Noble Smith is author of the forthcoming book The Wisdom of the Shire from Hodder & Stoughton, available in hardcover and ebook and translated into seven languages. In this exclusive extract he ponders what J.R.R. Tolkien would make of the rise of social media - and how we can Tweet like a hobbit. Follow him at @shirewisdom.
"Anyone who has read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien knows the architect of Middle-earth was a spectacular letter writer.
His missives are long and rich and wonderfully rambling, full of insights into his life and work and punctuated with Proustian remembrances. Letter writing, according to the Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter, was one of Tolkien's favorite activities and took up much of his time. He wrote monumental letters even to his fans (some over 5,000 words long) answering obscure Middle-earth queries, from the origin of Sam Gamgee's name to whether or not the Ring of Doom is a metaphor for the atom bomb (it's not).
Can you imagine how you would react if a 5,000 word email showed up in your inbox? You'd probably sigh, roll your eyes and curse under your breath muttering, "I don't have time for this rubbish!" even if the email did come from a famous author. Tolkien, however, managed to make the time to write copious letters and read his extensive correspondence, while simultaneously performing his scholarly duties as a professor (which included, no doubt, vast amounts of writing).
What's happened to us all that we've been relegated to composing the protracted haikus that are the 140 character-only messages of Twitter?
I wonder what Tolkien would have done if he'd been alive during our social media revolution? Would the Oxford philologist have checked his Facebook page "Likes" counter daily? Or shared an update on LinkedIn? ("My book The Lord of the Rings is finally translated into Frisian! Check it out.") And, most importantly, would he have deigned to tweet? Lady Gaga has nearly 30 million fans standing by to receive her daily gems. If the wildly popular Tolkien were alive today he would no doubt surpass even those lofty numbers.
It's hard to think of Tolkien tweeting mundane blather like so many celebrities (apart from the tweet-god Stephen Fry, of course). Or constantly announcing his whereabouts like one of those Facebook "check-ins" maniacs who let you know they're on the way to the airport, then at the airport, then in security, then in the loo, then at the gate, then waiting for takeoff...
Tolkien was into old fashioned, honest to goodness social intercourse, and that's why he helped start The Inklings, a group of literary-minded friends who gathered for beer and food at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford and talked about their works-in-progress and read them aloud.
The first scene of The Fellowship of the Ring takes place at an inn called The Ivey Bush in Hobbiton, where a group of Hobbits (including Sam's dad, the old Gaffer Gamgee) sit drinking beer and discussing local events: a sort of Westfarthing Inklings. In Tolkien's Shire--his idealized version of an egalitarian Anglo-Saxon England--the inhabitants actually talk face to face and not on FaceTime, though Tolkien's magical "Seeing Stones," the palantirs, were eerily prescient of Skype.
Of chief importance to the Hobbits in The Ivey Bush is Bilbo Baggins's upcoming eleventy-first birthday party. Nearly everyone in the Shire is in great anticipation about whether or not they will receive one of Bilbo's hand-written invitations. Bilbo ends up sending out hundreds of these cards--so many that the Hobbiton post-office has to bring in emergency employees to process and distribute all of them. Imagine the work Bilbo put in to writing that many invitations! All of the cards inscribed by hand in his careful and flowing script, sealed in an envelope and addressed to each recipient. One's hand would ache mightily from all that work--a kind of toil that the medieval manuscript-makers referred to as "plowing the pages." (Back in the 12th century carpal tunnel syndrome was simply known as "being sore of hand.")
Nowadays we can send out a myriad of invitations with web services like Evite merely by clicking a few buttons. Where's the satisfaction in that kind of measly effort? Where's the thrill of receiving and tearing into a real letter? The delicious risk of a terrible paper-cut injury? When I was a schoolboy for Saint Valentine's Day we would have to write a card for every single one of our classmates--an onerous task that took hours to complete.
But it was a superbly sneaky way to get kids to practice their penmanship. Last year, several kids in my son's primary school class actually mass-produced their Valentine's Day cards, automatically labeling them with greeting card software. The human connection, one can well imagine, was utterly lost.
Don't get me wrong. I love many of the conveniences of modern technology. I'm writing this essay on my beloved Apple laptop with Microsoft Word. When I'm done typing it I'll email the document 4,799 miles to my editor in the UK at the speed of light using the magic that is the Internet. Tolkien was also far from being a Luddite, though he loathed industrialization and all the ugliness that comes with it. But he absolutely cherished his manual typewriter (upon which he typed the entire manuscript for The Lord of the Rings twice and which his son Christopher still owns and uses to this day); and he mused about being rich enough one day to have a typewriter specially built that would allow him to compose in his invented Elven Fëanorian script. Tolkien, I believe, would have thought a computer's font library something like a wizard's magic.
The real question is, "What are we going to do with the great gift of this technology that has been created for us?" Our addiction and reliance upon social networking is akin to the Rings of Power forged by Sauron, binding those who wear them in a kind of mystical web that can be corrupted by the Dark Lord's evil. Tolkien hated the notion of wicked "whiskered men with bombs" running the world. The Internet--our ability to link together almost instantaneously and spread the news of oppression--is probably our best tool against these kinds of ruthless rulers. And Twitter, with its easy access via mobile devices and its ability to spread a story like wildfire, could potentially be our best tool to promote equality.
In The Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf tells Frodo, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." Nowadays we're all running on a time-deficit. Sir Ian McKellen, through his Twitter feed, appears to be making good use of his time to communicate with his nearly two hundred thousand followers. He tweets about benefits he's doing for an earthquake-damaged theatre in New Zealand, or supports a small pub in England in its David and Goliath licensing battle with a big Hollywood company (the pub is called "The Hobbit"), and then cheers on the Paralympics, tweeting excitedly from the stands. He does this all a few sentences at a time, spreading the word to his time-challenged audience.
My favorite actor who is tweeting right now is Dominic Monaghan (Merry from The Lord of the Rings films). His @DomsWildThings feed certainly must be as close as it gets to someone tweeting like a real live Hobbit. Dom is funny as hell and full of life, and not too bashful to tell us when he's been out enjoying himself. When his fellow Lord of the Rings alum Billy Boyd (Pippin) comes to LA to visit him the two get wasted and play pranks, go surfing and snap pictures of each other taking turns popping out of a big metal garbage can like Oscar the Grouch, or posing with noodles hanging out of their mouths.
Dom's tweets aren't always completely trivial (though I wouldn't mind if they were). Every once in a while he writes about something that's important to him: calling out a fellow actor for his alleged abusive and misogynistic behavior, or railing against a TV show that, in Dom's opinion, promotes cruelty to animals. Like a Hobbit he enjoys life to the fullest, but when he sees something that gets his hackles up he immediately takes a stand.
Stephen Fry, humanist extraordinaire and Tolkien devotee (as well as a featured actor in the new Hobbit Trilogy) was one of the first people I started following when I got my Twitter account up and running. His energy is profound, his interests spectacularly varied. In a single week of tweeting he informed people about the dearth of books for the blind, raised diabetes awareness, told a bad joke (which had been told to him in turn by a famous pianist), praised his fellow actors rehearsing a play at The Globe, commented breathlessly on football and cricket, lamented about the proliferation and influence of smartphones in our society, eulogized actor Michael Clarke Duncan, and dashed off to interview Tony Benn!
My gut tells me that Stephen Fry--the Master of Twitter Town with close to five million followers--would also be able to sit down and happily compose a six-page-long letter to a close friend, or even an adoring fan, just like one of his literary heroes J.R.R. Tolkien did.
So how do we tweet like a Hobbit? We can start with being kind, but not shying away from irreverence. Write about things that are important to you rather than thinking about how you can build up an audience. Tweet as though each digital chirrup is winging its way to your very best friend in the world, and not a list of strangers. Write about things that interest you, but don't be too self-indulgent. Tweeting like a Hobbit means observing life with wonder, joy and a sense of humor, but taking on the Sarumans, Orcs and Dark Lords of the world anytime you feel the necessity.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, before Bilbo departs Bag End and the Shire forever, he leaves behind some wry parting gifts along with sarcastically written messages. Among them is the gift of a gold pen and inkbottle for a friend who never answered Bilbo's letters. One of these days I encourage you to put aside the texts and the tweets and the email and write an honest-to-goodness letter with pen and paper. Don't worry about how long it is. Let it ramble on for pages. The odds are the person on the receiving end will read every single word with great enthusiasm."