Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Hobbit

Well, I'm stuck in an airport and have time to kill. Plus, I just finished reading The Hobbit less than a week ago. So here goes:

Peter Jackson is coming out with a trilogy of movies depicting the story of The Hobbit. Knowing his tendency to err on the side of length, I decided to time myself reading the book to see if I could read it faster than I could watch the movies. The book's just 255 pages, and it took me 7.5 hours. Assuming his movies are all three hours long (as all The Lord of the Rings movies were), I'll beat him by an hour and a half.

But aside from seeing how ridiculous Jackson is, I've learned something else in reading Tolkien's classic novel.

The Hobbit is weird. It is an odd little book. And here are some of the things that make it so: it's clearly written by a linguist; it represents an awkward, liminal position between manufactured fairy tales and what would become fantasy fiction; it's a better book than the Lord of the Rings trilogy that followed; its prose oscillates from tedious to extraordinary; and last (maybe), while being a groundbreaking work, it espouses some woefully antiquated social paradigms.

When I make the claim that it was written by a linguist, some people may assume I'm talking about the runes at the beginning or the fantasy languages Tolkien created. Certainly those are indicative of someone who is heavily interested in languages, but they're also fundamentally more juvenile experimentations with language than the other language games that occur throughout the book.

I say they're juvenile, because using a foreign alphabet as a direct code for our Roman alphabet is something pretty much every child is tempted with when they learn a new alphabet. And making up imaginary words for things is a common game among children.

But let's take a look at the first bit of dialog in The Hobbit. Bilbo says, "Good morning!"

To which Gandalf responds, "What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?" A fairly pedantic response, but it shows Tolkien's deep interest in semantics and ambiguity—much more sophisticated language hobbies than writing in a direct cipher or making up imaginary words.

The interest The Hobbit takes in semantics and ambiguity underscores the entire novel. Bilbo's riddles with Gollum and Smaug are the two most critical turning points in the narrative, the two points when Bilbo acquires a vital power (the ring of invisibility and the knowledge of Smaug's weakness). By deciphering the runes on Thorin's map, mastery of language also unlocks the mystery of how to enter Smaug's lair. A multi-lingual thrush communicates Smaug's secret to Bard, who is able to take the dragon down. Language is the real hero of the book.

This emphasis on language and ambiguity marks a real difference between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books that followed, but more on that in a bit. The Hobbit is a bridge between fairy tales of the Grimm variety and the overabundance of fantasy novels that would be written as a direct response to Tolkien.

I think a lot of Tolkien's (frankly awful) verse is his attempt at something like a nursery rhyme. And the trolls the group encounters in the beginning of the novel are much more goofy, lumbering, and silly than the trolls that would show up in Tolkien's later trilogy. The world of The Hobbit, despite occasional sinister references to "the necromancer," is a much more jolly world than the ones we find in most fantasy novels or even Tolkien's own Lord of the Rings.

But at the same time, this was the first book to invent the kind of fantasy landscape that would become so common in the decades to follow.

This disjunct between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings presents a problem for Peter Jackson. He can't put the trolls from The Fellowship of the Ring into The Hobbit and it be true to the book. For one, these trolls seem more like comic, redneck cannibals than full-on monsters. They have pretty pedestrian names like "William," "Bert," and "Tom." By the way, Bilbo didn't have a swashbuckling showdown with William, Bert, and Tom. Gandalf tricked them by mimicking their voices (another time that language comes off as champion), until they got turned into stone by the sun.

Playing this scene with mute Moria trolls would be a mistake. This wouldn't be a superficial difference between book and film, but a real break from the whimsical, humorous tone of the book.

The Hobbit is better than The Lord of the Rings, anyway. The latter is boring. And when I say that, the die-hard Tolkien fans will tell me condescendingly, "Yeah. The Hobbit is much easier to read." Yes. It is an easier read. Each chapter is deliberate and furthers the story, and there aren't nearly as many rambling monologues about irrelevant plot points as there are in The Lord of the Rings. But that's not the only reason why I say The Hobbit is better.

The Lord of the Rings is almost entirely uninterested in ambiguity and moral dilemma. Sauron is irredeemably and inexplicably evil. Examining his motives is never rewarding for the reader because there's no depth or complexity to them. Likewise, Frodo is never really conflicted over what he should do, just whether he can hold himself together long enough to do it. The books are almost devoid of moral questions. (The big exception for this is Gollum, but he's a carry over from The Hobbit anyway.)

This is not the case with The Hobbit.

Bilbo is commissioned to be a burglar. At first this seems like a joke, but over the course of the novel Bilbo turns into a bona fide thief with a moral compass that's fuzzy at best. In his final act as burglar, he fully steals his friend's most prized heirloom and gives it to his enemy. A betrayl like that should give any of us pause before the execution.

And the whole purpose of going on this expedition is built on shaky moral grounds. Does the acquisition of wealth (even if it once belonged to Thorin's ancestors) justify all the deaths in the book's last battle, not to mention all the innocent people who died in Laketown during Smaug's attack? Bilbo certainly raises this question.

But for all of The Hobbit's exploration of linguistic and moral ambiguity, it still espouses some really troubling world-views, even if it is in a fantasy world. I think it's a little silly to call Tolkien racist because of how he talks about his own imaginary races, but think about how he portrays dwarves. At the end of the book, a recurring sentiment emerges: You can only trust dwarves if money hasn't entered into the equation, even with an otherwise honorable dwarf like Thorin.

Once again, I know we're talking about dwarves and not people in real life, but how comfortable would we be with a phrase like that if it were applied to Jews? "Jews are all right until they smell cash. Then you better hold on to your wallet." Obviously not okay. While I don't know of any dwarves who would be offended by what's said in The Hobbit, there is a problem with ascribing character flaws to an entire race.

Another puzzlingly dated philosophy in The Hobbit surfaces when Bard is made king. He kills Smaug and everyone cries out at once, "Well, shoot! Let's make him king. He totally killed that dragon." So that's what they do, and they live under more happiness and prosperity than they ever had before because they now have a dragon-killer as their king. Even assuming that monarchy is better than elected representation (which is a big concession), is marksmanship the best criterion for civic leadership?

I think this conflict between moral examination and antiquated ideology comes from Tolkien's unique position between modernity and antiquity. He was a veteran of World War I, the incubator of modernism, but he also spent his professional career immersed in ancient texts.

Tolkien's contemporary and colleague C. S. Lewis spoke of his own spot in the shifting historical landscape. In his inaugural lecture as the chair of medieval and renaissance literature at Cambridge, Lewis spoke of how valuable it would be to speak with an antique Athenian about ancient Greek drama. And then acknowledging the radical shift that was taking place in the West, Lewis said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you somewhat as that Athenian might stand." He correctly anticipated that he was one of the last men of a dying era, an era that would be swallowed up by modernism and postmodernism.

I think many of these seemingly hopelessly old-fashioned philosophies that Tolkien presents are a direct result of the historical tensions in which Tolkien found himself.

So let's see how much of that gets translated to the movies, shall we?


  1. Good post...The book may indeed adhere to "some woefully antiquated social paradigms" if judged by today's standards (as opposed to when it was written).

  2. I'll go with you part of the way on that one. I think his treatment of race wasn't necessarily behind his times. But the ascent of Bard to the throne seems centuries out of place. I think a lot of that has to do with the mythic setting, and I doubt Tolkien intended this to be read as civic philosophy.