It’s 2016, and nerds are ruling the future. Gone are the days of the four-eyed social outcast reading comic books in secret. Now we have all the best-paying jobs, we drive million-dollar industries, we control Hollywood and we’re responsible for the weapon of mass manipulation that is social media. And as a member of the nerd community, I worry that all the power and success may go to our heads. We might be in danger of thinking that our nerdiness makes us special, and therefore nothing we do in the name of nerdiness should ever be called into question. We may forget that our undying love for Star Wars doesn’t give us the right to insult the parentage of everyone who thought Jar-Jar Binks was an okay character.
Let’s face it: as awesome as nerd culture usually is, there are wrong ways to participate in it. There are terrible nerds out there who use their hobbies as an excuse to become bullies or anti-social couch potatoes. Most of us aren’t like that, but it’s a trap I’ve repeatedly come close to falling into. So, to help myself avoid becoming that guy, I turned to the godfather of all nerds for advice.
J.R.R. Tolkien more or less invented us. Cosplay, LARPing, conventions, Dungeons & Dragons, and the very concept of high fantasy can all trace their origins back to him. And, while I doubt he could have foreseen back in the ’50s that I would be blogging about him in the year 2016 after binge-watching the extended editions of all three movies based on his most famous book, I do think his writing shows remarkable insight into the kind of culture he would eventually create. If you look closely at The Lord of the Rings, you will find that there are lots of nerds in Middle Earth–both good and bad ones.
For our first example, let’s look at Gollum.
Gollum’s life is a sad story, as Gandalf tells us. He started out as a normal, hobbit-like creature who enjoyed fishing, digging holes, and telling riddles. Then he found the One Ring. By the time Bilbo meets him in The Hobbit, the Ring is all Gollum thinks about. He hasn’t seen the light of day in hundreds of years, he has no friends, and he can barely even remember what the living world is like, all because of the Ring. Worse, he actually knows the Ring is responsible for all his misery, but he can’t let go of it. He’s an addict. He has no control over his own life, because his obsession owns him.
In other words, Gollum is the stereotypical nerd. No social life, no outdoor activity, no personal hygiene–only Star Trek. Or Star Wars. Or video games. Or what-have-you. And sadly, this stereotype exists, albeit in milder form. Haven’t you ever felt a bit like a pale, shrivelled tunnel creature while emerging from the basement after a long Netflix binge? I know I have.
And it goes deeper. How did Gollum get the way he is? After all, not everyone who encounters the Ring immediately commits murder over it, or allows it to drive them away from all their friends. The Ring always corrupts its bearer eventually, but it takes much longer with some than with Gollum. Well, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien proposes a reason why the Ring attracted Gollum more than it did, say, Frodo. It’s because, long before he found it, Gollum (or Smeagol, at that point) was already obsessed with secret knowledge.
He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his eyes and head were downward.
The first thing Smeagol does with the Ring, once he has it, is use its invisibility powers to find out secrets about his neighbors. That’s part of why he enters that cave in the first place–to find secrets hidden under the earth. Smeagol starts out wanting to know everything about everything. He wants to become superior to his neighbors by knowing more obscure, hidden secrets than they do. The Ring gives him his chance, but ultimately the things he learns turn out to be worthless. Again, painfully familiar. All too often, my relationship with the Internet bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Gollum’s relationship with the Ring. I enjoy the power and knowledge it gives me, but prolonged exposure just shrivels me up and cuts me off from the world.
Now let’s look at an example of a good nerd. There are several to choose from, but I picked Bilbo Baggins.
Like Gollum, Bilbo is a curious hobbit who’s not too fond of company. He loves poetry and stories of adventure, not to mention his eager study of maps and languages, but he’s such a stay-at-home fellow that it takes a posse of dwarf royalty and a very powerful wizard to convince him to go on a real adventure. Again, just like every nerd ever. When Bilbo encounters the Ring (and steals it from Gollum), he uses it to help him on his adventure and, later, to avoid unwelcome visitors. But he never kills for it, and in the end he’s able to give it up willingly–one of only two Ringbearers ever to do so. What makes Bilbo so much more resistant to its evil than Gollum?
I think it’s partly because, unlike Gollum, Bilbo never had a great desire to be better than other people. He doesn’t need to know more secrets of the Elves than anyone else in the world. He likes translating their poetry, but he doesn’t really care if anybody else reads it. And Dwarvish armour and weapons are neat, but he donates them to museums when he’s tired of them hanging on his mantelpiece. Bilbo just doesn’t have a huge desire for power and prestige, which is why the Ring has a harder time corrupting him.
The other reason for Bilbo’s triumph is that, even though he’s a bit of a shut-in, at no point does he develop hatred for other people. He’s polite to the dwarves, even as they’re showing up unannounced and eating all his food. Although he doesn’t really fit into hobbit society after his adventure, the only hobbits he ever admits to disliking are the Sackville-Bagginses–and even they get farewell presents when he leaves the Shire. And, most importantly, he shows mercy to Gollum when he had every reason to kill him. Bilbo may not be the most sociable of hobbits, but he doesn’t push people away. He may not go to a lot of parties, but if you knock on his door, you can be sure he’ll have a plate of seedcake and a story about dragons for you.
Bilbo is the very best kind of nerd: one who likes what he likes for its own sake, and couldn’t care less whether other people think he’s cool or crazy for it. He has true friends whom he values more than “hoarded gold” or any of his hobbies. And he never expects those hobbies to make him superior to others in any way.
So I’m making it my New Year’s resolution to be more like Bilbo and less like Gollum. Fewer solitary all-nighters spent hunched over a screen, more face-to-face discussions about the deeper cultural meanings behind the Avengers movies. Less arrogance, more good-natured fun. And I resolve to go outside more than once every 500 years.