The Lord of the Rings is, at least in my estimation, one of the most incredible novels of the last century. It is a forcefully imaginative and undeniably influential instance of an author cutting against the grain to build a place in the popular culture for his own, somewhat unconventional, tastes. And I could go on like that for a while, really, because I am a huge Tolkien nerd and I've internalized a lot of this kind of praise for the old man's most popular book(s).
What I really want to talk about today, though, is The Hobbit. The Hobbit is of course an enduringly popular novel and is often associated (to the point of complete identification) with The Lord of the Rings. As a prequel (though to be more accurate, Rings is a sequel), it contributes to the epic events that follow, and the stories are both similar in their focus on the activities of Hobbits and on the Baggins family in particular.
The similarities between the two stories was such that Peter Jackson, following up his acclaimed work on a trilogy of Rings movies, felt justified in taking the same approach and creating a new Hobbit trilogy. I of course watched and reviewed each of the three new movies when they came out, and while I appreciated the filmmaker's obvious love for the source material, with each passing year I became less confident that we fans were getting a Hobbit adaptation that was anywhere near as definitive as Jackson's The Lord of the Rings.
Flash forward to this holiday season, and I found myself actually rereading The Hobbit for the first time in years. It was every bit as wonderful as I remembered, and I found myself effortlessly transported to the Middle Earth of my childhood, before its geography became synonymous with New Zealand. But when I put it down again, my thoughts turned endlessly to darker themes. Peter Jackson and I, thought I, needed to have a conversation.
The sad truth is that, barring a few real improvements (like the addition of Tauriel, and some of the background material on the One Ring), the movies did not do the original justice. It's not a matter of which scenes were included and which scenes were not; it was a matter of missing the point. This is supposed to be a book review and I've spent way too much time talking about movies, but I think it needs to be said that someone, in the future, is going to make a brilliant ninety minute Hobbit adaptation. That is the work we fans deserve.
The truth is that as similar as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are, they have a very particular and symbiotic relationship for the reader. To read them in their original order is to see Tolkien pull back the curtain on a world that, for him, already existed even before The Hobbit was composed (though he was himself still in the process of discovering it). To go back and read The Hobbit after its sequel, then, is to be astonished at how effortlessly a tale so small, for lack of a better word, fits into a world so vast in potential.
The Hobbit stands apart for a tone of voice that is more friendly and personable than any of Tolkien's other Middle Earth writings. It is less self-consciously literary, having been first conceived as a bedtime story for Tolkien's children, with no wider audience in mind. The adventure of Bilbo Baggins never strains for mythic significance, as the hero takes a fairly straightforward path through increasingly greater dangers until finally reconciling his bold nature with his meek, domesticated habits. But the story achieves significance anyway, because Tolkien (quite audaciously) had Bilbo breathing the same air as the heroes of the great myths he had already been writing for years. Practically no one who read The Hobbit in 1937 had any idea about The Silmarillion, but that dense work echoes throughout The Hobbit without overwhelming what is still essentially a story for children.
That continuous presence animates The Hobbit and gives Tolkien the opportunity to take his world's history as given, confident that readers would accept the introductions of elvish swords from Gondolin, without asking too many questions about just what or where "Gondolin" was. Elements like the Necromancer or the Arkenstone hold obvious significance, but even though the initial audience knew nothing about the agents of Morgoth or of the Silmarils, the author was already practiced in exploring their associated themes. The reader might know nothing of Middle Earth's history, but it is obvious to anyone that the narrator knows what he's talking about, and isn't merely making up silly names as he goes along.
So what is the magic of The Hobbit? It is depth in the service of simplicity. The function of that depth is to take a simple story about fantastic events and make them seem so weighted with history as to be nearly tangible. It's fiction, but it isn't trifling; light, yet substantial.
Tolkien's Middle Earth was created as a way for for the author to express his fascination with the "authentic" myths that were his academic specialty, in a way that satisfied his own creative impulses. For that reason The Hobbit also rings true for its reminiscence of the stories of Norse mythology, with Dwarves and Elves and the distinctly Odinic wanderer Gandalf. Indeed, Tolkien's imaginative appropriation of these types had the effect of casting a distinctly "Nordic" quality over subsequent "high" fantasy fiction, a historically unfortunate result but one that works to great effect in giving The Hobbit the illusion of authenticity.
Another problematic element of the story is Tolkien's rather obvious and often cringe-worthy characterization of his Dwarves with stereotypes of Jewish people. Though I am not Jewish and can't speak fully to the anti-Semitic effect, I will venture to say that the Dwarves of The Hobbit are not villains, and neither are they as single-mindedly obsessed with wealth as a true bigot likely would have had them. In a roundabout way it seems that Tolkien really admires Thorin and his companions, while still carelessly stereotyping them. Cultural misunderstanding is a recurring theme in all of Tolkien's works, often reflecting his own feelings about the clash between ancient and "modern" values; whether he could appreciate the conflict between modern people in the same way is unclear.
That problem illustrates the limitations of attempting to build a whole world from one's own imagination. Real worlds are impossibly huge, rendered in imperceptible deal and visible from infinite perspectives. Even the most fully-realized work of fiction is only as real as it can be generated within human minds, and the smallness of our minds gives us flawed worlds. I think that is part of what makes The Hobbit so endearing in its original form: its satisfaction with being small, even as it sets out into the great wide open. The "battle of the five armies" is a spectacular moment, but I think what most people remember best in the end are the small scale delights of the Shire and Bag End.