Nerdish Musings, Uncategorized

How to Be a Better Nerd: A Hobbit’s Guide

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.

Here he is, smoking the pipe of wisdom.

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.

Pictured: me, after that Extended Trilogy marathon.

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.

Again, the pipe of wisdom.

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.




The Ranking of the Fellowship

September is almost over! (Can you believe it?) That means I only have a couple more days to talk about my favourite LOTR characters! So, as a brief overview, here’s how much I love each member of the Fellowship of the Ring, from least to greatest:

9) Legolas

Legolas is an elf, which means he’s automatically cool. He can see really far, he can walk on top of snowdrifts, he’s a fantastic archer, and he’s definitely one of the people you want on your trail if you ever go missing. He’s also not ashamed to brag about all these skills from time to time. But I’m afraid he’s also the most boring character in the Fellowship. He just…doesn’t DO a whole lot, on his own anyway. And as cool as elves are, they’re not the most relatable creatures in Middle Earth. Being thousands of years old and having perfect hair can be kinda off-putting to us mortals.

8) Gimli

In most ways, Gimli is a typical dwarf–obsessed with treasure, fiercely loyal to his kin, a bit trigger-happy with an axe–but unlike most dwarves, he’s able to see the value of other creatures and their ways of life. His unusual friendship with Legolas and Aragorn, and his chivalric awe of Galadriel, make him stand out among his race. He even ends up taking a ship to Valinor, the only dwarf in Middle Earth history to do so. But he suffers from the same problem as Legolas: not enough personality, and no clear purpose in the Fellowship except to represent a particular Free People of Middle Earth.

7) Boromir

Oh, man. Boromir is such a tragic character. He inherited a lot of pride and self-sufficiency from his father, sure, but he’s far from an evil sort at the beginning of the book. He’s a valiant soldier trying to protect his city, who ends up as an unfortunate example of the Ring’s effect on men. But he does redeem himself, to an extent: after attacking Frodo, and coming to his senses, he heroically dies trying to save Merry and Pippin from a huge band of Uruk-hai. And he confesses everything to Aragorn, which also took courage, considering his prideful nature. I think it’s also worth mentioning that Sean Bean’s portrayal of him was one of the best performances in the movies. But Boromir’s brother is still better than him. 🙂

6) Pippin

Out of all the Fellowship, I think Pippin is the one I’d choose to spend an afternoon at the pub with. He’s just a really fun guy, even after everything he went through in the book. He’s overly impulsive at times, and he doesn’t have a good head for maps or strategy, but he displays great courage when it counts. Plus: he’s great with kids, he can sing, and he’s an awesome fighter for a hobbit. He single-handedly killed a troll, for Pete’s sake! He also saved Faramir’s life, which is very important, because Faramir is the best. I love Pippin.

5) Merry

In Merry and Pippin’s relationship, Merry is the brains. He’s as eager to rush into battle (or the bar) as his best friend, but he’s smarter about it. You wouldn’t catch him looking into a Palantir, and you definitely won’t catch him getting lost in the woods. (He knows all about the Old Forest AND Fangorn. You see, kids, it pays to study.) He’s also fiercely brave, and a natural leader. Guess who headed up the conspiracy to leave the Shire with Frodo in the first place? Guess who’s calling most of the shots when the hobbits have to cleanse the Shire at the end? Oh yeah, and GUESS WHO STABBED THE WITCH-KING FIRST? And Merry’s first words upon waking from the death-like sleep that resulted from his encounter with the Witch-King? “I am hungry. What is the time?” This, my friends, is a true hobbit.

4) Frodo

Frodo isn’t the most likable character in Middle Earth, to be sure. He’s shockingly serious and philosophical for a hobbit, yet he can be a bit dim at times. And the increasing strain placed on him by the Ring throughout the book makes him…not much fun. But give the guy a break! He has the hardest fight of anyone in the Fellowship, which is saying something. He chooses–twice–to go into the unknown, carrying an object guaranteed to draw all things evil after him at all times, and then, when the Ring threatens to corrupt his small band of allies, he chooses to leave even them behind, and to enter the most dangerous place in Middle Earth alone. Early in the book, we have him fighting Barrow-Wights and facing down Black Riders, and later he manages to hold his own against the giant spider Shelob (for a while, at least). Add his constant, and until the end, successful, struggle against the Ring’s temptation, and here we have one tough-as-nails hero. Even though Frodo failed in the end, the book makes it clear that no one in Middle Earth could have done better, not even its greatest mythological warriors. Funny how they forgot to put most of this in the movies…

3) Aragorn

Speaking of thrilling heroics…Aragorn’s transformation from weather-beaten Strider to King Elessar is one of the most dramatic parts of the story. Of course, I liked him from the beginning. He’s very kind to the hobbits, but not in a condescending way. Despite being heir to the greatest kingdom in Middle Earth, he spent years protecting the Shire, and then the Ringbearer, without taking any of the credit. But when his kingdom needed him to actually become a king, he stepped up big time. Like Faramir, he combines a warrior’s strength with a love for those he protects…but more so. One of his symbols of authority is a sword, but “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer.” Aragorn is definitely someone you want on your side, no matter what you’re up against. The fact that he has an army of the dead at his disposal doesn’t hurt, either.

2) Gandalf

Oh, how I love Gandalf. I loved him from the very first words he spoke in The Hobbit. That sarcastic sense of humor. Actually, Gandalf’s ability to be funny, considering how old he is and how much he’s seen of Middle Earth, and the fact that he’s practically an angel, is one of his more impressive traits. Another is his appreciation of small, ordinary things, like hobbits and their pipe-weed. Gandalf has fought with demons and dragons, has defeated Sauron himself and come back from the dead at least once, yet he still makes time to light fireworks at Bilbo’s birthday party. He’s apparently the only wizard who has any patience for such things, and that shows how very wise he is. Gandalf is strong enough to know that evil can’t be defeated by strength. That only the bravery and decency of ordinary people can find a chink in its armour. And that’s why, without Gandalf, Middle Earth would be screwed.

1) Master Samwise

But the highest ranking has to go to Sam. Sam, the simple gardener. The poet and lover of all things Elvish. The unflinchingly loyal friend. The optimist who carries frying pans into Mordor. The one with more hobbit-sense than all the other hobbits put together. The guy who can get excited by seeing an oliphaunt even in the midst of a terrible battle. The second of two people in the Ring’s history to give up possession of it willingly (and he didn’t even have Gandalf to help him). The one who turned Shelob into a drooling, cowering mess; who sang songs about light in Cirith Ungol; and who carried Frodo up Mount Doom. If you can read The Lord of the Rings and not love Samwise Gamgee with all your heart, then I’m a little concerned for you as a human being. Without Sam, there is no story (and there’s certainly no Frodo). He embodies what The Lord of the Rings is really all about: ordinary people who save the world by simply doing the right thing and refusing to give up no matter how much it costs them. Which is probably why Tolkien gave him the last word in the book. “Well, I’m back.”


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Eagles: Plot Hole or Plan?

One of the most common criticisms of the story in Lord of the Rings is as follows: “Why didn’t Gandalf and Frodo just fly the Eagles to Mordor?”

People who enjoy finding plot holes in books and movies like to point out that walking to Mordor was the most arduous, least practical way to get the Ring destroyed. (As Boromir pointed out, “one does not simply walk into Mordor.”) And Middle Earth has these convenient, huge flying creatures who are strong enough to carry a man for a long distance and happen to be friends with Gandalf. Why spend months getting pursued by evil minions, wearing out your hobbit feet and running out of supplies, when you could just call up the Eagles?

This seemingly obvious solution  to all the Fellowship’s problems has produced some amusing parodies, like this one from HISHE:

But in fact, as everyone who has read the books and Tolkien’s other works knows, the Eagles are not great big flying plot holes. Tolkien hated plot holes more than most fantasy writers, which is why it took him so long to write The Lord of the Rings in the first place. He worked over every single detail until it was just right, and the Eagles were far from an oversight. Here’s my take on why.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Riding the Eagles to Mordor would not have solved all of Frodo’s problems. It would still have taken a few days, at least, for the Eagles to get there from Rivendell, and they aren’t the only flying creatures in Middle Earth. The Nazgul would still be a threat. Remember, “wraiths with wings!” And once Frodo got to Mount Doom, he would still have the whole “letting go of the Ring” issue to deal with. Remember, only two people in the Ring’s history have given it up willingly, and it was a struggle for both of them, even with the help of Gandalf and hobbit-sense. One does not simply drop the Ring into Mount Doom.

Now let’s get a second thing straight: only people who saw the Lord of the Rings movies first think of the Eagles as a plot hole. That’s because the movies portray them basically as Gandalf’s pets. They come when he calls, they do whatever he needs them to do without hesitation, and they don’t even talk back.

Tolkien’s original portrayal of the Eagles is quite different. For one thing, they’re intelligent, not trained animals. They talk, and they even have their own society and leadership. They’re also consistently described (in The Hobbit) as “wild” creatures. They don’t answer to anyone except themselves. Gandalf actually asked, during Bilbo’s first encounter with the Eagles, whether they could fly him and the Dwarves over to the Lonely Mountain, and they said no! 

“The Lord of the Eagles would not take them anywhere near where men lived. ‘They would shoot at us with their great bows of yew,’ he said, ‘for they would think we were after their sheep. And at other times they would be right.'”

See? They’re just regular birds, not Southwest Airlines. One does not simply buy a ticket to ride an Eagle.

Of course, later in that book, the Eagles do swoop in to become the fifth contender in the Battle of the Five Armies, but that’s more because of their hatred for the Goblins than their love for any of the other armies. And they do become good friends with Gandalf, which is why Gwaihir, the Lord of the Eagles, is so willing to help him in The Lord of the Rings (though incidentally, Radagast and Galadriel, respectively, were the ones who asked for his help both times he came to the rescue, not Gandalf himself).

The Eagles show up in The Silmarillion and other writings, too, and they’re always unpredictable. No one ever expects them to show up, and no one asks for their help unless they’re already friends. They only come to the rescue when someone is in their most desperate need, and being threatened by something very evil. The Eagles don’t like Goblins or Balrogs or any creature of darkness, and they will fight them in a crisis (and they usually win). But the rest of the time, they steal sheep from farmers and mind their own business.

I actually think Tolkien was trying to do something very profound with the Eagles. They’re the personification of what he called the “eucatastrophe,” the unexpected happy ending brought about by something far beyond the heroes’ efforts. You could even look at them as a symbol of divine intervention–the unexpected grace that saves people when they seem to be far beyond saving.

However you look at the Eagles, they’re definitely much more than a feathery mode of transportation. Suggesting that the Fellowship ride them to Mordor is a bit cheap when you think about it. I’m pretty sure Gwaihir would be offended. And one does not simply offend the Lord of the Eagles.

And finally–The Lord of the Rings is a novel. It’s supposed to be entertaining. How boring would it be if Frodo had just hopped on an Eagle’s back and dropped the Ring in the Cracks of Doom? I can tell you one thing–they never would have made a movie out of it.


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Happy Hobbit Day!

It’s September 22! One of the best days of the year!

Not only is today the first official day of autumn, it’s also the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins! As such, it is known as “Hobbit Day” among LOTR fans, and is generally considered the perfect occasion to listen to the Lord of the Rings movie soundtracks, drink a pint or two, and eat multiple hobbit-friendly meals (for ideas on how to do this, see my previous post).

In honour of the day, here is an excellent poem by Bilbo Baggins himself:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

Have a splendid Hobbit Day, and don’t forget to read some Tolkien!



Fandom of the Month: The Lord of the Rings

Well, folks, September is finally here, and that means it’s time to talk about the godfather of all fandoms!

As you may have gathered from the picture above my blog name, Middle Earth is my favourite fantastical place to visit. It became my first nerdy obsession when I read The Hobbit at age 9, and I haven’t looked back since. In my opinion, The Lord of the Rings is the greatest fantasy novel–if not the greatest novel, period–ever written. I’ll explain the reasons why in some future posts.

Oh yeah, and the movies are pretty good, too. 🙂

If you’re not familiar with The Lord of the Rings, shame on you. Go read it right now. But in case you live in a cave in Siberia and have no access to the book or movies, here’s the basic summary: The Lord of the Rings is a book by British writer and linguist J.R.R. Tolkien, which was published in three volumes back in the ’50s. It takes place in the ancient fantasy world of Middle Earth and tells the story of a small creature (hobbit) named Frodo who goes on a journey to defeat the Dark Lord Sauron by destroying the magic ring which is the source of his power. Of course, that’s a major oversimplification. The story is actually very complex and has dozens of main characters who travel to all kinds of scary and wonderful places. And The Lord of the Rings is only one small part of the huge mythology Tolkien created for Middle Earth, which can also be found in books like The HobbitThe Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin.


Peter Jackson directed a trilogy of movies based on The Lord of the Rings in the early 2000s, and he’s currently putting out a trilogy based (sort of) on The Hobbit. (More on that later.) The movies made Middle Earth a bigger part of popular culture than it was before, but the LOTR fandom had been around long before that. This has always been a pretty dignified, intelligent fandom, including lots of college professor and author types who like to write books and give lectures on their favourite stories. Which seems appropriate, since that’s the kind of guy Tolkien was. But that doesn’t mean LOTR fans don’t dress up, sword fight and drop movie quotes into casual conversations as often as the next nerd.

Even if you don’t love LOTR, you have to appreciate the impact it has had on nerd culture. J.R.R. Tolkien practically invented geeks as we know them today. Before him, fairy tales were for kids and sci-fi was mostly for the uneducated masses. Nobody really took speculative fiction seriously, and they certainly weren’t dressing up like their favourite H.G. Wells characters and going to conventions. But after LOTR was published, Elvish graffiti started appearing in subway tunnels and fans started dressing up for hobbit-themed picnics. Tolkien made it okay for adults to read fantasy, and not only read it, but make its imaginary world a part of their daily lives.

And that, kids, is how Harry Potter, Game of ThronesStar Wars and every other fantasy or sci-fi epic of the last fifty years came to be. I’m pretty sure you can also thank Tolkien for the existence of ComicCon. Respect the LOTR fandom!

And stay tuned! This month I’ll be posting fun Middle Earth facts, my favourite quotes, a few rants and raves about new developments in the fandom, and of course some recipes and costume ideas.

As the Elves would say, Namarie!