“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Today begins the first steps of what will be a years-long quest through Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Even though I’ve got a discussion group now (didn’t see that one coming) and plenty of friends along the way with whom to take this journey, in the end each of us will confront this quest alone, on our own terms, in our own way. We will share our experiences around a digital campfire, but ultimately what’s in the quest is what we take with us. Some of us will be looking for worldbuilding. Some of us will be in it for the characters. Some of us will look for literary themes. My primary quest this time is worldbuilding, for that’s Tolkien’s primary tool for his tales, but I fully intend to take everything I’ve learned thus far and dig deeper in every way I can. These stories have grown with me. They have helped to shape my understanding of how stories are told. They have helped to shape me.
Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are prime examples of the Monomyth, described by Joseph Campbell as “The Hero’s Journey.” It’s the oldest and most ubiquitous story in all of human culture. It’s the most personal of stories. It is the journey of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, of Perseus and Bellerophon… of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. It is my story. It is our story, the story of us all.
Understanding the themes of these stories, how they relate to each other and to ourselves… this is the core of how everything works. How Middle-Earth grew and evolved in the telling, that’s language and history as Professor Tolkien understood and applied such things. The languages are the backbones of Middle-Earth. Their evolution is the history of Middle-Earth. The poems and songs are where he develops that history, giving resonance and deeper meaning to the hero’s journey.
Since the point of this exercise is the deeper understanding of The Silmarillion, it’s necessary to keep a lookout for the clues. In the case of The Hobbit, we keep our eye on the prize itself, the Arkenstone.
A real-world allegory of the Arkenstone can be found in the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of hope, power, and faith of a people displaced from their spiritual homeland. In The Silmarillion, the dwarves are “lesser” creations to elves and humans by weight of which entities created them. For a Catholic like Tolkien, for whom faith is a recurring theme throughout these works, this comes across to some as a taste of anti-semitism across the whole of the saga. And yet, right up front he also demonstrates their heart and resilience in the face of impossible odds. I take that to be an acknowledgment of the struggles of Judaism, as well as an acknowledgement that without the Jewish faith, the Catholics (and indeed all Christianity) wouldn’t be here. Art reflects the reader as much as the author. We carry into this what we hold to be true.
Within the context of Middle-Earth, some Tolkien scholars believe there is a connection between the Arkenstone and the Silmaril of Maedhros. Most fans are more familiar with the One Ring of Power, but before Tolkien knew what the Ring could do, he created this. The One Ring was in many ways the lesser antithesis of the Arkenstone, made more so if the Silmaril theory is true (spoiler: it’s not true, as evidenced by the fact that mortal hands can hold the Arkenstone).
These are the main things I need to be mindful of when reading The Hobbit this time around.
The quest begins.