Review: The Hobbit

Posted: October 1, 2013 in Artistry, Cinema, Idle Nonsense, Industrial Collapse, Media, Narrative, Writing
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Spurred by the dismal realization last winter that Peter Jackson’s movie version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s book (The Hobbit) and preamble to Tolkien’s magnum opus (The Lord of the Rings or LoTR) would be given the trilogy treatment, I decided to reread The Hobbit for the first time since my initial reading in seventh grade, partly to refresh my memory and partly to determine where Jackson departs from Tolkien’s narrative. I reread LoTR twice or more since my adolescence, most recently in 2005, so I was familiar with Jackson’s departures and interpolations in that trilogy.

As with science fiction, the fantasy realm, which Tolkien inaugurated almost single-handedly, opens with the implicit demand that the reader discover the workings of time and place. Social and political styles as well as character action made possible by futuristic technology and/or ancient magic must be established early on to provide coherence and avoid narrative weakness in the form of whiplash plot developments. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is already well conceived in The Hobbit. He includes ample references to Middle Earth’s own fictional prehistory and a few suggestions — mere forebodings at this point — of disruptions to come later in LoTR.

The central cast of characters consists of a hobbit, twelve dwarves, and a wizard. (Not a single female character appears in The Hobbit, which bothers feminists. Jackson needlessly brings in Galadriel from LoTR, which infuriates some fanboys.) The dwarves are largely collapsed into a single group entity and treated indistinguishably except perhaps for their leader Thorin. The hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf are more fully fleshed out, but all three (or fourteen if you insist) are subsumed into the action, which proceeds at a surprisingly fast pace. Secondary and tertiary characters, though highly interesting and extraordinarily creative on Tolkien’s part, are introduced and dispensed with at breakneck speed. So characters in this fantasy-adventure tale are treated as vehicles for the action. As a result, it is somewhat surprising that one might develop affection for Bilbo or Gandalf carrying over into LoTR. Or perhaps that’s merely prior or later knowledge of LoTR bleeding into The Hobbit, depending on the order of reading and/or viewing.

Stylistically, The Hobbit lacks several of the features that elevate LoTR: the elegance of the mannered dialogue; sharp characterization of the different creatures (hobbits, men, dwarves, elves, goblins, orcs, ents, the undead (of different sorts), etc.); long, purely descriptive passages as the troupe traverses the landscape; and a sense of the spaciousness of the geography contrasted with the dark, still, heaviness of underground spaces. Indeed, the story can barely wait to get from one life-threatening and -altering episode to the next, all compressed into the duration of one year. Tolkien also takes leave of the story with astonishing alacrity, the denouement (return journey to the Shire) being only a few pages. (At least with LoTR, the epilogue balances the main story, with at least one last battle to provide closure.) This pace may suit young audiences, but it reminded me quite a bit of how the Star Wars franchise (two trilogies, as it happens) began with surprising seriousness only to retreat into adolescent jokiness and swashbuckling. It’s almost impossible now to divorce the literary telling from the cinematic trilogies (the Hobbit trilogy still underway).

Perhaps the most interesting thing of all in my rereading wasn’t the novel itself but the middle paragraph of the introduction written in 1973 by Peter S. Beagle:

I’ve never thought it an accident that Tolkien’s works waited more than ten years to explode into popularity almost overnight. The Sixties were no fouler a decade than the Fifties — they merely reaped the Fifties’ foul harvest — but they were the years when millions of people grew aware that the industrial society had become paradoxically unlivable, incalculably immoral, and ultimately deadly. In terms of passwords, the Sixties were the time when the word progress lost its ancient holiness, and escape stopped being comically obscene. The impulse is being called reactionary now, but lovers of Middle-earth want to go there. I would myself, like a shot.

In hindsight, it’s perhaps obvious to analyze Tolkien’s fiction as a simulacrum of the early 20th century and tease from it themes and gestures that made it a cultural phenomenon in the middle of the century. Historians have made a fetish of summarizing and distilling the peculiar Zeitgeist of each post-war decade, but my sense was that few observed the 1960s and early 1970s as a full, manifest recognition of a crisis afflicting modernity, and those who did were ignored. With three more decades of hindsight to aid in historical analysis, it seems that whatever awareness of existential dilemmas we may have then developed, they were quickly abandoned and forgotten.

In light of one of the persistence themes of this blog, namely, the collapse of industrial civilization, we had an opportunity through Tolkien’s fiction, which owes some large part of its ethics to the author’s experience in WWI (the first mechanized world war that mowed blindly through men), not to just escape into fantasy but to recognize properly the perilous crossroads at which we had arrived, both materially and spiritually, and maybe to plot a different course. But we’re not that wise, and despite assertions to the contrary, history does not typically unfold by design. No one is in charge. If various political and military leaders managed to alter the course of history to some degree (Hitler, Stalin, Reagan), those alterations did not fall into the intended channels. Instead, we lumber on like a headless beast without guidance and purpose, sinking ever deeper into the gathering gloom and eventual doom. LoTR gives Middle Earth a miraculous last-minute rescue from utter destruction. I doubt that option exists on our own Earth.

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Comments
  1. Brian Miller says:

    Indeed! No saviors on the horizon, no rings of power. I wonder what you would make of the UK (University of Kentucky) book from their Culture of the Land new agrarianism series: Ents, Elves and Eriador: The environmental vision of J.R.R. Tolkien?

    • Brutus says:

      Judging by the title, it sounds like a work of considerable invention. Tolkien’s characters in The Hobbit are saved from starvation repeatedly by some 11th-hour plot twist. Though Gandalf and Bilbo seemed to be adventuring (at considerable personal risk), nearly all the other characters are consumed by greed and demonstrate nothing that would suggest conservation. (Rationing doesn’t count.) Even after slaying the dragon Smaug, their greed is so immense the various races commence immediately with The Battle of Five Armies for control over the hoard of gold and jewels. I’d say that Tolkien’s vision was clearer than the Univ. of KY’s.

      • Brian Miller says:

        Ha! I am not sure I’m the one to represent the UK series. My efforts at book reviews tend to be along the lines of American Bandstand: it has a good beat and I can dance to it.

        But to be fair to the UK work and project, the book focus more on LOTR than on the Hobbit. But the Shire does a nice stand in for a balanced agrarian community. And the dwarves do well as a model of how greed and a culture built on extractive wealth ends up consuming those that base their lives on it.

        An environmental vision does not necessarily equate with a creative work that focuses on only the benefits of a sustainable life, right?

        I’d certainly recommend the work to anyone interested in Tolkien or in agrarianism.

        Cheers,
        Brian

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