As excitement builds for the opening of Peter Jackson's new film "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," it just may be that DuPage County, Ill., and the city of Wheaton in particular, will briefly become the center of the universe, or at least the sleepy capital of Middle Earth. You see, my fair town has some deep connections with "The Hobbit," its author J. R. R. Tolkien, the great 20th-century fantasy writer and Oxford don, and, by opportunistic extension, with the latest holiday-blockbuster Tolkien film.
Now, I admit that the true epicenter of all things Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is in New Zealand, whose settings lend themselves to the films' enchanting lands. Jackson currently operates his studio there, and a Hobbit Museum has even sprung up. The government there seems quite happy to benefit from a new wave of Hobbit tourism. That said, New Zealand is awfully far away. Considerably farther than Merton College, Oxford, where Tolkien taught, or the Eagle and Child pub just north of there, where he shared story drafts and drank pints with fellow writers C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. And it may be that even a poor substitute -- say, the Harry Potter theme park in Florida -- is still too distant. So come visit Wheaton instead for your Tolkien fix, where there are no rides but shorter lines and less traffic. Neither smog nor Smaug, The Hobbit's great dragon, is a suburban problem here.
Close to the end of "The Return of the King," the third part of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Frodo and Sam read through a "big book with plain red leather covers." Its beginning pages are filled with the "thin wandering hand" of Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit's journeying hero. The front page features successive titles, each crossed out, one beneath the next: My Diary. My Unexpected Journey. There and Back Again. And What Happened After. Here is what you can expect to happen and see if you make the decidedly less perilous journey to Chicagoland's Hobbit Headquarters.
Wheaton can make this claim largely because of Wheaton College, where I teach. A Tolkien Society was recently created on campus, and has sponsored readings and other events, with some participants showing up in costume. The more avid students seem to be just on the sweet side of fanaticism, as befits members of any literary society. Last week the group conducted its meeting at the local Denny's, to partake of the new movie-themed Hobbit menu. This week it has arranged a special college screening of The Hobbit at a nearby theater.
The most Tolkienesque place on campus, though, is the Marion E. Wade Center, a research library and museum dedicated to The Hobbit's author, as well as to the life and works of Tolkien's fellow "Inklings"-- C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton and others. The two largest collections of Tolkien's manuscripts are found at Oxford's Bodleian Library and Marquette University, but the Wade Center possesses correspondence and some manuscripts as well. Its archive and reading room also make available to scholars the world's largest collection of secondary literature on Tolkien, including theses and dissertations and an article file of more than twenty thousand items. A more general attraction on display is the desk at which Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit," just a few feet away from the purported wardrobe that inspired C. S. Lewis's classic Narnia series of children's books, especially "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
A few months ago in north Wheaton, a restaurant opened with the name of Gandalf's Grill, referring to the wise magician in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Its store-front sign featured a hand holding a french fry as if it were a wand. A bit odd, but in a charming way. I tried to dine there earlier this week with a friend, but we found it already closed, replaced by Viet Bowl & Grill. We still had lunch there.
"I think it was like a lower-cost, Chucky-Cheese type of place," my friend said about the sadly defunct restaurant, whose closing regrettably strikes a blow against Wheaton's Hobbit-Headquarters claim. "You know, you could hold a birthday party here, and while the kids ate pizza, they would do magic tricks." We both, eating Pho like two Zen philosophers, agreed that the bowling alley across the street may have hurt business, and I kept trying to imagine what "lower-cost" looked like relative to Chucky Cheese. Incidentally, Tolkien's friend C. S. Lewis does much better as an inspirer of business names. Locally we have Narnia Estates (fantasy-themed wedding, anyone?), Narnia Landscaping, and Aslan Bath Design and Stoneworks (with a cartoon lion on its commercial vehicles).
Jerry Root, who teaches at Wheaton and publishes on the Inklings, believes these allusive names are about more than marketing. "It's a sign of their enthusiasm. I think they really like this stuff," he says. "It's reflective of their literary interests. They'd probably be wise to develop more of a Lewisian love of all literature. Most of the people I know who read Lewis pretty faithfully don't just stop there."
"The Hobbit," with the film opening, seems to be everywhere, in Wheaton and well beyond. Our local library is giving children commemorative pins and book marks ("Make Reading a Hobbit!"). The movie trailer is on television and movie-tie-in toys online. The other night I was watching Judd Apatow's vintage high-school sitcom, "Freaks & Geeks," and in it one of the cool crowd dismisses a geeky kid by calling him "Bilbo Baggins."
Christopher Mitchell, who directs Wheaton's Wade Center, believes that Tolkien's writings and Jackson's films resonate with so many because they focus ultimately on a simple theme: home. Tolkien's original subtitle for "The Hobbit" was "There and Back Again," according to Mitchell, and this focus doesn't change, even amid "The Lord of the Rings'" grand cosmic shifts between light and darkness. "You may have to fight at the gate of Mordor," he said, "but you're just trying to survive and return to that first place, to preserve that home, where there is a light on in the window, and it is awaiting you."
Bilbo in "The Hobbit," then, may resemble most of all Odysseus, who despite visiting cities and learning the ways of men, is most determined to return home to Ithaca. As Matthew Dickerson and David O'Hara explain in "From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy," Bilbo must visit the Lonely Mountain, but his difficulties continue when he returns to The Shire and finds his cottage overrun, his possessions seized and even his identity questioned. Maybe this is the most traumatic encounter Bilbo has, for all of the great dangers he faces when confronting Gollum, trolls, orcs and dragons. For we need home to be the place that it is. And for any home, it needs us, too. It asks that we love the unique, sometimes quirky things that make it that place, and no other place.