TT: Lord of the Hippies

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.

Hobbit Hole, photo by Alan

Hobbit Hole, photo by Alan

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!

11 Responses to “TT: Lord of the Hippies”

  1. Jay M. Says:

    “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 think that because hobbits were so very much based on humans, albeit smaller and with furry feet, there was very little *different* about hobbits that warranted basing an alternate persona around them. I see this over and over in fictional universes with mutiple races. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone cosplay an ordinary human from “Babylon 5” – it’s always Minbari, Centauri, or maybe PsiCorps or a Technomage. In “Star Wars” fandom, the vast majority are Jedi or Stormtroopers or Sith, rather than ordinary rebels or others. I see far more Vulcans and Klingons in cosplay than human Starfleet officers. We are ALREADY Hobbits. That’s why they were good viewpoint characters for Tolkien and that’s why no one wants to try to become a Hobbit. How does one “become” what they already are?

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Another hobbit here, although I worked at The Other Change of Hobbit in Berkeley for a few years, so that may be part of it.

    I think my fondness for the Tolkien came from my mom reading The Hobbit to me when I was too young to read. There’s something about second breakfasts that is absolutely delightful to a kid. Later on, LOTR was my first real “adult” book, as in my parents thought I was old enough to tackle it when I was twelve. After that, it was okay for me to read anything on the shelves, and I proceeded to do so.

    Another part of my fondness is that it’s always felt to me like something like a real world. There’s a history there. With most fantasy and science fiction, I feel that if I kick the walls, the props will fall over and there’s a rather shabby theater behind them. Even if the characters are “well-developed,” the paint’s obvious on the backdrops. With Tolkien, it felt like the walls had been there for awhile, and I’d bruise my hairy little foot if I kicked them.

    As for cosplaying a Hobbit, I’m really a bit too tall for that. Anyway, who wants to go barefoot at the average Con? Have you looked at a hotel floor recently, let alone the sidewalk outside? And making prosthetic hairy feet is hard.

  3. Sally Says:

    Wanting to be short, stout and to have hairy feet–no. But I spent a number of years refining plans for a hobbit hole. I didn’t actually build it–no appropriate hill on my property for one thing–but the influence crept into the house I did build, even if only in the shape of a couple of the windows.

    I agree with Jay M. Hobbits are us. And with Heteromeles about the real world aspect of LOTR. That solidity may be one reason why the books hold up as well as they do.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Oh yes, I forgot the hobbit holes. That was me too! I even wrote a letter to the LA Times after one of the horrible wildfires, suggesting that hobbit holes were the best solution to living in a fire-prone landscape. What’s less flammable than living underground? Alas, they never published it, the ingrates.

  4. Chad Merkley Says:

    I think I was in third grade when I first read The Hobbit, circa 1988. Since most of my other reading at the time was the Hardy Boys and animal stories by Jim Kjelgaard and Walter Farley and the like, The Hobbit was completely different, and I think helped lead me onto the path of Nerd-dom. The only other fantasy authors I really remember from childhood are C.S. Lewis and Tamora Pierce.

    I completely missed the hippie thing. I do remember “Dress Like a Hippie Day” during Homecoming Week in High School. But then my friends and I would skip the pep assemblies and go hide in our English teacher’s classroom and play chess or something. Which is way more anti-establishment than going to a pep assembly.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I didn’t read Tamora Pierce until I was an adult, but I am a firm fan now. I’m greatly excited that she is one of the GOH for Bubonicon this year!!!

  5. keith Says:

    I never identified with hobbits, I always wanted to be a Ranger.
    That being said, it would be wonderful to live in a “hole in the ground” as Tolkien envisioned them.
    Please pick up The Fellowship of the Rings, and read the part about the black woods and Tom Bombidil. That part alone is well worth the effort. As good a job as the movies did of LOTR, I cursed when I saw that they had left my favourite part out.

  6. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I always kind of regretted buying the ACE editions of the books, because I saw those first, instead of the Ballantine editions that Tolkien apparently okayed.

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