite Fantasy novels.
I realize that this is a heretical view. Can you tell me why you’re so crazy about those books?
ALAN: I think it’s because I was imprinted on them when I was very young. I discovered them in the school library when I was about 12 years old. This was long before the books became trendy – nobody I knew had ever heard of them – and I was at exactly the right impressionable age to be completely overwhelmed by the world of Middle Earth.
JANE: Oh! That’s nice. It’s always wonderful when a book is your own private discovery. My first encounter was similar and different. And here’s where the difference in our ages comes in!
I was also about twelve when a nosey neighbor brought over the boxed set of the novels as an excuse for snooping. (Everyone knew Jane was an avid reader.) However, the world of Middle Earth did not overwhelm me. By then, there were numerous imitations and I’d read some of them. Tolkien seemed unnecessarily fussy. Why give each river or mountain three names? Why not just get on with the story?!
ALAN: Oddly, I always found that to be part of the charm. It made the world of Middle Earth seem so real, so lived in. I was already very familiar with landmarks that had multiple names (Vienna and Wien for example), and now that I live in New Zealand (or perhaps I should call it Aotearoa), I find that almost everywhere has both a Maori and an English name, which are often used interchangeably. So that kind of thing has always seemed quite natural to me.
Looking at the books now, from the other end of my life, I am willing to admit that they have flaws, but a fussiness about multiple names is not one of them. However I’m biased. That early imprinting is still in force and I still love them dearly.
JANE: The funny thing for me is that the older I get, the things that originally bugged me don’t anymore. Rivers do have multiple names, especially when multiple cultures live in an area. Given the long lifespans, yet essentially isolationist nature of some of the races (elves and dwarves in particular), it makes sense that different cultures have different names for the same landmarks.
ALAN: Exactly so! Perhaps I came to that understanding earlier than you did simply because of where I lived. After all, the city of York, a few miles up the road from me, was called Eboracum by the Romans, and I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that fact.
JANE: I think you’re right. Places in the U.S. usually have one name. Even when that name is rooted in an earlier culture – for example, an Indian name for a place – this contributes to a sense of constancy, rather than the other way around.
ALAN: But back to the books! I always identified closely with the mood that Tolkien evoked with his tale. Something in it just seemed right and natural. And then Donald Wolheim of Ace published the (arguably illegal) first paperback version of the books in the mid-1960s, and the sales exceeded his wildest dreams.
It seemed that my contemporaries agreed with me. The mood of the times was exactly right for Tolkien’s vision of the world. It was the so-called summer of love and the hippies adopted Tolkien as a guru. The struggle against Sauron could easily be seen as a metaphor for the anti-establishment feelings of the time. We all knew that Sauron lived in the White House. And Frodo’s essential pacifism struck a chord with the young people whose anti-war sentiments manifested themselves in protests against America’s involvement in Vietnam.
JANE: Once again, age plays a role. In the mid-sixties, I was a very small child. I was still in single digits when the Summer of Love came and went. Growing up in D.C., I knew there were lots of long-haired people around who behaved oddly. I was aware of the struggle against the “establishment,” but that was something “grown-ups” were involved in.
If anything, it seemed a bit odd to me, since both “establishment” and “anti-establishment” were grown-ups, and so were all, from my perspective, part of the same problem!
ALAN: I think you get a different view of events when you experience them for yourself.
Certainly from my point of view there was always a distinct feeling of “us” and “them” during those years. And by and large, “we” were powerless because “they” were in charge. Tolkien’s books were inspirational because they showed clearly that while individual people may be little and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, nevertheless, just like the hobbits did, they can still make a profound difference to the working of the world. Tolkien was talking to us on so many levels, and his vision of the world resonated with the zeitgeist. It was inevitable that his books would be adopted by the movement.
JANE: Again, time perspective… I’ve met very few people who identify with hobbits. I know lots who want to be elves or half-elves, a few who identify with dwarves, but I can’t think of a single person who has identified with hobbits.
I remember an article in a gaming magazine (most early RPGs were highly influenced by High Fantasy and especially by Tolkien) in which the writer commented, “Let’s face it. Who would want to play a hobbit?”
After all, they’re essentially lazy and idle. Both Bilbo and Frodo need to be forced into adventure. Merry and Pippin are shanghaied, though they do pretty well once they get the hang of it. Sam is different, though. He has his feet in his garden, his head in the clouds.
ALAN: Perhaps I’m odd, but all those things seem to me to be very desirable traits to have. I identify very closely with hobbits and I can easily imagine myself living in Hobbiton and being very happy there.
JANE: Certainly, if “laziness” and “idleness” are seen as finding contentment in small achievements, like growing a good garden, or raising happy children, I agree.
Many years ago, shortly after Roger died, my dad tried to convince me to look into writing for Hollywood, as several of my NM friends were doing. I mulled it over seriously. Then one day, standing in my garden, hip-deep in tomato plants, listening to bees, and musing over what I’d be writing later, I realized that high-pressure, backbiting, ambitious Hollywood wasn’t for me.
So, I guess I’ve got a bit of hobbit in me, too!