As we celebrate “Hobbit Day” on September 22 this week (Frodo and Bilbo’s Birthday) the thought dawned on me that J.R.R. Tolkien's realm of Middle-Earth has captivated millions through his books as well as through the film adaptations.
For example, “The Lord of the Rings was voted in 1997 as the ‘book of the century’ and Peter Jackson’s original film trilogy was nominated for 30 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture for the Return of the King, the first (and only) fantasy film ever to win that award. In addition, the number of Oscars the film won in 2004 (11) tied it with previous record holders Titanic and Ben-Hur.”
It fascinates me for these stories are entirely "antiquated," "medieval," even "anti-modern." Yet that doesn't stop the Lord of the Rings franchise from being one of the most successful of all time. Why is that?
One thought that I had was on account of the modern world we live in (especially here in the United States) has become so divorced from the past that people are now hungering for a rich history of tales and legends. If you think about it, previous cultures were extremely in touch with their own history and even held grudges that lasted centuries. These cultures would also pass down from one generation to the next rich stories and myths from ages past. This is almost entirely absent from our American culture.
One reason why we have become out of touch with our history perhaps is linked to the "American melting-pot," where most of us have three to five different ethnicities. When you have that many histories all melted together it is hard to cultivate a connection to the past. Our parents and grandparents quickly became out of touch with their own history and did not find it necessary to pass it down to the next generation.
Part of this was surely due to the pressure upon immigrants to be “American,” and give-up their language and culture so that they didn’t stand out. The “Old World” was looked down upon and immigrants needed to embrace the “New World” with every fiber of their being.
Also, our own English language is usually not connected to our ancestors and as a result we have lost the ability to understand our past. Language is always tied with culture and so without a knowledge of our ancestor's language, we can't fully embrace their culture. In fact, that is how Tolkien started his mythology; from the Elvish language. It was from this beautiful language that he was able to develop the rich history of tales that we all love.
In a similar way, the Catholic Church in America has also lost touch with her own history, choosing instead to embrace the future without passing down anything from the past. Language, again, is a vital instrument to pass down culture and many have chosen to refrain from passing down the “language of the Church,” Latin, resulting in a gaping hole in the culture of the Church.
This could be one reason why younger Catholics are becoming more intrigued with learning Latin and incorporating it into the Mass whenever they get the chance. They want to recover what was lost and establish a connection with the past that speaks to their heart of hearts.
In the end, being divorced from our own traditions and culture appears to have awakened in many Americans a hunger for great tradition, tales, legends and historic languages. It is then no surprise that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth has become so popular over the past decade. As humans we need to be connected to a history that is beyond ourselves and that teaches us we are a part of a great drama that is unfolding before your eyes. May we understand that desire in our heart and never forget the past, especially the history of our own salvation, making sure that the next generation understands where they come from and where God has prepared a place for them at the end of all things.