A Visit to Hobbiton



The green fields, intense blue sky, and forty odd hobbit-holes scattered over the landscape is enough to make you think you’ve arrived in Middle-Earth. Tolkien might have even approved. But as I walked past gardens and little round doors, I had to remind myself this place is Peter Jackson’s vision of a world conceived by one of the twentieth century’s most imaginative minds.
When the first of the Lord of the Rings films came out in 2001, I was excited but oddly apprehensive. As a Tolkien fan, I wasn’t worried that Peter Jackson was going to destroy the story for me; I was anticipating the release of the film, like millions of others. But mixed with my anticipation was the feeling this book, that for me had always been a private experience, was suddenly going to be there as a film, for anyone to talk about and critique. It was irrational, I know, but it bothered me at the time.
I got over it. The Fellowship was certainly my favourite of the Lord of the Rings films, but I watched and enjoyed them all. The Hobbit films were different. I felt more jaded—why did Peter Jackson need to stretch the story into three films? It struck me as more a commercial than an artistic decision.
While I wasn’t the only one disappointed with The Hobbit films, I’d rather have them than not. And with all of the films now out, it seemed appropriate that I managed to finally visit the film set in New Zealand over Christmas.
2015 was certainly my year for Tolkien related trips. Last August, I had the chance to visit Oxford. My daughter and I drove down from Glasgow, and we stayed at Magdalen College. We visited the Kilns, where C. S. Lewis lived and died, and we drove down North Moore Road, where Tolkien lived with his family. We wandered the college, walked Adison’s Walk, and visited The Eagle and Child, where the Inklings met weekly. Visiting Hobbiton over Christmas was fun, and I was excited to go, but it wasn’t the literary pilgrimage that Oxford was.
We had to drive down to Matamata from just outside Auckland, and we were late for our tour. The people at the I-Site in Matamata were helpful and got us onto the next bus. It’s a walking tour through the village, and I kept missing stuff our guide said because we lingered to look and talk about the hobbit-holes. It was interesting, and I kept reminding myself this was Peter Jackson’s Hobbiton—not that it wasn’t inspired. It was rustic and quaint, detailed and thoughtfully constructed.
On we went, making the walk up the hill, until we stood in front of Bilbo’s gate, hung with the sign, No Admittance Except on Party Business. There we were—in front of Bag End, Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, where the stories began. But the sign identified this as the Bag End of Lord of the Rings—years after Bilbo’s adventures that took him into the east, over the Misty Mountains, where he met Gollum and found the ring; and into Mirkwood, where he fought and killed spiders; and finally, to the Lonely Mountain, where he talked to a dragon.
Our tour guide pressed on. We walked down the hill and found ourselves in the field, with the party tree standing at one end. One addition to the Party field, which I thought very unlike Tolkien, was a Maypole, standing about half way down the field. Tolkien would, of course, been familiar with the Maypole, but he was assiduous in avoiding anything about sex in his books.
The end of the tour brought us to The Green Dragon, the inn where you can sit down, have lunch by the fire as you sip your mug of beer. We lined up outside and got a free glass of ginger beer, then went inside to look around the inn.
There’s a cat that lives in The Green Dragon. My daughter spotted it right away, sleeping near the hearth.
“That cat was here the last time I visited,” she said. “That was three years ago!”
Visiting Hobbiton was a little like watching the commentaries for the Lord of the Rings films. I’d never watched commentaries before, and I learned much about how films were made. Visiting Hobbiton was getting a peek at how Peter Jackson created the films. You can’t, for example, go inside any of the hobbit-holes—not really. One of the doors opens, and you can walk inside, but any of the inside scenes were shot in a studio in Wellington. It was fun to see, but I was strongly reminded that all of this went into creating the illusion of the films.
And there’s the difference, I think. Reading the books is not an illusion. Tolkien himself understood the difference, although he wasn’t referring to his own books when he wrote his essay “On Faerie Stories.”
Tolkien writes:
“The storymaker, as subcreator, makes a secondary world which the listener can enter– Inside what he relates is true.  It accords with the laws of that world; you, therefore, believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.  The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken.  The magic, or rather art, has failed.  You are then out in the primary world again, looking at the little abortive secondary world from outside.”
A reader’s willingness to accept a secondary world Tolkien calls secondary belief. The process of subcreation makes his books the experience they are. They are real—for as long as you are willing to accept the reality of that world. This kind of engagement doesn’t work for everyone, but it was certainly my experience as an eleven year-old kid discovering Tolkien’s world for the first time, an experience I have again and again, whenever I read the books.

A Letter to C. S. Lewis


Dear Professor Lewis:
I’m writing this letter fifty-two years after your death, November 22, 1963. You won’t get it, but I don’t care. I’m writing anyway.
I was actually born three days before you died, in a small town in southern Alberta. You won’t have heard of Claresholm, and I doubt you will have ever heard of Alberta, but I know you had an appreciation for Canada—you had a Canadian aunt on your mother’s side, Aunt Annie, wife to your maternal uncle.
I didn’t read any of your books until I was an adult. I read Professor Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings over and over again as a young person, but I didn’t even know that you were friends with Professor Tolkien until after I read Narnia and some of your other books. I was getting interested in children’s literature while doing an undergraduate degree, and I read about the Narnia books in one of my anthologies. I didn’t know anything about Narnia at the time, but the anthology contained an excerpt from The Last Battle. Not long after, I was able to get the Narnia books and read them.
You may be interested to know that I had to get the series on cassette tape. I’m totally blind, and in those days I had to read everything on cassette. I read the Narnia books many times, and I have to admit, and please don’t take offense, I felt a little let down. You have to understand that I was young, and I had the idea that I could find another world like Professor Tolkien’s. Well, I’m much older now, and I still haven’t found anything to equal Professor Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth.
I’ve thought a great deal about the Narnia books, as well as many of your other books, and I’ve learned much from you over the years. For one, I’ve realized that you had different ideas about fantasy than your friend, Professor Tolkien. You had, for example, a greater sense of fun when it came to fantasy than he did—at least in most of the Narnia books, and maybe save for The Hobbit. I always thought Professor Tolkien must have taken great delight in writing that book. How could he not? Mr. Bilbo Baggins is such a delightful character. I thought you must have felt the same way about the Narnia books, although by the time you wrote The Last Battle, you seem to lose something of your sense of fun to an overwhelming seriousness. The end of the world is a serious thing, after all. But I could never manage to understand the joy the Pevensie children experience as they leave their old lives behind and enter the new Narnia. Perhaps I thought you were trying too hard to teach me something about Heaven.
I’ve always had many questions about the Narnia series, and I ask many of them every year in my children’s literature classes. I teach at a university here in Edmonton, and every year we talk about one of your books—usually The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here are some of the questions we ask:
Why is Father Christmas in the book? And why did you make him say, “Battles are ugly when Women fight?”
Why don’t Mr. and Mrs. Beaver share a bed? And how could Edmund have possibly eaten so much Turkish delight at a single sitting?
These questions might seem silly to you, but my students are intensely curious, and they genuinely wonder about these smaller details.
We ask larger questions as well—one of the main questions being, do we have to read the book as a Christian text? There are always a few students in the class who read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a young person, and they were told that the book was a way to better understand Jesus.
Well, back to my purpose in writing to you. I wanted to thank you for writing the Narniabooks, not to mention your science fiction books and all of your books on Christianity. I’ve read most of them, an I’ve wrestled again and again with the things you say about God, about pain, and about literature. Reading many of these books simply raises more questions for me, but I won’t bore you with those.
I will say, however, that I absolutely loved Out of the Silent Planet. I know you loved the works of Mr. H. G. Wells, and so do I. Reading Out of the Silent Planet took me right back to reading those books as a boy, and I found great joy in reading about Dr. Elwin Ransom’s trip to Malacandra.
This, finally, brings me to my real purpose in writing. You are one of those giants who walks my own literary landscape. You stride around in that landscape, spinning stories about dwarves and talking lions and the strange people of Mars. Like Jack who encountered giants of his own, I’m afraid to get too close for fear of getting trampled. I even sometimes steal from you, taking bits from the worlds you weave and using them in my own stories.
It wasn’t until I read Surprised by Joy that I became less nervous about getting too close. I was able to get a different sense of you as a man and a writer by getting a glimpse of you as a boy. As I read your description of losing your mother, then being sent away to that terrible school in England, I felt I had more of a connection with you than I realized. I too suffered a loss at a young age. I lost my cousin in a car accident. I didn’t understand love very well at the time, but I knew I loved my cousin. I was in the same car accident, and it was there I lost my sight. It was after that—in the hospital, in fact—that I began listening to Professor Tolkien’s The Hobbit on tape.
Having said all of this, I mostly want to say thank you. Thank you for your books. Thank you for your many words—those that have inspired me, and those that have challenged me. Thank you for sharing something of yourself. And most of all, thank you for giving me worlds where I can visit—places where I can get inside, walk around, and stretch my imaginative legs. These are places where I can wonder and ask questions, and most of all, return to when the world gets too big or too scary or too hard, and I need a familiar spot to rest and sort out my life and my thoughts.
Your faithful fan,
Bill Thompson

A Visit to Oxford, Part II


My daughter and I had six days in Oxford, three of which we used for day-trips—one to Stonehenge and two into London. Our final day in Oxford we dedicated to Lewis and Tolkien. On the Saturday, we got a bus on the High Street and headed to our car-park. The plan was to visit the places where Lewis and Tolkien had lived.
The Kilns is the house where Jack Lewis lived with Warnie, his brother, Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen. They purchased the house together in 1930, which is around the same time that Lewis was becoming a Christian—something that happened over the period of several years. The Kilns is outside of Oxford at Headington Quarry, but we found the house in only a few minutes.
Parking the car along a side street, we walked into what is now called Lewis Close—the short street leading up to the house and nature preserve. The house is unremarkable. It’s a quiet house on a quiet street. The place is maintained privately by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, so we weren’t able to get inside. I didn’t mind, particularly. This is the house where Lewis lived, and died, November 22, 1963.
We crossed the street and entered the park. The park has a pond—they call it a lake—and we walked about for a while. I was a little distressed at the amount of litter, and I got stung by nettles. A young family was also making their way through the park—a boy, apparently with the name of Jack, tagging along behind. Leaving the park, I feltsomehow let down, but I wasn’t sure why.
What exactly did you expect? I asked myself.
We stopped at the house once more, and I kept looking for the connection I wanted to feel. This was the place I had read so much about. This was the place where Lewis had lived for over thirty years.
Back at the car, we plugged Tolkien’s old address into the satnav and headed for Northmoor Road. And there, in not very long, was the house, number 22, one of two houses on this street where Tolkien lived with his family. The houses were tall and brick, and not the sort of place you would think the author of Lord of the Rings would live. But Tolkien, even more than Lewis, lived an ordinary life—married with four children, and working hard to raise a family.
After Northmoor Road, it was back to the car-park and Magdalen College. We wanted to look around the college grounds. We had to enter through the porter’s door again, but this time it seemed more normal—two lovely young women nodding and smiling, and handing us a leaflet on C. S. Lewis.
We found New Building right away, the building where Lewis lived on campus, and the place where the Inklings gathered in Lewis’ rooms on Thursday evenings. We wandered around inside another of the buildings, passing other visitors and students looking for their classrooms. A wedding was going on inside one of the courtyards, and the bells rang out from Magdalen Tower.
We saved Adison’s Walk for last. It’s a peaceful path encircling a deer park in the centre. Trees border the path, and a little river runs along one side. As I walked along, I thought of Tolkien, Lewis, and Hugo Dyson walking here in September of 1931. It was late, after an Inklings meeting, and the three men walked and talked of myth.
In a letter to his life-long friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote of that night:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose ’what it meant’. … Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: ….
I felt closer to Lewis and Tolkien on Addison’s Walk than I had anywhere else. Maybe it was the quiet, broken only by the sound of bells from the college—or maybe the relative solitude of this place gave me the chance to fully appreciate where I was. It wasn’t Narnia or Middle-Earth, but I was finally getting a glimpse into the lives of these men who lived very structured lives: teaching, reading, and researching; meeting with friends often to talk and drink and smoke, arguing about religion, philosophy, and pedagogy; and finally retreating into their imaginations to create and write into being the worlds that so many have come to love.
Lewis, C. S. C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, Volume 1: Family Letters, 1905 to 1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000. 975-76. Print.

A Visit to Oxford, Part I


Reading about Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings is something I’ve done for many years. I finally had the chance to visit Oxford this last August with my daughter, taking the time to visit Magdalen College where Lewis taught and lived, and to think about these men living their lives in Oxford more than half a century ago.
My daughter and I arrived in Oxford late on a rainy Monday. We had to leave our car in a car-park and take a bus into the city. Because it was late—nearly midnight—and we were tired and hungry, the whole thing seemed surreal to me. We got directions from our helpful bus driver, and set out to find the porter’s door where we could pick up our keys. We had reserved two rooms in the residence at Magdalen College.
Did I say it was rainy and dark?—that we were tired and hungry? We hauled our suitcases along the imposing wall of the college, past occasionally by groups of drunken students—something I later learned has been a feature of the city for more than five hundred years.
We were lost. We were definitely at the college, but where was the door? We crossed the High Street, and my daughter spotted a darkened door in the forbidding stone wall of the college. It was unmarked, but there seemed no other entrance. WE went to it and rang the bell. A wizened little man let us in, and we told him we had booked rooms at the college. He shuffled around until he found our names, then handed over two sets of keys.
I’m in a Dickens novel, my tired brain said. I knew I was in a Dickens novel; if I were in a Harry Potter novel, things would seem even weirder.
We finally got into our rooms, and in a moment of weakness I wished desperately I was at home, and not in this strange place.
Sleep, coffee, and a full English breakfast the next morning made Oxford look much friendlier. It was still raining, but a rainy morning with the street full of people was much different from what we had met with the night before. The place we found to eat was The Rose—a snug little café down High Street from Magdalen. We went back to that café several times over the next few days.
We spent the first day wandering about Oxford. We had a bus tour of the town, which was helpful and informative. We spent time in the Ashmolean Museum, which was a nice way to escape the busy streets and the rain. We walked until we found The Eagle and Child, the pub where the Inklings met, often on Tuesday mornings, and called by them The Bird and Baby. We went back to the pub that night for dinner, and as we ate, I tried to imagine Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings sitting here, drinking and smoking and having spirited conversations.
As we walked back to our rooms, evening was settling fast. It had stopped raining, and the streets and pubs were filling with people. As we walked, I had to reconcile my sense of the past with this busy, vibrant present. Oxford has been a centre of learning in England and Europe since the eleventh century. Its history is long, and Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings are only a small part of that history, but I was intent on discovering something of them while I was here.

When Marking Student Essays Just Isn’t Enough



Teaching at a university like MacEwan means time spent teaching, preparing to teach, and marking stuff students write because of what you teach. Marking takes more time than anything else, and most academics I know gripe about it, but it’s mostly people just complaining about a job in order to blow off steam. If I dug ditches for a living, I’m sure I would complain about the ditch.
Another part of my job as an academic is to write stuff about kid’s books. At the moment, the authors about whom I’m most interested in writing include Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, and Montgomery. Academic writing is different from any other writing I do. Like any form of writing, it’s hard. But it’s hard for particular reasons—some of which have to do with the time it can take, and some of which have to do with trying to sound smart when I’m not always sure what I’m talking about. It’s a learning experience every time. It can also be intimidating to write about authors who were both formidable academics in their own fields. J. R. R. Tolkien was a teacher, philologist, and medieval scholar, and C. S. Lewis was a teacher, tutor, medievalist, and Christian apologist. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time to follow Tolkien and Lewis to one of the Monday meetings of the Inklings at The Eagle and Child in Oxford—to sit, smoke, drink a pint of beer and listen to this group of friends talk and argue about life, writing, and literature.
If you are interested in fantasy, like me, then you’ve probably thought about why so many things in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books remind you of Tolkien and Lewis. Wondering about this connection forms the basis for an article I’ve recently had accepted by a journal in the UK—The New Review of children’s Literature and Librarianship. I’m hoping the article will appear later this year. Here’s a short excerpt.
If academic writing puts you to sleep, then skip the excerpt and ask yourself some of these questions: is Dumbledore just another version of Gandalf? Did Rowling get the expression “you-know-who” from Lewis’ The Last Battle? And why do Rowling’s house-elves seem like domesticated versions of Gollum?
From: Finding a Place on the Literary Map: Harry Potter, Secondary Worlds, and Post-Potter Fantasy
(by me)
Tolkien and Lewis’s influence on Rowling extends to the details of the series as much as it does the archetypal and heroic substructure of the genre. Harry’s invisibility cloak, the gateway onto Platform Nine and Three Quarters, the basilisk, the Whomping Willow, the giant spiders, the Horcruxes, Bellatrix Lestrange, and even the character of Dumbledore himself represent points of intersect with both Tolkien and Lewis. For example, Dumbledore is not simply the generic wise old man of the fairy tale. He recalls Tolkien’s Gandalf, albeit more humanized and more playful, and as Tosenberger suggests,” Dumbledore is “the world’s most powerful and respected wizard, a complex, brilliant, and benevolent man, and one of the major characters in the series—and he is also gay” (201). Dumbledore’s sexual orientation aside, he clearly recalls the wise old man of the fairy tale, in addition to his resemblance to Gandalf in terms of his power, depth of knowledge, and general inscrutability.
 As a hero, Harry reinscribes heteronormative representations of white masculinity, but he also redefines the traditional limits of the fairy tale hero and subsequently pushes the boundaries of secondary world fantasy. Harry is the archetypal hero. He does not embark upon a quest proper until the search for the Horcruxes in The Deathly Hallows, but he encounters trials in various forms throughout his six years at Hogwarts. The series of tests beyond the trapdoor in The Philosopher’s Stone, the encounter with Tom Riddle in The Chamber of Secrets, and the Triwizard tasks in The Goblet of Fire all constitute tests of Harry’s character and abilities.
A brief extract, but you get the idea. Next time you sit down to read any of the Harry Potter books, think about how much of what Rowling did was grounded in the works of these two literary giants. Happy reading.

The New Hobbit Film, My Reluctant Anticipation



Alert! No Spoilers
Peter Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies is due to open soon, and I’m looking forward to it with reluctant anticipation. It promises to be a digital blood-bath. Having split his filmic rendering of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into three parts, this latest film will focus largely on the battle at the Lonely Mountain.
Mind, no spoilers, but I don’t think it’s difficult to guess what Jackson will do with this film. First, expect this movie to be mostly about the battle at the Lonely Mountain, with extended slow-motion shots featuring individual fights—not to mention the swelling orchestral score in the background. I’m guessing we will have a face-off between Thorin and Azog (a plot twist I never liked).
Second, and this isn’t a spoiler if you’ve read the book, the dragon also has to die, and this will be most spectacular. The death of the dragon in the book is one of my favourite scenes. It’s useful here to point out that the slaying of Smoug is where Tolkien’s narrative leaves Bilbo and company behind at the mountain, while it follows the dragon to Lake-Town, where he is slain by Bard the Bowman. It’s an important scene for several reasons. It’s a dragon slaying, for one—an individual, heroic moment that is signature Tolkien. But it’s also a major narrative shift in the book. Much more is happening in Tolkien’s world than Bilbo is aware. The narrative has to break away from Bilbo’s perspective in order to show the larger scope of the heroic world, and the positioning of its various peoples in response to the attack and death of the monster. I’m a purist, so I’m not going to call Tolkine’s world of The Hobbit Middle-Earth: Tolkien doesn’t introduce the term Middle-Earth until The Fellowship of the Ring. And by the way, other names, such as The Shire, don’t appear until the later book either.
My point is that Tolkien’s world of The Hobbit has more scope than simply Bilbo’s seemingly ill-fated journey with the dwarves. Think about it. Thirteen dwarves and one hobbit set out on an epic adventure to recover treasure from a live dragon. This is a journey that hasn’t much hope of success, and most of the book focuses on Bilbo’s experience of the journey. He knows little about the world in which he finds himself, and even Thorin considers the treasure  his, and doesn’t think about any of the other people injured by the dragon, or who might be interested in the treasure once the dragon is dead. After the dragon leaves the mountain for Lake-Town, the book expands in scope to include most of Tolkien’s northern world—the men of Lake-Town, the Elves of Mirkwood, Dain and the dwarves of the Iron Hills, the eagles of the Misty Mountains, and Bolg of the North and his goblin army.
Back to Jackson’s film. Another stray thread from his second film is the attraction between Kili the dwarf and Tauriel the Wood-elf. Not looking forward to this one at all. As I said, I’m a purist when it comes to Tolkien, and I think setting up a love story between a dwarf and an elf is ridiculous—not to put too fine a point on it. Ask Tolkien whether or not a dwarf and an elf could ever get together in his world. He might chuckle, and he might look at you with incredulity, but he would most certainly launch into an historical explanation of relations between the two peoples throughout his legendarium. And before you point it out, Galadriel and Gimli don’t count. Gimli’s adoration for the Elven queen was an aboration—and it was an elevated, platonic, and one-sided love on Gimmly’s part. You might think that pairing was ridiculous. You are free to think so. Gimli’s love was lofty and chivalric—however unpalatable it might seem—while Kili’s attraction to Tauriel is reciprocal and suggests something more lusty and physical.
I will go see the film—probably more than once—and I will spend time processing whatever Peter Jackson does with the story. Its entertainment, and I have to see it as entertainment; otherwise, I get too bothered by what Jackson is doing to one of my favourite books. And I want to go on liking the films.
One final comment. Jackson chose to separate his adaptation into three parts, the last of which focuses on the battle. Read the book. We don’t get much of the Battle of Five Armies (not the Battle of the Five Armies) in Tolkien’s text, and Bilbo is actually knocked unconscious by a falling rock early on, and he hears about the details from Gandalf after all is over. Tolkien writes in the heroic tradition, which you can see in his representation of battles throughout The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But he didn’t romanticize war, and he always commented on its brutality and its accompanying loss and sorrow. Pay attention Peter Jackson. Your need to indulge your propensity for epic battles comes at a cost. You are missing Tolkien’s profound understanding of war and warfare: an understanding grounded in the heroic tradition, but tempered by his World War I experience in which he lost three of his closest friends.
I’ll leave you with this comment from the Elvenking, before the battle is ever joined:
”Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold. The dwarves cannot pass us, unless we will, or do anything that we cannot mark. Let us hope still for something that will bring reconciliation. Our advantage in numbers will be enough, if in the end it must come to unhappy blows.” (Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit.  New York: Harper Colins, 1999. 358. Print.)