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.”