Walter Bitner

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Dreaming of Middle Earth

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this is what my first copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings looked like

my original boxed set fell apart decades ago, but this is what my first copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings looked like

OFFTOPIC2When I was a child growing up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, there was a boxed set of books on a shelf in my parents’ study. The cardboard box contained four paperbacks and was decorated with strange symbols and the word TOLKIEN on a field of gold. The entire package was shrink-wrapped and had never been opened, and it sat there there for a long time – weeks or months, I guess, maybe even a year or two – sitting on the shelf with the other books next to it, quietly minding its own business and waiting for me. Sometimes I would pass by it and notice it, read the titles and wonder what it was, what was TOLKIEN, and what was a hobbit, anyway?

Eventually I asked my mother what it was and where it came from, and she told me a neighbor had given it to her – she didn’t really know what the books were about but it wasn’t really her kind of thing. As I remember, at the time, when my mother actually had time to read (she was raising five children and I was the oldest), she read a lot of James Michener and Leon Uris. I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, but at that time (the mid-1970s), the Tolkien boxed set was a bit out of place – J.R.R. Tolkien (JRRT) was just beginning to emerge from “underground” acclaim to gain a wider readership, and neither of my parents really went in for fantasy or science fiction.

So I asked her if I could read them, and – unwittingly – my mother gave me the greatest treasure in her whole library, unread. I took the boxed set up to my room, unwrapped it, and fell headlong into my lifelong fascination and affection for Middle Earth and its inhabitants. I was ten years old.

*       *       *

reading The Hobbit to my brother Matthew, 1977

reading The Hobbit to my brother Matthew, 1977

It would be difficult to overestimate the profound impact that reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (H+LOTR) made on me. Up until the moment I sat on my bed and read those first words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”, the novels I had read consisted mostly of Hardy Boys mysteries, some H.G. Wells and Jules Verne titles, a couple of Laura Ingalls Wilder novels I had borrowed from my sister, and the kinds of books they gave children to read in elementary school in the 70s – Judy Blume titles, “Encyclopedia Brown” mysteries, and the like. Although I enjoyed reading these stories, none of them captured my imagination or evoked wonder in any way close to the way Tolkien’s books did this for me. I was completely enthralled, under a spell that would last throughout my entire adolescence well into adulthood, and has never really worn off – it just goes dormant from time to time.

I attribute some of the emotional involvement I felt to the age I was when I encountered the books, as well as to the monumental quality of the books themselves. After spending decades of my life teaching children and raising two of my own, I am convinced that to a child, the life of the imagination is much more vivid and “real” than it is to those of us who are older and more involved socially and emotionally with the so-called “real” world. When I read “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm” for the first time, and Gandalf fell in battle with the balrog, I wept, devastated.

Certainly as a child I spent a lot of time alone, and a lot of that time I was caught up in my interior world. The lucky “chance meeting” (as they say in Middle Earth) I had with The Hobbit and the trilogy at that time provided a vast playground for my imagination, full of strange lands, ancient history, exotic languages and customs, wondrous creatures, beauties, and terrors to explore.  When my family moved to upstate New York the following year and I found myself starting over in a new school – having left all friends behind – Middle Earth became my secret refuge.

"But I don't mind some cake - seed-cake, if you have any." Every year when the weather gets cold, I remember this cake and get the urge to make it. In my imagination, it's what Bilbo served Balin (with his beer) at that unexpected party long ago. The recipe is from The Tolkien Scrapbook edited by Alida Becker, 1978. ~ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8'' round cake tin. Sift 2 1/2 c. flour with 1 tsp. baking powder and a pinch of salt. Cream together 4 oz. butter and 3/4 c. sugar. Beat 1 egg and add to the butter, then add 2 tsp. caraway seeds. Fold into the flour mixture, then gradually add enough milk (up to1/2 c.) to make a smooth, thick batter. Pout into prepared pan. Bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool 5 to 10 minutes before turning out on a cake rack.

“I don’t mind some cake – seed-cake, if you have any.” (said Balin.) Every year when the weather gets cold, I remember this cake and get the urge to make it. This is what I imagine Bilbo served Balin (with his beer) at that unexpected party long ago.

For several years, I read and reread Tolkien’s masterpiece obsessively, as well as anything else I could find by or about him. During the years of my adolescence his work was gaining wider recognition. Rankin/Bass made an animated television movie of The Hobbit which I saw in its original broadcast on NBC in 1977 (with the voice of John Huston as Gandalf!). The following year I saw Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature The Lord of the Rings (which disappointingly dropped the story at Helm’s Deep) in the theater. Both of these treatments brought Tolkien’s stories to a much wider audience. If they failed to truly evoke Middle Earth in a

click to enlarge recipe

click to enlarge recipe

way that felt authentic to me, they did not disturb the Middle Earth of my imagination, which had been built and grown up in my mind slowly and steadily as I read and reread the books. My Middle Earth remained secure and inviolate.

Tolkien’s works gave me not only a ramp up into a lifelong love for imaginative literature, his writings taught me how deeply stories and an imagined world could move the reader. By my mid-teens, although I continued to reread H+LOTR once a year or so, I had developed an appetite for all kinds of books – mostly novels, including fantasy and science fiction, mysteries, classics, and so-called mainstream literary fiction, as well as history, philosophy, psychology, other nonfiction, and especially books about music. Books were no longer only a refuge and an escape for me, but an important means to engage with and learn about the world.

some of my Tolkien books

some of my Tolkien books

My parents gave me a copy of the first American edition of The Silmarillion for my 12th birthday shortly after its release in the fall of 1977, and my grandmother gave me a hardcover boxed set of the trilogy for my birthday the following year. I love the grand formal language and stories of antiquity that fill The Silmarillion, as much or even more than H+LOTR. I love the ancient Elvish lore – this is actually JRRT’s unique and greatest accomplishment: the tales of the fell deeds of the sons of Fëanor and of the war the exiled Noldor waged against Morgoth in Beleriand. I especially love the great stories or lays from the First Age: Beren and Lúthien, and the dark ironic tragedy Túrin Turambar. To me, these are the most beautiful, sad, and deeply touching stories of all.

For a while, I was enthralled too with Tolkien’s invented languages, and corresponded with a childhood friend in Chicago after I had moved to New York in letters written (phonetically) in Elven runes. I joined the Mythopoeic Society (at the tender age of 11) and for several years, I received their photocopied publications in the mail – I still have them collected in binders, somewhere.

After the release of Unfinished Tales in 1980, Christopher Tolkien (CJRT) began releasing the 12 volumes of The History of Middle Earth beginning with the first volume of The Book of Lost Tales in 1983. I collected all of these first American editions and read them as they were released. By the time CJRT finally completed this miraculous documentation of his father’s creative process with the The Peoples of Middle Earth in 1996, I was in my thirties, a husband and a father, trying to make my career as a musician and teacher, yet Middle Earth remained for me a haven I could turn to to refresh my spirit and rekindle a connection with my childhood self.

*       *       *

on the set of my Carrollwood Day School production of The Hobbit, March 18, 2003, at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center ~ one of the most fulfilling experiences of my teaching career!

on the set of my Carrollwood Day School production of The Hobbit, March 18, 2003, at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center

The Hobbit at CDS

In the fall of 2002, I was beginning my fourth year as performing arts director at Carrollwood Day School in Odessa, Florida (near Tampa). CDS at that time was a K-8 private college preparatory school (since I left Florida nearly 13 years ago CDS has moved, grown, and added a high school). One of my responsibilities each year was to produce and direct an annual school musical – we rented a 1000-seat theatre at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, held auditions in the fall and rehearsed through January and February, putting on the performance in March. Lead roles were traditionally played by middle school students (usually 8th graders) but we always included elementary school students in the production as well, as chorus or dancers in big production numbers. Usually we had 50-60 students participate. It was a very big deal! At this point I had put on productions of Annie Jr., a rather silly farce called Gone With The Breeze, and The Music Man Jr.

However in 2002-2003 CDS had a core group of theatrically-inclined 8th grade students who were good actors – about a dozen of them had participated in drama classes with me and previous school musicals all through middle school – but, very few of them sang with confidence and none of them relished the idea of singing solos.

So I pitched the idea of putting on a non-musical play that year: Patricia Gray’s 1968 version of The Hobbit. The school administration approved the idea, and I found myself consumed for much of that year with a huge project that turned out to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of my entire teaching career. Ninety (90) students participated in the cast – we had to have two separate elementary school ensembles. To an extent I have never seen happen before or since, the entire school community – parents as well as students and teachers – threw themselves into the project.

Bilbo and Gollum

Riddles in the Dark

Many students who did not wish to be members of the cast helped create the multitude of props and costumes we needed for the hosts of dwarves, elves, and goblins onstage, and some very dedicated parents created elaborate sets for several scenes including exterior and interior sets for Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, and the Elf Queen’s Dungeon (yes, in the play the gender of the Elf monarch is changed to accommodate more female roles in the cast). A team of art students built a 14-foot tall fire-breathing Smaug puppet (okay, one of the boys rigged a fog machine so it looked like smoke came out of the puppet’s mouth) for the play’s climactic scene.

A team of mothers served as seamstresses for the entire cast. Many of the dwarves were played by girls, and it was tremendous fun outfitting them all with beards, grubby costumes and grimy-looking makeup, which they all embraced with gusto. This was in the middle of the release of Peter Jackson’s LOTR films, which of course only contributed to the general enthusiasm for all things Middle Earth – The Two Towers was released during our production, and we rented a movie theater and took the entire cast to see it!

We held a special school assembly to honor JRRT’s 111th birthday that January, at which students read some of the Professor’s poems. I compiled a “soundtrack” of renaissance music played on period instruments to be used for scene changes, and for the elementary school casts’ chorus numbers – the battle between the dwarves and the goblins underground, and a stately dance at the woodland court of the Elf Queen. I set some of JRRT’s poems from the book to music. The fall of 2002 and winter of 2003 – from auditions through rehearsals to the performance – was an unforgettable experience. As I wrote in the speech I gave at the end of the show,

Traveling through Middle Earth with Bilbo has been a dream of mine since I was eleven* years old, and I am profoundly grateful to everyone who helped make it happen. Nobody had more fun or felt more joy in this process than I did.

Bag End

Bag End

An Unexpected Party

An Unexpected Party

Elves

Elves

Goblins

Goblins

Thorin & Co. are captured by the elves

Thorin & Co. are captured by the elves

in the Elf Queen's dungeon

in the Elf Queen’s dungeon

Barrels Out Of Bond

Barrels Out Of Bond

Smaug

Smaug

the Carrollwood Day School cast of The Hobbit, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, March 18, 2003

the Carrollwood Day School cast of The Hobbit, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, March 18, 2003

*For many years I thought that I was eleven when I first read The Hobbit; through the process of researching and writing this article I discovered it was actually a year earlier than I remembered.

*       *       *

from my Instagram feed: a selfie as Gandalf on hall duty at lunch time, Nashville School of the Arts, October 31, 2014

from my Instagram feed: a selfie as Gandalf on hall duty at lunch time, Nashville School of the Arts, October 31, 2014

More than 13 years have passed now since my CDS production of The Hobbit, and a lot has happened in my life. We moved our family to Nashville, and our children have grown up – one of them has graduated from college now. I continued my teaching career at other schools, founded a youth orchestra, and then eventually left that part of my career behind to work for the symphony. During this time, the place of Tolkien’s writing in our culture and the public perception and awareness of the existence of Middle Earth have changed exponentially since I first read H+LOTR in the 1970s.

For one thing, many, many more people have read the books now. The Lord of the Rings may by now be the most popular novel ever written in English – it is often at or near the top of readers and critics polls alike. For instance, in 2003 some 750,000 readers in a BBC poll voted it the UK’s best-loved book.

And of course, there are the movies. I am not going to go into what I like and what I dislike about Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of the books here – only make the point that millions more people now have been at least exposed to Tolkien’s stories as per PJ & Co.’s vision, than perhaps ever would have read the books on their own. And supposedly, some of those people also read the books, too: between 2001-2003 (during the release of the films), 25 million copies of LOTR were sold worldwide. So, it might be a good thing, in some ways.

When I was a teenager, attending suburban American schools, most people I knew personally had not read any of Tolkien’s books, or knew what a hobbit or Middle earth was. Now you would be hard-pressed to find someone (at least in English-speaking countries, and in many others as well) who doesn’t at least think they know. But if they only saw the movies, or saw the movies first, it’s not my Middle Earth they’ve visited. (Nor arguably, Tolkien’s.)

Thank goodness, it’s still there. I can visit Middle earth any time. In fact, it may be time to go back now.


2 Comments

  1. Michael Graham says:

    Another good article. You’ve done so many interesting projects over the years. Nashville is blessed to have you.

    mg

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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