How the Hobbit will fill a hole in 21st century wellbeing

11 Dec 2012 11:42:33.277

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As the latest Warner Bros’ fantasy blockbuster, The Hobbit, hits our cinema screens this week, a University of Nottingham writer and academic is claiming the film will fulfil deeper needs in modern society than pure entertainment.

Dr Alison Milbank, Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, is a world-renowned expert on the literature and theology of J.R.R. Tolkien. She delivers her philosophy on the resurgence in popularity of the fantasy genre in a new video interview to coincide with the film’s release in cinemas this Friday.

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ is the first in a series of three epic fantasy-adventure films based on the famous Tolkien novel, directed, co-written and produced by Peter Jackson and starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom.

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The fantasy of the real

Dr Milbank said:”One practical reason for the 21st century plethora of fantasy films like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit, may be as mundane as the fact that we now have the technical ability through CGI to represent fantastic worlds and creatures with some degree of naturalism. But in my view there are deeper human needs which are nourished by the fantastic in a period of increasing social inequality and the globalising reach of consumerism and capitalism.

“The imagining of a fantasy world in literature, visual arts and gaming, allows not just simple escapism but the possibility of a different way of conceiving reality, in which objects are ‘enchanted’: in which they are not dead commodities but full of presence and meaning.

“It’s absolutely true I think that fantasy fills a spiritual hole, that where organised religion is becoming less part of the cultural imaginary, people need it. And they look to these texts for it and it is ironic that they look to C.S Lewis, Tolkien and even J.K Rowling, because they are looking to Christian writers who are offering imaginative conceptions of a whole world, not just a narrow world of religious doctrines, but a world that is suffused with meaning.

Legacy of Norse culture

“Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937 as a children’s story and it is less dark in its conception of the power of objects to entrap and pervert human flourishing than The Lord of the Rings, but it has a journey that takes a modern suburbanite, Bilbo the comfortable hobbit-hole owner, who signs a contract for part of the profits of a Dwarf expedition, back into a more ancient world of pledge, riddle and gift-exchange, which Tolkien derives from Norse culture.

“This ‘bourgeois burglar’ of the dragon-hoard learns the ethics and value of gift-giving as a mode of cementing social relations, making peace and enabling a better relation to objects in which they receive value through their distribution. The Arkenstone he steals for himself from the sleepy Smaug and hides from the gold-obsessed Dwarves, he gives up when the dwarves refuse to reward Bard and others involved in killing the dragon, and so makes possible a unified resistance of different races to the onslaught of Wargs and Goblins.

“Tolkien deliberately left religious practice out of his fantasy writings but in order to write a fantasy novel you have in a sense to commit to metaphysics. You have to create a world with its own consistency in terms of its landscape and inhabitants, politics and ethics. Tolkien is particularly interested in these metaphysical questions. In this way he liberates real things from our own world, like trees, mountains and water, to have fantastical lives of their own. But it’s the fantasy of the real, not the alien.” 

Dr Milbank has published extensively on Tolkien and other writers including her 2009 book, ‘Chesterton and Tolkein as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real’,

A new video with Dr Milbank is available here on the University’s Youtube channel. 

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More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2011, for its research into global food security.

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Story credits

More information is available from Professor Alison Milbank,;or Emma Rayner, Media Relations Manager, Communications, University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 951 5793 +44 (0)7738 291242,



Emma Rayner - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 74 84413  Location: University Park

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