The epics of old weren't just good fireside entertainment: They were instructive. The stories of the Bible, the Trojan War, the founding of Rome, the ring of the Nibelung, the British warrior-king Arthur presented listeners with stories of the origins of the world, the history of their people, or just examples of heroism, of how to act nobly and true. (Think of all those sweaty, bloodthirsty knights who learned to calm down and act chivalrous because of Arthurian legend.)
Which is what Noble Smith's book about the Shire and the halflings who live there (described in my previous post) manages to do, in its own way. That's something I forgot to mention before, and that I felt deserved a post-script item. Smith's book draws on the courage of characters like Frodo Baggins to teach us all how to be. (Of course, if I were sitting by a fire right now, I'd probably want to hear Tolkien's original stories instead of an explanation of them.) He does an expert job of balancing accessibility with details that any serious Tolkien fan will appreciate.