Students: The Hobbit Habit

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Holden Caulfield is a moldy fig; the Lord of the Flies has been swatted. This year, the unquestioned literary god on college campuses is a three-foot-high creature with long curly hair on his feet, a passion for six vast meals a day, and the improbable name of Frodo Baggins. And would you believe that Frodo is a hobbit?

Hairy feet and all, Frodo Baggins is the reluctant hero of this year's "In" book—a three-volume fantasy called The Lord of the Rings. Written by J.R.R. Tolkien, 74, a retired Oxford philologist, the Rings trilogy was first published in the U.S. twelve years ago, had a small but dedicated coterie of admirers, including Poet W. H. Auden and Critic C. S. Lewis, but languished largely unread until it was reprinted last year in two paperback editions.* Since then, campus booksellers have been hard put to keep up with the demand. At the Princeton bookstore, says one salesman, it is the "biggest seller since Lord of the Flies."

Orcs & Ringwraiths. A fairytale for adults blown up to epic proportions, The Lord of the Rings tells how Frodo becomes heir to a magic ring that would, in the hands of Sauron the Dark Lord, give him domination over Middle-earth. A clever old wizard called Gandalf the Grey persuades Frodo to destroy the ring by carrying it to Sauron's domain of Mordor and then dropping it into the impenetrable Cracks of Doom. On his long journey, Frodo is aided by a variety of elves and dwarves, set upon by horrid, yellow-toothed Orcs, nine Ringwraiths riding dark horses, a giant spider, and other henchmen of Sauron. His quest is over when the Dark Lord is finally destroyed during the bloody War of the Ring.

The hobbit habit seems to be almost as catching as LSD. On many U.S. campuses, buttons declaring FRODO LIVES and GO GO GANDALF—frequently written in Elvish script—are almost as common as football letters. Tolkien fans customarily greet each other with a hobbity kind of greeting ("May the hair on your toes grow ever longer"), toss fragments of hobbit language into their ordinary talk. One favorite word is mathom, meaning something one saves but doesn't need, as in "I've just got to get rid of all these mathoms." Permanently hooked Ringworms frequently memorize long passages from the trilogy and learn how to write Tengwar or Certar, two peculiar and ancient-looking scripts that Tolkien invented on behalf of his mythical creatures. The most ardent readers of all are likely to join the nation's fast-growing Tolkien Society of America, which publishes magazines containing learned disquisitions on the elaborate genealogies and intricate rules of grammar that the author attached as appendices to the trilogy.

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