January 15, 1967


The Prevalence of Hobbits


Hobbits adore tobacco and fireworks. So does Professor Tolkien, who first wrote "hobbit" 30 years ago on a dull exam paper he was correcting. At Headington, near Oxford United soccer ground, Tolkien has a study in his garage. Dark-topped tobacco tins are left like markers along his shelves; and there is a good view of the rockets if some college beanfest explodes them. "I run to the window," Tolkien confesses, "every time I hear a whoosh."

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was once kidnapped in South Africa and was, until 1959, Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. He has a square, big face and his coat and cardigan, both gray, are rumpled slightly; he talks rapidly, with his pipestem getting in the way. As well as hobbits-benevolent, furry-footed people, fond of bright colors-Tolkien has put into books a grizzly man who can change into a bear, a thieving, English-speaking dragon, dark horsemen in the sky who cast freezing shadows, and a dreadful war in which thousands of goblins perish. He has spilled them into a separate world called Middle-earth and dressed them with names, lineages and languages which he explains in a 104-page appendix. The explanation is sending Americans, especially students, half-mad with delight. One student's mother said: "To go to college without Tolkien is like going without sneakers."

There is a Tolkien Society of America and a Tolkien Journal. At meetings of the society it is usual to lie around eating fresh mushrooms, a favorite hobbit food, drinking cider and talking about family trees, which no hobbit can resist. One must remember to call wolves wargs, goblins orcs, treelike people ents and the sun She. A popular greeting is, "May the hair on your toes never grow less." Everyone wears a badge with a slogan naming a Tolkien character: Frodo the hobbit or Gandalf the wizard; and louder enthusiasts chalk them on walls, sometimes in three-foot-high letters, preferably at the 116th Street-Columbia University subway stop. Tolkien books sell in student cafeterias next to the cigarettes; they have been translated into nine languages including Japanese and Hebrew and are part of the degree course at Liege University. Their world sales are almost 3-million copies, but it is the Americans who are wildest about them. An unauthorized paperback edition sold well over a quarter of a million copies. In the fifties, World Science Fiction called Tolkien the best fantasy-writer of the year and gave him a model rocket. "It's upstairs somewhere," Tolkien thinks. "It has fins. Quite different from what was required, as it turns out."

Tolkien is famous for two works: "The Hobbit," which he began on that dull exam paper in the thirties, and his three-book saga, "The Lord of the Rings," which Tolkien typed two-fingered. It ran to over 1,200 pages and took him 14 years. "The Hobbit" told of Bilbo Baggins, who was press-ganged out of the Shire (the gentle, agreeable hobbit country) and into a venture to steal back treasure from a dragon, who was sleeping on it. But "The Lord of the Rings" was infinitely more grown up. In it, Bilbo's heir Frodo joined another expedition to break the grip of the Dark Lord of Mordor. This could be accomplished only by taking his ring accidentally picked up by Bilbo, and destroying it in the gloomy and dangerous land where it was forged, under the very eye of the Dark Lord.

The hobbits' long quest, wrote Edwin Muir in The Observer, "is a heroic conception. Tolkien's imagination rises to it though his style now and then fails him," a remark calculated to plant in innumerable minds a little of the savagery of Shelob, Tolkien's giant spider. Tolkien's style, an amalgam of Celtic bard and Fowler's "Modern English Usage," never ebbs. His people go deeper and deeper into situations from which paths stretch out of sight into ancestries and legends. Yet often they speak as if only mildly perplexed. In the midst of awful privation in "The Hobbit," Gandalf the wizard says, "This won't do." Besides, an author who can create and sustain and make us revere a race of people resembling trees could never be failed by his style. These are the ents, the oldest people in the world. Sometimes they resemble a conclave of professors, and the most brilliant touch of all is that they have a sense of humor to match their age and knowledge.

Tolkien says: "My stories seem to germinate like a snowflake around a piece of dust," but he is tired by his work on the sequel to "The Lord of the Rings," an even more sober story of a much-earlier Middle-earth called "The Silmarillion," in which there are no hobbits. People are constantly writing to Tolkien's publishers, George Allen and Unwin in London and Houghton Mifflin in Boston (often in the Elvish language Tolkien devised), to ask about the delay.

"Exhausting! God help us, yes. Most of the time I'm fighting against the natural inertia of the lazy human being. The same old university don who warned me about being useful around the house once said, 'It's not only interruptions, my boy; it's the fear of interruptions,'" (His wife, Edith Mary, isn't in good health and Tolkien does a lot of housework.)

Tolkien has a three-bedroom, rectory-looking house in the Oxford suburb of Headington, with a back garden fence he built himself. Cars parking near the soccer ground force him to keep the garage gates locked. The study in the garage is filled with books and the smell of distinguished dust. It also contains a new tin clock and a very, very old, buff-colored portmanteau. "Portmanteau?" (It is scarcely visible under some newspapers.) "Oh, that. It was given to me by my guardian, who was half-Spaniard. It isn't there for anything at all except that inside it are all the things I've been going to answer for so many years, I've forgotten what they are." Tacked onto Tolkien's window ledge is a map of Middle-earth, showing the routes of the two hobbit expeditions, and a list of Tolkien's engagements, written in blue-black ink. A powder horn hangs over the door.

Tolkien wasn't a hearty child. At the age of 3 he was brought home from Bloemfontein, South Africa, his birthplace, and brought up at Sarehole, near Birmingham. Until he won a scholarship to grammar school his mother taught him. He is particularly attached to the powder horn; it reminds him of being "borrowed" by an African named Isaac, who wanted to show a white baby off in his kraal. "It was typical native psychology but it upset everyone very much, of course. I know he called his son Isaac after himself, Mister Tolkien after my father and Victor-ha! ha!-after Queen Victoria."

"I was nearly bitten by a snake and I was stung by a tarantula, I believe. In my garden. All I can remember is a very hot day, long, dead grass and running. I don't even remember screaming. I remember being rather horrified at seeing the Archdeacon eat mealies [Indian corn] in the proper fashion." ...Tolkien stuck his fingers in his mouth.

"Quite by accident, I have a very vivid child's view, which was the result of being taken away from one country and put in another hemisphere-the place where I belonged but which was totally novel and strange. After the barren, arid heat a Christmas tree. But no, it was not an unhappy childhood. It was full of tragedies but it didn't tot up to an unhappy childhood."

Sarehole has long since been eaten by buildings, but it was rather beautiful then. Tolkien was a shy little boy but friendly with the village children and he knew an old lady without teeth, who ran a candy stall. He modeled his hobbits on the Sarehole people, which means they must have been gentle amblers, not really fond of adventures but very fond of their food. Tolkien himself likes plain meals and beer; "none of that cuisine mystique." Beer, cheese, butter and pastry; the occasional glass of Burgundy.

"Hobbits," Tolkien says, "have what you might call universal morals. I should say they are examples of natural philosophy and natural religion." They are certainly capable of extraordinary bravery and humaneness; living in burrows, their creator declares, doesn't amount to anything like an animal kink.

"People still love thatched houses; they pretend it's because they're cool in summer and warm in winter, and they'll even pay a bit of extra insurance. We found German trenches which were often very habitable indeed except that, when we reached them, they faced the wrong way about. And have you been to England's oldest pub, the Trip to Jerusalem? It is carved out of the solid rock of Nottingham Castle. I went to Nottingham once for a conference. I fear we went to the Trip to Jerusalem and let the conference get on with itself."

Hobbits aren't small; nor are any of Tolkien's people. He says warmly: "I don't like small creatures. Hobbits are three to four feet in height. You can see people walking around like that. If there was anything I detested it was all that Drayton stuff; hideous. All that hiding in cowslips, Shakespeare took it up because it was fashionable but it didn't invite his imagination at all. He produced some nice, funny names like Cobweb, Peaseblossom and so on; and some poetic stuff about Titania, but he never takes the slightest notice of her. She makes love to a donkey."

"The Hobbit" wasn't written for children, and it certainly wasn't done just for the amusement of Tolkien's three sons and one daughter, as is generally reported. "That's all sob stuff. No, of course, I didn't. If you're a youngish man and you don't want to be made fun of, you say you're writing for children. At any rate, children are your immediate audience and you write or tell them stories, for which they are mildly grateful: long rambling stories at bedtime.

"'The Hobbit' was written in what I should now regard as bad style, as if one were talking to children. There's nothing my children loathed more. They taught me a lesson. Anything that in any way marked out 'The Hobbit' as for children instead of just for people, they disliked-instinctively. I did too, now that I think about it. All this 'I won't tell you any more, you think about it' stuff. Oh no, they loathe it; it's awful.

"Children aren't a class. They are merely human beings at different stages of maturity. All of them have a human intelligence which even at its lowest is a pretty wonderful thing, and the entire world in front of them. It remains to be seen if they rise above that." Tolkien has a grandson who is becoming a demon chess-player. The sound of children skylarking in the road doesn't disturb him, but he dislikes it when they fight or hurt themselves.

Tolkien says his mother gave him his love of philology and romance; and his first stories were gathering in his mind when he was an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford. When war came, however, he didn't write in the trenches as some chroniclers insist. "That's all spoof. You might scribble something on the back of an envelope and shove it in your back pocket, but that's all. You couldn't write. This [his study] would be an enormous dugout. You'd be crouching down among the flies and filth."

His close friend, the late C. S. Lewis ("a very busy official and teacher" to whom Tolkien test-read a great deal), wrote once that the darker side of "The Lord of the Rings" was very much like the First World War. He gave examples: the sinister quiet of a battlefront when everything is prepared; the quick and vivid friendships of the hobbit journeys and the unexpected delight when they find a cache of tobacco. No, Tolkien says; there is no parallel between the hundreds of thousands of goblins in their beaked helmets and the gray masses of Germans in their spiked ones. Goblins die in their thousands. This, he agrees, makes them seem like an enemy in a war of trenches. "But as I say somewhere, even the goblins weren't evil to begin with. They were corrupted. I've never had those sort of feelings about the Germans. I'm very anti that kind of thing."

Students produce lots of allegories. They suggest that the Dark Lord's ring represents the Bomb, and the goblins, the Russians. Or, more cheekily, that Treebeard, the tall treelike being, "his eyes filled with age and long, slow, steady thinking," is Tolkien himself. In a rather portly note to his publishers, he replied: "It is not about anything but itself." (Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular or topical, moral, religious or political.) But he will agree that the Shire, the agreeable hobbit country, is like the West Midlands he remembers: "It provides a fairly goof living with moderately good husbandry and is tucked away from all the centers of disturbance; it comes to be regarded as divinely protected, though people there didn't realize it at the time. That's rather how England used to be, isn't it?"

Except for five years at Leeds University, where he was Professor of English Language from 1924 to 1929, Tolkien spent the rest of his life in Oxford. He write his earliest stories and verse there, and was often seen riding a rather old bicycle. Another don was mildly surprised one day, after Tolkien began to receive royalties from his books, to see him in a Daimler. Nowadays, a hired car sometimes goes shopping for him. He gets up at 8:30 in the morning and goes to bed at 2 A.M. How does he spend his days? Tolkien has a small, exploding laugh. "Working like hell. A pen is to me as a beak is to a hen."

He says he's no storyteller, but all the same, Tolkien would rather enjoy making a recording of his work, doing all the different voices; rustic ones for the hobbits and a horrid, high, hissing one for Gollum, the creature who slithers after them, trying to win back the Dark Lord's ring for himself. The B.B.C. has dramatized Tolkien with a cast including Tom Forrest of "The Archers." Tolkien says: "I've a very strong visual imagination, but it's not so strong in other points. I doubt if many authors visualize very closely faces and voices. If you write a long story like 'The Lord of the Rings,' you've got to write it twice over and you end up writing it backwards, of course. People will occur. One waits to see what's coming next. I knew there was going to be some trouble with treelike creatures at one point or another."

"A lot of the criticism of the verses shows a complete failure to understand the fact that they are all dramatic verses: they were conceived as the kind of things people would say under the circumstances." Tolkien's books run with poetry; tinkling poems, harsh and gloomy ones, they can be extremely affable or extremely primitive. Donald Swann has put six of them to music (he says "The Lord of the Rings" got into his blood and he now reads it every spring). One of the songs is actually sung in Elvish. Tolkien sent instructions to the singer on how to sound the words, stressing that he must roll his r's.

Swann first presented the songs to Tolkien at a private party last March in Merton College to celebrate his golden wedding. Afterwards, Tolkien bowed and said, "The words are unworthy of the music."

If it had been left to him, he would have written all his books in Elvish. "The invention of language is the foundation," he says. "The stories were made rather to provide a world for the language rather than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. But, of course, such a work as 'The Lord of the Rings' has been edited and only as much language has been left in as I thought would be stomached by the readers. I now find that many would have liked much more." In America, especially, Tolkien words are creeping into everyday usage; for example, mathom, meaning an article one saves but doesn't use. A senior girl at the Bronx High School of Science says: "I wrote my notes in Elvish. Even now, I doodle in Elvish. It's my means of expression."

What does Tolkien think of that? Does he like Americans? "I don't like anyone very much in that sense. I'm against generalizations." One persists. Does he like Americans? "Art moves them and they don't know what they've been moved by and they get quite drunk on it," Tolkien says. "Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I am not."

"But they do use this sometimes as a means against some abomination. There was one campus, I forget which, where the council of the university pulled down a very pleasant little grove of trees to make way for what they called a 'Culture Center' out of some sort of concrete blocks. The students were outraged. They wrote 'another bit of Mordor' on it."

England has not such a spreading, reveling Tolkien cult. There are middle-aged graduates who were transfixed (as the poet, W.H. Auden, was) by the beautiful way the professor could read from a dusty work like "Beowulf," and there are the smart children interested by slightly difficult styles. In England, Tolkien is a leisurely word-of-mouth craze.

But, at the Berkeley campus bookstore Fred Cody, the manager, said: "This is more than a campus craze; it's like a drug dream." In the U.S. hobbits have quite replaced Salinger and Golding as "in" reading. Tolkien seems to promote a mild kind of intellectual hooliganism. But his supporters argue (overwhelmingly) that, on the contrary, it does everyone good to stay in the Tolkien world, where things are still green; there is hope for people and pleasantness. At Ballantine Books, the paperback company which publishes Tolkien at $1.50 per copy, an editor thought that "young people today are interested in power and they are interesting in working out the conflict of good and evil. Here it is worked out for them."

If that sounds overly simple and sententious, consider the point C. S. Lewis once made, asking why Tolkien should have chosen to point morals in such extravagant fantasy:

"Because, I take it... the real life of men is of that mystical and heroic quality... The imagined beings have their inside on the outside; they are visible souls. And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the Universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale?"

That is one quality with a powerful appeal to students. There is another. Tolkien's writings allow thousands into the finest and most select kind of college tutorial; they demand that attention be paid. J. I. M. Stewart, another Oxford don storyteller-he writes detective stories as Michael Innes-puts the thing perfectly in his memory of Tolkien as an orator. "He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting listening guests."

Philip Norman is on the staff of The Sunday Times, London.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company