I barely remember a time before I was a Tolkien nerd. Literally. The first time I heard the name Bilbo Baggins, I was strapped into a booster seat as my family took a driving tour of the Pacific Northwest. For the trip, my parents specially ordered a set of the BBC’s radio dramatization of The Hobbit. My own journey paralleled Bilbo’s as we wound our way through snowy mountains, lush forests, and winding valleys. Even now, I mentally picture the Lonely Mountain as the cloud encircled peak of Mount Shasta.
At five, I could only parse so much of the story unfolding from the tapes. The dramatization occasionally proved too cluttered by sound effects, music, and multiple voices for me to sort out what was happening based on dialog alone. Once we were home again, my mother read me the actual story. She had one of those green leather, embossed, slip cased editions, and I know for a fact it was the first time I fell in love with a pretty outside while I was falling even harder for the story inside. The Hobbit is also the first book I remember reading myself. Even if it was a couple pages at a time (I could read very young, but didn’t have the fortitude for managing entire novels from start to finish), I would read the story of Bilbo Baggins from the gorgeous book. Fortunately, a few years later when I realized that there were other books on the shelf with the name Tolkien on them, my parents stepped in and had me wait. I obsessed quite enough over the much simpler tale of retaking a mountain from a dragon. I didn’t need to add a Ring of Power and very different quest for a mountain to the mix.
While holding me back from Lord of the Rings until high school was an inspired decision, it really didn’t stop me from obsessing over it any less. I just had the maturity necessary to handle and understand some of the more complex elements of the trilogy. A year later, I’d devoured the Silmarillion and the Lost Tales as well. A couple years later, I’d read the cover off my Lord of the Rings, and added a wealth of knowledge gleaned from a collection of Tolkien’s letter to my already extreme Middle-earth addiction. Yes, I was/am one of those fans. But somewhere along the way, The Hobbit got lost.
It wasn’t until a college class compelled me to return the story I’d sidelined as a kid’s book that I realized my error. While each of the three main “stories” about Middle-earth had an extraordinarily different voice (calling Silmarillion a story is almost a misnomer) all of them were equally important to the larger picture. And I realized that as a child I had missed many subtle elements to the story of Bilbo that had subconsciously influenced the adult I would become.
I realized very young that no matter how good your own life is, there’s a dragon somewhere else, sleeping on stolen gold. That even if I’ve got everything I ever wanted, there would still be evil in the world, and good people? Good people went out to face it. They left the comfortable, the easy, the safe and did without the comforts of pocket handkerchiefs and clothes that fit. Even when they seemed to have no real skills to contribute, and no real idea how to go about taking on a dragon.
I realized that very small people could matter a great deal. That sometimes it’s not the wizard, the dwarf king, or the legendary bowman who got the job done. And I learned that much of adventuring isn’t all that glamorous. Sometimes it takes weeks in an Elven King’s palace before you came up with a rather clumsy plan. And much of any journey involves unexpected delays and complications, and the ability to role with the punches and land on your feet is vital. Sometimes staying afloat isn’t clever or graceful, but if you’re still on your barrel in the end, a little water doesn’t hurt.
And I learned how important it was to have good friends at your back, who would carry you when your own feet weren’t fast enough. And I learned that sometime even the best of friends can fail you, can fall onto a darker path, and even hurt you. And I learned that sometimes, when you could see no other way out, you have to leave your friends and take your fate into your own hands.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” It would take me forever to list all the important things I’ve learned from the Lord of the Rings, and even the Silmarillion. But as the years have gone by, I’ve become more and more aware that the simplicity of The Hobbit is deceiving. That while the story of little burglar Bilbo seems to be completely outshown by the story of Frodo, The Hobbit remains the most accessible and the most compelling of the Middle-earth adventures. That in that hole in the ground, I found more than good food and cheer. I found my courage. And I found the beginnings of an adult who knew beyond a doubt that dragons can be killed.
“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West.
Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure.
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”