There are those among us who would burgle a dragon.
If given the chance, they would live under a hill in a home with a round door where they would eat a second breakfast.
But there are no dragons, and round doors aren’t quite up to code. So all that’s left is second breakfast and a trip to the movies.
On Friday, actor Martin Freeman becomes The Hobbit in director Peter Jackson’s first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic published in 1937. When The Lord of the Rings mania swept the world after Tolkien’s trilogy made it to film, almost everyone knew the story of the short race of barefooted hobbits.
But hobbits and their fantastical counterparts are more than wall art and suitable costumes at comic cons for fans. Tolkien’s decades of writings are also discussed by academics, and a prominent place for that discussion is Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, published by West Virginia University Press. Currently edited by Michael D.C. Drout, Verlyn Flieger and David Bratman, it became the first refereed journal dedicated to Tolkien’s work when it began publication in 2004.
The logical question from the uninitiated is “why study Tolkien?”
When Britons voted Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the greatest work of the 20th century, some scholars seemed perplexed. It wasn’t normal drama. It didn’t appear high-brow. It was relegated to the back corner of the library where the true believers quibbled over whether they liked the wizard Gandalf better when he wore gray or white.
But Tolkien Studies unravels the mythic tales and pulls from the same kinds of meaning and truth that have been embedded in literature for millennia.
WVU emeritus professor of English Patrick Conner directed WVU Press when it began publishing the journal. He was in touch with one of the publication’s editors, Michael Drout, who thought it would build Tolkien’s reputation as a scholar.
“We also knew that a journal on Tolkien would sell to the popular market as well as the scholarly market,” Conner said.
WVU Chief of Staff
Tolkien fan since 11
Carrie Mullen, the current director of WVU Press, said the journal, while seemingly unrelated to WVU, represents the press’ commitment to publishing scholarly works. The press has a special obligation to cover West Virginia interests but it also must add to the world’s knowledge on scholarly topics.
Tolkien Studies, one of five journals WVU Press publishes, has garnered a global audience.
“I really appreciate that we see these reviews from all over the world,” Mullen said.
Reviews of the journal come from Spain, Italy, Russia, Germany, Finland, Norway, Argentina and the United Kingdom.
The fantasy genre goes beyond the journal at WVU. Assistant professor of English Piers Brown is teaching “Growing up in Other Worlds” next semester. It’s a course about how fantasy, often read while one is growing up, is pertinent to that coming of age.
“What is really interesting to me is that it is also literature about growing up: what it means to go out into the world beyond the confines of the Shire and in the process learn more about both the world and oneself,” Brown said. “In both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the stories are about seemingly childlike individuals the hobbits becoming something more than themselves.”
Where the road leads
Conner, a medievalist, has studied Tolkien’s connection with Beowulf. In fact Tolkien published one of the most influential essays on the topic.
“He challenges the prevalent notion held then that medieval stories filled with various unworldly events were, in fact, stories for the nursery,” Conner said. “He understood these stories to be studies in very real human feat and conflict.”
In a way, Tolkien was rescuing the discussion about the first epic written in the English language from being solely about the language it was written in.
“His detractors often cannot get past the machinery of little hobbit people and dragons and wizards, but I’m not sure that should be harder to get past than what much of modern literature demands of its readers,” Conner said. “It’s just that Tolkien’s machinery all too quickly is thought to have come from the nursery. It didn’t. It came from his study.”
Tolkien himself always defended fantasy and mythology as legitimate literature that wasn’t only for the nursery.
In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien (who died in 1973) wrote, ”?Fairy stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”
A quick scan of the essay titles in Tolkien Studies show that there are few things that are not related to Tolkien’s works. Scholars have touched on language, history, plants, science, religion, war and morality.
In the fourth installment of Tolkien Studies, published in 2007, Tolkien scholar Marjorie Burns paints a history of hobbits as they relate to our world of language and culture.
Though there are many Celtic or Old English words that sound like “hobbit,” Tolkien found a word, holbytla, that means hole-dweller, she wrote. It’s a real word that Tolkien uses in The Lord of the Rings.
In Tolkien Studies, the character Sam is compared to the English batman, an officer’s servant in World War I. Tolkien had served in the war and based Sam on the ideal of the hardy, loyal batman.
And other writings in the journal have discussed the relationship between medieval literature and Tolkien’s works; his treatment of Norse, Icelandic and Celtic mythology; his invention of languages that mirror ancient tongues; and how a period of English literature was birthed from Tolkien’s writing group “The Inklings.”
Where the heart is
Though scholars relate the writings to important topics, there are others who keep The Hobbit and its counterparts in the most important place of all: the heart.
Jamie Carbone, a graduate student in education at WVU, is going to the midnight showing of The Hobbit with his buddies.
“Before the first Lord of the Rings movie came out, my father said I couldn’t go to see it until I read the book,” Carbone said.
When he read that book, he didn’t really need a movie to experience it. He was captivated by the idea that our world, as portrayed in the books, had a magical past.
“The world he had created was great,” Carbone said. “I didn’t ever really want to leave it.”
Since that time he’s gathered books and glossaries to fill him in on the larger backdrop of Tolkien’s works. He has a Return of the King poster. He’s been to comic conventions, but not in costume. He says he doesn’t have the talent to make such intricate costumes. He even knows a girl who speaks Elvish.
“The main thing is just how the worlds are described,” he said of his interest in the books. “Before I saw the movies, I could describe what a hobbit looked like.”
“Reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings allowed me to live in two worlds, the so-called ‘real’ world and Middle-Earth, and I have always cherished the ability to escape into Middle-Earth just by picking up one of Tolkien’s books or watching one of Peter Jackson’s films.
“It is hard to express what The Hobbit means to me, but here is one indication: before I married my wife, I asked her to read it so she would be familiar with something that is so important to me. I was very happy and relieved when she read and enjoyed it.”
Tolkien Studies is available for sale at http://wvupressonline.com and will soon be offered electronically on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.
The full issues are available for viewing through the online database Project Muse, which can be accessed through the WVU Libraries by those with a WVU ID.
By Diana Mazzella
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