Thursday, September 22, 2011

There and Back Again, my childhood adventures with Bilbo.

It's Tolkien Week this week, something I ought to mention. We usually observe Hobbit Day as well (September 22nd), a celebration of Bilbo's and Frodo's mutual birthdays, because you can never really have too many birthday parties in the Hobbit tradition.

While I was thinking about this, I stumbled across a little article about an interview with Maurice Sendak, who is most often recognized as the author of Where the Wild Things Are.

He has some interesting things to say, and I can't really disagree with him. He is talking about modern children's books being "too safe" and says:

"We remembered childhood as a very passionate, upsetting, silly, comic business..." Max, the wolf-suited star of Where the Wild Things Are, "was a little beast, and we're all little beasts."

"You mustn't scare parents. And I think with my books, I managed to scare parents," [earlier children's authors] "went by the rules that children should be safe and that we adults should be their guardians. I got out of that, and I was considered outlandish. So be it."

I remember very distinctly feeling some of what Sendak is referring to as a child while reading my first epic fantasy adventure. I am of course talking about The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. You are familiar with Hobbits, I hope. (editors note:  If not see last year's Hobbit Day post by KtC) This was my first look into the world Tolkien created and it was a grand tale about Bilbo the Hobbit, some dwarves, and occasionally a wizard (some guy named Gandalf you might have heard of) who are on a journey to recover treasure from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, they run into no shortage of trouble with goblins, wargs, spiders, and other threats. I believe I was 9 when I first read through the book (late at night, with a flashlight because I didn't want to put the book down). Besides Narnia, it was my first real adventure into a fantasy world and while it is much shorter and simpler than Lord of the Rings, it was by far the most detailed world I had read up to that time.

Tolkien, I think, understood this idea that children don't need to feel safe through the whole story. For some reason, I always felt safe in Narnia, but not so in The Hobbit. Bilbo of course, is not really a child, but I identified with him and I was seeing the story through his eyes. At one point the "father figure" of Gandalf along with Bilbo's traveling companions the dwarves are separated from Bilbo, leaving him completely alone... underground... in a Goblin cave... filled with Goblins. Bilbo then stumbles upon an even bigger threat in the form one of the most incredible literary characters, Gollum.

This scene stuck with me for years. I was already on a grand adventure, but somewhere in those pages, I realized that I wasn't safe. Bilbo was not and could not be protected and sheltered, but was ultimately on his own. He had to use his own wits and courage to go on, to escape from Gollum, from the Goblins, and everything else he would encounter on his journey. My journey too.

Sendak goes on to say: 
"But all my books end safely. I needed the security in my soul of bringing these children back... We want them to end up OK, and they do end up OK. Unlike grownup books."

Tolkien knew this too. Bilbo returns to the comfort of his home. Safe at the end of a long journey, having gone There and Back Again. I always liked the ending.

I have gone on to read many, many more books, but The Hobbit will always be one of my favorites. My oldest daughter is 6 now and a voracious and skilled reader, putting many older kids to shame. I expect in the next few years she will discover and read The Hobbit. I hope she doesn't feel safe, but instead has a grand, passionate, and fun adventure in Middle Earth.

I'll be waiting in Hobbiton when she gets back. Maybe we will have some birthday cake together to celebrate Bilbo and Frodo's birthdays.


  1. You've brought up so many internal struggles for me. At what age should I allow my child to experience that slight fear which can heighten the enjoyment in a book, but can also cause longer lasting anxiety (bad dreams)? More so than books, movies seem to cause a more intense fear, so maybe there are books that I could let my children read but refrain from showing them the movie. I have definitely been accused of being over-protective, but I had a horrible fear of sleeping after watching the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and I don't want the same fears (or similar fears) haunting my children. Parenting can be so tough...
    SC Relative

  2. First off, I don't actually enjoy the Horror genre at all, so I have never seen a lot of really gruesome movies.

    Second, don't be afraid to follow your parent's intuition. you won't harm your kids by keeping things from them until they are ready. There are a lot of things kids just don't have the context to comprehend.

    I am a strong believer that the visuals in movies and TV can be much more harmful then reading books. Kids who watch adult shows, even in proximity, "go play over there, I am watching this show" have a lot higher anxiety and fear issues. (I wish I had bookmarked that study).

    Introduce books and shows where the characters have adventures and have to make independent decisions, are not sheltered, but don't necessarily face extreme danger (though some danger makes it fun). Some kids literature does a good job of this I think. Some ideas: Where the Wild Things Are, Magic Treehouse, Miyazaki movies, Secret of Droon. For tweens, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, A series of unfortunate events.

  3. Orcrist - your forgot 39 Clues and How to Train Your Dragon (which has just about nothing in common with the movie)

  4. Okay. More specifically, I watched the 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland (Johnny Depp, among others) the other night, and was thinking that might be a good one to watch with my Ver2 (5 yrs old). You know, Alice is an awesome heroine figure, defeats the bad guy, and then, unlike all the "princess" movies, she walks away from the love interest and goes to live her life. How cool is that? but still, I wonder if she is old enough.
    SC Relative

  5. Just read it or watch it yourself first (like you did) and then trust your intuition. Make some guidelines for yourself that you judge all media by if you need to. What things can slide, what things can't.

    Having seen that movie, I would be okay with it. Ver1 also loves the Sarah Jane Adventures (which is basically Doctor Who for kids).

  6. Sorry, meant Ver1 (was typing too fast and doing too many things at once.)
    SC Relative


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