Pagans and The Hobbit

I’ve always had a weird relationship with Tolkien. Never cared much for the books, absolutely love the movies. As a writer, Tolkien has his defenders, but I always had trouble getting past Tom Bombodil, and second-breakfast. I’ll always be quick to acknowledge Tolkien as the creator of my favorite literary genre (the epic fantasy), but he’s far from my favorite author within it. I appreciate the world building, but I’d rather read George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb, or Patrick Rothfuss.

Despite my problems with Tolkien the author, his books have made for wonderful movies. Middle Earth has so much depth that it’s easy to think of it as a real place, and when you add in Peter Jackson’s New Zealand location shoots it becomes even more real. One of the reasons Lord of the Rings has been the only truly successful fantasy series is that sense of place. Between Tolkien, Jackson, composer Howard Shore, the special effects, and great actors portraying solid characters (take notes whoever writes the next series of Star Wars movies) you get a fully realized world when you watch Lord of the Rings. That’s what makes everything so successful.

Escapism movies are a favorite of mine, especially when done right. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are great movies with or without a superhero in them. Likewise, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was the perfect mix of character, story, humor, and action. I awaited the release of those films with bated breath, but my excitement for those films was nothing compared to the anxiousness I felt while awaiting each film in the LoTR trilogy. I think it was in 1999, we (my now wife and I) saw a teaser trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring that was nothing more than a black screen saying “coming in 2001.” We clapped and cheered, literally. We can be that geeky, and we offer no apologies for it.

We fantasy fiction fans had been waiting decades for someone to translate the images in our brains onto the big screen. Previous attempts at big screen fantasy always felt so small; the stories, the characters, the consequences. By 2000 when the first images were released from Fellowship you knew that Jackson’s take on fantasy was going to be something else entirely. It’s strange to say, but I felt like I had a lot riding on that movie. If it had failed there would be no Game of Thrones on HBO, no hope for a Mistborn* movie. If Peter Jackson had been unable to make Rings work fantasy at the movies would have become a lost cause, something reserved for kids and Sci-Fi Channel schlock fests. I don’t need anyone to legitimize what I read or what I want to see in a film, but it’s nice when it happens. (When I say “fantasy” I’m mostly talking about “Epic Fantasy” taking place on worlds that are not our own.)

For several years LoTR became a part of my Holiday experience. That all three (and now four!) movies were released in mid-December certainly helped with the Christmas/Yuletide associations, but I took it a step farther. I decorated with 12-inch LoTR (fully articulated!) action figures for several years, posing Gimli, Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, and Frodo around the Yule Log (don’t worry they were in no danger of catching on fire, we keep candles on the Yule Log, it doesn’t go into the fireplace). My wife wasn’t always happy with this decision, but she dealt.

We have now established that Jason is a grade A movie geek (and proud of it), and yes I’m super-excited about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I know that the reviews have been mixed, and turning The Hobbit (book) into three movies is a huge amount of overkill, but any chance to see Andy Serkis as Gollum and (Sir!) Ian McKellen as Gandalf is a welcome one. We may not head to the midnight showing on Thursday night, but we’ll be there Friday night with furry feet on (perhaps not literally, but I would totally do that if I could get away with it). There’s more to Middle Earth than just hobbits and elves too, in a lot of ways it’s kind of an essential Pagan touch-stone.

While Tolkein was a pretty committed Christian, he was certainly fascinated by Norse and Celtic mythology. That’s where a lot of his characters and stories come from. So while he may not have worshipped Odin, he was at least influenced by him. (Surprisingly, it was C. S. Lewis who had a far more serious dalliance with early 20th Century Paganism.) I have no idea if Gerald Gardner and/or Doreen Valiente read Tolkien, but by the 1960′s The Hobbit was being referred to as “The Hippie Bible,” and the hippie movement played a large role in the development of Modern Paganism. My favorite bands from the late 60′s/early 70′s made copious Middle Earth references, most famously Led Zeppelin in Ramble On (. . . and in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair, but Gollum and the Evil One crept up and slipped away with her . . . . ), but Black Sabbath’s The Wizard is either about their pot dealer or more likely Gandalf the Grey.

Pagans have long been influenced by Lord of the Rings, the most public instance in my mind is probably Lothlorien Nature Sanctuary in Indiana, but I’m sure there are probably others. There are also all the magical names that have probably been borrowed from Tolkien over the years. If you think of how little Pagan-type material there was to read up until the 1980′s it’s not surprising that at least a few of us in the tribe would have gravitated toward Middle Earth. Magic, mystery, great jewelry, what’s not to love about all of those things?

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As the calendar moves toward Yule and Christmas, I’m just as likely to be counting down the days until The Hobbit. I’ve already started driving the wife crazy by listening to Howard Shore’s Misty Mountains song over and over again. After hearing it for the fourth time this past Saturday morning she yelled “Excited much?” Damn straight I’m excited much! There’s nothing under the tree quite yet that says “To: Jason” but that’s OK, the best present of all this Holiday Season is being delivered on Friday.

*If you aren’t getting these references, it’s all related to fantasy.

Paganism: A Tribe or Tribes?
Maybe I Don’t Need a Temple
The Roebuck in the Ritual (A Cochrane Inspired Rite)
Endings and Beginnings
About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Have you read Tolkien’s take on the Nibelung myth: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun?

    It is a brilliant interpretation of the myth and makes me wonder why we don’t see more like it.

    As to the Hobbit. I am hyper excited about the forthcoming movie(s), but also slightly anxious. As cool as the LotR movies are, they really are poor adaptations of far greater books.

    My biggest concern is the license they take with the story. Notably, there has been talk about the creation and insertion of a character, Tauriel, purely to add ‘strong, feminine energy’. What bollocks!

    • JasonMankey

      They did the same thing I felt with Arwen in the original films. When Liv Tyler was on the screen, that’s when I went to the bathroom.

      • Kauko

        I don’t mind Arwen showing up as much as she did; it is, at least, based on material in the appendices, for the most part (excluding her first appearance as Super Wonder Elf (TM) in Fellowship in place of Glorfindel) . Also, it would have been weird, I think, to have her only show up at the end of The Return of the King and handed off to Aragorn like a prize without any context.

        • JasonMankey

          I’m not going to disagree, but a lot of the scenes with her in them were boring. Also, Liv Tyler not the greatest actress in the world.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          As a die-hard Glorfindel fan, I am always going to hate cinematic Arwen, who was obviously added purely to get the ‘woman ticket’.

          There are lots of bits that Jackson and co. changed that really piss me off, it must be said.

          • Kauko

            The change that irritates me the most is having the elves show up at the battle of Helm’s Deep; I roll my eyes every time I see that scene. I was also horrified when I watched the special features on the extended editions and found out that they had originally intended to have Sauron himself come out to the battle before the Black Gates and fight Aragorn; that would have been unforgivable.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Tell me about it! I was so pissed when Haldir died.

            Then there is the slaying of the Witchking (only possible because of the knife that Merry got from the barrow – was specifically ensorcelled to harm the Witchking.)

          • Jason Hatter

            Well, given the other choice was to introduce yet another group (The Duendain, plus Elrond’s sons) it makes more sense to reuse a character we’re familiar with.

            I did hate that Haldir died, though. Bit part though he was, he was, honestly, my favorite character in the movies.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            It makes more sense to keep in line with the books.

          • Jason Hatter

            What makes sense in the context of a book with no budget is one thing, but when filming a movie, introducing new characters is silly, when you’re paying actors. *shrug* I liked it. I also hated killing Hama by worgs as opposed to the Hornburg, but alas…

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Kind of hard to complain about them introducing new characters when The Hobbit has just come out, isn’t it?

  • Kauko

    A few comments:

    “Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was the perfect mix of character, story, humor, and action.”

    I heard so much hype about this movie and I love Joss Whedon, but when I finally saw it recently I was stunned by how bad it was. The whole thing felt like a pointless mess; to me, at least. Given how universally everyone else seems to praise this movie, I’m just left scratching my head about it.

    “While Tolkein was a pretty committed Christian, he was certainly fascinated by Norse and Celtic mythology.”

    People always bring up the Norse and Celtic influence, but few people, outside of Tolkien specialists, seem to know about the Finnish influence on Tolkien’s works. By Tolkien’s own admission, the Kalevala was the seed that led him to begin creating the Silmarillion.

    • JasonMankey

      As a comic book fan I really enjoyed The Avengers. It was like a graphic novel brought to life-it was big, bright, loud, and colorful just like a comic book. I can see it not being everyone’s cup of tea though.

      I thought about going into more detail about Tolkien; his life, his influences, etc etc., but once I got up to 900 words the whole thing was beginning to feel far too long so I glossed over things. Have you ever read Ronald Hutton’s research into the pagan influences of Tolkien and Lewis? It’s in his “Witches, Druids, and King Arthur” book. I thought about including a lot of that material today too, but decided on brevity instead.

      • Kauko

        I expected more from Joss Whedon; Avengers just seemed to lack his trademark style and wit. Maybe, in an effort to make it more accessible to all ages, it was too ‘family friendly’ for my tastes. For the most part, to be honest, I think that the movie industry has hit a low point in general quality of late (I haven’t even been to the movies in several years). On the other hand, I think that television has been putting out some great stuff over the last decade- particularly cable TV.
        I haven’t read that book of Hutton’s but I’m interested to check out now, if only for the sections that deal with Tolkien.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Whedon was constrained by the studios. Hopefully his next one will be more Whedonesque.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Do you see the irony in worrying that something Tolkien-based is overly long?

  • Ywen DragonEye

    I thought I was the only one who didn’t appreciate Tolkien’s writing. And I wanted to so very much. The world he created is brilliant, as are the films. Thank Goddess for Peter Jackson!

  • John Belham-Payne

    Just to pick up on whether Doreen Valiente read Tolkien. I can confirm that she did, though funnily enough in her vast 2,000 strong library that she bequeathed to me, there were no copies of any of his books and as a friend of members of Zeppelin, I could go on for hours about the influence the books had on their thought process. If you combine that with the fact that Middle Earth is about a part of the West Midlands where both John and Robert came from then you would understand the—–. I had better stop before this become s a novel in itself.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I’ve lost track of the amount of places that Tolkien’s Middle Earth was supposed to be based on.

    • JasonMankey

      Thank you for the comment. You’ve totally made my day, and perhaps month. And feel free to continue with the novel, any post mentioning Doreen and Led Zeppelin is a favorite.