It’s not often that popular fiction stays in print for decades. Even less often does it have the depth that allows it to transcend the imaginary barrier from pop to literature or even to the status of classics. Even most of what is today referred to as literary fiction, well, won’t stand the test of time. Every so often there are books that do the impossible. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, as embodied in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, have done just that and have endured for over a half a century.
Many have only been exposed to Tolkien’s world through the recent movie versions. Or perhaps you think fantasy is just that, fantasy. Elves, trolls and big battles. Doesn’t sound very relevant to the real world, does it? There must be a reason why Middle-Earth is still the inspiration for an entire genre and still attacts millions of readers decades after its publication.
Because it is relevant.
Like any great book, the author has the primary responsibility for its success. Tolkien was a scholar, not a fiction writer. His mastery of history, language and culture allowed him to create an alternate history of Earth. This wasn’t his most important strength, however. Like any writer, his beliefs and convictions inform and influence his words on paper. As a great writer, he didn’t strive to lecture or teach as much as meant to entertain.
And so there have been endless books critically analyzing every aspect of Tolkien’s world. Most of today’s “literature” never warrants such study. One of the best such scholarly, yet accessible, endeavors is Matthew Dickerson’s A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
Dickerson explores Tolkien’s many themes such as the free will of men, moral responsibility and war. This last may be apparent from the film versions and people may think it the overwhelming part. Indeed it is in many ways, but Tolkien wove many subtleties in his stories.
War is at time necessary, but takes a terrible toll on all, even the victors. That is clear in the books, as is that the forces of good should never use evil to conquer evil. The means don’t always justify the end. The Ring could be used to destroy Sauron, but at what cost? What did it do to all that did use or want it, often with the best of intentions? Even the way the “good guys” treated captured enemies was diametrically opposed to how the Enemy treated their prisoners. Moral and military victories aren’t always the same thing. Discussions like these in Dickerson’s book reveal some very deep issues embedded in Tolkien’s books.
Thoughtful people will begin to realize that all the screaming “experts” on television who pretend to be intellectuals, never approach the mind of someone like Tolkien. Unlike them, he doesn’t preach, browbeat or lecture his readers. His beliefs are so well-thought out, they naturally flow within the story. They make his book an endless treasure chest to be searched.
The films captured Tolkien’s world better than any other book-to-screen adaptation, but there is much more. If you are someone who likes books that can reveal new depth at every reading, or you have never delved into a book for a literary study, Dickerson’s book will surprise and challenge you to do just that with Tolkien.
And no doubt you will pick up Tolkien’s books again and read them like it was the first time.