But apparently there is, as I got an email this morning notifying me that September 21, marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit, and tomorrow is Bilbo Baggins’s birthday, traditionally celebrated by Tolkien fans as “Hobbit Day.” While I won’t be donning any Hobbit gear, drinking any mead, or celebrating a Second Breakfast this weekend, this occasion does give me an excuse to wax philosophical on one of the reasons I think Tolkien’s fantasy world still has a hold on popular culture after all these years.
It all has to do with the sense of tradition that is missing in much of the modern western world. In Middle Earth there is a certain sense of solidarity that permeates everything. Yes, I realize there is also a full share of conflict between and amongst the races, but undergirding it all is a unified concept of what the world is all about. Whether you are a hobbit, man, elf or orc you hold certain things about your world to be true and certain things to be false.
This sense of belonging is something that is powerful in Tolkien’s, as as well as many other fantasy writer’s, worlds. Readers gravitate towards it because we crave that clear sense of right and wrong, of what is true and beautiful. We could use some of that certainty today in our lives.
Modern life (in the West at least) is a study in contradictions and opposites. Are you a conservative or a liberal? Straight or gay? Christian, Muslim, Jew or Atheist? Did you go to public school or private? Are you a Maker or a Taker? While we all inhabit the same space we seem to have such divergent views on the reality of life that we exist on separate planes. What is missing is a set of commonly held traditions.
Life in the West used to have a surer sense of itself, but the turmoil and innovation of the 20th century put an end to a lot of that. While we once celebrated the Western Cannon in schools we now push for diversity for diversity’ sake. Where we once had strong multi generational families we now have a record number of unwed mothers and broken homes. Religion used to be a foundational aspect of people’s lives (if not spiritually then at least culturally). Today we have the lowest numbers of church attendance we have ever had in America and Europe is seemingly a lost cause. And yet we as a people are hard pressed to want to give up our modern conveniences and lives to return to this simpler way of life.
In many ways we can not turn back the clock. But in our reading and viewing we can chose to culturally remember a time of greater foundational security. Perhaps it never really existed at all, but the fact that we crave it says something about the nature of what it means to be human, and writers like Tolkien knew how to connect with that. That is why, 75 years after its publication, people all around the world will be celebrating Hobbit Day.
I may just have a glass of mead after all.