But there is also another work, an essay of great beauty and depth, concerning this topic. The author is American, and his name is Noble Smith, a writer, a playwright and a film producer. Recently published also in Italy, his book The Wisdom of the Shire (Thomas Dunne Books) (Italian edition: La saggezza della Contea, Sperling & Kupfer; my translation) is focused on the lessons of simple life philosophy that Hobbits can give us. Noble has kindly accepted to be interviewed for this blog.
Giovanni: Hi Noble, we are happy to have you here in our blog! It was a most pleasant work for me to translate your essay The Wisdom of the Shire (La saggezza della Contea) into Italian for Sperling & Kupfer, and to mirror myself in your experience of Tolkien’s fantasy world. My first question is: when and why did you decide to write this book?
Noble: Hey Giovanni! It’s so great to be doing this interview with the Italian translator of my book! I’m so “psyched” as we say in America that there is an Italian-language version of The Wisdom of the Shire. (“Psyched” means “really excited” if you didn’t already know this slang.) I love Italy and had one of the most wonderful experiences in my life travelling there. The short answer to your question is that I came up with the idea for my book about Hobbits while driving home on the freeway after a really long interview with Microsoft Studios. I was in a bad mood, questioning my place in the universe. I felt like I was selling out by trying to get a job with this big, dumb corporation. And I asked myself, “What inspires you?” and “How do you really want to spend the rest of your life.” The answers hit me like I’d gotten whacked in the head by a Wizard’s staff: “Tolkien makes me happy; and I want to try and live—as much as I can—like a Hobbit.” I went home, wrote up the proposal, and within six weeks my agent had sold it at auction in New York and London. And it’s now being translated into eight languages. All of this happened in less than a year. Totally bizarre!
Giovanni: I like the way you created a list of chapters focused on different characters, places and objects of Middle-earth (this was my same approach in my essay Tolkien e Bach), in order to reconnect them to different aspects of our every-day life (like friendship, love, eating, and sleeping, for instance). Did you deliberately choose to do so, or did the process reveal itself to you as you went on in this writing experience?
Noble: The first chapter I wrote for The Wisdom of the Shire was the first chapter that appears in the book: “How Snug Is Your Hobbit-hole”. The rest of the chapters just poured out of me. I actually came up with the idea for the book over thirty years ago when I was reading The Tao of Pooh. Did you guys have this book in Italy? Anyway, I said to my friend, “Somebody should write a book like this about Hobbits. You could call it The Tao of Hobbits!” It wasn’t until that drive home in horrible traffic (over three decades later) that I had that epiphany. So my point is that I had been thinking about this for most of my life. The book’s chapters—and the structure of the book—just made me put everything I’d learned from Tolkien into a coherent outline.
Giovanni: I remember a significant detail in the chapter “Sleep Like a Hobbit”: a dream you had in which Gandalf himself suggested you how to structure your chapter on the Istari (the Wizards of Middle-earth, such as Gandalf and Saruman). Do you think this was an expression of your perception of Collective Unconscious?
Noble: Oh yes, definitely. I’ve read a lot of Jung and Joseph Campbell. And I really believe in the Collective Unconscious. And those characters from Tolkien’s world (and the ones realized in cinematic form by Peter Jackson and his team) have become part of the world’s imagination. It’s remarkable how Middle-earth was invented by one man and existed so vividly in his imagination, and then, slowly, it expanded to fill the imaginations of hundreds of millions of people. That’s powerful magic! How about you? Have you ever had a plot for a story come to you in a dream?
Giovanni: Absolutely, Noble, I really have. I have very often taken my own fictional inspiration from dreams… I think I’ll be a really good writer the day I can reproduce on the paper (or whatever it is) the sensations I feel in my dreams.
Noble: Yes! That’s a great way of putting it. Because there is an intangible nature to dreams that is so hard to describe. I think surrealist painters like De Chirico and writers such as Borges come close. Tolkien’s first line of The Hobbit came to him in a sort of dream: a daydream. I believe in the Muses in the ancient Greek sense—inspiration from the gods. When I write (and I’m talking about fiction, here) it feels like I’m being told a story.
Giovanni: Btw, in your book you refer to some difficult moments in your life (like when you risked dying underwater because you got stuck in a lava tunnel during a scuba dive). Do you think that our inner Hobbit vein emerges precisely when we learn to face the Shadow of Fear?
Noble: I think that Hobbits have the ability to be calm under pressure, which is a valuable trait. They face incredible fears and foes in their adventures, and they know when to wait and when to act. That whole chapter “The Courage of a Halfling” is really about how going through an ordeal or a trial and learning from it is the most important lesson. But remember, I point out that the most courageous person I know is my wife who gave birth to both of our children, in our home, without any kind of painkillers! She’s an Amazon woman!
Giovanni: What is, in your opinion, the most relevant contribution that the Hobbit philosophy can give to the present world and the people’s approach to life?
Noble: Ah! Giovanni, there are so many lessons. How can I pick just one? If I had to, however, I would have to say it’s the lesson of friendship. The Lord of the Rings, in my opinion, is a tale about the undying friendship the Hobbits (and the Nine Companions) have for each other; and the friendship they have with the Shire itself. We humans need to create a Fellowship of the Shire that spreads across the world. We need to stand up to the modern-day tyrants and megacorporations that want to perpetuate a global war machine. And we need to do whatever we can to stop the cycle of global climate change that threatens us as a species. People might call me naïve, but that’s what I believe.
Giovanni: Do you think the release of Peter Jackson’s first The Hobbit movie will be a major help for a reappraisal of Tolkien’s whole literary production?
Noble: Yes! And I think that anything that gets people excited about reading books is a good thing. Peter Jackson & Co. might be taking the story in a new direction and adding their own twist to Tolkien’s tale. You can’t be slaves to a book if you’re adapting it for cinema. But I hope that kids will read the book before going to see the movie, mainly because it’s such a joy to create that “film” in one’s own mind before having the vision superimposed on your brain by somebody else. I’ve read The Hobbit out loud twice to my eight-year-old son already. So he’s set to see the movie!
Giovanni: You are also an excellent fiction writer. Please, tell us something about your The Warrior Trilogy, set in the ancient Greek world, as well as on your other books and the rest of your activity as a writer and a playwright.
Noble: The Warrior Trilogy is set in ancient Greece at the start of the Peloponnesian War. It’s the story of a young, impetuous Olympic fighter-in-training who has to save his family, city-state and the woman he loves form genocidal invaders. It’s based on the true account of the sneak-attack on the independent city-state of Plataea. It doesn’t come out in the US until the summer of 2013. And I hope a publisher in Italy picks up the rights. Maybe you could do the translation?! And I wish you would translate your own book Sentieri di Notte into English so I can read it. I love speculative fiction and Sci-fi!
Giovanni: Wow, Noble, thanks so much, both things would actually be great! It was exciting and most enriching to read and translate your essay La saggezza della Contea, so I am definitely looking forward to a much hoped-for chance of translating your trilogy. Thanks for mentioning my novel, too. I am actually translating it into English and Spanish, and I’ll soon have a first draft translated into Czech by my colleague Lucie Huskova!
Noble: That’s great! It must be fun to have someone else be your translator!
Giovanni: But let me ask you something about Italy and Florence in particular. What charms you the most, in my city, and when do you plan on returning here?
Noble: Florence is just such a remarkable city. Everywhere you turn you see history and art. Imagine growing up in the suburbs of a small town on the west coast of America. No museums. The oldest buildings are maybe a hundred and fifty years old. A culturally starved place. When I got to leave that place and travel in Europe when I was young, I became enraptured by museums. So going to Florence, for an art and history lover like me, is like paradise. My wife and I spent our second honeymoon there. We walked to Fiesole and San Miniato (Etruscan-Roman ruins one day, 13th century Medieval frescoes the next!). We went to every museum and had the most glorious food. It was a thrill for me to see Botticelli’s paintings in the Uffizi. I had a poster of La Primavera on my wall all through high school. But going to the top of the Duomo was the highlight of the visit. Does everyone who grows up in Florence do this? If not, you should. It’s breathtaking.
Giovanni: Once more, thanks for everything, Noble!
Noble: Thank you, Giovanni! This has been great. In the words of Aragorn, “May the Shire live for ever unwithered!”