Ewok Banquets and Hobbit Joy

Sunday Letter | #325

Julia coming out of the pool, all smiles.
Last pandemic summer, Okemos, MI (Ektar 100)

It’s been many years since I read The Hobbit. And despite having seen the movies, I only recently started reading The Fellowship of the Ring. A lot of story advice you’ll come across these days tells you to identify your characters’ greatest fears and weaknesses, and confront your characters with them – to raise the stakes. The story is in the struggle, or so you’re told.

Some of that advice can be useful. But maybe a side effect is that some stories, particularly “prestige” television, tend toward the dramatic and cliffhanger-y. What gets lost, or never considered in the first place, are the more ordinary moments of joy. And of all my expectations going into Fellowship, this was the thing I was least prepared for: the startling presence of joy.

Fellowship has so much Hobbit joy; Frodo, Sam, and friends are always laughing and singing and spinning yarns, recounting old adventures or imagining how their current ones might be in the future retold. We hear about their pranks and unusually large appetites, their fondness for mushrooms. Even after narrow escapes from the Black Riders, we still find them cavorting in a tavern in Bree and stanning elves in Rivendell.

Likewise, Jerry Craft’s graphic novels The New Kid and Class Act are filled throughout with examples of Black joy. Kelly Yang’s Front Desk books too, are rife with joy. Our culture has come to expect stories from and about marginalized groups to be about the strife of marginalization. We expect that this strife is a prerequisite of joy, or that it precludes joy. It doesn’t.

As I type this, the narrator in a Super Bowl light beer ad starring Serena Williams asks, “What if we were wrong this whole time? Wrong in thinking that joy only happens at the end?” So I’m clearly not the first one to express this idea.

I still think about my podcast conversation with my editors a few years ago, where we talked about the importance of humor in middle grade and young adult fiction. “I love sort of angsty, coming-of-age YA,” my editor Jess said, “but it’s hard for me to get through it if it’s not also funny. You know … there has to be the good with the bad … I think readers need it to be able to make it through some books.”

Maybe joy is a better word for what I was getting at a few weeks ago, instead of mere pleasure, or fun. Joy feels bigger, warmer, more encompassing. It’s necessary to help us through strife, lest we be overwhelmed by despair. You’ve shown me a character confronting their greatest fear, now show me them in their greatest joy. And don’t just show me those moments in the beginning, but deep in the dark forest too. Give me an Ewok banquet before the Battle of Endor.

More Ewok banquets in general, is what I’m saying.