New Year’s Change with The Hobbit

I love how my sister decorates her Christmas Tree. My tree – when I have one, which I haven’t recently thanks to destructo-cat and the perception amongst relatives that since we don’t have children, we don’t deserve to host Christmas, or maybe it’s because the last Christmas we hosted was a disaster that ended with WWIII and…uh… Oh yes, my tree, when I get one, is a tiny Charlie Brown tree, decorated simply with (what else) a handful of Snoopy ornaments, some simple straw stars that originated as packing material many years ago, and golden chocolate coins hung by red threads. My mother’s tree, when she has one, is decorated simply with white lights and transparent glass balls. A colleague told me about her mother’s tree which has a different theme every year all birds or macaroons.

My sister’s tree is a record of their family history. After draping the tree in tiny colored lights, she unwraps each ornament, each a record of their lives together, starting with a tiny framed photo of her husband and her taken the year they started dating. Each year’s ornament celebrates an experience they had together. Trips. The years they lived in Costa Rica, Hollywood. A key to represent when they bought their home together. Photos of each baby mounted on Christmas stars.

Then the ornaments of family trips, of family activities, continuing through today. After the family ornaments, come the children’s ornaments: ornaments my father – an irrepressible ornament-bestow-er – have given them; ballerinas and minions they selected on their own; the inevitable macaroni masterpieces. Each is placed on the tree with care and memories, memories that the kids will inherit when they leave home with a box packed with their ornaments, to start their own tradition trees. The final steps are attaching the nutcracker ornaments my nephew loves and placing the simple star atop the tree.

And when they finish hanging all these ornaments – all the ornaments the rest of us move to the wall-side where they won’t distract from the experience we’re trying to create – the tree is beautiful. I don’t know if someone walking in off the street, who missed the experience of unpacking the ornaments while nibbling on Christmas cookies and sipping cocoa, and hearing the stories, the annual arguments – where did we get the bigfoot ornament? Did we buy it or did Dad give it to us? — would agree. But for the rest of us it’s the most beautiful tree in the world, and it glows with warmth throughout Christmas week.

My sister’s other tradition – born in the days when her husband was a professional chef and had to work on Christmas day – is the big Christmas brunch and, after opening presents, casual meals for the rest of the day, a selection of dips, a spiral ham, some homemade bread, rather than a big spread. Which leaves room for…

The annual movie marathon!

This year, it was my nephew’s turn to choose and he selected The Hobbit. Due to the number of presents to open, we made it through volumes one and two and they had to watch volume three the next day, while we were on our 5-hour drive back to the airport, beautiful in its own way.

But when I got home, I felt incomplete, as if I had started the journey with Bilbo and hadn’t finished it. So I needed to make The Hobbit my bedtime book. For some reason, I couldn’t find my copy – all my paperback shelves are double-stacked and it’s there but tucked behind other titles. So I grabbed the next best thing, a copy of Corey Olsen’s Exploring JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a lovely analysis of the work, one that makes me want to pull all the books off my shelf, find my copy of The Hobbit, and reread it.

My husband, who has never read the original and has only seen the movies, knows that I read The Hobbit at least once a year, and it still puzzles him why I would read it again and again. He has books that he loves and lovingly places on our shelves but, with the exception of collections of Peanuts cartoons, he doesn’t read them more than once. And he asked me if I had read Exploring before (yes) and what I learned on this re-reading that I didn’t realize before.

And the answer is, of course, the journey of change. One of the themes in Olsen’s analysis is that the Bilbo that returns from the mountain is not the Bilbo who left Bag End in chapter 2. No big surprise there. Olsen does a great job calling out the gradual nature of the change, the evolution of Bilbo from the uptight coward at the start of the book, to the mensch who contribute to the defeat of a dragon and takes action to stop a war. If the Bilbo of chapter one, content to sit on his stoop blowing smoke rings, had been dropped into the dragon’s lair, he would have dissolved into a pool of ashes instantly.

Even if Gandolf had waved his magic staff and given the Chapter 1 Bilbo all the burglary skills that he learns along the way, he would have failed.

The trials of Bilbo’s journey help him change, help him recognize the need for those skills, how to apply them, when to apply them, and incentivize him to apply them.

Bilbo’s journey changes him and enlarges him, exposes him to people and to places he has never dreamed of. The great golden halls of Erebor, the wood elves’ castle, the last Homely Home of Elrond, the singing of elves, the great tales of an earlier middle earth, and his actions earn him the appreciation and recognition that he enjoys in The Lord of the Rings. And yet, Bilbo doesn’t stay in Rivendell. He returns home to Bag End, puts away his armor and Sting, and resumes a quiet life of home, food, friends, although now his circle of friends has grown to include some he never imagined he would meet.

So although he has grown, he is still Bilbo: he doesn’t lose who he is inside. He becomes more of that person, better able to appreciate what is important to him.

Because that’s what true change does: it helps you defeat dragons and survive battles so you can enjoy the quiet moments of peace where you come back to what is important to you.

Good luck to you on your 2019 journey.

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