Sunday 2 September 2012
The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien
Despite my well-known adoration of The Lord of the Rings, I had only read its prequel The Hobbit once, in my teens. In the run-up to the Fellowship of the Ring, I tried to read it, but couldn't get past the first few pages. It wasn't until afterwards, when I was obsessed with all things Middle-Earth, that I got around to reading it. Although I enjoyed it well enough, it didn't make as much of an impression as LotR, or even The Silmarillion. I'd grown attached to all the characters and the majesty of LotR, and The Hobbit, with all its interchangeable dwarves, and its there-and-back-again narrative just didn't impress me in the same way.
That was about ten years ago. Now, watching the trailer and some of Peter Jackson's behind-the-scenes vlogs, I'm getting as excited for the Hobbit films as I was for LotR. And I realise I'd forgotten a lot of the Hobbit's plot; whole characters and settings I barely remembered. Time to reread it, I decided, and once decided it was just a few steps to my bookcase.
The Hobbit certainly is very different in tone and style to The Lord of the Rings, and I think it has to be accepted as its own entity rather than viewed as LotR: The Prequel. Though there is plenty of danger throughout, it is a far more fun and whimsical adventure story, narrated in a manner that is at times reminiscent of the Chronicles of Narnia, with Tolkien himself interjecting and commenting on the story he is telling. There are even talking birds and dragons, singing goblins, and elves who sing about "tra-la-la-lally, down in the valley," rather than endless ballads about their ancestors.
Bilbo and the dwarves meet characters along the way, who are introduced and then bidden farewell at the end of their chapter. Even all of the dwarves are not given full personalities: Thorin is proud and haughty, Balin gentler and kinder to Bilbo, Fili and Kili young and cheerful - but what can you tell me about Dori, Nori and Ori? Beorn, Bard, the Elvenking - none of these have a lot of page time, and yet their characters are firmly established.
The Hobbit starts of reading like a fairytale, beginning with Bilbo Baggins being chosen right out of the blue by a wizard he hasn't seen since his childhood, to "go on an adventure" - handpicked to do the dirty work on a quest for some dwarves he's never met in his life, and probably end up as a dragon's Sunday roast for his efforts. Oh, and he has to provide cake and breakfast all round. Any self-respecting hobbit would tell Gandalf exactly where he could put his quest, but unfortunately for Bilbo (and fortunately to us the readers) he is descended on his mother's side from the Tooks, a family of hobbits with the most disgraceful habit of having adventures, and somehow he agrees to be the party's "burglar." Or perhaps he just doesn't isn't given a chance to refuse. One rather wonders what led Gandalf, in all of Middle-Earth, to the home of this rather pompous, comfortable little hobbit, and whether the wizard saw great qualities in Bilbo, or whether it was Gandalf's confidence in Mr Baggins that caused him to grow as a character. He starts off as a scared, homesick little chap, and gradually grows in courage, cunning and confidence with each brush with death, ceasing to rely on the dwarves to look after him, and instead saving their lives on more than one occasion. He even defies them to attempt to make peace with the men of Laketown when Thorin's pride and greed would make them enemies.
For an apparently simple, black-and-white fairytale with good guys and bad guys, I was impressed with how morally dubious Tolkien makes the otherwise good guys. We have a king with more wealth between him and thirteen friends than most countries own, called upon to help a neighbouring town that has been utterly devastated by a natural disaster (namely a dragon) - and he refuses. No! he says, This is my treasure and what claim do you have on it? Er, Thorin, what about simple decency? No? (He repents in the end, and it is implied that Smaug has left some sort of curse on the treasure that possesses the unwary with an overpowering greed - some version of the malevolent power that the One Ring holds over its bearers, perhaps?)
As I type this, I'm watching my Fellowship of the Ring DVD, and I was struck by how the two stories in the Ring saga show contrasting views of the people of Middle-Earth. Where the Elves in Lord of the Rings are depicted as wise, beautiful, too-good-to-be-true people, The Hobbit, follows a group of dwarves, who are the rivals. In this book, the Elves are more like the wild tricksy fair folk of ancient legend. Meanwhile, while before I was disappointed that The Hobbit didn't show the same characters or peoples as LotR, today I found myself missing the dwarf history in the film. Yes, this time around I have been won over by The Hobbit, and am really impatient for the first installment of the movie. Why can't it be December already? Yes, it's a controversial move to split the story into three parts - I wasn't entirely convinced at first that even two was a good idea, but if anyone can do it, I trust Mr Jackson. After all, I'm convinced he is part hobbit himself.