Monday, April 16, 2012

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

Tolkien was already deep into the work on his heroic legends when, on an impulse, he jotted down what would become the first line of The Hobbit—an originally unrelated story which, like most of his stories, ended up being swallowed into the major work, and ultimately itself generated his best-known book, The Lord of the Rings.

But on that sleepy afternoon in spring, it was just a nonsensical sentence, possibly the seed of a good bedtime story for the children:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
A hobbit? Now, where did that word come from? The linguist in him began to invent. What could be meant by a hobbit? Perhaps a short humanoid with furred feet and a love for comfort, pipe-smoking, and waistcoats of an entertaining hue and pattern. Given that, a hobbit-hole could not be any ordinary burrow.
Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
And then the story grew in the telling. You probably know it; if you don't, you will know it soon in some form or another once the Hollywood epic comes out at the end of this year. It is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a middle-aged hobbit gentleman who cares only for peace and quiet. But there is a spark of adventure hidden deep within Bilbo, and when a wandering wizard with a reputation for trouble drops by for tea and brings fourteen unexpected guests with him, Bilbo finds himself unexpectedly on the adventure of a lifetime. The fourteen dwarves, under the leadership of the formidable Thorin Oakenshield, are on a quest across the Misty Mountains, through the dangerous Mirkwood, to the Lonely Mountain that was once their kingdom—before the dragon came.
Tolkien drew the cover, too!
The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves, they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!
No one—from Thorin to Bilbo himself--can tell why their guide and mentor Gandalf has chosen Bilbo, such a timid and comfortable hobbit, as the fourteenth companion on such a perilous journey. But then, as the company runs into trolls, goblins, eagles, bears, giant spiders, Elves, and the fearsome and cunning old dragon Smaug, Bilbo proves his worth and, with the help of his Elvish dagger Sting and the magic ring he won in a game of riddles at the roots of a mountain, eventually becomes Thorin and Co.'s only hope for survival.

The Hobbit is an unusual creature: a children's book, written in a light and jolly style, with something much bigger and much more serious constantly threatening to burst out of it. At the beginning it appears set to be a rollicking adventure with a light touch of British silliness, unrelated to the more serious matter of the Quenta Silmarillion, Tolkien's major legendarium. But the Silmarillion is lurking in the background: the character of Elrond is the ageless son of Earendil the Mariner from those stories, and the Elves and Orcs of the Silmarillion spill over into The Hobbit. The book may be a children's story, but it inhabits a big and epical world.

One of the Tolkien illustrations.
In addition, there is a note of desperate seriousness in all Tolkien's works, and this too strains the seams of the children's story. By the end of the book, it has burst out completely as the geopolitical repercussions of the sudden liberation of a dragon's treasure nearly causes a war. Hubris and pride haunt the dwarves, and Bilbo is forced to decide whether he can betray his friends for the sake of peace and justice. It is unusual for a children's story to end on such notes, but this does not compromise the story structure. Rather, it pulls the book beyond itself into a new, more serious level.

One of the charms of The Hobbit is the fact that it is in many places a homage to Norse myth. And this is accomplished without gods or heroes or vikings, but with simply the everyday trappings. For instance, the game of riddles Bilbo plays for his life is a hoary, long-forgotten trope from the old myths; as are the names of Gandalf and all the dwarves; as is the enigmatic Beorn and the wise eagles, messengers of Manwe.

Despite these Norse trappings, however, the world of The Hobbit is, as you would expect from Tolkien, largely Christian. Smaug, Norse in imagery, is a lying worm with much to do with that old serpent, the devil. Gandalf is not really a wizard; within the world of the legendarium he is a sort of angelic messenger, or if you will, the image of an Old Testament prophet—which becomes clearer in The Lord of the Rings. But the overwhelming theme of this book is Providence.

Because Gandalf is a prophet/angel figure, his role in getting the plot going is supposed to remind one of Providence. However, the theme goes much further than this, in that it is not the hero's actions which ultimately bring victory. Bilbo Baggins is the hero of this adventure, he is the one who repeatedly saves the dwarves from catastrophe, and he even has a role to play in the epic climax. But by then, events are entirely out of his control, and he can only do what he can and hope for the rest. The humility of his role—his inability to control and predestine events—is marked.

An Alan Lee illustration
But Bilbo is not a pawn of fate, or even of Luck. And the book does refer to Luck—loudly and often. But this is a misattribution, as Tolkien reveals on the very last page.
“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.
“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in the wide world after all!”
In fact, there is a force far wiser and stronger at work than mere luck, as we'll see in The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo is not the predestinator of his fate, but a recipient and agent of some kind of providence. We'll get deeper into Tolkien's worldview later on as we dig into his more serious works.

The Hobbit is a classic adventure story, the prelude to one of the greatest novels of all time, and enjoyable for children who can handle the tension and danger. I highly recommend it.

Captions are fun!
Two movies based on The Hobbit and on parts of its backstory will be released in December 2012 and December 2013. I regard the attempt with skepticism. I can't see them wanting to adapt The Hobbit so much as to produce a second Lord of the Rings. I don't expect the movie to be a straight adaptation of the book at all. As usual with most film adaptations of novels, I advise reading the book several times and making the movies optional.


Bethany said...

Totally agree with everything you just said...except the bit about the movies. Personally, no matter how faithful or unfaithful the adaption (faithful being better of course) I believe that they will still be fantastic movies! From what I have seen so far in both the trailer and Peter Jackson's behind-the-scenes videos it looks like everything possible is being done to once again bring beautiful Middle-earth to the big screen. Yes, there will be changes. Yes, some of the characters' roles will be expanded/shrunk. Yes, it is rumoured that the necromancer may be seen fighting in the battle of the five armies. But it won't ruin the story. The story is still there, the movie is an attempt to bring Hobbits, Wizards, Dwarves, Elves, Men, and Goblins back into the imaginations of yet another generation of fans. The LOTR movies were great! I personally think that they are the best movies I have ever seen (50+ times....!), and like the books, for me, they never get old. Why? Because I love the scenery (hey, my country is beautiful!), I love the costumes, I love the spoken Elvish, I love the soundtrack, and I love the Middle-earth reality it all brings with it! The sets are amazing too! Especially when they are two hours away (literally, you can get to just about anywhere in this country in two hours flying, or for places closer to home, driving). I have personally visited the Hobbiton set recently and it is every bit a piece of Middle-earth made real! I stood this summer atop Mount Sunday, where Edoras was built in the movie and the vistas are truly breathtaking! I felt as if I were really there, in Middle-earth. Because the real Middle-earth is even more beautiful than Tolkien's, genius that he is, he took his inspiration fom God's world, from our world, and the movie brings that home for me:)

Suzannah said...

Something tells me you are not going to appreciate the last paragraph of my next post, either!

I'm glad you are able to enjoy the movies. For me, the objections go far beyond trimming the role of one character or expanding the role of another. Granted, the visuals, the score, the costumes, and the scenery could hardly have been bettered! But the scriptwriting...For me, watching the movies is like listening to someone sing the most beautiful piece in the world (that would be Allegri's Miserere, in case you were wondering)...getting just about everything right but cracking all the high notes. Because Jackson really does love Tolkien, and does want to do justice to him. But Jackson is a modernist, and there are things about Tolkien that he does not understand.

But this is not a movie discussion post, or a movie discussion week. They do say that if you can't say nuthin' nice, you shouldn't say nuthin' at all. Instead, I will simply point you towards ND Wilson's review of The Two Towers in this back issue of Credenda/Agenda (page 34), which accurately pinpoints the exact missing ingredient in the films.

Lady Bibliophile said...

Oh, my, is this ever helpful. I don't know why, but I missed the whole Providence thing, as well as Smaug's dragonish/Satan interpretations. And as for Gandalf, well, as soon as my eyes saw wizard I couldn't see anything else. Funny thing was, I knew that he wasn't your typical wizard-infallible-and so I couldn't figure out what Tolkien meant by using that word. I might have chosen something else if I had the writing of it (and that in itself shows my amateur writing, to dare to criticize Tolkien!) but I agree, he's more of the prophet/angel figure, much like man in Daniel 10 that came to prophecy, but was kept in bondage until Michael rescued him.
I can't wait to see your further posts! :)


Emily Grace said...

Oh my goodness, this is fantastic. Your writing is excellent. I agree with all your thoughts on the book but I could never organize my thoughts so simply and clearly. The Hobbit is one of my most favorite books ever but for some reason it's hard to describe why I love it so much. So this helps. :) I've actually just started my rereading of all my Tolkien books this year (I had to delay it a couple months cause of school :P ). I'm planning on reading the LotR, the Hobbit, the Letters of JRR Tolkien and either the Sil or the CoH by the end of this year. So I'm really looking to all your LotR themed posts this week.

I'm really excited to see the upcoming movies even though I know it's not going to be a perfect adaptation of the story. I love the movies for what they are. I love the book Frodo and I love the movie Frodo, in my mind they are very different but they're still both Frodo. I love the Lothlorien that I imagined from the book and I love the movie's Lothlorien, again both are different but both are beautiful and to me they are both Lothlorien, even though their not the same. I love the feelings I get when I read the book and I love the feelings I get from watching the movie. I know there will never be a movie that accurately and perfectly represents the experience you have when you read the book, because books and movies obviously are different, but I think there are still movies, based on a book, that do a fairly good job of making the story come to life and are just great movies to watch anyway. :)

Bethany said...

Haha, I think we will have to agree to disagree on this one....

I just had to state it. Now it's done. I do love the books 100 times more! Have you read the book "Tolkien and the Study of his Sources" by Jason Fisher? It's a real good one that further expands on some of the themes touched on by Tom Shippey in "The Road to Middle-earth" (Tom Shippey actually contributed one of the chapters for Fisher's book). I look forward to reading all of your posts on Tolkien this week:)

Suzannah said...

Your preference for the book does you credit ;). And honestly, I am glad that there are people who can watch the movies with enjoyment!

I have not read that Fisher book. I did enjoy Tom Shippey's JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century but thought that his whole discussion of the nature of evil in Tolkien was way off the point: he thinks Tolkien has fallen between the 'Boetheian' and 'Manichean' stools, but if that is so, then so has historic Christianity!

Suzannah said...

Ah! Well, I think you are going to get a few more eye-openers this week of the same general nature!

Tolkien used the word "wizard" because he perceived the word in a different way to us. When we hear the word we hear all sorts of hinky, sorcerous connotations that make us want to stay right away. Tolkien, however, heard the entire history of the word. Most of all he would have heard--

Wizard = wise-ard = wise one.

I believe it's an Anglo-Saxon word (his favourite kind!). Accordingly, if an angel/prophet had turned up in Anglo-Saxon England it's not too far out to guess that they would actually have called him a 'wizard'...because that's literally what he is.

Suzannah said...

Glad you're enjoying the series! Have you read the Silmarillion before? If not, don't fear--it's really good!

Emily Grace said...

I haven't read it for a long time but yes, it was really good!


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