ETSU English professor discusses Tolkien's impact on literature and popular culture
Dec 12, 2012 at 9:52 PM
Phyllis Thompson first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s quintessential fantasy novel “The Hobbit,” or “There and Back Again” when she was a child while sitting under a giant tree in the her yard.
“What I loved about it then is really the same thing that keeps me coming back to children’s literature now, and that’s the journey. It was about a journey and it was very much about safe places and danger zones and very much about a battle between good and evil. It’s very much a story about finding one’s identity, finding out who one really is and growing up,” she said.
“The Hobbit” was published in 1937. It’s the precursor to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and tells the story of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who goes on a grand adventure involving dwarves, goblins, wizards, a magic ring and a dragon called Smaug.
On Friday, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will be released in theaters. It’s the first installment in a new trilogy of Peter Jackson-directed films, chronicling Tolkien’s rich world of Middle-earth.
Thompson, director of Women’s Studies and associate professor of English at East Tennessee State University, said the coming-of-age themes she encountered while reading Tolkien’s book for the first time spoke to her as an eighth-grader.
That’s why stories like “The Hobbit” continue to speak to children, according to Thompson.
“Books like ‘The Hobbit,’ fairy tales or ‘Alice in Wonderland’ are ways that kids can explore these issues and find kids who have been able to rescue themselves or make it through the horrible places they have to travel. Kids recognize these dark places in the world and these dark characters and these novels help them figure out their lives,” she said.
“The Hobbit” is a source that Thompson often uses in her courses when teaching about children’s literature. She’s not surprised that Tolkien’s book has been a subject of inspiration for people since it was published 75 years ago because of the book’s inherent themes.
“I think ‘The Hobbit’ has been an influence on both children’s literature and fantasy novels. I don’t think we would have some of the literature that we have now — anything from Harry Potter to the Narnia series to some of the graphic novels and small comics,” she said.
Thompson said she was excited for the film to come out, and she’s looking forward to seeing how Peter Jackson has chosen to tell the story over three movies.
Because of the popularity of both “The Lord of the Rings” films and Tolkien’s expansive work, Thompson said she hopes this new film will inspire more kids to pick up “The Hobbit” and get transported to another world.
“If they get to the literature through the path of the movie, then I think that’s a great way to get to the literature. I think all texts...and film is one of the important texts of our culture, so I’m really hoping this is going to turn a lot of kids on to going back and reading Tolkien’s book and maybe that will take them to other epic adventures.”