I just finished reading The Hobbit to my little boy. It’s fitting, I think – isn’t it? That his first real book, “A chapter book” as he calls it, would be that one. Oh sure we’ve read Dr. Seuss and Tomas the Tank Engine and all the others, but the moment finally arrived when he was at last able to sustain the story in his imagination, allow the anticipation to build, pick up each evening where we’d left off the previous night and follow it through until the end. “What’s gonna happen with the dragon, daddy?” he would ask often impatiently. “What will Bilbo do?”
Yes, it’s fitting – Tolkien himself wrote The Hobbit for his own little boy, only grudgingly publishing it later on. Tolkien was a private man and quiet. His life was not one of ostentation or glamour, seeking headlines, controversy a poor substitute for character – the vapid search for the empty acclaim of others. His life was spent instead in contemplation of the things that he loved; his rolling hills, his memories of the war, his study. Tolkien was a true conservative, the last conservative maybe – in the mythical sense, in the spiritual sense, a man who looked deep back into the past, into the vales and fjords and forests of antiquity wherein the stories of Britain were first etched. Runes chiseled upon rock; poetry and oral traditions, lore passed down by the druids, the wizards of a land which still held the old magic delicately in its consciousness. That’s where Tolkien was most at home, steeped in the ancient lost languages which few bother to learn anymore; the myths of the Celts, the Picts and the Vikings: legends from the Nordic regions, places cold and clean where that which is good is also beautiful and strong, fighting endless cyclical battles against an evil ugly and despotic and dark – all in places rugged and wild and old. Valhalla, Midgard and Asgard and Jotunheim – Lonely Mountain, Rivendell, Mirkwood. Even the ring – the one ring, which my little boy will learn more about in LOTR; Draupnir, Odin’s ring of power.
I miss Tolkien’s conservatism. It was a-political, but not valueless. In point of fact in his beautiful prose he entombed the fixed truths as he had found them, truths he wished to preserve for us: right and wrong, honor and betrayal, good and evil, beauty and horror. Elegance and charm, and struggle – principles which endure, inexhaustible and which in fact are more quickly replenished the more we draw from them. Where Bilbo’s great victory was not resulting from an act of valor, but of a goodness bordering on naiveite in a world which has lost its sense of shame. Elves abiding in a world that is already old, passing their torch to the generation of men without bitterness or the grasping greed of now, but with grace and dignity; understanding intuitively the ebbing and flowing of significance in a world that, while always changing, is also always the same.
Tolkien’s conservatism was deeply catholic; unchanging in its essence but nevertheless fused and fixed and built high and strong upon the successive experiences of man in our endless battles against the same recurrent evils; saints and apostles, martyrs and prophets and priests. It is said that his stories were also deeply religious, deeply Catholic. Though he denied that, he once did write about the ‘eucatastrophe’; “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears” which he likened to the Passion of Christ; a genre that is as ancient as Job and is at the core of his fantasies.
As we approached the end of the book, my little boy asked me, “But what happened to Thorin,” and I got to talk to him about decency and sacrifice. Yes, it was fitting that my little boy starts his literary life with this, of all the stories in the world. For it will serve as the first layer of mortar to cement him in his place in the great edifice of human goodness.
“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. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!”