I read The Hobbit as a kid, or had it read to me, I’m not entirely sure. It’s embedded in my consciousness so deeply I can’t put a date on it. But then, so is a lot of fantasy. I know my way around Tamora Pierce’s Tortall. I can keep straight the order of the alternate Englands in Diana Wynne Jones. I have a map of Hogwarts in my heart. I could hide myself in the closets of Jordan College in the Golden Compass, or the backs of wardrobes full of furs in the Professor’s house in CS Lewis, and never be discovered. Hell, there was a time when I actually lived in a storybook landscape. My grandparents had a house on the edge of the real and actual Hundred Acre Wood (which is actually called Ashdown Forest, and is just as lovely as the drawings make it seem, and is crazy historic, yo) and I lived with them when I was very young, and played Poohsticks on Pooh Bridge. And not to rub it in or anything, but while we’re on enchanted woods, my mother lives not too far a drive from the drowned forest of Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree.
By Richerman (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
But the place I have always wanted to live is the Shire. No – not the Shire. The place I have always wanted to live is a hobbit hole.
I’m five foot two. I like small snug places, and cozy corners, and nooks and crannies. I once lived in a loft in a converted courthouse in Massachusetts where the ceiling was technically six feet but no one could stand up except for me because of the immense, ornate, massive cherry woodwork ornamenting the ceiling. (This suited me fine.) And then there was the closet with a closet – literally a room the size of a single mattress with a alcove at one end the size of a diminutive refrigerator and a tiny window on one side. And a slanted ceiling, so that, again, no one but me could stand up. I called it the Princess Tent. My six-foot-tall boyfriend went around with a permanent bruise on his forehead, and I’m sure he sympathized with Gandalf in Bag End, forever smacking his towering skull on something while I scurried about blithely beneath. I didn’t care. The smaller the better.
I took issue with many things in Peter Jackson’s films, but the one thing he got right was the hole in the ground. Rivendell, while pleasingly sparkly, always looks a wee bit too chilly and august to me to be the Last Homely House. Let’s not talk about Orthanc. Minas Tirith I’m okay with, but Bag End – now, Bag End is really something. Just do me a favor, will you. Google image search the words hobbit hole. And tell me if there isn’t something in you that thrills with joy at the sight of those tiers upon tiers of fantastic, tiny, cozy houses. There’s something of the treehouse and something of the burrow in them; there’s an animal satisfaction that belongs absolutely to the pleasure of Mole’s snug den in Wind in the Willows and the hidden home of the Borrowers and every other secret, tiny, hidden place that belongs to the best part of childhood – the private place, the sacred space, supplied with snacks and books and telescopes, too small for adults to get at you.
Although I didn’t know it consciously when I was a kid, I knew then as much as I know now that Bag End is the apotheosis of magical childhood haunts. It has, as Tolkien readily points out, everything that could be wanted. And it’s private. Bilbo shares it with no one. In fact, the intrusion of the dwarves is so horrid in part because it is so exactly like having a bunch of vile and pompous grownups come barging in to your quiet roost, or being bowled over by a bunch heedless snotty playmates who were thought to be a good idea by your mother and just don’t understand the special, secret, sacred order of your place.
I still don’t quite understand why it is that we lose our relationship with these radically magical corners when we get old. When you get older, generally speaking you get more privacy, and certainly part of the pleasure of a fort or treehouse as a kid is in the being-alone, or better still the being-ungettable, that comes with a space too small for an adult to climb or crawl into. Once you have a house all to yourself and nobody is there to extract you and make you brush your teeth or share your toys, well, maybe we think we don’t need tiny niches to ourselves because we’ve got whole houses, or at the very least bedrooms, and we feel silly constructing lairs for ourselves when there’s no one to hide from. I’m not, to be honest, entirely sure. And this is in part because my passion for small spaces has never left me.
There is a wonderful book called The Poetics of Space, by the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, which is dedicated entirely to spaces of this kind. Being French, and poetically inclined, he takes it for granted that we all still love and understand drawers, and attics, and cellars, and shells, and nests as being unique and potent forms of space – because, he says, they shelter daydreaming. The book could be taken as the spiritual blueprint of a hobbit-hole. Why do we all empathize so deeply with Bilbo when he’s dragged out of his cozy hole? After all, we’re raised to think that adventures are what stories are made of, and here’s Bilbo, poor homebody Bilbo, who doesn’t want the least little thing to do with dragons – and when the story starts, neither do I. I’m solidly on Bilbo’s side, digging in my heels, horrified by all this talk of cold, wet, dangerous, and unpleasant things, because I want to stay in Bag End myself. And when Bilbo comes back, the outrage that is the auction hurts, because it’s the greatest possible betrayal – worse than dragon-fire or war is the violation of the snug, warm, magical home.
I built houses in my head when I was a kid; I wanted to be an architect. I didn’t want to build hobbit-holes back then, because, of course, hobbit-holes weren’t real. No, I wanted to be the next Julia Morgan. And when I realized that architects have to go build ugly apartments for years before they get to do anything fun, I lost interest altogether. Until one morning, about four years ago, when my mother sent me this:
A couple in Wales with no building experience at all had gone and built themselves a hobbit house. (It’s truly delightful.) And just like that, I realized – wait a minute. This is real? It was real. It is, one might say, a thing. All over the world, people who are interested in low-impact, environmentally friendly buildings are creating things that look astonishingly like hobbit houses.
There’s cob houses:
Switzerland’s Earth Houses:
…and so many other tiny, beautiful, rounded, smoothed, earthy, cozy, snug, magical hobbit holes for people it’s a little overwhelming, especially when you consider that these houses are extremely eco-friendly, insanely cheap to build, and require basically unskilled labor to create.
That’s right, kids: you, too, could have a Bag End of your very own.
And so the reason that Middle Earth remains my BFF above the hundreds of other fantastical kingdoms of the page is that it’s actually within my reach. I can’t buy an owl in Diagon Alley or choose a pool in the Wood Between the Worlds, but I can have a goddamned hobbit house.
You’ll all come, of course, for tea. I’ll make seed cakes. Lots of them. You bring the harps and song.
[You can find Jericha at Museum of Joy, Insatiable Booksluts, or on twitter.]