Celebrate Tolkien Reading Day

Megan Binkley, Opinions Editor

In the early 1930s, a fellow at Pembroke College was grading papers. He found a blank sheet of paper and, on impulse, he wrote the following sentence:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

What was a hobbit? The young man had absolutely no idea.

By the fall of 1932, this sentence had blossomed into one of the most influential works of contemporary fantasy literature the western world has ever produced. After completing The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien went on to develop a prodigious body of other works, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, and other non-Middle-earth stories as well.

Continued posthumous publication of other JRR tales by his son, Christopher Tolkien, added to the collective Tolkien universe and strengthened the cult following around these creations.

Aside from the spin-offs, movie adaptations, toys, and innumerable art pieces that arose from Tolkien’s mythology, a holiday sprang up as well. March 25 has also been named the official “Tolkien Reading Day.”

It’s not a widely celebrated holiday. In a culture that prioritizes productivity and industry, a fantasy tale about wild places and the beauty of green things slowly growing doesn’t necessarily stand out as a work full of pertinent life lessons. Wizards and elves, dragons and hobbits – these characters seem to have little relevance to our daily lives.

Yet as someone who’s spent most of their literate life enjoying Tolkien’s tales (especially The Hobbit), I think there’s a lot more to be taken away here that you might initially guess—even for people who normally shun all things fantastical.

First off, fantasy literature helps us understand the politics of our time and the real world in which we exist.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo—an unimposing every-man without any preparation for navigating the political and physical turmoil he’s thrown into—somehow still finds a way to maintain his character and (usually) his dignity in every situation. Tolkien makes this possible and plausible by giving Bilbo an unwavering moral compass. Again and again, our hobbit chooses friends over fortune, empathy over fear, and kindness over self-centeredness. In Bilbo (and by extension, in the Shire) Tolkien sketched humanity as he knew and hoped it could be: neither genius nor heroic, but good at heart, with an unflinching regard for the surrounding world that wears down even the greatest evils.

Secondly, fantasy literature lends the mundane a rosy glow. Never in my life have I appreciated earthenware pots as much as I do every time I finish reading about brunch at Beorn’s house. More than the pots, however, I fall in love over and over again with the simplicity of Beorn’s (and Bilbo’s) lifestyle.

I’m as guilty as the next person of accumulating ‘things’ like there’s no rent and no tomorrow—but no purchase has ever brought me nearly as much joy as that description of a simple wood hall with the windows flung wide, a summer breeze drifting in, and the essential minimum of foraged foods standing in rough earthen jars and on a wood table.

OK, so this image might be romanticizing rustic living a little, but in all seriousness, Beorn and the Shire make me wonder about the possibilities of eschewing consumerism.

Lastly, fantasy stories plant seeds about the possibilities that come from venturing outside of our comfort zones.
The entire story of The Hobbit is only possible because Bilbo blurts ‘yes’ to the strange old man who invites himself over for tea one summer morning.

Now, to be clear, I’m not encouraging you to invite strange men into your house. I don’t care what they say, they aren’t Gandalf, they haven’t come to take you on a magical quest, and your job will NOT take you back if you show up after a year-long absence with the excuse that you were retaking Erebor.

However, it’s my opinion that the core message here carries to potential to improve the lives of everyone, across the board. So often, we say no to unexpected opportunities —out of comfort, out of fear, out of a simple lack of imagination. But what if we started saying yes? Even the smallest changes can lead to unforeseen joys.

So go ahead and push yourself to take that new, more scenic route to work. Attend that martial arts class your friend has been trying to drag you along to for weeks. Explore a new local store or library; say yes when your child begs you for one last game of tag or hide-and-seek. These choices certainly won’t lead you to halls full of dwarvish gold, but they might just enrich your life in other ways that end up being infinitely more impactful.