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Wednesday 27 February 2013

Words on Wednesday: Rereading The Hobbit

This is the edition that I own. The front cover of Smaug is by John Howe.

I also owned (and loved) this version, a fully illustrated 'graphic novel' edition from 1990.

This is the illustration on the front cover of JJ's copy that we read. It's Rivendell by Ted Nasmith.

I recently had the pleasure of rereading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit after a gap of many years. It was also the first time that I had read the book out loud to someone. I read the book to JJ, mostly in bed, but not always, and, of course, with a variety of different voices (I decided that the Rivendell elves were Welsh for example). Indeed, my Gandalf voice drew some praise I'm proud to admit.

Now, obviously, this reread was prompted by our recent viewing of the new Peter Jackson film:

'The HOBBIT: Part One: The Unexpected Journey: The Extended Saga: In HD 3-D HFM super-dooper-plus: Now with more Goblins!' 

A film that I have a mixture of emotions about, but this isn't going to be a film review (not yet, I withhold my final judgement until I've seen the series completed).

However, as we tended to view the book through the eyes of film-goers, i.e. what we saw and how it related to the story, what we read and how we expected Jackson to insert thirty extra minutes of action, this book review will often make reference of the differences in approach and style.

Obviously, the film is the film and the book the book, one could not work as the other... actually, that's not strictly true. One could write a book based on the film that was based on the book, interestingly it would be totally different in many ways (pacing especially) and would spend a great deal of time explaining action scenes. Anyway I'm diverting myself... We are all agreed (I hope) that there is no way whatsoever that P. Jackson &co would make a film that was an exact recreation of the original book. For those doubters that remain to ask "Why?" I hope this suffices as an answer: Quite simply because it does not fulfill standard action film criteria  and that is precisely what Jackson has done and has been doing to Tolkien's work all this time. Making them action films. Now, this is not a complaint, I love Jackson's Lord of the Rings, because it's made by someone who so obviously loves the work and surrounds himself with people that also love this world that Tolkien made.
People like Alan Lee especially. Amazing work.

Enough waffle, on with the review proper. When people talk about The Hobbit they tend to dismiss it as the lesser children's book to the 'epic' Lord of the Rings, or else that it is merely fantastical nonsense with no connection to reality (and thus, if we take a line from Plato, harmful to the young).

It is true that The Hobbit was originally meant as a bedtime story for Tolkien's own children, but even then it's more like a classical myth or traditional fairy tale than what we would now consider a children's story. One of the things that are different; if this were a modern children's story then the main character would also be a child (easier to identify with) and not a fifty-something hobbit who is a bit of a lazy academic and recluse, rather than a carefree child or heroic adventurer. This brings up another incongruity, for us the modern reader, it is the lack of heroism in the main character(s). Certainly Bilbo, when he has no other option, 'steps up' and is courageous (both with the spiders and again with the elves) but we are told many times that he'd really rather not. Indeed, he spends most of the adventure wishing he was back in his comfortable hobbit hole. He is simply not naturally heroic and never thought of in that way, but it is a trope of Tolkien to show that in hard times even the smallest can show true bravery (something that doesn't just come from duty but from friendship).

What of the dwarves? They are the main reason for the adventure happening and although most remain uncharacteristed (there are thirteen of them) we do get to know a few of them quite well (Thorin, as their leader, especially), surely, we might wonder to ourselves, aren't they heroic? If you'd seen the film or knew of dwarves from D&D or WoW you'd expect them to be capable doughty warriors, but the dwarves in The Hobbit really aren't very effective. It's true that Thorin and a few of the others (Balin and Dwalin, Oin and Gloin, Kili and Fili) are descended from the Royal Dwarven line of Durin, but they're really not that brave, driven instead by thoughts of revenge and lust for gold, and they're not overly effective warriors or well-armed, although Thorin finds Orcrist the sword, he later loses it and the dwarves are repeatedly overpowered by; trolls, goblins, spiders, and elves. Only with the help of Gandalf and later Bilbo do they manage to escape at all. Indeed, the one heroic action of Thorin, his charge from the gate in the battle of five armies, leads to his death. 

Sure, Gandalf is heroic, he is after all a wizard, but he is absent for large portions of the story and even so, for all that, he's not invincible. We're told that were he to have rushed the goblins and wargs when the group is trapped up the fir trees, with seemingly no way out, that he would have died. Other characters that could be considered brave (like Bard) are only secondary characters and even then they are not especially heroic, merely fortunate to have gained the knowledge needed to kill the dragon (in Bard's case). This is because The Hobbit, no less than the Lord of the Rings, is fundamentally anti-action as we have come to understand it.

The idea of the heroic individual bravely (and justly) standing alone against a horde of enemies, brilliantly captured in the 1988 genre-classic Die Hard, is precisely the sort of contemporary notion that Tolkien's work stand in opposition to. Why is this? To me, it seems like writing styles have their day. In Tolkien's day (possibly due to post-war pessimism, but let's not go into pop-psychological reasons) there was a general theme for a slow narrative build and negativity towards heroes. After a few generations people got sick of that 'old fashioned style' and writing tended to be faster paced, with an emphasis on the power of the individual hero (this itself a recycling of even older ideals, but then what else is new?). 

For Tolkien no matter how great or brave you are, if outnumbered (like Gandalf) you will fall. It is not simply a matter of having enough heart (a recurrent theme in American films that I'd like to fully describe one day, cf. James Cameron's Avatar) and a strong belief in the goodness or correctness or justness of your actions that will allow an individual to prevail. It is only by our working together in friendship that we can hope to achieve anything. The dismissal that it is a simple story only meant for children in that it tells the adventures of a "happy little hobbit" fails to properly understand this undercurrent that runs through The Hobbit. 

One might argue that it is anti-exceptionalism and I suppose in some ways it is, but this is mainly due to the suspicion that such affectations lead to a violent nationalism or a ruling elite that has no care for those they rule. It's not that the individual isn't important, it's just that alone (or with only a unity of vision) we cannot hope to accomplish anything as great as we can together (Frodo needs Sam...).

A great deal of these creative decisions can be put down to Tolkien's amateurism when it comes to novel writing. At least, that is how it is commonly described (although I can't point to an academic work, it's how Tolkien is described by his 'experts' in the documentary on the Lord of the Rings DVD extras disc). What would make one a novelist? Writing in an expected way? Doing a Creative Writing MA? Although the second may be popular today, it wasn't an option for Tolkien and he certainly wasn't trying to write a typical children's adventure story. Instead, both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are not only thematically but stylistically influenced by Norse myth and traditional fairy tales. However, even if we attribute Tolkien's narrative 'errors' to a structure borrowed from ancient myth, rather than modern writing, I believe it is an excellent choice of Tolkien's to have the supposed climax of the novel (the death of Smaug) happen sooner and in an unexpected manner. An altogether unanticipated climax (the battle of five armies) then brings the adventure to an end. A modern audience might baulk at Smaug's death being told in retrospect or Thorin's death happening 'off-camera', but these stylistic choices of Tolkien's can either be put down to his inexperience, or his love of myths that fearlessly kill off heroes - this is because the hero isn't as important as the mythical tale being told - either that or it's just good judgement.

In many ways The Hobbit is obviously a simpler tale than the Lord of the Rings, being more of an adventure from point A to B - a 'road movie' - than the much darker apocalyptic salvation theme that pervades Lord of the Rings. However, it has a deeper thread running through the story, one that rewards a more critical reading. As a child one remembers the excitement and danger, as an adult we see glimpses of Tolkien's larger world and themes. If you'd not read The Hobbit (or had it read to you) when you were a child I'd not recommend reading it first as an entry into the Lord of the Rings, just read that instead, the benefit of The Hobbit is as a nostalgic rereading preferably as a bedtime story or as a unique combination of fairy tale and Norse myth meant for a younger audience, just don't go expecting the 'prequel' to the Lord of the Rings. Unlike the claims of Peter Jackson, in a recent BBC radio 5 interview (on Youtube), The Hobbit does not simply fit alongside it's larger sibling and nor is it meant to. Both are doing different things, albeit within the same world and with some of the same characters, to try and drag the film of The Hobbit into the action-packed world of Jackson's Lord of the Rings is to miss the charm, warmth, and simplicity of the book. It is a story that has always stuck with me and probably always will. Sharing it with someone else just multiplied the joy.