28 November 2012

'Wisdom of the Shire' Review and Interview

I recently had the pleasure of reading Noble Smith’s The Wisdom of the Shire (“a short guide to a long and happy life”), which came out last month. Having heard many good things about this book from critics and fellow readers alike, I was more than eager to read it myself!

In The Wisdom of the Shire, Noble pulls us away from the craziness of our own lives and sticks us in the heart of the Shire, where its Hobbit citizens live simple, yet rewarding lives, and whose Hobbit holes are the true definition of comfort.

While many of us have grown accustomed to the complex and chaotic routine we call “life,” living like a Hobbit is not a difficult task, as Noble shows us. The main thing is to learn how to simplify – an idea that is both foreign and frightening to many people. Fortunately, Noble provides more than enough suggestions and information to get you on your way to living a more Hobbit-y lifestyle.

And while The Wisdom of the Shire is in some ways a sort of “self-betterment” book, it speaks to – and not at – the reader, which makes it a fun and engaging read. From the very beginning, Noble makes things personal, sprinkling bits of his own opinions and life experiences on top of the many examples he’s pulled from both Tolkien’s writings and Peter Jackson’s film adaptations.

Regardless of whether you seriously want to make a change in your life, or if you just want to read more about Tolkien’s furry-footed characters, this is a must-have. 

Noble was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about his book:

1. When/how did you first get into Tolkien?

Let me set the stage for you, Britta! This was a long time ago. 32 years ago, in fact. I was twelve years old and it was 1980. Twelve was a significant age in Tolkien’s life—that’s how old he was when he was orphaned. It’s also the same age that Frodo was when his parents died in that mysterious boating accident. Anyway, I was obsessed with Star Wars and all things science fiction. And I was waiting anxiously for The Empire Strikes Back to come out that summer. My uncle Richard, a huge Tolkien fan, kept trying to get me to read The Lord of the Rings, but I was resistant. He had that paperback set with the crazy Barbara Remington covers—the so-called “hippie” covers from the 60’s that baffled Tolkien and which he despised (“Where is this place? Why a lion and emus?” he wrote in an exasperated letter to the publisher.) And I just thought they were so stupid looking that I figured the books would suck.

Well, I was in the school library, looking for a science fiction book to check out, when I saw a newer version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy displayed on the librarian’s desk. This was the cool late 70’s Ballantine Books editions with Tolkien’s own artwork on the covers. You know the ones, of course. The Fellowship of the Ring has this beautiful watercolor of the road wending its way through Hobbiton to The Hill in the distance and Bag End. Well, I wanted to be in that picture. That’s really the only reason I checked out the book. So I could study that picture and try to draw it. And then I started reading “Concerning Hobbits.” And pretty soon I was bewitched—like Dwarves are bewitched by gold. I did what any normal Tolkien-fanatic would do. I feigned illness so I could stay home from school and read The Lord of the Rings. I read the whole trilogy in a couple of weeks, and then started it again right away.

I guess the lesson here is that covers really do matter!

2. What inspired you to write this book?

I was driving home from a two-day interview at Microsoft Studios. Driving home in heinous Seattle traffic wondering if I really wanted to give some big lousy corporation the next ten years of my life to make stupid games that I didn’t really believe in. And I had one of those conversations that crazy people have, you know? Where you start talking to yourself out loud, asking really pointed questions in kind of a maniacal voice. “What do you really believe in? What kind of life do you want for yourself and your kids? Who have you used as exemplars for how to act? For how to be a friend? For how to have fun? How to interact with nature? Even how to eat?” And then it hit me like an Istari slapping me upside the head with a big old gnarly Wizard’s staff. Or like that scene in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, where the clouds part and God talks to King Arthur. “The Hobbits will show the way!” boomed a voice in my head. I got home and instantly wrote a one-page book proposal for what I called “a Tao of Pooh for lovers of Middle-earth.” Within six weeks my agent had sold the book at auction in New York and London. And now it’s being translated into eight languages. Oh, and I didn’t get that Microsoft job. Thank the Valar!

3. Why should we look to Hobbits for inspiration? Why not Men or Elves?

Hobbits are more like us, you know? They’re the real humans in the story. Well, the Hobbits and Gandalf! He’s sort of like a grumpy dad and the Hobbits are his rambunctious kids. The Elves are very strange. Esoteric. Otherworldly. They don’t even sleep like us. They can live forever. They are in a different headspace. And the Men are also very foreign. Aragorn and Boromir are written in a “high style”—like characters from legends. They have their human moments, of course, but Faramir is really the most normal Man in the tales, in my opinion. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Hobbits get hungry, and scared, and make stupid jokes. They’re us and that’s why we love them. They were the ones who I related to the most as a kid. Aragorn was cool, but Merry and Pippin seemed to have a heck of a lot more fun. They’re the ones you’d want to sit down and have a pint with.

4. When writing this book, did you learn anything new about yourself or Hobbits?

I learned so much. I learned that you really can write a book in a coffee shop, just like J.K. Rowling did! (We have a very small Hobbit-hole, you see.) I also learned that there is way more wisdom contained in Tolkien’s works than I’d first realized. I kept adding chapters to the book as I wrote it. The words just gushed out of me. Over thirty years’ worth of reading The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s Letters, Unfinished Tales, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Christopher Tolkien’s books, etc. It all just poured out of me like magic. Like it had already been written. I didn’t have writer’s block for one minute writing The Wisdom of the Shire.

5. What is the most important piece of “Shire wisdom” that you’d like to see people take away from this book?

I think the final chapter The Fourth Age is the most important one. It encapsulates everything in the book. I talk about how The Fourth Age in the Middle-earth timeline is “The Age of Men.” And that’s our age: the age of Humankind. We have the opportunity to great good or very great ill over the next couple of generations. I ask people to join together creating a world community based on this shared love of Hobbits—a fellowship of the Shire, if you will. Hobbits are global. Everyone gets who they are and what they’re about. And with the new trilogy coming out more and more people will become interested in Tolkien’s books. Hobbits have incredible traits. They’re kind, courageous, funny and loyal. They have a deep friendship with the earth, meaning they respect nature. They’re egalitarian. They practice sustainability (living off their own resources) and sufficiency (taking only what they need). They stand up for what they believe is right, and are willing to put everything on the line. But most important of all, they know how to have good and happy lives. They know how to live. We should be more like them, right?

6. Do you have any plans to write another book on Tolkien?

I would love to write a book called Sauron’s Guide To Big Business. It would be a parody! Show how megacorporations are like the Dark Lord of Mordor. Actually, I am writing an epic trilogy set in ancient Greece. It’s about a young Olympic fighter who must help save his family, city and the woman he loves from genocidal invaders. It’s based on a true account from the start of the Peloponnesian War. It’s very different from Middle-earth, but I never could have written something so big without Tolkien’s influence. The first book comes out in June, 2013 from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. It’s called Sons of Zeus.

About the Author:
Noble Smith is an award-winning playwright who has worked as a video game writer, a documentary film executive producer, and the media director of an international human rights foundation. His novel Sons of Zeus will be published in 2013 by Thomas Dunne Books. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and children.

Follow Noble on Twitter @ShireWisdom
More on The Wisdom of the Shire at: Shire Wisdom
More on The Warrior Trilogy at: The Warrior Trilogy

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