UNDATED (USA TODAY) -- America can be divided into two groups nowadays. Forget donkey vs. elephant. For untold millions, Dec. 14 marks a day of pop culture rapture. In breathless anticipation, devotees are counting down the hours and scanning the Web for signs. No, we're not talking about the Dec. 21 Mayan prophecy. We're talking about the opening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson's film adaptation (Part 1) of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic novel.
One of most popular and beloved trilogies in film history, Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies - based on the three Tolkien titles that came after The Hobbit - have inspired a quasi-religious fervor in fans.
But perhaps you don't keep a cardboard Legolas in your bedroom. Maybe you read The Hobbit as a child and recall a little dude with furry feet and some fat dwarves.
To help you navigate the coming Middle-earth mania, here are 10 reasons we're still hooked on The Hobbit as it celebrates its 75th anniversary. Written by an Oxford professor for his children, it was published on Sept. 21, 1937, with a first printing of 1,500 copies. An immediate success, it has gone on to sell 100 million copies worldwide -- and burrow deep into the hearts of countless generations.
1. Action a-go-go. Dragons, trolls, danger, a child-sized sword call "Sting" -- The Hobbit is stuffed with precisely the kind of literary red meat that turns kids into book carnivores. (Just ask C.S. "Chronicles of Narnia" Lewis or J.K. "Harry Potter" Rowling.)
In fact, The Hobbit got its start with a thumb's up from a kid: a rave review from 10-year-old Rayner Unwin. In 1936, Rayner's father, a British book publisher, asked his son to read the manuscript. (He was paid a shilling.)
Here's the plot: Bilbo Baggins is a respectable hobbit -- think a half-sized human with a penchant for pipes and colorful waistcoats -- who hits the road with 13 dwarves and a wizard named Gandalf. The goal: retrieving treasure stolen by a dragon called Smaug. Bilbo encounters goblins, Wargs and a host of other creatures, including Gollum and his precious ring. The Hobbit sets up the story line for Tolkien's more complex Lord of the Rings, which stars Frodo Baggins, Bilbo's nephew.
2. Home sweet hobbit-hole. Fans just don't read The Hobbit, they yearn to be hobbits, or at least live like them. No creatures in fiction are such cozy comfort seekers with their snug hobbit-hole homes and obsessively tended gardens. They are also the original foodies long before the term was even invented, insisting that "Second breakfast is the best breakfast." In his new book, The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life (St. Martin's), author Noble Smith notes that "Tolkien crafted Middle-earth in his mind, but the Hobbits sprang from his heart." Smith urges hobbit-wannabes to embrace the original small-is-beautiful lifestyle -- grow your own food, walk everywhere. And sing. Even to love Tolkien-style! The British writer met his wife of 54 years when he was 16 and she was 19.
3. The original show-me, don't tell me moralist. Bookstores groan with tedious and usually unsold tomes aimed at children written by earnest adults eager to instill moral virtue: Cruelty is wrong, courage and hope are crucial, riches won't make you happy. Without a whiff of finger wagging, The Hobbit has effortlessly imparted those messages for 75 years. Just listen to the dwarf Thorin's dying words to Bilbo: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."
4. Little folk, big themes. "It is not just a simple story," says Corey Olsen, AKA "The Tolkien Professor" and author of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Growing numbers of academics and theologians agree. In addition to hilarious scenes involving bickering dwarves stuffed into barrels and scary encounters with dragons, The Hobbit also illuminates how the journey transforms Bilbo, making him more compassionate and generous. According to the new The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You've Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way (Wiley) edited by William Irwin, Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, there are parallels with Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave" as well as the writings of St.Thomas Aquinas, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Chinese Taoists.
5. Gateway drug for geeks. Did Tolkien linger in obscurity until Peter Jackson's movies? Not exactly. The Oxford Beowulf expert was inspiring obsessive adoration back when Jackson was a New Zealand schoolboy. Hippies in the 1960s embraced Tolkien while in 1971 Led Zeppelin released the song Misty Mountain Hop (referring to the gloomy mountain range Bilbo and company must cross).
The Complete Tolkien Companion by J.E.A. Tyler (St. Martin's) offers a 712-page A-to-Z guide to Middle-earth minutiae. First published in 1976, it has, no doubt, been saddening countless parents ever since who wish their teenagers pored over their SAT study guides with the same demented fervor. For many readers, Tolkien is the first author to introduce them to the joy of living in a magical alternative world (for which Tolkien, a self-taught artist, created the visuals). Once hooked on fantasy fiction, they devour writers like Robert "Wheel of Time" Jordan and George R.R. "Game of Thrones" Martin.
6. Friends with no benefits. Well, other than affection, companionship and plenty of belly laughs. For modern readers living in a sex-saturated society, The Hobbit is the asexual pause that refreshes. Friendship, and only friendship, is the name of the game in The Hobbit. Wizard with hobbit. Hobbit with dwarves. Even the bearish man Beorn and his beloved animal companions. Unmet sexual needs? Secret erotic tension? Not at this address! Friends were enormously important to the orphaned Tolkien. (His father died of rheumatic fever when Tolkien was 6 and his mother died of diabetes when he was 12.) Two of his closest school friends were killed in World War I. Later he became part of "The Inklings," a famed group of literary pals that included C.S. Lewis.
7. Rebel on a bike. If you don't believe the modern mantra of change is good, technology is great and we must all embrace the future or get left behind, you've got company with a certain nature-loving, progress-hating British contrarian. In 1944, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher, "How I wish the 'infernal combustion' engine had never been invented!" The contrast between Bilbo's verdant Shire and the desolation of Smaug's mountain has hatched countless ecological warriors.
8. Ultimate mentor. Bilbo might be the hero, but the real love object in The Hobbit is the old man with the staff and pointy blue hat, Gandalf the wizard. It's not just his magical powers that make him a star, it's his humor, psychological insight. and, yes, occasional bouts of grumpiness. Like Merlin and Star Wars' Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf is the wise sage we all wish stood at our side, guiding us through life.
9. "No Girls Allowed"? Not at this hobbit-hole. Seeing The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring had a major impact on Arwen Kester, yes, Arwen as in LOTR (the character played by Liv Tyler). She went out and read all of Tolkien's books and later founded Middle-earth News, which tracks all things Tolkien. "Most of my staff are women," says the Raleigh, N.C., mother of two. "They love the lore." Kester, 31, doesn't need female characters to adore The Hobbit (although Jackson is adding some to the movie). "There's so much history! The language, the passion. It draws you in!"
10. The Anti-Arnie. A fussy 50-year-old bachelor who considers adventures to be "Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" -- that's Bilbo Baggins, who lacks the usual alpha male DNA. Throughout The Hobbit, Bilbo is cold, hungry, terrified and painfully homesick. Yet by the end, Bilbo accesses his inner warrior and proves himself brave, loyal, wise and ingenious. Which is perhaps the novel's deepest appeal, since all of us - no matter what our age - secretly hope we too could be heroes, if called upon.