"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit..." is what an Oxford professor once absentmindedly scribbled on an exam book. He followed that line, which led him into his first book, a mere children's tale.
When that professor, J.R.R. Tolkien, published The Hobbit on September 21, 1937—75 years ago last Friday—he had no idea it would spawn a much larger creation or tap into our latent cultural need for fantasy.
Remember, only a few generation ago, the notion of tales of elves, magics swords and quests as best-selling books—let alone movie or game franchises—would have been ludicrous. Sure, some version of fairy, horror and science fiction has been around for eons. But not until Tolkien mapped out his "legendarium," as he called it, later expanded in The Lord of the Rings and other tales, did the modern fantasy genre erupt.
We would not have Dungeons & Dragons, or video games, or Hogwarts, had Tolkien not written his tale of reluctant hobbits and treasure-hoarding dragons. No Game of Thrones or World of Warcraft, either. Even rock and roll would have suffered, for Led Zeppelin would not have entranced droves of fans to follow them "over the hills and far away" to some romanticized other-world "when magic filled the air," were it not for Tolkien's literary trailblazing some three score and 15 years ago.
By blending heroic derring-do with good versus evil world-ending conflicts, Tolkien unintentionally sent shockwaves into the future, touching not only the dreamers, but paving the way for other immersive, and lucrative, world-girding entertainments.
You might say Tolkien was the original nerd. He obsessed about his made-up Elvish tongues and Dwarvish runes as much as his academic speciality, philology (the history of languages such as Anglo-Saxon). Tirelessly geeking-out in his high fantasy world, Middle-earth, he populated his kingdom with peoples, geographies, annals, poems, legends and appendices. Never before had anyone proposed a more intricately crafted, believable mythos, with perhaps the exception of the Bible. (Which, most believe, was authored by more than one person or being.)
As an artist, Tolkien took enormous imaginative risks, slaving over a literary-imaginative enterprise that lasted decades. He created world no one knew existed, and Tolkien feared, about which no one would give a damn.
And yet people did. His fans — what once regrettably called "my deplorable cultus" — pestered him for details about this second life he had created. Tolkien had struck a chord.
Seventy-five years hence, anticipation for the first "The Hobbit" movie this December proves that the fantasy he conjured remains so powerful, even necessary, today. How much we want to live in these alternate realms. Now we're seeing every kind of entertainment girdled by one idea, one concept, one premise to rule them all: the hero narrative that Tolkien helped revive for the 20th century.
The ingredients: A story set in a world like ours, but magically-infused, and medieval-themed. You will find humans there, but also non-humans — plus monsters and other baddies. The something awful and evil must be stopped. The world's fate must hang in the balance. Enter the lowly hobbit, unsure of his own prowess, to act out fantasies of empowerment. And by association, we readers/viewers/players feel empowered, too.
As our world collides with progress and technology, we feel that pull toward things unexplained by electron microscopes and satellites — trolls, orcs and magic rings. Science ruined everything. The robots are going to take over the world.
But because Middle-earth is agrarian, and pre-industrial, the conflicts set there feel more manageable. It is place where average folk — Bilbo Baggins — can get things done. Tolkien, shaken by his own disastrous experiences in World War I, suggested a revised history where, as writer David Brin puts it, there is "a role for individual champions." Middle-earth, being nostalgic and uncomplicated, offers a clear code of moral and ethical conduct. You do the right thing.
Planet Earth pales by comparison. It is too big, dense and nasty and beset with intractable problems, and run by hidden forces. We can't make an impact. America seems less upwardly mobile than ever. Our lands are also too small, and small-minded, and too easily traversed. They are painfully unambitious, offering few crusades that feel quest-worthy. In place of clan skirmishes and castle sieges, Red Sox fight pin stripes and Red states battle Blue. Inconsequential and dispiriting. None of us gets to save the day. Save for retirement, maybe — if we're lucky.
We need Gandalf and Thorin and Gollum. And we need sequels and franchises, because we don't want these bedtime stories to end. Which explains why Jackson's "Hobbit" movie one-two punch was recently extended to three.
Bilbo is us. He is reluctant, but desires adventure. He finds his courage, and cunning, along Tolkien's road that "goes ever on and on." A short, measly hobbit finds his inner heroic mojo. He swings his sword Sting. He steals treasure from under a dragon's nose.
If Bilbo can do it, why not you?
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms." Reach him at www.ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.