Between the Lines: A Conversation with Matthew Dickerson – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with Matthew Dickerson about his new Brazos book, A Hobbit Journey.

Matthew Dickerson (PhD, Cornell University) is a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, a writer, and the director of the New England Young Writers’ Conference at Bread Loaf. His previous works include From Homer to Harry Potter; The Mind and the Machine; Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C. S. Lewis; and Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R .R. Tolkien.

In today’s post, Matthew speaks about the relationship between our world and the world of The Lord of the Rings.

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In A Hobbit Journey, you write that The Lord of the Rings is “not about another world at all, but about our world.” Can you elaborate on this?

In saying that, I’m actually echoing Tolkien’s own ideas. But it does take a bit of unraveling to figure out both what he means and what he does not mean.

Certainly in some sense Middle-earth is another world, and these books could appropriately be called works of fantasy. The geography of Middle-earth is not the geography of our world. The seas, mountains, oceans, rivers, and cities don’t line up with any of our continents. And it’s not set in any one historical period of our world either.

But in many other ways, Middle-earth is very much based on the world in which we live and in which Tolkien lived. Most directly, it is based on languages and myths of our world, especially various Norse myths, which of course came from a particular period and geographic setting in our history. In fact, the word Middle-earth is just a modern English version of an Old English and Old Norse word meaning the world of men—as distinct from Asgard, the world of the gods.

Then, too, many of the cultures and peoples of Middle-earth are based very closely on peoples of our world. The most obvious example is Rohan and its people, the Rohirrim, who are based on the medieval Anglo-Saxon peoples, at least in terms of their poetry, language, names, and values. Even the geography of Middle-earth isn’t quite so different from that of Europe, with the Shire taking the place of England in the upper northwest, and down in the south you have Gondor where Ancient Rome was.

Perhaps most importantly, I think Tolkien portrayed through story many ideas that he thought were philosophically true—and to a large extent theologically true—about our world, and indeed are based on that which is true in our world.

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For more information on A Hobbit Journey, click here.
To read an excerpt, click here.