Tolkien Thoughts for Mythlore – Hobbit Hole at Renaissance Festival


by David Lenander.

used by permission.

The two color shots of the Hobbit Holes are used by permission of Mike Sullivan.

The rest of the photos are by David Lenander.

I’ve been rereading the LOTR this year. Slowly. For the first time in years. I’ve been surprised by how deeply some of the description of the countryside traversed after Bree in Book I, and of little hints about Strider and the Rangers, had sunk into my subconscious mind and merged with earlier hints about this countryside from The Hobbit. I knew that my sonnet, “From Amon Sul” (published in Mythlore as “Aragorn Gazes Upon Ruined Arnor”) was based upon my impressions of this countryside, along with some of Charles Williams’ ideas about country as body, and that old mythic equation of King’s body=Kingdom. I hadn’t realized how clearly Tolkien had set out the descriptions for me. Or how much of this countryside JRRT had “known” as early as the writing of The Hobbit. I think that that idea of land as body, and our body, has sunk deeply into my values and political involvements. For that matter, my best poem, “To Go Fishing in a Dark Cave,” was consciously about the unconscious, and consciously Freudian. It was only after I’d written it that I realized that its imagery was straight out of The Hobbit. To acknowledge this debt I retitled it “Soliloquy for Smeagol.”

Much of Tolkien functions for me on this level. His work, notably the essay on “Fairy Stories” carries less conscious impact for me than that of his obvious predecessor, Owen Barfield, or that of Lewis. But as someone who was always painfully conscious of being short and young-looking throughout my grade and high-school years, hobbits became empowering and important role models. To some degree, at least insofar as hobbits are child-like, they must function that way for all child readers. But for the short, maybe they’re especially important. Not that I consciously modelled my life after Bilbo’s, but on some mythic level, hobbits helped me to successfully travel over the hill and across the water into the Wild.

Some people have followed such a model even further. Mike Sullivan is even shorter than I am. And like Mike, many other members of the Mythopoeic Society Rivendell Discussion Group over the years have been obviously inspired to pursue life choices by Tolkien and his characters. Some like me, into literary study, as undergraduate or graduate student, others into linguistics, history, writing fiction, teaching and scholarship.

I reported on of my fondest Tolkien-related memories a few years ago in our local newsletter:


Hobbit Hole

Hobbit Hole

Mike Sullivan and Rick Peterson, two modern hobbits interested in contemporary architecture–especially energy-efficient, earth sheltered designs–constructed a modern hobbit hole at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival which is both a prototype for the designs that Peterson and Sullivan would like to see incorporated into new human housing, and also a startling realization of its builders’ inspiration in the mythopoeia of J.R.R. Tolkien (with design features like a round door and windows). The hobbit hole was a great curiosity at the Festival, to which most attenders made a pilgrimage, passing through the white picket fence to the round, green door, and entering if it was open to gawk at the quaint furnishing, or rudely pounding on the door if it was shut.

When the door was shut, it was usually for one of two reasons. Either its hobbit proprietor, Mike (who usually passes as a human of less-than-gigantic stature, but who annually took off his shoes to display his hobbit-hairy toes) was inside reading tarot cards, or he was hosting a meeting of the Rivendell Group, which held a number of its annual Mythopicnics as Mike’s guests. In 1980, Mike decided that the newly constructed Improved Hobbit Hole (“Newly Revised?” “Second Edition?” “HHII?” “Son of Hobbit Hole?”) was wasted on tarot cards. He persuaded the Festival to partially underwrite a dramatic production to take advantage of the New Hole. The Palantir Players were born, and performed for a couple of years.

He also had some ideas for setting up the Hobbit Hole as a sort of Middle-earth embassy, a showplace of Tolkien culture. Among his ideas: a continuous reading (aloud) of LOTR, calligraphy demonstrations, story-telling, music and singing, limited theatre–as in people taking on the roles of characters to reminisce about the Elder and Middle days. Loremasters or Middle-earth historians to staff the Hobbit Hole in between the Palantir Players’ productions, able to talk knowledgeably about Tolkien, Middle-earth, hobbits and the Hole and its construction, as well as other lore on myth and fantasy generally, for the general public wandering up to this charming little hobbit hole.
I don’t think that the actual realization of Mike’s vision really lived up to this description, at least over the entire length of the Festival. But for some of us who tried to carry out a part of it, the experience was strangely thrilling and satisfying. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1981, Rick and Mike were flown to St. Louis to receive an architectural award for the stress tests they’d designed and conducted to prove the soundness of the construction of their Hobbit Hole–tests which finally convinced the Chaska Building Inspector. This award was for a design competition at the Earth Sheltered Housing Conference of the American Underground Association. Their research paper concerned the construction and testing of a certain “Steel-reinforced Concrete Shell Structure,” a.k.a. the New Hole. At the time I reported that the award-winning hobbits were “looking forward mainly to the free meals, according to a confidential source.”

hobbit-hole-new-mikeHobbit Holes co-builder Mike Sullivan, in front of the “new Hobbit-hole,” at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, c. 1980. It was on top of the grasy roof that the “elf-maid” sang her “Namarie.” Photo by Lenander.
Rivendell Hobbit Hole Discussion Report.

Reflection on the ’79 meeting and preparation for the ’80 Festival led me to propose as a discussion topic: “The Hobbit as Hero, or Tolkien’s Myth Takes Hold,” something I’d hoped to further explain at the meeting. On the appointed day, Margaret Howes and I arrived at the Performers’ Gate to find that our names were indeed on the pass list. We made our way fairly directly to the Hobbit Hole, where we had the opportunity to watch other Loremasters in action. Loremasters wear costumes–not necessarily either authentically Middle-earth or Renaissance, but with that feel–no R-2 D-2 or Mr. Spock outfits. Most Renaissance Festival players affect a sort of accent inspired by bad movies ostensibly set in the courts of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I or Mary Stuart of Scotland. These accents are not limited to those players dressed in English Renaissance costume. By and large, most Loremasters maintain the polite fiction that the Common Speech of Middle-earth was 20th-Century English. I was pleased to learn that the fake Shakespearean accents are optional–you can attempt it if you feel comfortable doing that….

Margaret and David at Hobbit Hole

Margaret and David at Hobbit Hole

Margaret was wearing a new costume, but I needed one of the handy, all-period Loremaster Robes that Mike was keeping on hand for those Loremasters whose lore is limited in the areas of tailoring and needlecraft. We really weren’t needed for the time being, but we ended up watching the Loremasters in action for quite a while. Neither of Mike’s ideas for continuous readings of LOTR or Elvish calligraphy demonstrations had been realized, but I was impressed by the efforts of the two young Loremasters were valiantly reading aloud from The Silmarillion, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and other, similar, sacred texts, and also attempting some impromptu discussion in character as residents of Middle-earth. A bit later we watched the performance of the Palantir Players, including Mike as an Elf.

A minstrel and his young companion wandered up to the Hobbit Hole, where the former loudly professed disbelief in Faerie, or at any rate in the lingering power of such creatures as Hobbits in the present day. His companion, who played guitar to accompany his singing, was obviously reluctant to listen to such blasphemy, which only encouraged the minstrel in his absurd skepticism. The minstrel’s words were cut short at the sudden, explosive entrance of a grey wizard, who warned him that the principles of good and evil persist in present reality from earlier days reflected in stories and legends. Gandalf (?) warned mysteriously of dark shadows rising in every age, but also offered hope in good forces. In token of the latter, he summoned (with another explosion) the Hobbit, Frodo, who was about as enthusiastic about coming out of retirement as one might expect (remembering how Bilbo felt about leaving his comfortable Bag-end for an uncomfortable Adventure). Soon our heros were joined by a couple of Rangers, a Dwarf and a grey Elf (no Ents), who scampered off to fight a terrible battle just out of sight behind the Hobbit Hole (we could hear the wizard’s explosions, and we saw some Orc fur fly), after which the whole company disappeared into the Hole for tea, pipeweed and strategy. The minstrel, now a believer, exited through the crowd, singing. The Players also roamed the Festival grounds, interacting with one another and other Festival actors in character.

Margaret at Hobbit hole

Margaret at Hobbit hole

Back at the Hobbit Hole, an elf named Holly, wearing a green gown, showed us that except for The Middle-earth Song Book, and The Tolkien Scrapbook, we could have left our backpacks at home–the Hole was well-supplied with texts. Margaret and I took turns reading, mostly poems, but also an abridged version of “An Unexpected Party.” Sometimes our audience was very small, and at times I felt silly, as when I stood holding an umbrella over Margaret’s head to protect the book from which she was reading, but by and large, I felt proud to be a part of this little outpost of hobbit culture. I particularly admired Margaret’s ability to tell some of her “Tales Told by the Lonely Mountain” from memory–a much more effective communication with the audience than reading from a book. In her costume I could quite believe that she was a woman of Dale, telling stories to the children who gathered about outside of the picket fence. (I don’t suppose the children of Dale wore such lurid T-shirts, thought). I really didn’t feel that we’d been there for long when our shift was over, and it was time for the next performance of the Players.

I failed to remark above how impressed we were with the tasteful realization of characters and costumes, the music and theme–which tied into my proposed discussion topic very nicely. But it was one oft he Loremasters who most impressed me: When one of the performances was late because the Players had been delayed elsewhere on the grounds, Holly climbed up on top of the Hobbit Hole to reassure the restive crowd. She spoke for a bit, as she watched the distance for the approaching Players, and then sang an unaccompanied “Namarie” set to her own melody. This was the unexpected climax of my day. Standing on the green, grass-covered hill, in her green gown, against the bright and dark horizon (there was little actual rain, but it threatened on and off all day) I saw not another human, dressed in a costume, but an Elf-maid. If I was reminded less of Tolkien’s elves than of the Irish Sidhe, or of Ruth Berman’s story “The Death of Gawaine,” this was, nevertheless, a glimpse of Faerie.

A number of members showed up for our actual meeting, which focused more on the performance we’d witnessed than on my proposed topic. Later, Holly sang again, then Mike led us in his version of the Dwarves’ Treasure Song, and finally I accompanied us as we sang my setting of the Fall of Gil-Galad. I distributed some extra song sheets and information about The Mythopoeic Society to interested watchers and left enthused about doing more next year. –David Lenander