Eighty years ago, Bilbo Baggins greeted the world. And the story has been a compelling Hobbit ever since.
OK, that’s an awful pun to give someone before coffee, even if it does have a certain Ring to it. (All right, all right, put down the hammer, I’ll be good.) Jokes aside, though, this is a good anniversary to tip the hat to. On Sept. 21, 1937, readers first encountered the words “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit” – words that J.R.R. Tolkien had once scribbled down while grading an exam, wondering where they had come from and where they might lead.
Since then, The Hobbit has been there and back again millions of times. We may have racked up a few dozen in our family alone.
Like many of us, I discovered The Hobbit early on. Dad introduced me to it in third grade for our reading nights, where he and I would each read half a chapter. (We would later spend years doing the same for The Lord of the Rings, as I’ve mentioned in another column.) The tale expanded both my imagination and my vocabulary as I learned that a mail shirt had nothing to do with envelopes, that a “rent” piece of armor had been torn, and that “quay” was a truly deceptive word, indeed.
I loved it. The goblins and elves, the dwarves and dragons, the riddles in the dark and eagles in the morning all spoke to something inside of me and have ever since. I began reading it to my own family long ago and got asked for an encore, the first volume besides Harry Potter to win that honor from Missy.
I know I’m not alone. And it’s fair to ask why.
The Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey may have hit a big part of it, when he noted how we travel the road in Bilbo’s shoes – well, Bilbo’s hairy bare feet, anyway. Bilbo is invited into a world of epic courage, Shippey noted, where he feels immediately that he doesn’t belong. But not only does he ultimately share in the sort of bravery a saga might celebrate, he also discovers a more modern courage of his own that the dwarves might never understand. An internal bravery, discovered in the dark, to do the right thing even if no song would ever celebrate it and no bard would ever know – a duty that a World War I veteran like Tolkien knew far too well.
“He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone,” Tolkien wrote of Bilbo mustering the courage to face the dragon Smaug, “before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”
That’s something I think we all can share in.
Our journeys, like Bilbo’s, come without warning. They ask us to face fears and dangers we never prepared for, and sometimes aren’t sure we can survive. More than once, we want to step back to a cozy home with pocket handkerchiefs close to hand and tea on the fire – or at least somewhere where our worries can be about the Broncos’ choices on fourth down instead of family concerns, financial strains, and headlines that savage us like a pack of Wargs.
But in the journey, we can find ourselves. We discover new friends and unexpected gifts. And while tears are still a part of the story, they need not be faced without hope.
We don’t need to be an iron-muscled hero. We just need to be ourselves, ready to face the next steps with what we have. For who we love. For what we’ve promised. For who we are inside.
That’s a lot to carry in one children’s book.
And we need it like we need a hole in the head. A hobbit hole in the head, that is.
For that, Professor Tolkien promised us, means comfort.