Sunday, March 07, 2010

Hobbits of Sweden III

From autumn, 2004

It's early fall here in Sweden, and I am enjoying my first Indian summer (a Brigitte summer in the local parlance) after nearly six years of residing in Europe. Previously, autumn has arrived with drizzling punctually on the traditionally cold 'n gloomy first of September. However, this recent unexpected interlude of good weather has given me a chance to make up for some of the hiking missed out on during the rainiest and coldest Swedish summer in seventy-four years.

As a rule of thumb, summers here are usually like those in Seattle--a gift from heaven to make up for the other nine months of damp. It's these three months that salvage the year from endless curtains of cold rain, featureless leaden skies, and 3:30pm December sunsets.

Normally summers here involve long evenings spent watching the sun's fading light in the west at 11:30pm and the simultaneous first glimmerings of dawn in the east. Summer is a time of strawberries and retreats to the countryside.

This year it's been one long icy Scandinavian monsoon.

But now summer has set in at last, and so yesterday we set off to go hiking through the forests. When we came across a wide band of brown mushrooms, my friend gave out a shriek of joy before descending on them in a frenzy. Yes, Tolkien did get it right. The hobbits are ravenous about fungi.

This hobbit likeness that I've been bandying about for three years is no great exaggeration. In the original "Hobbits of Sweden" essay, I attempted to describe the locals' homicidal passion for strawberries. Tolkien knew this, and his cinematic disciple Peter Jackson even had the good sense to recognize it in the third installment of his Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Remember the movie portrayal of Sam and Frodo lying on the stoney side of Mt. Doom? The fragile-looking, ring-bearing hobbit has begun to despair of ever completing his quest, and what is it that that Frodo's stalwart companion in suffering brings up to rekindle his master's strength?

"I can see the Shire, Mr. Frodo. It's summer and...and...the strawberries! They're serving the strawberries with cream!" After this utterance, while Sean Astin was staring tenderly into the deep-blue eyes of Elijah Woods--and most of the audience was privately pondering the possibility that they might be watching the world's first homoerotic hobbit movie--the author of this essay sprang up from his movie theater seat screaming, "YES MOTHERFUCKERS! I KNEW IT! WOOOHOOO!"

It's not just that I was pleased with Frodo and Sam's coming out, but that I merely took a small delight in having my claims about the hobbits' lust for the small red fruit borne out by Hollywood.

And it's not just the dark forces of the global New Zealand/American media conspiracy that push the hobbit-like nature of Swedes. Considering the following: The state-subsidized STV 2 television news often runs extended reports about matters of import during the last ten minutes of the evening program. Topic for controversy of 8 September 2004: the latest translation of the Lord of the Rings books.

Yes, for real.

The piece opens with a shot of the harried-looking translator scurrying through the streets of Stockholm. He has just completed his work and walks with his shoulders hunched under his jacket like he's waiting for a sniper's bullet to punch through his spinal column at any moment. He has tampered with one of the holiest of the nation's holy texts, and even if he has the approval of the temporal authorities of the day, it's only a matter of time before some raving fundamentalist extracts bloody retribution.

In other words, some fanboy is going to put a brick through the window of his new Volvo.

It bears pointing out that Tolkien, a Scandinavian language master, was so enraged by the first Swedish translation The Lord of the Rings that the offending linguist, Åke Ohlmarks, was forbidden from translating the Silmarillion when it was later published. Not to be deterred from his hobbit birthright, the wily Mr. Ohlmarks supposedly broke into Tolkien's home to covertly peruse the manuscript.

But back to the present source of tension and its media coverage. In a terse professional voice, a female newscaster explains that the public needs to remain calm and refrain from bursts of panic, rioting, or existential despair. Even though Frodo has gotten a new last name, and Hobbits, previously known as hober, will hence forth be called hobbitar, the state of the kingdom is sound. She then reminds her viewers that any display of national weakness will only start the Danes thinking about how they could re-conquer southern Sweden.

Instead it is best to stay calm, take a deep breath, and begin preparing the mushroom stew for tomorrow night's dinner party.

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