It’s a cliche to say that Tolkien’s works — from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to his lesser-known creations like The Silmarillion — have “meaning.”
They’re not simple, escapist fairy tales of elves and hobbits who traipse about a magical kingdom. Tolkien infused his world, Middle-earth, and his characters with deep themes and ideas and darkness.
The plots of his stories reflected his own misgivings about the human race — about the losses inflicted upon us by industrialism, and about the uses and abuses of power. His writings also celebrated why Tolkien felt life was worth living — fellowship, sacrifice, and love; fighting the good fight and respecting the trees; and enjoying a good ale, meal and pipe weed after a long day battling orcs and goblins, or the weeds in your garden.
Noble Smith’s book The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life (Thomas Dunne Books, 224 pp., $22.99), released today (October 30), is a definitive guide to Tolkien’s worldview. Luckily, this book is no dry academic treatise. Rather, Smith takes us by the hand to show how Tolkien and his characters have much to teach us about how to be a good human (or hobbit), not on Middle-earth, but on Planet Earth.
In chapters with titles such as “Eat Like A Brandybuck, Drink Like A Took,” “Walk Like a Hobbit” and “Dwarves, Dragons and the Sackville-Bagginses,” Smith plumbs the hearty and hopeful territory of the soul. He shows us how the choices of Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Aragorn and Théoden — and even the actions of troubled and challenged characters such as Denethor and Lotho Sackville-Baggins — reveal lessons for us all.
“Éowyn is Amelia Earhart, or Jane Goodall, or Lynn Hill,” Smith writes in a chapter called “Dealing with ‘The Big People.'” “She’s any woman who flies in the face of a world dominated by men.” In “The Lore of the Ents,” Smith warns about our impending environmental doom: “If we don’t change our ways, our trees might finally get fed up and come after us like an army of enraged Ents.” To combat the problem of the corporate entertainment industry, where companies “track your likes and dislikes” and “what you buy and how often,” he proposes a simple solution: “Start making your own music.”
I suspect Smith would say the same thing about stories: If Hollywood lets you down, write or shoot your own tales that speak to you.
Everywhere you look in The Wisdom of the Shire, there’s a wise word or clever connection between Tolkien’s fantasy myth and the real world.
There’s even a recipe for “Hobbit Stout and Mushroom Soup,” and directions for creating your own “Hobbit Garden.” (Personally, I was hoping for a definitive lembas recipe. I have a good one I’ve been tweaking over the years, and wanted to go toe-to-toe with Smith in the kitchen. Maybe for the paperback?)
Noble Smith is an award-winning playwright who has worked as a documentary film executive producer, video game writer and media director for an international human rights organization. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and children. He blogs about all things Tolkien at www.shirewisdom.com. Follow him on Twitter @shirewisdom.
I had the chance to ask Smith some questions about The Wisdom of the Shire, how Tolkien helped him raise his kids, and what he’s most looking forward to — or fearing — in the forthcoming Hobbit movies. [We had so much fun geeking out about Tolkien, our conversation got a little out of hand. So I’ve decided to break it into two parts. Here’s Part 1. Look for Part 2 tomorrow.]
Gilsdorf: I get this joke all the time about my name, Ethan Gilsdorf, that it sounds a lot like a Tolkien character. Same with “Noble” — you, too, could be a character from Middle-earth. Although I think you need to come up with a better last name, like “Smithbuck” or “Smithfeet” or something. Where did “Noble” come from?
Smith: Yeah! What did you call yourself when you were LARPing? Ethor? When I was playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school one of my characters was Elbon the Paladin (Elbon is Noble backwards!). I was named after my great-grandfather Noble Mason who, coincidentally, was born and died the exact same years as J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). My grandpa Noble got his eye shot out by an arrow when he was a boy (playing the 19th century hardcore equivalent of a re-enactment game). But losing his eye saved him from the meat-grinder of World War I where he lost a great number of his friends (just like Tolkien did). My grandpa Noble used to let me hold his glass eye — which I thought was very cool!
Gilsdorf: Tell us why you wrote The Wisdom of the Shire (other than to cash in on Hobbit-Mania 2012, of course. I’m joking…)
Smith: Maximize Hobbit Trilogy exposure! Yes! Actually, one of my favorite quotes from The Hobbit is, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” That’s Thorin on his deathbed talking to Bilbo, and it’s one of the themes running throughout my book.
I came up with the idea for The Wisdom of the Shire almost thirty years ago when I was reading The Tao of Pooh. I thought, “Somebody should do this for Middle-earth and call it The Tao of Hobbits.” Flash forward to a year ago: I had just finished the second day of a grueling ten-hour-long interview at Microsoft Studios (for a narrative designer job) and I was fighting my way through hellish traffic on I-5, feeling really depressed. I asked myself, “Do I really want to give my creative soul to Microsquish? My life energy?” The answer was a resounding “No.” I wondered out loud (like one of those crazy people who talks to themselves in the car) “What made you want to become a writer in the first place, Noble? What’s guided you your entire life, you dumbass?” And it hit me like a Terry Gilliam cartoon of God parting the clouds, speaking to Arthur in The Holy Grail: “It was Tolkien, you fool! Seek ye the answers to life’s questions from the folk of the Shire.” Two weeks later I’d written the proposal for The Wisdom of the Shire. A month later my agent, Adam “Aragorn” Chromy, had sold it at auction in New York.
Gilsdorf: When were you first exposed to Tolkien and what drew you in?
Smith: I read The Lord of the Rings before The Hobbit. I was twelve years old, feeling incredibly isolated when I checked the book out from the school library. We’d moved to a new town. I didn’t have any friends. I was the painfully short and skinny kid with the metaphorical sign on his back that said, “Punch me hard!” I found solace in video game arcades and Star Wars.
When I started reading The Fellowship of the Ring I felt like I’d dropped into a portal into Middle-earth. I had never been so absorbed in a book. I loved being in the Shire and learning all the details about the Hobbits. I would read the book with an unlit pipe in my mouth — a crusty old thing I’d bought at The Salvation Army. Anyway, when Gandalf “died” in the Mines of Moria I started crying like a lunatic. I became physically ill and threw the book across the room. I was so angry at Tolkien. How could he kill my beloved Gandalf?! I distinctly remember reading the next couple of chapters through a veil of tears.
When Gandalf returned in The Two Towers as Gandalf the White, I felt a visceral thrill rush through my body. I got goosebumps. Chills! I started laughing maniacally! I thought, “Oh that J.R.R. Tolkien! You sneak! You got me!” It was then I realized the power a book had to create powerful emotions in the reader. The true magic of the written word. I decided at that moment I wanted to be a writer and I never looked back.
Gilsdorf: How many times have you read Tolkien? How often do you typically re-read the books?
Smith: I have read The Lord of the Rings probably twenty times since I was twelve (Christopher Lee — Saruman from Peter Jackson’s films — has read it every single year for his entire adult life.) I’ve read The Hobbit ten or so times. I read all of The Lord of the Rings out loud — complete with bad British accents — to my wife when we were in college (yes, we were that super-geeky). I don’t just sit around reading Tolkien, though. He was my “gateway drug” to literature. By the time I’d graduated from high school I was deep into the likes of Dostoyevski, Cervantes and Shakespeare. In my thirties I was in the grips of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. But I always come back to Tolkien in times of crisis. It’s like comfort food, you know?
Gilsdorf: Here at GeekDad, we’re particularly focused on raising geek generation 2.0. I know you have kids. Can you talk a little about the teaching moments in Tolkien’s works? How did Tolkien help you raise your own kids?
Smith: I was a full-time no-nanny stay-at-home dad for over three years (starting when my son was two and a half). It was the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life. But it was filled with intense joy. Spending so much time with my son gave me a unique perspective that most men never have. Even though we were living in Seattle at the time, I tried to get my son outside as much as possible. We spent our days in Discovery Park (a vast wooded place near our house) making fairy houses or exploring. We went to the zoo and aquarium at least a couple of times a week. We read hundreds of books. We made up our own games and stories. And we built tons of Lego! I’ve read The Hobbit out loud to my son twice.
Recently we started in on The Lord of the Rings (he’s eight now and is no longer terrified by the idea of Ringwraiths). When we got to the part where Frodo departs the Shire on his quest to destroy the Ring, my son said to me, “Dad, The Hobbit was about a guy who goes on a journey because he wants an adventure, but The Lord of the Rings is about this guy who is on a quest to save other people.” That’s a pretty wise analysis for an eight-year-old. By the way, we got rid of our TV when my son was born. We’re not total Luddites. He watches movies on the computer. But I think TV rots kids’ brains with all of the commercials. My son is one of the most creative people I know. He’s penning his own epic about Vikings, which I’m sure Tolkien the Beowulf scholar would have loved.
Tolkien essentially wrote The Hobbit for his kids. And during WWII he would type up copies of chapters of The Return of the King and send them to his son Christopher who was serving in the RAF in Africa. (Can you imagine going off on a dangerous mission and wondering if you’d live to find out what happened to Sam and Frodo in Mordor? That’s a cliffhanger.) Christopher Tolkien still works on the typewriter his father used to type out the entire manuscript for The Lord of the Rings.
So tell stories to your kids. That’s the lesson here in a nutshell! The truth is, I couldn’t have written The Wisdom of the Shire if I hadn’t been a parent. I just didn’t really understand myself (and my place in the world) until I had a son, and then, years later, a daughter.
Gilsdorf: You touch on a lot of ideas in The Wisdom of the Shire: how to make your own Hobbit hole (literal or metaphorical, how to make “roots” from which you draw strength); the necessity of getting enough sleep; the purpose of adventure and bravery; why walking and making your own music are important; why giving rather than receiving gifts on your birthday might be a better idea; how to rid yourself of a Ring of Power (or Doom) that might be consuming you. Was it hard to decide which themes and ideas in Tolkien’s work lent themselves to digestible lessons for your book?
Smith: It really wasn’t hard to figure out these different chapters. I had an amazing editor — a guy named Peter Joseph at Thomas Dunne Books — who bought the book because he loved the ideas behind it. A real Tolkien fan. I actually had to cut some ideas (which will hopefully make it into the paperback as bonus chapters). I feel like I could write an entire book just about the raising of kids using Tolkien’s books as a guide. I’d call it “The Children of the Shire” or something. Does that sound too much like The Children of the Corn?
Thus ends Part 1 of this Q&A. Tune in tomorrow for Part 2.