With the film version of The Hobbit set to open this weekend in select theaters,
it is worth taking a step back, especially for those who read the book in their
Tolkien’s literary masterpiece and the world he created has been
given new life in film adaptations.
While they gain a new lease on life
in this new medium, so that people raised in a non-reading generation can enjoy
them, it is worth considering the impact of the 20th century’s literary
masterpieces on our world, specially two different characters.
creators – the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors – stood
alone against the men of their time... No creator was prompted by a desire to
serve his brothers, for his brothers rejected the gift he offered and that gift
destroyed the slothful routine of their lives.”
So declares Howard Roark,
the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, when he is put on trial for
blowing up a building he was hired to design and whose plans have been altered
without his approval.
This is a far cry from the narration that J.R.R
Tolkien set out to describe the family of his main character, Bilbo Baggins, in
: “The Bagginses had lived in the neighborhood of the Hill for time
out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most
of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did
But more connects Mr. Baggins and Mr. Roark than
would appear on the surface. Sure, they inhabited different worlds –
Fountainhead is set in 1922 while The Hobbit
is set in some sort of fantasy
time, apparently before the dawn of modern man. However Ayn Rand has Mr. Roark
allude to the time when man first did something extraordinary, writing,
“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire.
was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to
Mr. Baggins is, in a sense, that first man, setting out on an
adventure, which his society so eschews.
But what truly connects these
two books is that both were prequels to their author’s true vision of the world
which was captured in a second book; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1955) and
Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957).
Both were published around the same time
and both to wide acclaim.
Both met with criticism upon their release and
later on. Tolkien’s life work was said to represent the brute commercialization
of fiction, and Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times said Tolkien “formulated
a highminded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary
preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature
Rand’s work was described by Granville Hicks, also in the Times,
as “not in any literary sense a serious novel... it seems clear that the book is
written out of hate.”
Yet despite the complaining, Rand’s work sat on the
bestseller list for 22 weeks – and sold 445,000 copies in 2011. Lord of the
Rings is one of the most popular and best-selling works of fiction of the 20th
THE AUTHORS of these major 20th-century literary achievements,
which impacted the world we live in, were born thirteen years apart, but in
worlds that could not be more different. Nevertheless, in both cases they
adopted a new homeland where their talents took hold.
Tolkien was born in
what was then the Orange Free State in South Africa. His family were not
Afrikaners, the white Dutch community that ran the Free State prior to its
destruction in the Anglo-Boer war, but rather transplanted English who had come
to work in a bank. At age three he was whisked away to England.
father and mother were dead by age 12 and he was raised a Catholic by guardians
in Birmingham. After service in the World War I he became a professor at Oxford,
where he spent the rest of his life.
Ayn Rand, by contrast, was born to a
well-to-do Jewish family in Saint Petersburg in 1905. The Revolution brought
chaos for her family, which had not supported the communists, and she was thrown
out of university.
She arrived in the US in 1925 and launched a career
that spanned Hollywood and politics, until she eventually found success with her
The conflicts of the 20th century impacted and permeated both
authors. Tolkien was traumatized by the trench warfare of the Western Front and
he sought to create a character who dwelled in the traditional English
countryside which he had so loved as a youth.
But the story of Bilbo
Baggins doesn’t end in the countryside, rather he is enlisted to go on a
momentous adventure. In Lord of the Rings this is expanded upon to include the
contest between an all-powerful evil and the “free peoples of Middle Earth” who
must defeat it. Totalitarianism and modernization were the “darkness that crept
back into the forests of the world.”
Rand was deeply impacted by the
evils of Communism she had witnessed as a young woman and her main characters
opposed with every fiber of their bodies the evils of collectivism and the
diminution of the individual to serve the “greater good” and “social
What we learn from Howard Roark and Bilbo Baggins are important
life lessons. We learn about the importance of being true to one’s self. We
learn about not glorying in violence. But most of all what we learn from the
works of Rand and Tolkien is to be aware of the world of ideas.
look at the 21st century and all it offers us, we must wonder whether it will be
capable of producing a Rand or a Tolkien. The upheavals of the 20th century
helped engender these great minds, but what does the 21st century offer? It
doesn’t offer Nazism and Communism, but rather post-modernism and terrorism; the
globalized one-world culture of unimportant 24-hour news cycles. Print media has
declined, and the humanities have been dumbed down to the point that a PhD in
2012 would not be able to pass Harvard’s 1864 entrance
Universal education has raised the ranks of the literate,
but what will the literate read in the coming decades? Baggins and Roark could
not have confronted terrorism and the dull, valueless post-modernist
What would Baggins and Roark have made of what has become of
the visual arts in the wake of the evils wrought by “modern art”? What would
they have said looking at a theater production that has replaced originality
with nudity? Rand and Tolkien were curmudgeons, and their characters were sort
of curmudgeonly, which is why they are not always well received by the literati.
But they were much loved by readers, and they continue to be much loved. Whether
such characters will again be fashioned in the English-speaking world is an open
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