Friday, September 21, 2012
There and Back Again: The Hobbit Semisesquicentennial
It was seventy five years ago on September 1 in 1937 when J.R.R. Tolkien first published those indelible words, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." And in honor of this most festive occasion, I thought of Tolkien's own words regarding his seminal work. In a letter from June 7, 1955, he wrote:
All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time, and for some years I got no further than the production of Thror's map. But it became The Hobbit in the early 1930's, and was eventually published not because of my own children's enthusiasm (though they liked it well enough), but because I lent it to the then Rev. Mother of Cherwell Edge when she had flu, and it was seen by a former student who was at the time in the office of Allen and Unwin. It was I believe tried out on Rayner Unwin; but for whom when grown up I think I should never have got the Trilogy published (Tolkien Letters, Humphrey Carpenter, p. 215).
For a man who thought that the Lord of the Rings trilogy would never have happened, and that he had spent all his good characters and motifs on The Hobbit, it is remarkable to read where it all began, with Bilbo in Bag End. And more remarkable still to read where it all ended with the Eagles marking that joyous rescue that can only be described in Tolkien's own literary currency as eucatastrophe. Considering The Hobbit was originally written as a separate story, never originally intended to be adjoined to his tales of The Silmarillion, etc., it is a joy to find Bilbo the Burglar steal his way into the legendary halls of Tolkien's epic myth and bring us there and back again with him.
There are many reasons why I love and have read (and still reread) The Hobbit. This blog is, in part, dedicated to that great intersection of Tolkien's work and the Gospel which he so clearly proclaimed in his works. (One's reading of good books is never over. In fact, it's hardly a good book if it's only read once). But even the fundamentals of the story are appealing: the land, languages, peoples, narrative, the movement of the trees (all of them) and the whisper of the wind through their ancient branches and yes, on this day, the beloved hobbits. But two words best capture the Hobbit's enduring legacy: verisimilitude and eucatastrophe.
Throughout Tolkien's letters, essays and writings, these two words appear to form the plinth of his literary framework. He was always concerned with the stories having that inner consistence of reality, the believability that no matter what fantastic adventures were being undertaken, they were possible in this world. Indeed, not just possible, but expected, welcomed, and essential to the very heart of the story, without which it would cease to be true fairy story (at least as Tolkien defined it).
These two words keep beckoning me (and I'm convinced others too) to read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and why I'll read them to my daughter Zoe and son Jonah in the future. In it's voluminous air of Primary Art there is another joy in reading Tolkien's work, that of the eucatastrophe. This is the joyous turn, the blessed and good catastrophe that is crucial in all fairy tales. It is like a miracle, Tolkien says, something so plain and matter of fact. For this is the way miracles are (at least from the divine perspective). And in good fairy stories we get a glimpse of those blessed intrusions.
This eucatastrophe..."produces a peculiar effect because it has a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly been snapped back...the Resurrection was the greatest eucatastrophe possible in the greatest Fairy Story - and it produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears...Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the storyteller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story." (Tolkien's Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, p. 100-101).
Christ's resurrection is the great story because the Author has jumped off the velum and parchment and taken on living human flesh and bone to redeem us. Indeed, a great story and a great ending for it never really ends. And it is made all the more beautiful because it happens to be greatest true story of all.
So, look for the Eagle's wings, only the next time time you see them, they'll be adorning the back of a Lamb.
Happy Semisesquicentennial Hobbit Day.