A lot of people more articulate than me have written about The Hobbit and The Hobbit movie and Tolkien and all that, but I told myself I wouldn’t count it as finishing a book unless I wrote something about it. So here we go. Today I finished rereading The Hobbit.
Lord of the Rings is a story about extraordinary people battling for the destiny of the world and the one seemingly ordinary hobbit who ends up outshining them all. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is about a bunch of ridiculous dwarves on a quest for GOLD and VENGEANCE and the seemingly ordinary hobbit who turns out to be just as good at adventuring as the next guy, especially when the next guy is a ridiculous dwarf and the adventures require an ability to talk clever and hide like a champion. (Bilbo as a hero gets me on a deep, deep level.)
I decided to reread the book because the movie was, in my opinion, terrible and I was curious about what the book would seem like after all this time. I haven’t read it since I was ten or eleven. I know a lot of fans liked the movie, for the world and the fannish glee of seeing it on screen and in some cases, even for the movie plot itself. I found the movie to be a structural disaster as a standalone film and, as an adaptation, strangely bereft of all the charm I’d imbued the story with in my head. I was glad to reread and find that that charm really was there and, now as an adult, I can tell a little bit better how that charm works in the story.
(The people are the best part of the movie.)
I don’t want to harp on the movie adaptation, but I can see where they had difficulty adapting it. In the book, things happen easily. There’s danger but there isn’t the potentially plot-halting conflict that action movies seem to require. There are deus ex machina moments but they don’t seem like cop outs so much as a way to keep the plot moving smoothly along from interesting place to interesting place.
One shift the movie made (more of a neutral shift than a bad one) illustrates this: in the movie, Bilbo decides not to go on the adventure and then changes his mind the next morning when he sees the contract from Thorin and has to chase after the dwarves because they’re leaving. In the book, however, Bilbo decided to go that night and we see that clearly laid out in his mind – the Took side wins, hurrah. But he’s still a Baggins, so he oversleeps and then hangs around the house as though he’d dreamed the whole adventure proposition until Gandalf points out the note they left him and how he only has fifteen minutes to meet them! The movie version sets up a clear conflict – will he go or won’t he go? – even though we know he’s going to go, come on, of course he’s going. The book version, however, already dealt with that question quickly and the rest of the section is more of a humorous moment and expanding on Bilbo’s character, showing how even though he has decided to go, taking that first step, he’s still going to have a lot to get used to about the adventuring life.
There are a few ways to explain how and why things that happen in The Hobbit seem to happen so easily. Part of it is because it’s a children’s story meant for telling out loud – it’s a legend or a fairy tale, where adventures can happen for no reason at all. Gandalf can pull a hobbit into a random adventure with no explanation besides “I think it would be good for you.” Eagles come to help just because they hate goblins and elves and dwarves can decide to work together because, well, they hate goblins too, goblins are totally the worst. No additional characterization needed! That is just how this world works!
(All about location!)
Another part of it is because, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are what Orson Scott Card here describes as “milieu stories”. The primary focus of the storyteller in a milieu story is not on what’s happening or who’s doing it, but instead on the world that it’s happening in. Tolkien’s novels set in Middle-earth are about Middle-earth – its creation, its languages, its morality, its mythology – more than they are about the plot or the characters. (They’re vehicles for his linguistic experiments, of course.) The hobbits are ordinary (very English) people being used as a window for the reader to view an extraordinary world (while also advancing the key Tolkienian insight that the most seemingly ordinary people can be the most extraordinary if they choose.) The plot’s lack of conflict isn’t a problem when the storyteller and the audience both are more invested in the Official Tour of Middle-earth. This is why there’s so much wandering around in both books and why there are so many divergences that don’t advance the plot. And, perhaps, why there’s so much telling of events rather than showing – it’s a device to suggest an expansive world outside what the heroes are directly experiencing.
On reread, all the parts of the book that were most memorable to me as a child remained the most entertaining scenes. They’re also all scenes where cleverness and bravery (and Bilbo’s ridiculous luck) triumphs over sticky situations and the three scenes I’m thinking of seems to work as an arc on their own. The first is the trolls, of course. Gandalf defeats them by imitating their voices, causing them to argue until dawn. Though Bilbo was very brave in this scene, it was all Gandalf, but in the context of Bilbo’s later maturation, it’s a demostration of Gandalf’s and eventually Bilbo’s preferred method of dealing with trouble: talking yourself out of it if you possibly can. Talk until a way out presents itself. Talk until you have a better idea.
(Always wanted to be a riddle master after this scene.)
The next scene I’m thinking of is, of course, Riddles in the Dark. Bilbo is left as alone as he can be with very little hope of escape except for a murderous little cave beast, so, of course, he decides to… play riddles with him? It’s a very hobbit-like decision (indeed, Gollum turns out to be a sort of hobbit and that’s why he’s so very into riddles.) Bilbo tricks Gollum with accidental cleverness (“what’s in my pocket?” indeed) and lucks out in the typical Baggins fashion, but he kept his wits and made good choices. He didn’t have much control over this situation, but he played it well.
Finally, there’s Bilbo’s conversations with Smaug. Ultimately, these only matter plotwise because Bilbo mentions his bare patch in front of the thrush and because they cause Smaug to leave to the mountain. Smaug tricks him a bit but Bilbo plays Smaug and plays Smaug well with very little knowledge of how to speak to dragons, as the narrator points out. This section shows very clearly that Bilbo has gained a new self confidence (sometimes leading him to ridiculous mistakes) and a new amount of agency in his own adventure. Sure, he doesn’t want to go see Smaug, but he does a
nd he takes the lead on the investigation of the mountain over the dwarves throughout that section. (This new self-confidence feeds into his attempt to prevent battle, by “betraying” Thorin to Bard with the Arkenstone, which is a very complex choice to analyze.)
(I saw this version as a young child and the illustrations scared me off The Hobbit for 4-5 years.)
So! The Hobbit is a fun children’s story about an interesting world with a complex background that we get in pieces and songs. It’s also about a very specific type of heroism. In fact, it’s about the most real type of heroism. It’s the heroism of having a perfectly nice comfort zone that you don’t have to leave but you decide to shove yourself out of it just to see what it’s like living a story instead of reading one. It’s the heroism of being small and agile and clever and a burglar (and, ultimately, a damn good one and proud of it.) And, finally, it’s the heroism of coming back to home, to normal life with a new appreciation and no regrets.
To me in my current life, it reads like the story of a person who discovers that he’s just as good as all those people he thought were out in the world doing incredible, untouchable things. It reminds me a lot of what I’ve been feeling recently, as I realize that I’m no longer a little kid looking out at all the amazing people doing amazing things in the world – I am now and have every right to be one of those amazing people. I just have to make the choice (and not oversleep when the time comes.)
I had further thoughts on the complexities of morality in Tolkien, but I think that’s probably enough for a whole separate post (and maybe should wait until I’ve reread Lord of the Rings, if I actually do that.)