September 22, 2017
Happy Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday! Today, we mark not only the first day of fall but also the joint birthday of J. R. R. Tolkien’s two best-known protagonists, Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins. It’s strange to contemplate what life would have been like without Tolkien’s invention of Middle-earth. My children certainly would have felt deprived. Three of my children, in particular, seem to have been touched by the magic of Middle-earth and to have felt as if it were a real place.
It’s hard for me not to perceive Middle-earth as a real place. Doubtless others have tackled the question of why Middle-earth seems so real, despite being peopled with fantastic creatures like hobbits, elves, trolls, dragons, ents, and orcs. Perhaps it is Tolkien’s interweaving of his imagined world with mundane things like eating breakfasts (and second breakfasts) and smoking pipes and gardening and celebrating birthdays. If The Lord of the Rings told only of Éomer, Aragorn, and Faramir—strong, handsome men with equally strong codes of honor—what would differentiate it from any other hero tale? By grounding his epic in the down-to-earth hobbits with their love of regular meals and their physical limitations, Tolkien takes what is essentially a fairy tale or a mythic saga and turns it into something “real” in the most prosaic sense of reality.
The down-to-earth nature of the hobbits—what Sam calls “plain hobbit-sense”—is but one factor that contributes to the wonderfully “real” feeling of Tolkien’s very unreal world. Although I’m not a map person, Tolkien was. He created detailed maps of the lands that he conceived, and those who love to do such things can trace the happenings of Middle-earth on the maps. Not only are Tolkien’s maps detailed, but they have their own beauty. For years, the screensaver on my chunky Windows 95 laptop was a map of Middle-earth. More than one of my kids had LOTR-themed birthdays, and we prized the beautiful albeit disposable napkins and tablecloth that featured a map of Middle-earth.
The maps were just the beginning: Tolkien created not only a history for Middle-earth but even a pre-history in The Silmarillion (which, I confess, I have never read). My youngest son and I are wrapping up another round of listening to The Lord of the Rings, as read by Rob Inglis, so perhaps I should tackle The Silmarillion and prove myself a true—a true what? Fans of the series “Star Trek” call themselves Trekkies, but what name is given to those who have one foot planted on terra firma and the other firmly planted in Middle-earth? “Tolkienites” doesn’t have the right ring (no pun intended). “Middle-earthers” isn’t bad, I suppose, to describe a fandom that has spanned 80 years.
And how can I not pay tribute to the language (languages, really) that Tolkien invented for Middle-earth, giving yet another dimension to its authenticity? My older daughter at one time knew Elvish well enough to speak it (she has pointed out that there is more than one strain of Elvish). There is even a language of Mordor, although I don’t know how far Tolkien developed the Black Speech. Tolkien’s characters entertain one another with songs and stories from days long past, thereby adding another layer of time to the narrative and enhancing the sense of reality.
Aside from the carefully crafted geography of Middle-earth and its unique languages, the landscape of Middle-earth seems astonishingly solid. When Frodo and Sam travel into the secret places of Ithilien with Faramir or climb onto the flets of the golden mallorns in Lothlorien, one feels that one is truly there. The detailed descriptions of the buildings of Middle-earth make them easy to see in one’s mind—and made it easy for artists and directors to recreate Tolkien’s world. As a lazy reader, I don’t love description: it slows down plot development. But when I listen to LOTR, I’m captive to Tolkien’s descriptions, and I envision more clearly the great hall at Edoras or the dark caverns of Moria.
Middle-earth is not real: I know that, yet I have read through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings more times than I have read through my Bible. Tolkien’s marvelous combination of hero tale and hobbit lore, of Elven song and dwarfish grumpiness, of golden beauty and choking ugliness has won my heart and—more importantly—my belief. Middle-earthers forever!
Afterthoughts: Ringers! Later, I remembered that “Ringers” has been used to describe Tolkien fans. It’s a little catchier than Middle-earthers. Most of the photos in this post are from my nephew’s LOTR party (complete with a Shelob piñata!), which my sister wrote up here.