The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien - First Edition

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (Dust Jacket of the 1937 First Edition).

Fantasy is like an exercise bike, said Terry Pratchett, bestselling British fantasy author, interviewed in the 2005 fan-documentary, Ringers: Lord of the Fans (Carlene Cordova, director). It doesn’t actually take you anywhere, he said, but it develops the muscles [of belief] that will.

This is a nice echo of Lloyd Alexander, who wrote in the Horn Book magazine in 1968, in a piece titled “Wishful Thinking – Or Hopeful Dreaming?”:

“Having once believed wholeheartedly in something, we seldom lost the ability to believe. It is like learning to ride a bicycle.”

The Ringer movie, if you haven’t seen it, is a delightful feature-length documentary romp through the pop-culture impact of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It was produced in concert with the fan website (“forged by and for fans of JRR Tolkien”); it interviews a wide range of actors, authors, musicians, and fans, all under the spell of “The Professor” from Oxford who introduced the world to hairy-footed hobbits, rampaging orcs, tall elves, talking trees, and the ultimate jewelry fetishist, Gollum (“My Preciousssss”).

As movie reviewer Geoff Pevere noted in the Toronto Star, describing the difference between literature and fandom:

“[Ringers] tells the story of a fandom strangely independent of the works that generated it, which means it’s really a case study in fandom itself, for fandom is what is sparked spontaneously from the alchemy between an artefact and its reception. It begins at the moment the creator relinquishes control, and evolves into something both rooted in the creation and an organism utterly unto itself. Sorry, Professor.”

After setting the stage with a look at the release of Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) as a surprisingly grown-up sequel to The Hobbit, and its reception (positive) from W.H. Auden and (not surprisingly, Tolkien’s friend and fellow Inkling) C.S. Lewis, and (negative) from the ever-snobbish likes of Edmund Wilson, writing in The Nation (“Oh, Those Awful Orcs”) and Harold Bloom (“inflated, over-written, tendentious, and moralistic in the extreme.”)

The movie recounts how John Lennon tried to interest noted filmmakers David Lean and Stanley Kubrick into making a movie of Tolkien’s fantasy epic, and connects the dots between LOTR-influenced fantasy imagery; the literary tastes of the counter-cultural pipeweed-smoking, tree-hugging, hobbit-friendly hippie movement; and the rise in the late 1960s and early 1970s of heavy-metal bands like Led Zeppelin, who delved into the darker sides of fantasy’s worlds of imagination.

If you liked the Ringers movie, you might enjoy reading “Kicking the Hobbit” by Chris Mooney in The American Prospect. Tracing the literary legacy of Tolkien, Mooney includes this:

In Britain, Tolkien’s literary merits have been the subject of very public debate. In 1996 a poll of 26,000 readers by Waterstone’s bookstore crowned The Lord of the Rings “book of the century.” Writing in W: The Waterstone’s Magazine, Germaine Greer expressed her displeasure at the poll results.

“Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964 and encountered a tribe of full-grown women wearing puffed sleeves, clutching teddies and babbling excitedly about the doings of hobbits, it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialised.”

Separately, Mooney notes that “Readers steeped in modernist literature simply don’t know how to respond to Tolkien’s prose.”

Nonetheless, many in the literary world today have become more respectful of Tolkien, avoiding the association with the more commonplace output of the fantasy genre that he spawned, much of which was derivative work by lesser imitators.

Terry Pratchett, in Ringers, succinctly gives an excellent metaphor of Tolkien’s influence, saying that in the field of fantasy, Tolkien was like Mount Fuji in Japanese print-making: always there, however distant, in the background somewhere if you looked hard enough. That’s an apt metaphor for the deity-like stature of Tolkien in fantasy literature.

But check out Ringers. Where else can you hear an updated version by World Without Sundays of the silly Orc anthem, “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way” . . . or better yet, the original version of Leonard Nimoy’s campy “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”!