A Story of Long Ago

December 11th, 2013

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. —The Hobbit, Chapter One

The adventure and our hobbit lessons begin differently for each of us. My own began with a vacation trip I never wanted to take.

My two brothers were ecstatic. I was the opposite. Our family was going on a two-week camping expedition, a “tour,” my parents told us, of the state parks of northern Indiana. And I was going to be stuffed in the back of our Ford station wagon, crammed inside our pop-up camper, and bored to death around a series of cement picnic tables while everyone else was having the time of their lives. I was sure I had been kidnapped from my real family at birth—a family that actually liked staying home, a family that liked sleeping in their own beds instead of on leaky air mattresses.

Though I did not know it, I was about to embark on an unexpected journey that would take me far from the wilds of northern Indiana.

Labeled the thinker in our house, I had recently discovered that a good deal of life’s unpleasantness— family camping trips, family picnics, and other outdoor family events—could be mitigated if you had a strategy. My strategy usually involved bringing a book to read.

A big one.

We were to leave on our camping trip Sunday after church. Beginning on the blue-collar, south side of Chicago where we lived, the first leg of our odyssey would take us a full 90 minutes from home—plenty of time to get there, carefully pick out our little square from the dozens of other identical campsites, set up the trailer, pump up the Coleman stove, eat supper at the cement picnic table, and then basically sit outside until it was time to go to sleep.

The Saturday before our departure was the same as every other Saturday. Piano lessons for each boy (for me, another source of misery) followed by a trip to the public library. Back then you could only check out five books at a time. Five books for two weeks—they would need to be really big ones. I don’t remember what the fifth book was, but over the years the other four have played a major role in my life.

While the rest of my family was out nature-walking or paddle-boating, I sat at that cement picnic table by myself. Picture me opening a book with a strange title by an author with a strange name—neither of which I had ever heard of. I just grabbed the biggest, thickest books from the Science Fiction and Fantasy section I could find. The four books made up a series, and the first one began with an odd Introduction, one that made it sound like the story had really happened.

This is a story of long ago. At that time the language and letters were quite different from ours of today. English is used to represent the languages...

Was this one of those stories based on real events in history? I got out the second book. It also had a similar, real-sounding beginning:

Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today...

And so, not knowing that these kinds of openings are what is called the narrator’s stance, for about twenty minutes at that cement picnic table in northern Indiana, I thought hobbits were real (albeit little) people who had once walked the Earth, a sort of a lost tribe who, in some out of the way place, still might be around.

As I read on, I gradually realized that J. R. R. Tolkien had not based The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring on real events. I also realized that I had begun a great adventure and that life lessons could be found on almost every page—lessons about persevering, about friendship, and about what was and was not valuable in life.

I worked my way through both these books as well as The Two Towers and The Return of the King in the two weeks that followed. Without ever leaving our campsite, I travelled to the Shire, Rivendell, Mirkwood, Lonely Mountain, and back again.

While the adventure may begin differently for each of us, once it begins, we are quickly caught up, and like countless others before and since, become part of the amazing tale. During those two weeks, I met and walked with an amazing array of characters—the unforgettable cast of elves, dwarves, wizards, and hobbits that all of Tolkien’s readers meet. And I was taught the same lessons every reader learns.

It was not until years later (after I had become an English professor and thought more deeply about such things), that I came to see that while Tolkien’s stories were not historically real, they were true. True in the sense that what they say about life, real life, is accurate. And true in the sense that the lessons they communicate are not only valid, in our world as well as in Middle-earth, they are also extremely valuable.

J. R. R. Tolkien—who was raised on the parables of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the Lost Sheep—understood the power that stories have to convey truth. He knew firsthand the mysterious way that stories can get beneath our skin, sink in, and affect us in permanent ways. He knew how certain stories will accompany us through life, reminding us why we are here and what is really important.

As Bilbo Baggins journeys from the homey comforts of Bag End out into a larger world, we travel along with him. We see what he sees and feel what he feels. And in the end, we learn what he learns—the lessons we need for our own unexpected journey, the journey of life. Like Bilbo, we learn how to say yes to adventure despite our fears. We learn what it means to join together with friends on a mutual quest. We learn not to be overly fond of certain things even as we learn to see the priceless value of others. And finally, we learn to recognize our own place in the wide world and where it is that we truly belong.

The wisdom of J. R. R. Tolkien, which in this book I am calling Hobbit Lessons, comes in a form that is not only deeply moving but also great fun. In [my book] I invite you to set out on your own unexpected journey as we explore Tolkien’s timeless message for the hobbit in each of us. Along with Bilbo—who rushes off with no handkerchief in his pocket, the long contract from Thorin waving in his hand—we, too, can shout:

“I’m going on an adventure!”

from the Prologue to: Hobbit Lessons: A Map for Life's Unexpected Journeys by Devin Brown Copyright © 2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

See The Hobbit bin for more articles and resources written by Devin Brown.

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