The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to Childhood and Back Again

This week I finally got to see The Hobbit, a movie which rekindled a childhood memory of reading my first fantasy novel, and reignited my memory of the Lord of the Rings movie that came out a decade ago. There were a couple of themes in the movie that really resonated with me at this time in my life and echoed the feelings I had when I first read the book.

1. Mythic Geography

The Native Americans often used the North as their direction of mystey and danger in many of their myths, such as the Navajo myth “Where the Two Came to their Father” recounted by Joseph Campbell. The reason for this is because the North is the direction where the sun often “hides” in the wintertime and for that reason the North gained a special significance as the source of the Father Sun in the myth mentioned above.

In the Hobbit, I think Tolkien is tapping into an almost racial memory in England of the West as the direction of home and familiar surroundings, whereas the East is considered to be a land of mystery and danger because of the many invasions that came from that direction throughout the course of its history. You can see that mythic geography concretely in the following map of Middle Earth from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

Notice how the Shire, the home of the Hobbits is towards the West of Middle Earth, whereas Mordor, the dangerous kingdom of Sauron, is towards the East.

As an interesting sidelight, Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University in his lectures on the Middle East notes that in the Muslim world south of the Mediterranean, as opposed to the Christian world north of the Mediterranean, the cultural significance of the terms East and West are precisely reversed, namely the East is the land of the strange and unknown in Europe, whereas the West is the land of the strange and unknown in the Islamic World.   See my following post for more details:

When I saw the movie, I could tell that the same mythic geography was in play that was in the movie, because the party of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf whom Bilbo Baggins joins get into more trouble and danger the farther they go towards the East.

2. The Call To Adventure

When my Dad was younger, he travelled from his home town of St. Louis to Chicago to become a newspaper reporter, and then he went to Miami, Florida, then Washington, D.C., and then over to Germany at the time of the Korean War. Afterwards, he returned to Chicago where he met my mother and started to raise a family. He wanted to get a Master’s Degree in Economics, and study over in the London School of Economics, but frankly I stopped him. How? I was born, that’s how. When the second child came around, my Mother and Father realized that they could not afford to move to England, but decided to temper my father’s ambitions by having him enter the University of Chicago instead. As I learned this family history as I grew older, I felt a little guilty at having been the cause of the diminution of my father’s ambitions.

But later in life, I found that as I myself went over to Germany after my undergraduate years, and then worked in Japan for over five years after graduate school, that my own adventures were paralleling my Dad’s travels in the world earlier in his life. And one year when I visited my father at Christmastime from where I was living in Tokyo, he said that hearing the tales of my adventures in Japan rekindled his own memories of the adventures he had living overseas when he was younger. So rather than seeing myself as the cause of the end of my father’s adventures, I realized that in a certain way, I was the means for him continuing to adventure vicariously through the tales of my own travels. I was struck by the fact that Bilbo Baggins’ adventures ended up being the source of his nephew Frodo’s own ambitions to travel and recalled how my Dad and I have been an inspiration for the other at points of our lives to explore and be interested in the wide world beyond the borders of our little Shire (Chicago).

3. The Unexpected Adulthood

As a youngster reading the Hobbit, a half-size person joining the adventures of dwarves, men and others even larger than life such as wizards, I felt very much like Bilbo Baggins did, as I imagined my impending entry into adulthood, that I too was going on an adventure where I would be so much out of my own depth. When Bilbo Baggins became the unlikely companion and helper of someone as great as the dwarven warrior Thorin Oakenshield, I empathized with him and thought that I too could join the world of adults and somehow find my place among them. When I saw the movie, however, almost 45 years after reading the book, I realized that this time I empathized with Thorin Oakenshield a lot more because I too found myself in life struggling with the role of being a leader. In the scene in the movie where Thorin Oakenshield gave a hug of gratitude to Bilbo Baggins for rashly rushing in and saving his life towards the end of the movie, it gave me a strange feeling like I was embracing my much younger self from years ago.

4. Reaching beyond the Comfort Zone

Towards the end, Bilbo Baggins expressed to the dwarves why he ended up staying with them on their journey despite his desire to return home when the adventure got to be a lot more dangerous than he bargained for. He helped the dwarves because frankly, they had no home and were on a quest to recover theirs, and his sympathy for them moved him to go on the adventure with them. This resonated with me because I too wanted to stay within my own familiar boundaries of the job I used to have, but when a company layoff made me have to an “unexpected journey” of my own to find a new job and eventually a new career, I found that the thing that kept me going and helping others was the fact that they too had no job and my volunteer work helping them lent some meaning and purpose to the adventure I was on.

5. The Endarkenment

At the time when the Hobbit takes place in Middle Earth, the land is being overtaken by an evil presence, and there are many Hobbits who are oblivious to the danger. Only those with contacts with the outside world, like Bilbo Baggins has with Gandalf, see the magnitude of the danger. But knowing the truth about the extent of the endarkenment (the opposite of the enlightenment) of the land, that it indeed affects everyone, is the first step in banding with others to try to stop it. If you think it is only happening over there, your instinct is to try to wall yourself off from it, hunker down, and ignore the suffering of those who are facing it somewhere else. There is a tendency to think of the Gandalf tries to get Thorin Oakenshield to stop thinking of the elves as the enemies of the dwarves, by making him realize that their true enemy, the dragon Smaug which has overtaken his home in the Misty Mountains, can only be defeated by cooperation with the elves. In a similar way, when the economic catastrophe facing the nation seem to effect everybody, the tendency I feel is not to be more selfish and fight for my own survival alone, but rather to have even more compassion for those less off than myself. Why? Because I know than all of us have been affected by the economic downturn, and the same attitude of neighbor helping neighbor that helped my father’s generation weather the economic storm of the Great Depression will help our generation weather the storm we are facing now.


Because of the themes mentioned above, I could relate the Hobbit to my life now that I would have thought possible for the dramatization of a so-called children’s book. The Lord of the Rings came out right after the tragedy of 9/11 and its tale of adventure and heroism was a great bolster of my own courage in those days, and now a decade later the prequel of that great trilogy is bolstering my courage even now to see my experience trying to stay afloat not as a grim tale of survival, but rather as a call to adventure that echoes the naïve optimism of my boyhood when I first read The Hobbit.

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