Review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (pt. ii)

The Hobbit and the Monomyth:  Joseph Campbell taught that all myths are basically the same story with different details.  They originate, as dreams do, in the unconscious; but myths are communal, so they represent the collective rather than the personal unconscious.  They are tales made from symbols and plots that represent universal life events, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood; and these universal psychological events themselves reflect the great metaphysical unity of all existence.  The Story of the Hobbit is in some ways a myth, and in some ways more like a dream.  Like a dream, it is the creation of a particular individual, not the historical product of a culture; but it was an attempt to write a myth in new form, and given its widespread resonance it would seem to have succeeded.  Now it has become as widely known as many “real” myths today, and has even reached the stage that it is being retold and reinvented by new generations of storytellers.

Campbell writes:

 

 

 

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage:  separation—-initiation—-return:  which might me named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder:  fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won:  the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[1]

 

 

How does The Story of the Hobbit fit into the form of the monomyth?  First, let us consider our hero.  Tolkien begins:

 

 

            In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.  The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel:  a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—-the hobbit was fond of visitors.[2]

 

 

With the first sentence, Tolkien sets up a distance between the reader and the hero.  He is not a human, he is a “hobbit,” whatever that is, and he lives in a hole as might a badger or mole.  But immediately after that, Tolkien sets a scene to show that the hobbit is in fact very much like you or me; he enjoys comforts and visitors, bright colors and polished furniture, and he lives in a hole very much like one we would want to live in, if we lived in holes.  Despite being called “hobbit,” he is Everyman, so much so that he is even more a blank slate than that, and we can come to him with no preconceptions beyond what the writer himself tells us.  And Tolkien tells us that he is a well-to-do person, from a very respectable and unremarkable family, famous for their conformity and predictability, with no magic about him.  He is so far from being “heroic” that he is smaller, shier (his country is even called “The Shire”) and more soft and self-indulgent than most of us.  And having established that, Tolkien pointedly says, “Now you know enough to go on with.”[3]  He leaves his canvas blank for the moment and lets the story reveal the rest; we know what we are meant to know:  that this is a very unremarkable person, an unportentous and reluctant hero.

As Campbell points out, the hero is often unexpectant and even reluctant.[4]  Some seek a quest, and others have the quest thrust upon them.  Bilbo’s unexpected quest is not so different than that of the princess who loses her prized golden ball and encounters a talking frog, the Arapaho girl who chased a porcupine, the knight who chased the white deer or a thousand other examples.  And insofar as the hero’s story is meant to be our own, it is fitting; we are not expecting any momentous transformation, but life will generally send us one.  The only question will be whether one embraces destiny and opportunity, or attempts to flee it; one can refuse the god and end up birthing a monster (as Minos did the Minotaur when he tried to cheat Poseidon), or one can answer the call to adventure and become the hero who slays his monsters.

The hero is called out of his former life into a higher existence, often by an old wise man or woman.[5]  And often, the hero has companions as well:  Heracles and Iolas, Jason and the Argonauts, Jesus and the Twelve.  Bilbo goes Jesus one better (or worse) and has the Thirteen:  dwarves, that is.  Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, is a hero in his own right already, and thus considers Bilbo a mere hanger-on in The Tale of the Returning Dwarves; but as Gandalf points out in the book, Bilbo is essential since otherwise the group will consist of thirteen members only and that is an unlucky number. Thus, in the original version of the story, the wizard is not really a member of the group, but rather a protective and advisory figure (as Campbell says, more a symbol of a protective destiny than a colleague).[6]  The dwarves will strike any reader as “different” and special, and Thorin in particular shows that the dwarves represent those who have already crossed the line between Ordinary and Hero worlds and now have come to accompany the soon-to-be hero as he takes up the call to adventure.  There are always thresholds to cross, symbolizing the departure from the ordinary world into the supernatural or transcendent realm, and usually several thresholds showing still deeper penetration into the great mysteries.  However, the first threshold is the most important, as it symbolizes the real beginning of the hero’s journey.  It is the point where before the hero was just one in the crowd, the undifferentiated social/cultural womb, and now is both born and laboring to give birth to himself or herself as an individual.  It is hard to say where the first threshold is in The Story of the Hobbit.  His first brush with the really fantastic seems to be the encounter with the trolls; the dwarves are mysterious and Other, but still depicted as people more or less like the hobbit himself—-a tiny bit taller and more experienced in the ways of adventure, but not truly alien.  Meeting them is only a call to adventure.  Trolls are so fantastic and alien to the normal world that even the merest touch of it—the least glimmer of sunlight—-turns them to stone.  But if this is the first threshold, then Bilbo fails to cross it; he is caught with the dwarves and must be rescued.  In the original story, Gandalf must intervene to magically rescue the party so the adventure can continue (“benign, protective power of destiny,” as Campbell would say); in Jackson’s version, it is Bilbo who keeps the trolls quarreling and thus stalls for time, which gives him a part in their eventual rescue.  However, they still are only saved by the deus ex machina of a timely arrival of the wizard.  The real threshold, then, seems to be the Descent into the Underworld, again a common mythological theme—-here, a capture by goblins.  The dwarves are rescued by the wizard, but Bilbo must save himself, by his own wits and luck.  As Oedipus had to answer the riddle of the Sphinx (to give one mythological example of the riddling monster motif), Bilbo can only escape from the dark underworld by defeating its guardian, Gollum, in a riddling contest.  In the course of his escape, Bilbo finds a magic ring that gives him the ability to become invisible; as Campbell wrote in describing the monomyth, “the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”  The movie ends before Bilbo has actually used the Ring to bestow any boons; but clearly he now has a magic power that even Gandalf does not display.  He was recruited by the group as a “burglar” (the book also allows the euphemism, “expert treasure finder,”) but he vigorously denied any qualification for that task.  Now, he is a burglar par excellence; an invisible person can go anywhere, take anything, and never have to worry about capture or even blame.

The book continues on through many more adventures, but Jackson has saved those for future films.  There is also the visit to Rivendell, which Jackson has greatly expanded from the original book, but which serves the same main purpose:  to give the adventurers secret knowledge that will enable them to fulfill the quest.  At each step, Bilbo is venturing further into the realm of the Other World:  from dwarves (only a little taller, scarcely more magical, but experienced in the wider world) to trolls (stupid but definitely magical, if only magically vulnerable) to elves (wise, ageless, and naturally magical, even beyond the wisdom and power of Gandalf).  But still, the most important threshold is the one he has crossed alone, symbolically escaping from the power of Death and capturing magical power for himself.

To be continued…..


[1] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1973) p. 30

[2] The Hobbit, p. 15

[3] The Hobbit, p. 16

[4] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 49-58

[5] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 69

[6] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 71-72

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