In the company of Hobbits

I first encountered J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was eleven. It was the fall of 1974. I was in the hospital, and two women from the schoolboard brought me an open-reel tape recorder, which was the size of a small toaster-oven. It was barely six weeks since I had lost my sight in a car accident that summer.
I hadn’t been much of a reader before I lost my sight, but I became one afterwards. And reading The Hobbit was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Perhaps my brain was simply starved for stimulus in that hospital room, but I found myself fully entering bilbo’s world. I could see the Misty Mountains marching across the horizon, and I was haunted by the figure of Gollum, lurking beneath those mountains, down there in the dark, hissing and muttering as he worried over his Precious. A year later, I got hold of Lord of the Rings, and the world of Middle-Earth opened up for me in new and astonishing ways.
I’ve read the books now more times than I can remember. I’ve watched and rewatched the films—both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’ve visited Middle-Earth—at least Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth—and I’ve knocked on a hobbit door. I’ve stood beneath a tree in Rivendell, and I’ve even met a hobbit.

When I now teach The Hobbit in my children’s literature classes, I’m able to talk endlessly about Tolkien, about the writing of the books, and about Tolkien’s life in Oxford and his friendship with C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings. We talk about Bilbo as a burglar and all the creatures he encounters on his adventure—the trolls, the elves, Gollum, Beorn, the Wood Elves, the Lake men, and Smaug. We look at the structure of the book, and we explore the dragon sickness and what it means for the characters.
Visiting Oxford with my daughter in 2015 and seeing where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked was for me a kind of literary hero worship in which I don’t often indulge. My daughter and I found Tolkien’s house on Northmore Road; we then parked and visited the Kilns, where Lewis lived with his brother Warnie and Mrs. Moore. We took a walk in the small park attached to the Kilns, and as we circled the pond, I thought a little longingly and a little sadly about these writers who have shaped my life so fully. They are landmarks on the map of my reading life; they have helped form my friendships, and they’ve influenced both my writing and my reading. And each time I return to The Hobbit, part of me is swept back once again to when I first read the book and felt the wonder and poignancy of discovering that country for the first time.

From the Blog Archive, Visiting New Zealand

Our Edmonton summer is reminding me of a New Zealand winter, save for the longer evenings. Here are some highlights from my trip to New Zealand’s North Island with my daughter last year.

• We both love waterfalls, so we stopped to visit Hunua Falls, not far outside of Auckland.

• My daughter had the idea to visit some caves. I’ve never gone caving before, and going more than a hundred metres underground in the Ruakuri Caves near Waitomo was an amazing, if slightly unnerving experience.
These caves are limestone, and when they collapse, after a hundred thousand years or so, they create deep gorges, where it’s also fun to walk and crawl.

• And, of course, we had to visit Hobbiton—one more time, ending up at the Green Dragon Inn, which is a great way to end the tour of Peter Jackson’s Shire.

On Tolkien and Faerie

As J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit turns eighty this year, I’m going to be posting a number of pieces in celebration. Here is the second in the series.
I first read Tolkien’s The Hobbit at the age of eleven. Because I was a weird and obsessive kid, I read it over and over. In reading the book, I first learned how to read critically—for a twelve-year-old, at any rate. Here’s a passage I read over and over and never understood.
“Though their [the Wood Elves] magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West.”
(Tolkien, the Hobbit, “Flies and Spiders)
Two questions occurred to me, even then. What did Tolkien mean by Faerie? And why was it a place?
I went on to read Lord of the rings, but the questions only piled up. One thing was clear. Tolkien kept referring to places, people, and even gods that seemed part of a larger mythology—one that only Tolkien knew about. I felt a strange longing for these people and places only hinted at in these stories.
Years passed. I went to university and studied English, and I began to see how the books and authors I had read for years fit within a larger history of English literature. I never forgot Tolkien, but I reread the books less and less as I explored other authors. In part, I was looking to recreate the same overwhelming reading experience I had with Tolkien. I never found it—came close, had many and varied reading experiences, but never the same as reading Tolkien.
It’s important for you to understand my llife as a reader before the Internet came along and publishers began seeing the value in electronic texts. In those days, I read my books on tape—first on a giant reel-to-reel tape-recorder, then special cassette players that had a much higher capacity than regular players. I got my books in the mail, and I had to order them on the phone. I rarely had access to the books people were talking about—new books, anyway. I always had to wait to see if either the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) or RFB (Recordings for the Blind) was going to record the books I desperately wanted to read. This was another reason I read and reread the books I had. My mine of books was rich, but it was small. All the trouble with tapes that wouldn’t play, tape players that broke down, waiting and waiting for books—all this abruptly changed with the advent of digital recordings. Suddenly, I had a chance to explore Tolkien in a new way—one that I didn’t have before. Around this time, I also began teaching The Hobbit on a regular basis, which returned me to the old questions. And finally, I got some answers.
According to The Tolkien Gateway, the term Faerie only appears in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and not in LotR. Faerie is the land in the farthest West, the home of the Valar (the gods of Middle-Earth), and the place to which the elves return. In LotR and The Silmarillion, this place is Valinor. All this raises another question. Why did Tolkien use the term Faerie in The Hobbit?
The Hobbit was published in 1937. In 1938, Tolkien delivered the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. This lecture, later published as “On Faerie Stories,” is the basis for Tolkien’s understanding of Faerie and fantasy. Faerie, according to Tolkien, is the realm that lies on the borders of human consciousness and human understanding. It is the perilous realm, the place that contains and embodies Story, and it is both wonderful and dangerous:
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”
(Tolkien, “On Faerie Stories”)
If you want to understand Tolkien, then read “On Faerie Stories.” It’s a difficult essay but worth reading. In this essay, Tolkien offers his understanding of Faerie and faerie stories, and he provides a foundational approach to fantasy for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
If you find the essay heavy-going, don’t be discouraged. I’ve read this essay a dozen times, and each time I discover something new. If you want to see Tolkien exploring the realm of Faerie in fiction, read Smith of Wootton Major—an odd little story, but full of the power of the otherworld. Always remember, if you venture into that world, you do so at your own risk; the realm of Faerie will leave its mark, and you won’t be the same ever again.

100 and Still Posting

This entry marks the one hundredth post on my blog. It’s actually more than that, but I figured re-posting doesn’t count.
In the early summer of 2015, I had the idea for a blog on children’s literature. The teaching term was over, and I spent hours sitting at my kitchen table trying to figure out how to create a blog. Everything I read told me I needed to make it interesting, that I needed pictures, and that I had to find a niche.
I surfed the web for hours, looking at other blogs about kid’s books. Many of these were book review sites—interesting and informative, but not what I wanted to put my energy towards. I finally settled on a weird mix of commentary, personal reflection, and creative writing.
I was still faced with many questions:
1. How not to sound like a pompous ass,
2. How to write about things that interested me,
3. How to reach readers,
4. How to offer something original,
5. And how to make my blog both easy to read and appealing to the eye.
Of Other Worlds: A Children’s Literature Blog was born. My first entry was a personal account of discovering Tolkien at the age of eleven, after losing my sight in a car accident the summer before.
I quickly discovered that maintaining a blog was less easy than I thought. I tried writing something every week, but that was too hard. I tried writing about the books I loved, which worked better. I started writing and posting fractured fairy tales, which was fun, but again, hard to maintain. All of it was a learning experience—the writing, the site itself, and the hard-to-ignore, sometimes demoralizing conviction that nobody was even reading it.
Last summer, I created this author webpage, which meant that my blog was just now part of my site. Kid’s and young adult books are still a major part of my life and work, but the blog has expanded into something more. I’ve learned a great deal from creating and maintaining these sites, and I’ve gained a greater appreciation for anyone who reads what I write.
I’ll keep posting, and I hope people keep reading. You’ll still find stuff on kid’s and young adult books, but maybe you’ll occasionally find more to interest you. Either way, let me know.

What! No Women in The Hobbit?


My sister recently sent me a link to a talk by Patrick Rothfuss, the author of The King Killer Chronicle. He was speaking at a book event, and he commented on the need to halt the perpetuation of sexism in fantasy, and particularly on the conspicuous lack of women in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. You can watch his comments here:
Rothfuss is correct in suggesting fantasy as a genre has perpetuated female stereotypes. He’s also right about The Hobbit: the book lacks any active female characters. Belladonna Took—Bilbo’s mother—is the only named female character, while Kili and Fili’s mother only gets a mention, and the generic women of Lake-Town huddle with their children after the attack of the dragon.
I agree with Rothfuss’ point about fantasy, but I thought it a little odd that he offers his comments about Tolkien as though he’s revealing a well-kept secret. It’s possible that some people might have been misled by Peter Jackson’s introduction of two major female characters in his Hobbit trilogy, in which Galadriel, already familiar to fans of Lord of the Rings as the Elven Queen, proves herself a forbidding member of the White Council, and Tauriel, a feisty Elven warrior, has a smoldering attachment to Kili the dwarf. Given this pseudo-romance between an elf and a dwarf, perhaps it’s Peter Jackson we need to forgive, not Tolkien. Such a liaison would never, never—and I can’t stress this enough—never happen in Tolkien’s universe.
I’ve read Tolkien’s The Hobbit more times than I can count, and I’ve taught the book for well over a decade. I don’t remember when I first realized the book lacked any female characters. Maybe I always knew; it just took awhile to register.
However, it’s a point that gets made every time I teach the book—if not by me, then by a student, usually with a knowing shake of the head. My children’s literature courses are generally populated by female students, so I do feel I owe them an explanation, at least.
Tolkien, I tell them, was never a modern, neither as a writer nor as a man. He was a medieval at heart. He was also a medievalist, but that was his job. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, but I don’t think he ever truly entered the twentieth century. He hated the industrial transformation of the English landscape, and as an Oxford professor and philologist, he spoke openly against the modernist movement in literature. His definition of English literature, in fact, didn’t extend much beyond Chaucer. He was a devoted father and husband, something which sometimes baffled his friend C. S. Lewis, the nearly lifetime bachelor, Christian apologist, and author of the Narniad.
I don’t think Tolkien necessarily wrote to exclude women from his books, but I think he inherited an understanding of and an attitude towards women that came from an earlier time. His legendarium shows it. At the same time, Tolkien’s body of work includes important female characters, not the least of which is Luthien, the elf maiden  of the Tale of Beren and Luthien, who falls in love with Beren, and together they cut a silmaril, a precious  Elven gem, from the iron crown of Morgoth—the dark lord of Middle-Earth’s first age. Such women play a crucial role in Tolkien’s mythology, and patriarchal constructions of women aside, it’s still a woman, Eowyn, in Lord of the Rings,who kills the chief of the Nazgul by driving a sword into his face.
And yet, why are there no women in The Hobbit? I never have an entirely satisfactory answer. There just isn’t one.
Having said that, I always emphasize the role of Bilbo’s mother in his development as a burglar and adventurer whenever I teach the book. Bilbo’s yearning for adventure comes from his mother’s side, while his longing for food, fire, and a comfortable armchair comes from his father’s.
One of my favourite passages early in the book is Bilbo’s first recognition of this Tookish nature, just after the dwarves sing their song for the first time:
Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up – probably somebody lighting a wood-fire – and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again. (Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. New York: Harper Collins, 1999. 16.)
Tolkien may not have given us any women in The Hobbit, but he gave the twentieth century a new way of understanding fantasy, first with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937, and second with the delivery of his essay “On Faerie Stories.” Writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Robin McKinley, and J. K. Rowling—just to name three—took  that genre and populated it with female characters that Tolkien never could. Was Tolkien a sexist? I don’t think so. Would he have recognized the Oxford of the 1940s and 50s as a bastion of institutionalized sexism? I doubt it. Did he write to exclude women? I think he wrote an idea of women into his mythology that grew out of his understanding of medieval and chivalric romance. And to be fair, he wrote his male characters out of the same tradition. They are noble, strong, and sometimes flawed, but the hobbits are those characters who are most human and literally closest to the earth.
To bring it back to Patrick Rothfuss’ comments, does fantasy as a genre perpetuate gender stereotypes? It does—at least some of it does. I tend not to read such fantasy if I can help it. But I don’t think it’s a problem with the genre. I can think of any number of strong female characters I’ve encountered in my reading: Tenar from Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, Alana from Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet, Rowen from Thomas Wharton’s’ Perilous Realm series, Sonea from Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician series, and Katniss from Suzanne Collins The Hunger Gamesseries.
Do I wish that Tolkien had done something different? Not really. I recognize his portrayal of women for what it is, but I don’t hold it against him. Without him, I would have never discovered the power of fantasy in the first place, or come to love the genre and to follow it in all its multitudinous forms. By the way, I learned that word from Tolkien.

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.)