Thursday, October 17, 2013

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937)

My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was small (hmm…I'm sensing a theme here).  I must've liked it, because he read it all the way through, but compared to Watership Down, say, my memory was somewhat hazy.  Then, he tried to read me The Lord of the Rings, but I got so bored, you would not believe (I tried again when I was in high school, and got about a third of the way through The Two Towers before I just couldn't go on).  Anyway, spurred on in part by seeing a preview for the second idiotic-looking Hobbit movie, I decided to revisit it, with a possible eye towards seeing if I would appreciate LotR any more these days.

I like The Hobbit for the most part.  It's refreshingly low-key, it doesn't get crushed under the weight of its own pretensions, and it's not totally humorless.  I also think it benefits from the fact that Tolkien hadn't really nailed down the specifics of his world (which is never, in The Hobbit, referred to as "Middle Earth"); it's not a hard-and-fast rule, but I am becoming increasingly of the opinion that too much of this stuff tends to render a fantasy world kind of airless (Don Rosa ran into a similar problem with his sometimes-exhausting Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck).  I know Tolkien rewrote bits of it (notably the "Riddles in the Dark" chapter) to fit in with his later world-building efforts, but really, who's fooling whom?  It remains manifestly obvious that there's actually nothing at all sinister about the ring in The Hobbit.  It isn't part of some massive, sinister machination; it's just a fun magic toy.  Which is all right with me!

In fact, I am struck by just how epic it isn't.  I assume there's no need to recapitulate the story, but the characters are hardly heroic.  Bilbo musters the wherewithal to get something done when it needs doing, but boy oh boy, those dwarves: Thorin manages a certain amount of gravitas on occasion, but the others are just total goofballs (especially Bombur, the walking fat joke), and with the arguable exception of the final battle (their participation in which isn't rendered in much detail), none of them accomplish anything.  They just pinball from one catastrophe to another, and escape more due to sheer luck than anything else.  And then you have Gandalf, who has not yet evolved into the sententious figure he becomes in the later work; here, he's really just a kind of eccentric who got involved with the dwarves in the first place seemingly mainly for teh lulz, and who disappears and reappears throughout the narrative for no apparent reason.

So anyway.  Liked it.  Didn't exactly love it, though I can understand why you would.  There was one bit I found rather distasteful: now, given half a chance, I know people will opine like anything about how problematic the concept of "evil races" is, whether or not there's actually malignant intent behind it.  To which I say, yeah, but I really have the strong feeling that this is one of those things where a large percentage of the people who claim to take umbrage aren't really offended; they're just using it to work up faux-outrage.  I'm gonna be offended if I'm offended (and regular readers will be aware that I have no problem railing about things that would cause people to fling the dreaded "politically correct" epithet my way), but the mere concept of "orcs" doesn't really push my buttons, even if I personally would tend to avoid such notions were I writing a novel of this sort.  Bottom line: it's important to be aware of these things, but I don't think we need to write off Tolkien entirely because of them (we might want to write off his epigones, but that's probably a good idea in any case).  

But there's this moment in The Hobbit where Beorn, the big, burly druid/ranger (in D&D terms) guy that our protagonists are staying with, goes out to investigate their claims of having fucked up a buncha goblins and wargs.  As he relates, he finds one of each and pumps them for information, confirming the story.  "What did you do with the goblin and the Warg?" Bilbo asks.  "Come and see!" Beorn responds jocularly, and takes them out to see the goblin's head on a stick and the warg's skin nailed to a tree.  Neither the narrator nor any of the characters seem to find this in any way untoward.




Getting information out of prisoners (which clearly involves SOME level of coercion) and then killing them anyway?  That's a thing that the bad guys do.  The only way you can possibly justify this shit is by absolutely and utterly dehumanizing the people you're doing it to, and we all know what happens when you start going down that path.  And we, as readers, can't just ignore it, because it's being rubbed right in our faces.  Pretty fucked up, J.R.R.  Pretty.  Fucked.  Up.  And the best part is later on when Thorin is first taken prisoner by the wood elves, and Tolkien comments that they actually treated him pretty well, because they were decent sorts, unlike those awful goblins.  Yeeeeeaaah…someone's moral worldview seems a tiny bit confused here.

BAH.  I want it to be clear that, in spite of the above, I did like the book a fair bit.  And there are a few things that are just great: Gollum is an indelible character (though I kinda prefer the original version); and, even though his death is kind of abrupt and anti-climactic, Smaug remains the definitive fantasy dragon.  All pretenders should just give up.

On another note, bloody hell, do those movies look dumb.  I mean, I found the LotR movies stupefying (in all senses of the word), but they were clearly, for the most part, making a fairly serious run at taking the books seriously, so, you know, okay.  But the concerted effort to pretend that The Hobbit is, story- and tone-wise, exactly the same as the later books is so idiotically misguided, I don't even know what to say. It demonstrates very clearly indeed that Peter Jackson and company have zero respect for, or even interest in, the book, which irritates me because the main thing I like about it is its decided non-LotR-ness.  You suck, Jackson.  Not as badly as Visionary Director Zack Snyder, granted, but still pretty substantially.

So am I about to sit down and have another go at the trilogy?  Mmm…no.  Maybe someday, but right here and now, I am close to one hundred percent certain that I would just find it a grim, joyless slog.  I'm doing my best, people, I really am, but you have an uphill battle if you're trying to make me into some kind of Tolkien super-fan.  Sorry!


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I actually wrote a review of LotR not long ago, in which I opined about how the concept of 'evil races' in LotR is disturbing. But I think it's a bit different with The Hobbit, because the setting in this book is much more removed from any kind of real-world context, and is more obviously a fairy-tale fantasy world. Most of the characters in The Hobbit are derived from English culture (the trolls, for example, behave like stereotypical "British hoodlums"), so there is no real sense of racial separation between characters. The goblins are the most 'problematic,' but they are really more episodic antagonists, and the book focuses more on the conflict with Smaug, who is distanced from overt 'racial' analogies by virtue of being a non-humanoid fantasy creature.

But LotR is a different story -- Tolkien's world-building has very deliberate parallels to European history and culture (like how Rohan resembles medieval Goths or Teutons), and uses the literary style of ancient European epics to derive pathos. At the same time, there is much more emphasis that orcs are "dark" and "slant-eyed," they are much more prominent as adversaries than in The Hobbit, and the text takes great pains to show that they are inherently beyond redemption. So, on one hand, the book describes more overtly racial conflicts, and on the other, it is much more thorough in drawing parallels to real-world history and culture. I don't think this was Tolkien's purpose in writing the book, but it does make it more disturbing.


3:35 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home