Dickerson: Be thankful for your meals

Editor’s note: Matt Dickerson, who usually writes a column for our sports pages, takes a little different tack this week as Thanksgiving nears.

Readers beware. This is not an outdoor column. It isn’t about fishing or hunting, at least not directly.

In just two weeks, the next installment of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of “The Hobbit” will be coming to theaters. Now I have written three somewhat successful books about J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, I’ve published chapters on Tolkien in five other books, I’ve been teaching college courses on Tolkien for a quarter of a century, and I’ve flown all over the country to give lectures on Middle-earth. So you might imagine I was looking forward to the film. But the truth is, I’m not. I will watch it, in part because I will be expected to comment on it. But I am dreading it.

Now I actually had great anticipation for Jackson’s version of “The Lord of the Rings” when the trilogy was released a decade ago. And I was not completely disappointed. The movies were enjoyable — the first two especially. Though Jackson seems to have missed or misunderstood the most important ideas in Tolkien’s works — what renowned Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey might call the “ideological core” of the books — they were at least highly entertaining films with great cinematography, a memorable score, and some excellent acting. I even purchased the DVDs and have watched them multiple times.

So I had reasonable expectations for “The Hobbit” film. I was even glad to hear that Jackson was making three films out of the book. Despite cynicism that his motive for doing so was monetary rather than artistic, I thought there was enough material to justify the decision. But then I watched Part One in the theater last year. Not only did Jackson undermine some of Tolkien’s most important philosophical ideas, but I didn’t even think the film was entertaining. It was like watching a cross between bad Saturday morning cartoons and old Three Stooges episodes, interspersed with interminable and far-fetched slapstick chase scenes. (Growing up, I watched far too much Three Stooges and Saturday morning cartoons. I know of what I speak.)

Now I might not be qualified to critique films. But I am qualified to write about Tolkien’s ideas. What, you might ask, were the important ideas that Jackson undermined? There are many, but one of the most important relates to a topic that is timely this week: food and thanksgiving.

You might never guess this from watching the films, but J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary works contain little in the way of actual battles. That is, they spend little time describing fight scenes or any sort of violent content. J.R.R. Tolkien fought in one of the worst battles of World War I, lost every one of his close friends, and ended up in a hospital himself. He knew that war was a bloody awful thing and he didn’t want to glorify it by describing that violence in any sort of graphic way.

What he did put great effort into describing, however, was food. Not just food, but meals, including the food, the setting, and the fellowship around the table. His books “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” (unlike the films bearing those names) have one memorable meal after another, each presented with loving detail. Now these meals and their descriptions are not particularly exciting or adventurous. So why does Tolkien include these lavish food descriptions in his epic heroic adventurous fantasy? Because they represented something important to him. If you don’t believe me, try flipping to 10 random locations in the books, and start reading at each one. More often than not, you will read a description of a meal (or two or three) before you encounter a battle. And the meals will be presented in far greater and more loving detail.

And, actually, you can ignore my opening disclaimer. For, in fact, a few of the memorable meals were the results of hunting or fishing. And more than a few were eaten outdoors in wilderness settings on “camping trips” of a sort. One memorable feast of freshly hunted wild game is shared by Bilbo and his dwarf companions high up in the mountains in the aeries of eagles.

Even more to the point of this week, however, is this. Tolkien suggested through his Middle-earth books that the partakers of meals have a responsibility to be thankful for the food they are enjoying and that is sustaining and satisfying them. And this, of course, is also what our annual celebration of Thanksgiving is all about. It’s all in the name, isn’t it?

The wisest of characters in Middle-earth recognize that every meal is a gift, and that the recipients of that gift should take the time to pause and be thankful. This is one of the important lessons the hobbits Frodo and Sam learn from wise and heroic human character Faramir. It is a lesson they bring home with them back to the Shire. When we take for granted the wonderful gift of food, whether of produce from the soil, or the fruit of the hunt, we risk losing it.

So pass the turkey and potatoes. Enjoy that helping of pie. And perhaps that second helping of pie. (I will probably stop at three. Unless I really need to sample another one.) But as you enjoy the feast, also take a few moments to be thankful. Recognize how many folks you depend upon for your food. And then recognize how dependent you are on the earth itself, and the weather and soil and water and air. And express your thanks again. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins would be proud.

Of course if you really want to imitate the two Bagginses, keep in mind that Hobbits eat six meals a day. 

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