Posts Tagged ‘“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”’

Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

September 18, 2014

I use this forum to publish a variety of ongoing projects.  Here, I am working on a mini-course on Tolkien which I am to lead for my church in October.  These are the notes for my first lecture. 

 

 

Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

 

First, when I start a new class I usually tell the students who I am and what relevant background I have for the course. In this case, I admit I am an amateur when it comes to Tolkien. My specialty is philosophical theology, and most people think of Tolkien as a writer of fantasy literature. Perhaps, if they are bit more informed, they think of him as a religious fantasy writer. Religion and Lit. is not necessarily my professional expertise, but it is a longtime interest.

My first qualification, I would say, is that I wanted this course. I’ve heard for a long time that if you want something done around the church, you should volunteer to do it. With the last of the Hobbit movies coming out this December, there seems no better time to look at Tolkien.

My second qualification is my decades-long interest in fantasy literature, movies, games and so on. Tolkien really established fantasy and influenced generations of writers afterwards. Another writer of fantasy literature, great in his own way though not as grand perhaps, was C. S. Lewis. I was pleasantly surprised when I first learned that these two great religious writers were friends and collaborators. I read both Tolkien and Lewis first in the mid 1970s, during the Tolkien craze in the U.S. and like millions I loved the books. In my church youth group we did discussions of some of Lewis’ books, but never discussed Tolkien. It was much later that I first realized that Tolkien was just as much a religious writer as Lewis, although they had very different styles and strategies.

As I began my scholarly work in Religious Studies, I encountered various psychological methods of analysis, including those of Carl Jung. I learned that Jung influenced Joseph Campbell, whose work on comparative religions in turn influenced George Lucas. Tolkien’s more theoretical discussions of religion and mythology began to interest me as alternatives to the Jungian approach. More on that next week.

And getting back to my professional focus, I became interested in Tolkien as a theologian about ten years ago, when SECSOR issued a call for Tolkien papers in conjunction with the release of Peter Jackson’s Ring movies. That seems only fair, since Tolkien was not really schooled in theology yet he wrote theologically significant essays, and I’m a theologian who’s not really schooled in Tolkien yet I write about him. One thing I hope to do here is discuss some of the theological concepts developed by Tolkien, and consider whether they offer better alternatives than some of the most popular theology today. Again, more on that later.

Still, I would not dare to stand in front of a group like this, which I know to be pretty sharp, if it weren’t for my confidence that sheer enthusiasm can make up for a lot in a teacher; and I am enthusiastic about Tolkien, both as a writer and a theologian. As a first step towards a greater appreciation of Tolkien as a theologian, I’d like to start with a short summary of Tolkien’s life, and consider in particular how some of the events of his life shaped his writing and his religious thought.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3rd, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His father, Arthur, was a branch manager of Lloyds Bank of Africa, having come originally from England with his wife Mabel two years earlier. The climate in South Africa was not good for mother or children and John was often sick. His father died in South Africa in 1896 of rheumatic fever, while the family was away visiting England. They then moved there permanently, first living in the small town of Sarehole Mill for four years before returning to Mabel’s hometown of Birmingham in 1900. Birmingham at that time was at the epicenter of English industrialization, and young John desperately missed the rural life he had left to move to this mechanized and dirty city. It was also about this time that he began studying languages and grammar. His mother converted to Catholicism, which estranged her from many in her family. Four years later she was dead from diabetes, leaving the parish rector, Father Morgan, as their legal guardian so that they would be raised as Catholics (1904). John was 13.

For the next four years the brothers lived with an aunt who was not emotionally close, but spent as much time as they could at school or the church with Fr. Morgan. In 1908 the boys moved out to a boarding house near the church, and John met another lodger there, a 19-year-old girl named Edith. Although she was three years older than he was, they declared their love for each other in 1909. Fr. Morgan did not approve when he found out about their relationship, and moved John Ronald to another house and forbade him from seeing her until he turned 21, at which point he would be legally an adult.

Over the next four years the two exchanged letters but never saw each other. JRR finished his schooling and won a scholarship to Oxford. On the day of this 21st birthday he wrote a letter to Edith and proposed. When she replied that she was already engaged to another man, he traveled to see her five days later and persuaded her to marry him. She converted to Catholicism a year later, and they were married Nov. 22, 1916.

JRR finished his studies at Exeter College of Oxford University, focusing on philology. After he finished his studies he joined the British army and fought in France during WWI. Originally sent to Flanders, he soon became ill and spent most of his military service in and out of hospital until he was discharged. By 1918, when the war ended, he wrote “All my close friends but one are dead.”

During this time his career was beginning to take off. Privately, he had begun writing poems years earlier, and began work on the Simarillion in 1917. Professionally he worked as a tutor and on the New English Dictionary, particularly the letter “W”. Years later, when an editor attempted to tell him that spelling “dwarves” with a “v” was not proper according to the Oxford dictionary, he replied, “I WROTE the Oxford English Dictionary!” This was also a time when he learned a great deal about language, as he researched the etymology of words back to Old English and other roots.

In 1920 he became a Reader at Leeds University, and in 1925 he was elected Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, beating out his former tutor. The position required at least 21 lectures a year; his second year he gave 136, and eventually settled down to 72 a year through the end of the 1930s. So he wasn’t lazy.

May 11, 1926 Tolkien met C.S. Lewis. Lewis is said to have been warned never to trust a Catholic or a philologist, and Tolkien was concerned that Lewis might oppose his efforts to improve the linguistics portion of the college syllabus; but the two became friends because of their shared interests in good beer and good stories. At the time they met, Lewis was not religious; his conversations with Tolkien and mutual friend Hugo Dyson led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity in 1931. Lewis’ ongoing suspicion of Catholicism did somewhat strain their lifelong friendship at times.

In 1932 Tolkien, Lewis and several others formed a literary club, calling themselves The Inklings. This group met weekly to share meals, give public readings of ongoing projects (and offer criticism), and generally socialize.

One biographer remarked that after this point in Tolkien’s life, nothing much happened. That’s “nothing,” of course, aside from writing some of the most widely read and beloved books in the English language, with combined sales of over 250 million copies and still going. But at this point, the story becomes less about what made J.R.R. Tolkien, and more about what J.R.R. Tolkien made. In addition to his scholarly work, he had been writing fantasy first for himself, and then for his children; but he never intended to publish most of it. He was a respected scholar and a popular and busy lecturer, working far harder than his job demanded; he was a husband and father; and he met weekly with the Inklings. And that is where it probably would have remained, except for an event that Tolkien recounted years later in a letter to a friend. He said that around 1930 he was grading exams for secondary school students to earn some extra money, when finding a blank page in the exam book and feeling bored he scribbled, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” And there he left it, he said, for a very long time; but eventually he began to wonder himself what a hobbit was and what they were up to, so he began writing a story to find out where it would lead. While he was working on that he wrote, in 1936, probably his most important non-fiction work, his essay on Beowulf titled, “The Monsters and the Critics.” This lecture is credited with revitalizing and revolutionizing Beowulf studies, and today we can see it as a statement of Tolkien’s own intentions as a writer. He shared early work on “The Hobbit” with Lewis, who urged him to publish. The tipping point came when a former student who worked for Allen and Unwin Publishers showed it to a coworker, who urged him to finish it. It was then reviewed by the resident reader of children’s literature, Stanley Unwin’s ten-year-old son Raynor, who gave it a very favorable review and said it did not need any changes. And at that point, Tolkien began the transition from obscure but respected scholar to world-renowned author.

The Hobbit received favorable reviews, including one written by C. S. Lewis that predicted that the work could become a classic. And as Rayor Unwin had predicted, children enjoyed the book and found it very exciting. As a result it sold very well, and soon Allen and Unwin were pressing him to write “more hobbit stories.” Tolkien, on the other hand, wanted to publish The Simarillion, which is a collection of tales describing the creation of Middle Earth. The work does not have the easy style of The Hobbit, or the narrative unity; and worst of all, it has NO HOBBITS. Instead, Tolkien began work on a sequel to The Hobbit which also picked up on some of the themes of The Simarillion, the struggle against Melkor the evil rebel against the creator God, and so on. This work turned into the massive Lord of the Rings. This is published as a three-part story, though the parts themselves are actually separate volumes so it could appropriately be said to be a six volume series. The story of Bilbo’s obtaining the magic ring, which had been a fairly short affair in the original telling, was expanded and the character of Gollum added to The Hobbit to tie it closer to the story Tolkien wanted to tell. While The Hobbit is a fairly straightforward fairy story about a rather stuffy, middle-class, nebbish who gets dragged off by a wizard and his dwarf friends on an adventure (and in the process becomes something more), The Lord of the Rings is a tale of four simple hobbits who are swept up into not only a world war, but a cosmic struggle of the agents of good against an evil that has existed since the creation of the world.   As it was written during the time of World War II and the Cold War, many readers sought to see it as an analogy or political allegory; but Tolkien vigorously denied this. He wanted it to be received as whatever the reader’s imagination said, so each person could apply it to his or her life. At the same time, while it was not explicitly or obviously Christian the way Lewis’ Narnia tales were, religious themes are integral to the book. The religious undertones and the epic scope of the work make Tolkien the figure he is. In the USSR, there were people called Tolkienisti who read smuggled books in secret. While it is likely the Soviets would have disapproved of fairy tales like The Hobbit, I have a hard time believing people would have risked persecution to read Tolkien were it not for the substance and sustenance they found in The Lord of the Rings.

In 1965, the American firm Ace Publishing released an unauthorized edition of The Lord of the Rings. Although publishers generally were expected to respect international copyrights, Ace had decided that since The Lord of the Rings wasn’t registered in the U.S. it would treat the work as public domain. Tolkien reacted by quickly reaching a deal with another American publisher, Ballentine, to publish the authorized version, and then made efforts to promote the authorized edition and to encourage his readers not to buy from Ace. Tolkien readers are a loyal and basically moral group, and proved willing to pay a bit more for an authorized version that paid the author royalties. Eventually Ace was forced to capitulate and pay royalties. The upshot of the lawsuits and publicity was that Tolkien became an internationally known author, and sales soared. It was the beginning of the Tolkien boom.

After this, even works that had been passed over by publishers began to attract attention. Hobbits or no, anything by Tolkien was likely to attract a readership. There was even consideration to finally publishing Tolkien’s own personal favorite, as far as I can tell, The Simarillion, although it remained unpublished and he continued to work on it until the end of his life. He passed away in 1973, while his son Christopher continued to edit and publish his father’s previously unpublished works for years after.

If I made it this far and didn’t run out of time or have to skip oodles of material, I am surprised. However, let me close by trying to sum up what I think a survey of Tolkien’s biography reveals about him as a man:

PICTURE OF TOLKIEN

 

As we look at Tolkien’s life, we can see how events made him the man he was.

  1. As a child,
  2. He showed an early interest in language, making up his own as a game. He also showed an interest in fantasy and fairy stories.
  3. Also, he was born in South Africa, but the dry climate did not suit him. His happiest memories were his young childhood in rural England. Shehole became the model for The Shire. By contrast, he hated the large, industrial city of Birmingham.
  4. He had a strong appreciation for nature and an aversion to technology that harmed the environment, such as cars and later trains.
  5. He lost both his parents at a young age. He knew suffering and loss.
  6. His mother converted to Catholicism, and was estranged from much of her family as a result. He learned that you may have to give up something for faith, because faith is important.
  7. As a teenager (to age 21),
  8. He was raised by Fr. Morgan. His aunt, in whose home he and his brother lived in the years after their mother’s death, was cold and distant; Fr. Morgan was engaged and supportive. Tolkien’s faith and his studies were a shelter and escape from an unpleasant home situation.
  9. His long separation from Edith and their eventual marriage shows his devotion and commitment.
  10. As an adult,
  11. He was a patriot, and he knew the horrors and loss of war.
  12. He was a perfectionist; he worked harder than he had to as a scholar and a teacher, and as a writer he generally had to be prodded to publish because he was unsure if his work was really ready.
  13. He was a devout Catholic.
  14. He was devoted to his family, writing regular stories for his children. His marriage to Edith lasted more than fifty years, until she passed away in 1971.

 

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

January 4, 2013

Review:  The Hobbit:  an unexpected journey

 

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

—–J. R. R. Tolkien

 

First, I’ll try to do a little of what seems to be customary in reviews:  help the reader decide whether or not to see the movie.  I shall not say much about the acting skills of the stars and so forth, because I have little expertise in such matters; I shall simply offer some observations and advice.  Then, I shall proceed to what I consider much more interesting:  a philosophical discussion of what the story is saying.  Every story reflects the world and changes it at the same time.  If the reflection is accurate, it can help one to see one’s world better; if the reflection is encouraging, it can change it for the better; if it is deceitful or demoralizing it can make the hearer and the world a bit worse.  Attending to the story can help blunt the bad and sharpen the good; simply absorbing thoughtlessly can allow the good to wash over one and away, while the bad sinks in and stains the soul.  But first to the esthetics: and as a final warning, if you didn’t want spoilers of some sort you should just go to the movie and not read reviews like this one.

General review:  Do you want to see this movie?  If you enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, you will probably enjoy The Hobbit:  an unexpected journey as well.  On the other hand, if you enjoyed the original book by Tolkien, you may not enjoy the movie so much.  The reason for both of these is the same:  Jackson has added a great deal of material to his version of the Story of the Hobbit, some gleaned from unpublished Tolkien writings and some original to the movie, that strengthened links between the story of Bilbo Baggins and the tale of world war and cataclysm to follow.  As a reader of Tolkien, I found The Hobbit to be a brighter, lighter tale.  There is more humor, and rarely is Bilbo in as much danger as he is in discomfort.  And the book moves faster; it is a shorter story with less detail.  For example (this is from the book and does not enter the current movie at all), there is the adventure when Bilbo must save the dwarves from giant spiders.  He alone is not caught, and he saves them not by force of arms but by taunting the spiders, throwing rocks and insults.  Tolkien writes:

 

 

Practically all the spiders in the place came after him:  some dropped to the ground, others raced along the branches, swung from tree to tree, or cast new ropes across the dark spaces.  They made for his noise far quicker than he had expected.  They were frightfully angry.  Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.[1]

 

 

Once the spiders are distracted hunting him, Bilbo sneaks back to the dwarves and frees them from the webs.  These are talking spiders, not merely huge ones, and thus as liable to temper and folly as anyone.  They are not merely animals or monsters chasing a noise, but rather bad-tempered villains whose pride has been wounded.  We can’t really imagine Gandalf distracting the Balrog with choice insults, or Samwise luring Shelob away from her prize with a few rocks and some stamping.  Even in its darkest moments, The Hobbit remains a fairy-tale, while The Lord of the Rings is an apocalyptic epic.  The earlier book is lighter even in its darkest moments, with elements of humor and tales of cleverness defeating brute force and malice.

Elements of this remain in Jackson’s most recent movie, but there have been significant expansions.  The expansions are generally more somber, as they aim to foreshadow the return of Sauron and other fateful events leading to the War of the Rings.  Jackson has also added some violence, with Bilbo actually attacking a goblin and killing him in a scene that originally had Bilbo and his friends hiding trees awaiting a grim fate.  And finally, there is the greater visceral impact of visual over print depictions of violence.  It is one thing to write that Thorin killed a goblin; it is another to show extremely detailed and believable depictions of sword-and-ax fighting, with heads and limbs severed and flying across the screen (I can only imagine what this would look like in 3-D[2]).  True, there is no real blood; but I think that anyone who does not think this is nightmare material for small children has forgotten childhood.  This movie is rated PG-13 with good reason.  It may better suit a young audience than The Lord of the Rings, but not by much.

But as I said, if you enjoyed the earlier trilogy, you will enjoy The Hobbit.  It does have more humor than the Ring films, and thus does have a slightly lighter mood.  It also has a smaller focus; the War of the Ring is an apocalyptic struggle, while this is the story of a rather fussy homebody thrust into the company of thirteen adventurers, now trying to keep up and do what his heart tells him is right.  Gandalf the Grey is a bit less grey, Bilbo is considerably younger than when we last saw him (and played by a different actor), the dwarves generally less gruff than Gimli (Thorin is plenty grim, but as a general statement of all thirteen dwarves I think it is true).  Radagast represents a somewhat darker moment, warning of the coming evil he has seen; but any character who rides a sled pulled by giant rabbits cannot help but cheer you up a little.  And those rabbits, and the goblins, trolls, giants and other creatures and details of the world, all show the marvelous tools modern special effects offer to the imaginative moviemaker.  About the only criticism one could offer in this regard would be to complain that it is too much like the Ring trilogy.  Perhaps, when we see more of Smaug, we will really say, “This is something totally new.”

To be continued…..


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again, revised edition (New York, Ballentine Books, 1978) pp. 157-58.  The original version was written in 1936, three decades before publication of The Fellowship of the Ring.

[2] as I myself have no depth perception, besides which I saw only the 2-D movie.

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

January 4, 2013

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

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

January 4, 2013

The Hobbit as Fairy-Story:  Campbell’s interest is to find the similarities between seemingly disconnected myths and fairy-tales, in order to find the unified reality he feels underlies them all.  Tolkien himself, by contrast, rejects the argument that the common elements are the most important.[1]  Instead, he says we should look to the particularities of the story at hand.  After all, behind ever story there was an original storyteller, and each successive storyteller has made some changes.  Of course there will be common elements in traditional stories; what matters is understanding how the storyteller has used those elements to make his or her unique point.  Dwarves and trolls and wizards are common elements of European folklore, of which Tolkien himself was an expert; many details (such as the trollish vulnerability to sunlight) came directly from such sources.  The Ring seems most closely based on the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic, which also was a ring granting invisibility, political power and moral corruption to its owner, but the similarities are stronger in the Lord of the Rings than in The Hobbit.  In this prequel, the evil of the Ring is not fully worked out, and it seems simply to serve the purpose giving Bilbo a sudden magical power, which he uses to thwart enemies and help his friends.  Dwarves, dragons and their common love of gold are likewise fairytale clichés.

What is the point of the story as Tolkien has offered it?  And what is the meaning of the changes Jackson has introduced?  Bilbo is a good, prosperous, bourgeois Everyman.  The most distinguishing thing about a Baggins is said to be his predictability.  Suddenly, a magical figure enters his life.  This figure is not a total stranger; his name and something of his powers are known, even if he has been long absent.  He used to make life “interesting,” which is something that Bilbo apparently secretly yearns for (secret even from himself) but also fears.[2]  Most of us, too, are basically caught up in the world of creature comforts and social respectability; but Tolkien believes that there is a small part that still yearns for something more.  Gandalf is that “more.”  As Tolkien writes, “fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”[3]  “Fantasy” is the element of imagination, of breaking away from the ordinary and the expected and the all-too-human.  Gandalf is that call to imagination.  Bilbo initially seeks to escape the wizard’s call; as Tolkien says, Fantasy has a bad name these days.[4]  But Gandalf does not take “no” for an answer; in fact, he seems to scarcely take an answer at all.  He issues the call, issues the invitation to the dwarves, and plans the adventure.  But in the end, Bilbo must decide whether to cooperate, which is the only thing that turns this from a kidnapping into an adventure.  Jackson’s version gives a bit more freedom to Bilbo, who chases after the dwarves and Gandalf rather than being hustled along by Gandalf after the dwarves.  But in both versions, there is the theme of two forces pulling at Bilbo:  the Baggins side of his nature, all respectability and comfortable, versus his mother’s side of the family, those Tooks, with their family history of adventure and courage and being just a little odd and distrusted because of it.  The Tookish side wins out as Bilbo listens to the dwarves’ song of gold and great deeds of the past, and he answers the call to adventure.

In the book, Bilbo is even less suited to adventure than in the latest movie.  His first attempts at burglary nearly get all the dwarves killed, and they are only rescued by Gandalf’s timely return.  Still, he does his best and endures the hardships of the trail, until the party is captured by goblins.  In the book, Gandalf rescues the party single-handedly, with poor Bilbo getting lost during the escape; in the movie, Gandalf and the dwarves fight their way clear together, with Bilbo getting separated much earlier due mostly to his good luck and small size.  And here is where Bilbo’s fortunes really change:  the meeting and defeat of Gollum.  I have always thought the character of Gollum resembled Tolkien’s understanding of Grendel.  As he wrote in his essay on Beowulf:

 

 

If the dragon is the right end for Beowulf, and I agree with the author that it is, then Grendel is an eminently suitable beginning.  They are creatures, feond mancynnes, of a similar order and indeed significance.  Triumph over the lesser and more nearly human is cancelled by defeat before the older and more elemental.  And the conquest of the ogres comes at the right moment:  not in earliest youth, though the nicors are referred to in Beowulf’s geogoöfeore as a presage of the kind of hero we have to deal with; and not during the later period of recognized ability and prowess; but in that first moment, which often comes in great lives, when men look up in surprise and see that a hero has unawares leaped forth.[5]

 

 

Like Grendel, Gollum is “more nearly human,” or in this case, more nearly hobbit.  In this story, we know nothing about Gollum’s origins or nature, except that he is nasty and dangerous.  The movie vividly depicts his schizoid personality, without explaining it.  But at the same time, he is no larger than a hobbit.  He is nearly bestial, bent and largely quadrupedal, and more a creature of the darkness and water than of the sunlit world Bilbo calls home; but still, the two are alike in more than just size.  They understand one another’s language, and they both understand the notion of riddles and contests.  Neither is a master of magic like Gandalf, or of arms like Thorin.  They are two like minds, one twisted, dark and malicious while the other is lost and far from home and basically decent, contending with each other for the secret Gollum holds of escape from the world of darkness and return to the light.  The only element of magic here is the Ring, which Gollum does not realize he’s lost and Bilbo does not realize he’s found.  It is his defeat of Gollum that allows him not only to return to his world, but to perform his first real act of burglary:  the successful theft of the magical power, the Ring, which will allow him to overcome his later obstacles.  As Tolkien writes, this is not at the beginning of his adventures, since he has been on the path of adventure for awhile now; but it is at the first moment when he emerges as a hero “unawares.”[6]

Fantasy is the work of sub-creation, the human echo of the divine creativity, creating a Secondary World that the reader or hearer can share in for a time.[7]  This experience of another reality grants us the opportunity to see our own from a new perspective—-or rather, from the old perspective, to see it as if for the first time, without the dulling effects of habit.  It allows us to experience “Recovery,” which is “re-gaining of a clear view.”[8]  In stepping away from our own world for awhile, we recover our sense of our world and the wonder and possibilities therein.  It also allows us to “Escape” from the triteness, the blandness, the conformism and the despair that crushes the hopes and individuality of so many.[9]  The last of Tolkien’s list of functions of the fairy-story, “Consolation,” relates particularly to the end of the tale; and this is obviously where the book and movie diverge the most.

What Tolkien has given us in this part of his tale (roughly the first six chapters, or one-third of the book) is an ordinary person who is called (or dragged) to a more than ordinary destiny, and who begins to be something more than ordinary by conquering a monster that is his own nature twisted by darkness and hate.  He does this without the help of Gandalf, for once.  The movie contains some elements that seem included merely to strengthen the connection with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Of the elements that seem to add meaning, some seem to be speeding up the emergence of Bilbo’s heroic side.  This is necessary, given Jackson’s expansion of the story to three films; in the book, Bilbo does not begin to come into his own until events that aren’t even depicted in the first film, so without some sort of foreshadowing Bilbo would remain a terrified, squeaking dead weight (literally; in the book he has to be carried by the dwarves since he is too slow to keep up while they flee the goblins).  Other elements link the events of The Hobbit to the coming apocalyptic struggle against Sauron, setting the whole story in a more menacing context.  But most interestingly, Gandalf reveals his reason for shanghaiing Bilbo into this adventure in the first place.  In a conversation with Galadriel, queen of the elves, he says that he and his fellow wizard Saruman have a philosophical difference as to how to oppose evil.  Saruman believes that one must fight the power of evil by having greater power.  Gandalf, by contrast, asserts that it is simple, humble acts of kindness, and a generous and unpretentious heart that matter most.  Bilbo was chosen precisely because he was unheroic and knew it.  He has a good heart, a better heart than he himself realizes; his sympathy for the dwarves leads him to abandon his own home for a time, and to risk his life, to help them return to their own home.  He lacks power of magic or of force, but he has the power of conscience.  And in the movie, this power leads him to charge a much larger goblin and defeat him, saving Thorin’s life and finally winning his respect.

For Tolkien, Consolation is the most salvific function of the fairy-story.[10]  It is the Eucatastrophe, the unexpected happy ending.  It is the affirmation that despite all the evil and pain and hardship and darkness of the world, it is still possible that good can win through.  This is the highest function of the fairy-story, says Tolkien, and is what gives us its particular Joy.  Even in the face of dyscatastrophe, in the face of undeniable tragedy and disaster, we can have hope for Joy.  We can see it in the fairy-story, in this work of sub-creation, so we can envision it as a possibility here in the Primary World as well.  After all, we are sub-creators, ourselves made in the image of a Maker, whose creative actions are only an extension and imitation of the Creator’s own work; what we can do in our Secondary Worlds the maker of the Primary World can also do there.

Since Jackson has not really presented us with the end of the story, a viewer who had not known the books would not know whether this will end as eucastastrophe or dyscatastrophe if we had only the tale itself.  Since Jackson has added a prelude, showing Bilbo working on his book in the future, we see that Bilbo does make it home.  At the time, all Bilbo had was Gandalf’s reassurance that if he went on the adventure, when he returned he would be changed, and for the better—if he returned.  Eucastastrophe and dyscatastrophe seemed equally possible to Bilbo at the time; he risked his life to answer the call to adventure.  Considering the end of An Unexpected Journey alone, without the other two films to finish the tale, what we see in that conclusion is the beginning of the fulfillment of Gandalf’s promise.  At the start of the adventure, Bilbo was a rather fearful and petty bourgeoisie, insisting as the adventure began that they would have to return so he could retrieve his pocket-handkerchiefs. But by the end of the tale, his love of his comfortable home has been transmuted by sympathy for the dwarves, who have lost their home.  Where once his greatest fear was that his unexpected houseguests would break his dishes, and he does not even want to touch a sword, by the end he is willing to throw himself into combat to save Thorin’s life.  He does so, he says, because he loves his home, and he understands the pain they must feel, and therefore he vows that he will do whatever is in his power to help them regain what they have lost.  He has truly been changed, as the goodness and generous sympathy that Gandalf saw as latent within him has replaced middle-class Epicureanism as the ruling force in his life.

As a fairy-story, it seems to me, the movie is incomplete by Tolkien’s standards; which is not surprising since the story is not finished.  We know that a happy ending is coming, but we haven’t seen it and can’t really predict it.  And with all the foreshadowing of the great War to come, our eucatastrophe will really have to wait until The Return of the King.  For now, it is an unfinished tale.  Is it a successful movie, in its own right?  By the standards of today, the answer is, “Yes;” it has made a lot of money.  But the market does not choose whether a movie is good or bad, in either the aesthetic or moral senses; it only counts how many people will shell out cash for a ticket.  More interesting would be the question, why has it been so successful financially?  It seems that the reason is that Jackson has done his work as a sub-creator well.  People who have visited his Secondary World want to return again and again.  I would like to believe that this is not just because his world is so convincing and beautiful, with the striking New Zealand landscapes combined with cutting-edge special effects to make everything seem so strange and real simultaneously.  I hope it is also because the underlying theme, that it is little things done by little people with good hearts that redeem the world, is a message that many want to hear and want to believe.  In our Primary World, we see hurricanes, wars, poverty, oppression, and pain.  There are two ways to fight it.  One, as Bill O’Reilly said is to affirm that “You have to make it to give it.”[11]  That is the logic of Saruman.  In the face of so much evil, the only way to accomplish anything is to accumulate as much power and wealth as possible.  Become an entrepreneur yourself, make a few billion dollars by any means necessary, and then you can turn around and do a lot of good—like Rockefeller did when he drove rivals into bankruptcy, worked employees to death and spent millions to buy the presidency for McKinley, and then used all that dubious gain to fund charities in his old age.  The other way is to first try to be good, and then to do whatever small thing you can do now, with the limited power you have, having faith that your good deed will call forth others and somehow things will turn towards the best.  That is the way of Gandalf.  Jackson’s movie ends with the affirmation that the least of the group can have the most conscience, and that this conscience is the most noble and salvific thing there is.


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf:  On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York:  Ballentine Books, 1966) pp. 45-48

[2] The Hobbit, pp. 18-19

[3] “On Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 68

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics;” in Beowulf:  A Verse Translation, translated by Seamus Heaney, edited by Daniel Donoghue (New York and London:  W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 2002) p. 128

[6] Since Jackson’s first movie ends well before the encounter with Smaug, we will save the comparison of Bilbo’s dragon with Beowulf’s for another day.

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 72-75

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 77

[9] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79-85

[10] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 85-90

[11] “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium 2012,” (http://www.therumble2012.com/index.html) accessed Jan. 4, 2013