Terra Incognita: From 'The Hobbit' to Howard Roark

Baggins and Roark could not have confronted terrorism and the dull, valueless post-modernist critique.

The Hobbit (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Hobbit
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 youth.
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.
“The great 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 Hobbit: “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 anything unexpected.”
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.
He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light.”
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 itself.”
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 century.
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.
His 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 novels.
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 justice.”
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.
WHEN WE 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 examination.
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 critique.
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 question.