Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Hobbit: Take Nine

I just reread JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit for either eighth or ninth time in my life (I can't remember which exactly). My first reading was when I was in high school and I have always begun my reading of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) with Tolkien's "enchanting prelude" to his famous trilogy. Unlike LOTR, The Hobbit is a children's book. More specifically, it is written for early teens. That doesn't take anything away from the enjoyment of reading it as an adult, obviously, since I have done so many times.

Each tour is a special treat. Tolkien is very informal in this narrative. He pokes a bit of fun at the reader now and then. The story itself is rather straightforward, with surprising (if a bit formula-matic) twists and turns to keep young minds (and older ones) engaged. The Hobbit is a perfect read for someone like myself who usually reads a lot of rather heavy books. It is comparatively light without being simpleton, it is well-written, and has some deeper things to say if anyone cares to latch on to them.

In a nutshell, this is the story of how Bilbo Baggins, with almost no genuine qualifications, is hired on by a troop of dwarfs, acting upon the advice of Gandalf the wizard, to be a “burglar” on an adventure that eventually takes the lot of them through wild and bleak places to the Lonely Mountain. It is here that the dragon Smaug has hoarded all the gold and other riches of the dwarfs' ancestors. They intend to get it back.

Of special significance to fans of LOTR is the fact that The Hobbit tells us how Bilbo came about obtaining his sword Sting, how he obtained a coat of mithril, both of which he later gave to Frodo Baggins in LOTR and, more importantly, how he came upon a special "ring of power" which allows him to become invisible whenever he puts it on.

So, while The Hobbit only hints at the greater depths of Tolkien’s Middle-earth (which was a largely incoherent project at the time the book was published in 1937), it makes for a great introduction to LOTR because of the way Tolkien retrofitted events as described in The Hobbit to his larger and more mature literary endeavor.

Certainly, one theme important to Tolkien in LOTR is strongly apparent throughout The Hobbit. This is Tolkien’s distrust and discouragement about the loss of the natural world to the fast emerging reality of technology and industrialization at the turn of the last century. He hints at it throughout the work with such lines as: “…one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and hobbits were still numerous and prosperous.” (page 17)

Tolkien equates his private quandary with changing times to the evil Goblins of his story. “It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.” (page 70)

These social criticisms of modernity are sprinkled throughout much of Tolkien’s body of work but they are somewhat more noticeable in The Hobbit given its younger audience and the less serious approach to story-telling that Tolkien takes in the book. Much of this stems from Tolkien’s experience in the Great War, where he personally witnessed the horrible killing and maiming of hundreds of human beings with relatively new machinery such as machine guns and recoiling artillery. It was literally in the trenches of the war that he first began to create Middle-earth, beginning with early drafts of his posthumously published magnum opus, The Silmarillion. More on that in a moment.

Clearly, the critical element connecting The Hobbit with LOTR is the encounter between Gollum and Bilbo in the depths of the Misty Mountains and the rather accidental discovery of the special ring. While Tolkien makes no bones about the ring being a “ring of power” it becomes noticeable upon repeat readings that this ring has a subtle, peculiar effect.

Tolkien makes the subtle point, for example, of how things occur “suddenly” in Bilbo’s mind after he discovers the ring. One sudden, subtle effect of the ring is that it could very well be the cause for a special bond that abruptly emerges between Bilbo and Gollum. “A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.” (page 93)

Bilbo, in a show of dexterity and strength not exhibited heretofore, manages to make a clean leap over Gollum while wearing the ring. Again, this marks a rather subtle change but the fact that, after finding the ring, things are not exactly what they once were for our heroic hobbit is apparent to the discerning reader.


Bilbo at first uses the ring sparingly but then with greater frequency. While each use of the ring is justified by some danger Bilbo soon relies on the ring more and more and finds himself thinking about it often as well as verifying its exact location.

According to Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey: “Yet however neat the final product, at that point in late 1937, and for long afterwards, Tolkien had no clear plan at all…Tolkien knew, for instance, that Bilbo’s ring now had to be explained and would become important in the story, but he still had no idea of it as the Ring, the Ruling Ring, the Ring-with-a-capital-letter, so to speak: indeed he remarked at an early stage that it was ‘Not very dangerous’.” (page 53)

So, Tolkien had not conceived of the ring of power in The Hobbit was the One Ring of Sauron. In fact, he had yet to even conceive of Sauron, who is referred to as “the Necromancer” throughout the book. Orcs did not exist as such. They were called Goblins in the book. This demonstrates the incomplete nature of Tolkien’s thinking when the work was first published.

The fact is, Tolkien had not really connected hobbits with the grander tale he began writing literally in the trenches of World War One. That tale, The Silmarillion, had nothing to do with hobbits at all. So, in a way, it was accidental that LOTR ever came to be written to begin with. It was written because Tolkien’s publisher wanted more stories about hobbits and Tolkien decided to embed the apparently popular characters more deeply in a story that had very little to do with them up to that point.

Tolkien’s cathartic connection which tied everything together was to make Bilbo’s ring into the One Ring and thus thrust the hobbit into the very center of much grander story. This occurred many months following the book’s publication when it became apparent how viable hobbits were as a commercial literary creation. Hobbits, some of the more insignificant creatures of Middle-earth, ended up being a convenient way of connecting Tolkien’s literary success with what he was attempting to do with The Silmarillion. His personal compromise was to focus more on the happenings of the Third Age than was his original intent. LOTR was the rather considerable afterthought of all this.

What surprises me every time I read The Hobbit is the bravery of Bilbo. The hobbit is introduced in a rather unassuming manner. He had some “strange” blood in him from the Tookish side of his ancestry but he was otherwise an ordinary hobbit. He did not care for adventures or anything taking him away from the comforts of his home and surroundings. And yet, with great assistance and encouragement from Gandalf who seems to know more than he ever lets on in the book, Bilbo goes.

Bilbo experiences the common feelings of missing home, wishing he were somewhere else, regretting his decision to go throughout the story. But, it is precisely the clear presentation of these ordinary attributes that makes much of what he does in the tale so extraordinary. He exhibits great heroism against spiders of Mirkwood, saving the dwarfs and demonstrating some skill with Sting. While not as threatening a situation, Bilbo once again saves the day by rescuing the dwarfs from Elven imprisonment, relying heavily on the ring in order to execute a clever plan he hatches.

It is remarked several times that Bilbo felt alone. This is a strong theme throughout the work and makes it particularly applicable to younger readers. Bilbo was not an introvert nor was he some hermit. He was a friendly, sociable hobbit. On this trip he often felt isolated and alone while thinking about his home and the Shire. This loneliness allows him to oddly connect with Gollum. But it also is the source of his heroism. Because it is out of the loneliness that he triumphs.

For example, as he crept in the side passage toward Smaug’s hoard for the first time, it was dark and he was alone. He could hear and smell and feel the heat of the dragon but he could not see it yet. “It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.” (page 205)

Tolkien is toying with his own personal knowledge of bravery here. He had survived the First World War when almost all of his friends died. It was a traumatic part of his life and, though he lived a full and happy life, he was in many ways tainted afterwards. Tolkien knew first hand that bravery and duty did not come from extraordinary individuals. It came from ordinary human beings facing extraordinary circumstances. This knowledge is profoundly woven into the narrative of The Hobbit.

To that extent Bilbo is an everyman sort of character. Perhaps this is one source of the novel’s perpetual appeal. This is classic fantasy but it is fantasy with deeper things to say about our “real’ world; about the consequences of modernity. It also is about placing the ordinary into the extraordinary and how that juxtaposition is not only entertaining but how it can change our hero as well.

I am looking forward to the making of the film based upon this novel. Peter Jackson is attempting to produce the movie version, after long delays. Hopefully within a year or two it will make it into the theaters. Jackson did a great job distilling the spirit of LOTR into what was essentially a 15-hour film in three-parts. It will be interesting to see what can be accomplished with this comparatively modest material.

Each happy time I read Tolkien in general and The Hobbit in particular I am taken in by all of this. The fantastic, the grounded nature of character experiences, the applicability of Middle-earth to my world, and – perhaps most of all – by Bilbo’s bravery in the face of fear and uncertainty. We can all learn from that can’t we?

The Hobbit can be pure escapism (as it was for me as a teen) or it can be something more (as it is for me now). The story works well on either level. I never regret reading this “children’s book” as the preface to LOTR. It introduces me to Middle-earth on the mildest level while whetting my appetite for the incredible story to which all this is but an overture.

On to take nine (or is it eight?) of The Fellowship of the Ring!

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