Friday, January 24, 2014

Review: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

It's telling that I can't remember if I read The Hobbit before or after I discovered the Lord of the Rings novels. (I know that I encountered them in unrelated circumstances. One was pulled from the middle school library based on word of mouth, the other discovered like some alluring treasure in a closet in my grandparents' house, the exotic covers teasing me for awhile before I opened them.) I think I read the epic at the later date, aware that it was a sequel, but I read it for its own reason, not because I was so excited about a followup. The Hobbit is a standalone, and it remains so, a pleasant little story that only hints at bigger things (I did love the maps and illustrations as a kid), as befits the audience. Modern readers can pull up all the rest of his fiction for the level of background that suits them, or if you want to import another kind of depth, read it trying to suss out the adult elements that are working beneath the story, which is more or less how I feel like looking at it now.

And make no mistake, this is definitely a young adult book. Tolkien takes on the aspect of a grandfatherly storyteller, occasionally addressing the reader or referring directly to himself (e.g., "I wish I had time to tell you even a few of the tales..."), which is a fairly annoying affectation, however kindly intended. The story escalates in scope, but starts small, and stays light in tone throughout. We're given danger and threats that a child could understand (violent, unpredictable, or manipulative people; scary dark places), and Bilbo's actual struggles are not ones of mastery, but are rather personal efforts of will. He has to work up courage to face the situations he finds himself in, and, on occasion, to do what is evidently the right thing, a moral bravery that he slowly earns. There ends up being plenty of violent death, but the acts are sanitized (sometimes with humor and song), and are mostly outside the immediate point of view. Bilbo basically cringes and hides when it comes to battle and war, and he is only vaguely aware of the political forces that are driving his quest, but we are given that his own actions are worthwhile, even pivotal. Hell, you've read 'em all too: Tolkien puts a unique value and agency on "steadfast."

Also avoiding some of the usual high-fantasy lard, none of the supporting cast of The Hobbit is particularly noble and capable as all that anyway. They all tend to be thinly drawn (sometimes elegantly so--the quick rendering of Smaug's vanity and greedy indignation is great, and so is Gollum's madness--but others are inadequately sketched out--at least four of the dwarves have no distinguishing characteristics at all), but almost all of the outlines contain a serious deficiency of character. There are silly or vain elves, unheroic dwarves, grim men, aloof eagles, and volatile um, bear-dudes. The most intact archetype is Gandalf the wizard, who is indeed wise and great, but only intermittently helpful, and certainly unable to give the quest his full attention, even though he shows up for all the good meals. Next-best is Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf leader and hereditary ruler of the mountain kingdom, and can I even tell you how much I love Thorin? Tolkien paints him as self-important and serious, but missing some critical element of leadership. (Peter Jackson allows him a brooding noble bearing in the films, and plays him as a tragically flawed figure, which I've been liking even better.*) He plays up the part, but it was less obvious to a kid that he is just not very good at the whole "king" thing.  He is sort of a high-end fuckup, even given just thirteen subjects and the best advisor in Middle Earth. Yes he's an exile with no experience at actual rule, but it comes more down to problems of temperament, really. He's confrontational when he needs to be reasonable. He quits and mopes when he needs to persevere, and with the unexpected success of the effort, he pretty much implodes under the responsibility of it. He gets a heroic sort of redemption at the end, at full cost, but he has to give up on his regal dreams to do it.

What becomes clear on reading is that there's no way his quest should have ever succeeded. Putting yourself in the minds of the dwarves brings out a dark dimension to the whole endeavor. It's as if their itinerant lives had grown so meaningless and futile that grimly throwing themselves on the rocks of an entombed city, if they could even make it that far, seemed like a good idea. Likely to fail, sure, but if they were to die trying, then at least they would die trying something. (And if Gandalf saw how Bilbo could improve the slim odds, it was still pretty rotten of him to send his small friend along.)  Perhaps, at best, they could have hoped to swipe an ancestral artifact or two, but the defeat of the dragon was never in the cards for them. Until, of course, it was.  When the beast does vanish (killed with a lucky shot by Bard down at Lake Town, which character I think Jackson is also justified to fill out), the company bumbles around cautiously for awhile, and then, as the truth finally comes out, they hole up. Thorin is stuck with a number of practical matters beyond the world of questing: he's got an empty city he can't rule, a mountain of cash he can't spend, one fourteenth of which is allegedly Bilbo's, who can't exactly walk away with the stuff, never mind take it back home through the hostile wilderness. When a faction of the townsfolk arrives to quite reasonably point out they made their own share of painful contributions to the dragon's hoard, but they'd be interested in some sensible arrangements for mutual development of all this reclaimed infrastructure, the dwarves' response is funny at first, but the situation gets pretty hostile pretty quickly.

When I read this book as a child, the Battle of Five Armies seemed like the anchor for everything, the titled event that made it significant in the history of that world.  And in a way it was, even though Tolkien shows only the chanciest sequence of action that brought it together.  As competent leaders emerge to dispute big conflicts, Bilbo and the gang look like the underqualified amateurs they are, but more subtly and sweetly than in the grand-sweeping sequels, it shows that small people doing good things can change the world.  As I said, it's a nice enough story all on its own.

*I could keep a long catalogue of Peter Jackson's cinematic rights and wrongs, but suffice to say that some of the things he added did help to fill out the story, and I think in a good way. Another irritating habit of Tolkien's narration is catching up the reader with "oh by the way, all this other stuff also happened while Bilbo was gone" sorts of deliveries.  Sure, it keeps the story in scope, but it also makes it look more episodic and badly planned than it really is. Hovering behind Bilbo's adventure are a few other plots. For example, after Thorin &co. run through the Great Goblin during their escape from the tunnels, they set loose headless legions of bad guys which finally converge at Erebor. Say what you want to about the development of the "pale orc" (which is mostly Jackson's creation--Azog is briefly mentioned in the beginning of the book, and that's all)--and to some extent I'd say it too--it fits the hidden story pretty well to give the disparate goblin and warg forces some power dynamics of their own, and offer some reason they should all arrive angrily at the battlefield together.


David Marlow said...

Full disclosure: Thanks to you (sarcastic), I binged on Lord of the Rings over the holidays because The Walmart had the trilogy on sale for $12. Also, obviously I've not seen Part 2 of Hobbit.

Having said that: Thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed your take here. Completely agree re: Thorin. And, weirdly enough, will be interested in Jackson's filling out of (of all people) Bard. I distinctly remember that "shot heard 'round the... Middle (Earth) School" when I read Hobbit now these 36(?!?!?) years ago.

I adored the maps as well.

But, mostly, really excellent to read this in the middle of a blizzard on the cusp of another deep freeze.

N.B. It occurred to me during my binge-watch halfway through The Two Towers that That Damn Ring is substance abuse, or, more accurately, the addictive, powerful psychotropic substance itself. (Probably just me.)

Keifus said...

I don't want to make too many assumptions, but I'm thinking there might be something to the part where the ring perverts the characters' judgments about their relationship to the ring--their decisions still feel like their own, and yet...

I think Tolkien wanted to make a point about the corrupting influence of power, and quite possibly stumbled on one of those universals of human nature. It must have been tough on him, in that the reality of modern war conflicted an awful lot with all the mythological archetypes he was clearly crazy about. You could read a lot of the Rings books as a conversation about that discrepancy. [And it's maybe too bad that so much of that came out as the 'decline from a romanticized past' version.]

I don't know, I think that Jackson (well, or someone) could film the book more or less as written, but it would be fairly annoying to a viewer, a lot of stuff would seem to be developed ad hoc, happening for no reason revealed before right then. Why are there factions in Lake Town? Why does is Bard willing to just hork off and reinvest in the mountain town of Dale? Pacing out the background hardly hurts.

I got my wife the extended version of the Hobbit (Part I) for Christmas. They added more backstory and fun bits (they kept the goblins' song in there, for example), but toned down (a little, not enough) that godawful video-game sequence running through the bridges and tunnels. Ran longer, but smoother.

I'll leave off my opinions on movie Part II for now, I guess. Nice to see Holmes and Watson pairing up again though.

Keifus said...

And good luck with the blizzard. Clearly it's a tide of corruption coming down from the north.

Keifus said...

P.S. On a serious note, the above comment has really been bothering me. It comes from my own limited experience in How Not To Handle Depression, and that's really all. Sorry about that.

And okay, one thing about Hobbit II: I was actually a little disappointed that casting Sherlock as the dragon didn't lend as much chemistry between those two as in other roles. (They didn't really write the scenes for chemistry, of course, but Smaug gets in Bilbo's head a little.) I wonder if he was reading lines in real times for those sequences. As far as Sunday's episode went (finally saw it last night), I found it entertaining watching him try to be an empathetic person. And I think I like Mrs. Watson.

Also, stay warm, and stay non-Norwegian for fuck's sake, never mind your retarded commenters. Otherwise, I'll ask bright to go over there and scold you.

David Marlow said...

I don't know that you have anything to be sorry for on my account. This insane weather defines my day. You know, manual labor as a salve against self-pity. (Though I probably shouldn't have watched the last 3 episodes of Band of Brothers early this morning.)

Watching Hobbit Part 1 was the most palpable feeling I've had, maybe ever, of being in the presence of a film that was made, top to bottom, by a person who loves the book, for people who love the book. (Cliche, sorry.) On that appraisal, seems breaking the damn thing into 2 movies is perfectly justified.

Here's the thing about Sunday nights. In about 1979, Sunday night popcorn switched from Disney to Masterpiece Theater, specifically Danger: UXB. Great series. Then dad got hooked on Mystery. Long story short: Mom would adore Downton, and dad would take however many naps were necessary in order to stay up for this Sherlock. So Sundays are maudlin in a way I'm not sure involves personal progress. I thought it was supposed to get easier.

Anyways, by the time Part 2 arrives from Netflix, maybe it'll be less cold outside.

Keifus said...

I went and got an episode ahead on Downton, and it's not a spoiler to say that the relationship between Old Ladies Grantham and Crawley continues to evolve. I got an image in my head that amused me greatly and which I couldn't shake, imagining the two older ladies going full at each other, much like Gandalf vs. Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring movie, ending up, surely, with Mrs. Crawley stuck up in one of the cupolas on top of the abbey, looking all hangdog, hands on the bars.

The weather broke here in the Northeast today, and now I think global warming is real again.

David Marlow said...

Now I see what you mean. Sacrilege! Loved last night's episode. Mary was particularly perfect in her perfect perfection. But I'd reverse Mrs. Crawley's and The Dowager's Rings doppelgängers.

Keifus said...

I think I'd have to give the advantage to the countess in that one, given her previous experience in the Jerry Potterman franchise. Which I haven't seen or anything, but which (along with "countess" actually) makes me assume that she's a wizardly badass.