Hobbit has ring of a darker journey


'The Hobbit', now stretched into an epic film, is a bewitching door to the more sinister 'Lord of the Rings,' writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

JRR Tolkien’s debut prose fiction The Hobbit (1937) may at first glance appear simple, particularly when compared with the epic grandeur and gravity of what was to follow in The Lord of the Rings (published in three volumes between 1954 and 1955), yet it should not be underestimated.

The Hobbit is an exciting, fast-moving and witty novel, featuring an unlikely, quintessentially English middle-class hero none too keen on adventures: “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”

Its blunt, rather hearty, old-fashioned appeal rests in the kindly authorial tone and extensive use of sound effects.

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for his children. It defers broadly to the conventional fairy tale and the familiar theme of a quest in the form of a hazardous adventure: the reclaiming of a treasure guarded by a dragon. The landscape is as expected, composed of forests and mountains – and home to trolls, goblins, wolves, nasty spiders and so on. Equally standard in Gandalf is an astute wizard with obligatory magical powers. Also present are talking eagles and other birds as well as, crucially, an enchanted ring.

The Lord of the Rings, more successor than sequel, does appear to take up the story begun with Bilbo’s thrilling odyssey, but it is far darker and more formal. Aside from differences in scale, there is a heightened heroic intent. The narrative voice is solemn; this is a tale laden with history and consequence. Honour and moral order in the full medieval sense prevail, as does the rich influence of Tolkien’s scholarship; he was a university professor and an international authority on Old and Middle English literature.

Elements of the Anglo-Saxon epic undercut the narrative. Middle-earth is precisely balanced between many literary worlds and traditions.

The Hobbit by contrast is a fledging manifestation of an extraordinary imagination beginning to stretch its creative wings and it was written for children Tolkien knew very well – his own. Even at moments of crisis, such as the encounter with the trolls or Bilbo’s plotting of the less-than-perfect escape from the wood-elves by concealing the dwarves in barrels being sent down river, Tolkien introduces humour, often filtered through a very English sense of fair play.

“It was just at this moment that Bilbo suddenly discovered the weak point in his plan. Most likely you saw it some time ago and have been laughing at him: but I don’t suppose you would have done half as well yourselves in his place. Of course he was not in a barrel himself, nor was there anyone to pack him in.”

In concept as well as scale The Hobbit is far closer to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), which was also written for a specific audience, Grahame’s troubled son. Tolkien engages with Bilbo, who may initially fret over the washing up and having his larder raided, but unlike the silly, snobbish Toad, he is honest, far from stupid and increasingly courageous.

One of the most powerful insights in The Hobbit occurs when Bilbo, desperate to flee “this horrible darkness” and Gollum, feels sorry for the wretched creature: “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.”

By the 1950s Tolkien’s children were adults and the world had changed.

Bilbo’s adventures had taken place in the tense lead up to the second World War. By the time Frodo begins his quest, that war had ended, leaving an uneasy peace with most of Eastern Europe under the control of totalitarian dictatorships. Tolkien, a veteran of the Somme, had seen enough death to last a lifetime; he was a pacifist, as well as a Christian committed to ecology.

The suggestion of impending evil that flickers at intervals in The Hobbit in the shape of goblins and wargs becomes a constant reality in The Lord of the Rings. Its treatment of sin and mayhem is apocalyptic and grimly sophisticated.

The Hobbit is more about greed than evil. Gollum, the major link between the two books, gradually acquires a somewhat Miltonic dimension in the longer work; the fallen Hobbit could also be seen as a fallen angel. But Sauron (in The Lord of the Rings) is the Lucifer figure. A study of the symbolism in The Lord of the Rings might convincingly place it somewhere between Paradise Lost (1667) and Hitler’s Germany. The comparison with Milton is valid, even unavoidable. Tolkien, however, always insisted that he was testing his powers as a storyteller, not writing a political allegory.

Timely response

His response to time as a narrative device also developed. The Hobbit spans a year, from summer to summer. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien evokes the passing of generations and the way in which history passes into myth. The lives of men are brief. Elves and dwarves peer into eternity. A wealth of cultures, languages, genealogy and the legacies of many wars form a dense backdrop. The ring – which Bilbo finds by chance while crawling along the floor of Gollum’s tunnel and proves to be “a turning point in his career, but he did not know it” – has acquired a far more sinister relevance by the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. It is now corrupt and corrupting; its destruction is vital to the future of Middle-earth.

Admirers of Tolkien were apprehensive about director Peter Jackson’s cinematic approach to The Lord of the Rings. As each of the three films was released, wary anticipation yielded to relief. Jackson had respected Tolkien’s vision and Frodo’s quest was enacted in a physical setting that conveyed the panoramic qualities of the novel.

The most contentious weakness in the screen version of The Hobbit, which is now on general release, is the opportunistic imposition of an epic scale upon a much shorter work, of 272 pages, giving it the same three-film format used for The Lord of the Rings, which extends to 1,069 pages. Purists (myself included) object to the inclusion of additional material from the screen writers and insertions from the later work. Galadriel does not appear in the novel, yet she is in the film version, and Legolas features in the next instalment.

Why stretch The Hobbit into an epic? Bilbo is consummately English. His tidy Hobbit hole represents an England of ordered suburbs. In The Hobbit, Bilbo’s world is the Hill, not yet the Shire which is used to such dramatic effect in The Lord of the Rings as an Eden Frodo forsakes to fulfil his heroic role as the ring bearer. In contrast to Bilbo the reluctant burglar, Frodo, aware of Uncle Bilbo’s glorious feats, is to be gravely tested by a stupendous responsibility that may cost him his life. Admittedly Frodo’s burden is partly shared by the tenacious Sam Gamgee, the personification of loyalty.

Death is a constant in The Lord of the Rings; in The Hobbit it is a vague threat until the very end when Thorin’s passing is handled with understated profundity.

In an ideal world the reader would first read The Hobbit, and progress to The Lord of the Rings. That is not to suggest that The Hobbit is a formal prequel; it is not. Nor is it Middle-earth’s Book of Genesis.

Tolkien had been working on The Silmarillion from about 1917. It tells the story of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord and predates events in The Lord of the Rings. The Tolkien who began writing The Hobbit, grew in stylistic confidence as the narrative developed in much the same way as Bilbo matures beyond his initial complacency.After all, the original plan had been merely to help some dwarves reclaim their stolen treasure. The killing of Smaug the dragon was not part of it.

Nor was the potential stand-off at the close of The Hobbit – in which Bilbo’s well-intentioned effort to make peace between Thorin and the Lake Dwellers using the coveted Arkenstone of Thrain as a bargaining ploy backfires – part of the plan.

But then Tolkien, in what is an inspired shift, re-introduces the disgruntled goblins and trolls. The petty dispute over gold and silver in a mountain lair is forgotten as the elves and the dwarves join forces against the goblins and trolls in the Battle of the Five Armies.

“It was a terrible battle. The most dreadful of all Bilbo’s experiences, and the one which at the time he hated most – which is to say it was the one he was most proud of, and most fond of recalling long afterwards, although he was quite unimportant in it. Actually I may say he put on his ring early in the business and vanished from sight.”

Bilbo is not a warrior and, significantly, he does not kill Smaug, Bard does. Again, even at this late point of the book, where Tolkien is beginning to enter the heroic territory of battles which feature throughout The Lord of the Rings, particularly in the second book, The Two Towers, he has not yet abandoned the fatherly tone that he will discard when writing his epic, which daringly subverts the traditional quest motif.

The Hobbit is warm and briskly told. Bilbo Baggins, against his better judgment, joins in with 13 determined dwarves. It is all rather unexpected and self-contained, a story to be celebrated in its own right. With its introduction to Rivendell and Elrond, and some knowing asides, it is also an irresistible doorway into the austere splendour, menace and authorial detachment of The Lord of the Rings.

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