Friday, September 21, 2012

The Hobbit at 75

The Hobbit came out 75 years ago today. By coincidence, tomorrow (September 22) is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo.

Tolkien wrote a lot but it was mainly for his own enjoyment. Paper was expensive (this was the Depression which affected people world-wide) so he wrote on anything that came to hand including the back of test papers (and sometimes the front).

Some of his writing was part of his life-long project to create an entirely new mythology. Like real myths, it would have different voices, some high and some detailed. As an in-joke, he threw in a few references to this mythology in the Hobbit, mainly the names and owners of the pair of swords they found in a troll-stash. The over-sized dagger that Bilbo took as a sword was not important enough for a name so Bilbo called it "Sting".

When Tolkien finished the Hobbit he realized that he had something worthy of publication so he submitted it. It turned out to be popular and the publisher asked for more. Tolkien only had a few other pieces suitable for publication. The War of the Silmarils was not what the publisher was looking for so Tolkien fleshed out a few short stories.

Later he began working on a sequel but got stuck on the opening, what became the "Long Expected Party". He knew that his main character was going to have a big party then go off on another adventure but he dithered around on who the character would be and why he was going. Would Bilbo have another adventure, possibly returning with a wife? Would they vanish and their son Bingo go off in search of them? Would Bingo run through his inheritance and go off looking for his own fortune? How did the ring the Bilbo picked up figure into things? It took Tolkien more than twenty years to figure all of this out.

Tolkien had an interesting take on heroes. They were all fine and good but they didn't necessarily accomplish anything. In the Hobbit, Bilbo goes from being extra baggage to the De facto leader of the expedition. He misses the big battles. When he finally returns home he barely tells anyone about his adventures.

Frodo and Sam have similar paths. Frodo goes because he has to. he is accompanied by three other hobbits because they will not desert him. Frodo does not perform any great feats. Most of his quest is boring, grinding, and dangerous. While Pippen and Merry get to see the Ents conquer Isengard, Frodo is wading through swamps. Merry helps kill a Nazgul, Pippen kills a troll. Frodo blends in with the orks. Even at the end, he can't bring himself to destroy the ring. It happens by accident.

By the time he returns, Frodo is ruined and will never be happy in Middle Earth. In contrast, all of his surviving companions become leaders of some kind (Strider becomes king, Sam becomes Mayor, etc.).

Even in the Silmarillion, the high elves struggle against Morgoth for ages without success. The two long stories, Beren and Luthien and Tuor end badly. Beren weds Luthien but their lives together are short. Tuor is a great hero but his choices bring ruin to everyone who befriends him. Morgoth is only defeated by divine intervention in which the elves play no part.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were not really written with an ending in mind. The journey was the important thing. They were written for the joy of reading. That is why neither book ends abruptly. It is not enough that the One Ring has been destroyed. All the loose ends need to be wrapped up.

The first movie of three will be out this December. From the cast, it looks like Peter Jackson decided to concentrate on the heroics rather than the ordinary things that Tolkien loved. We will see how well the book survives the translation.

No comments: