Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Shire of Shopkeepers: Thoughts on The Hobbit

The most that can be said for the dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo really handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor fellow doing it if he would; but they would have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it, as they did in the case of the trolls at the beginning of their adventures before they had any particular reasons for being grateful to him.  There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.
Last week's news that the long-beleaguered production of The Hobbit is finally getting on its way, and that certain roles, including Bilbo and Thorin, had been cast, sent me back to the book itself for the first time in nearly a decade.  I reread The Lord of the Rings every few years, but The Hobbit is less dear to my heart and thus less frequently returned to.  What brought me back this time was the desire to gain some grounding in the text from which to wonder how Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens were going to adapt the novel, which in my recollection was childish and episodic, into something of a piece with their Lord of the Rings trilogy.  With the exception of Martin Freeman as Bilbo (possibly the most inspired piece of casting of the last few years, if only because it's made me realize just how much Bilbo and Arthur Dent have in common), the names being bandied about for the film's major and minor roles left me scratching my head.  Richard Armitage, who has smoldered as John Thornton in North & South and as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood, seems an odd choice to play Thorin, whose only heroic moment in The Hobbit happens off-page, and who is otherwise pragmatic, unromantic, and avaricious.  And to make much of the rest of the dwarfs, who are barely more than scenery in the book, seemed even stranger.  Both choices indicate that Jackson and Boyens are trying to create another fellowship to mirror the one in The Lord of the Rings, and to focus the film on derring-do even though it's mostly through trickery (and a lot of luck) that the day is won.  For a while in the early aughts just about every adaptation of a fantasy novel into film was marred by its producers' thoughtless determination to imitate the epic style and scope of the Rings films, whether or not the source material could support this--the first Narnia film was a particularly bad example.  Looking at the casting for Jackson's Hobbit, I couldn't help but wonder if he was in danger of making the same mistake.

Tolkien's celebrated affinity for worldbuilding means that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings clearly take place in the same invented world, but it's precisely at those points that the two works overlap that the differences between their Middle Earths are most apparent.  There is danger in The Hobbit, and the characters face many merciless, amoral foes.  But evil, which drives the antagonists in The Lord of the Rings, is absent from the book--its villains are merely bad.  There is, as well, no sense of grandeur in The Hobbit, nor of the high stakes that are perpetually in the background, and finally the foreground, in The Lord of the Rings.  Nowhere is the gulf between the two books' tones more apparent than in the chapter "Riddles in the Dark," which Tolkien rewrote when the idea for The Lord of the Rings began germinating in him.  In the chapter's original version, Gollum bets the ring willingly and accepts its loss with good grace.  The new version feels very much as if Bilbo has temporarily stepped into another novel--a grimmer, darker one--which is exactly what he has done, but which leaves The Hobbit, and particularly those later chapters in which Bilbo cavalierly uses the ring (which in the new "Riddles in the Dark" is treated as a character with its own desires, as it is for the whole of The Lord of the Rings), feeling rather wobbly (a similar wobbliness afflicts Gandalf's attempts to explain, at the council of Elrond, why he spent so much time and energy assisting Thorin in his quest to regain his grandfather's treasure, and why this victory was significant in the war against Sauron). 

To put it simply, the characters in The Hobbit don't care about the same things that the characters in The Lord of the Rings do.  They don't want to save the world; they're not interested in vanquishing evil.  They just want to get paid.  The whole novel is driven by money, and the desire to gain or regain it.  The quest driving the novel could easily be reconfigured as one for revenge, or to reclaim a lost birthright, but the dwarfs themselves leave no doubt that what they're after is the legendary treasure of Thror--as Bilbo himself points out late in the novel, to defeat Smaug would take a hero, whereas the dwarfs have brought with them a burglar.  The villain of the piece is a dragon, which many myths and fairy tales link with avarice and possessiveness--to sleep on a pile of gold is the ultimate expression of greed for its own sake--and Smaug, whose reaction to the theft of a single item from his enormous hoard is "the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted," epitomizes these qualities.  The good guys, meanwhile, are banking on making bank--it's never stated out loud, to Tolkien's good fortune, but reading between the lines it's easy to guess that Gandalf is helping the dwarfs in expectation that he will be compensated, and even Bilbo, the most adventurous and least greedy character in the novel (who is also the richest, at its outset), holds on to the note promising him a fourteenth share of the treasure throughout his travails.  There is, on both their parts, a sort of businesslike attitude, like the one attributed to the dwarfs in the quote that opens this post--a sense that, though they would probably still go above and beyond the call of duty even if no money was at stake, seeing as it is at stake, they expect to be paid.

Money, and specifically Thror's treasure, drives much of the plot of The Hobbit.  When Thorin is captured by the forest elves, he refuses to state his business in the Mirkwood, fearing--with, we're led to believe, some justification--that their king will only release him in exchange for a share of the treasure.  When Bilbo and the dwarfs escape the elves and arrive in Lake Town, the people are overjoyed at the return of the king under the mountain, but the master of the town fears for his business ties with the forest king.  Smaug is killed, with relatively little fuss and almost no input from our heroes, several chapters before the novel comes to an end, and what takes up these remaining chapters is a dispute over how to distribute his hoard: the people of Lake Town and the elves initially believe that Thorin is dead and march on the mountain to claim the treasure for themselves; when they discover that he is alive, they demand compensation for the destruction of Lake Town; Thorin refuses, and a tense and volatile siege follows.  The further I read in The Hobbit, the clearer it became that the disconnect between it and The Lord of the Rings wasn't one of tone or complexity, but of subgenre.  Tolkien, who is credited with inventing, or at least codifying, epic fantasy, wasn't practicing it here.  Instead, The Hobbit reads like a very strange cross between sword & sorcery, whose characters are mercenaries rather than heroes, trying to make a buck rather than save the world, and the modern reaction to Tolkien's own conception of epic fantasy, which replaces honor, chivalry, and noble kings with messy political systems whose rulers are more concerned with accruing power and wealth than in triumphing over evil.

In other words, the argument can be made that Tolkien's starting position for both Middle Earth and his take on fantasy was closely in line with what modern fantasy writers are doing today.  That he, like them, imagined a fantasy world in which people sought money and power, and thought only of their own petty concerns.  The difference between Tolkien and modern fantasists is that he didn't like what he saw, and set out to change it.  The Hobbit is quite decidedly set against greed and the desire for wealth, not only through the character of Smaug, but through Thorin and his reaction to regaining his grandfather's treasure.  When Bilbo and the dwarfs are set loose in Smaug's hoard, the effect that the gold and jewels have on them is explicitly likened to a magic spell, a lingering effect of the dragon's presence, and Tolkien uses the same terms to describe this spell that he will later use to describe the lure of the ring.  Bilbo's theft of the Arkenstone is described almost as a compulsion, and recalls Pippin's obsession with, and theft of, the palantir.  Characters who value gold above all things come to a sticky end--Smaug, Thorin (who forgives Bilbo only when he knows that he is dying, and can't take the treasure that Bilbo stole from him to the afterworld), and even the master of Lake Town, who steals the money meant for the town's reconstruction, then dies alone in the wilderness.  Bilbo, meanwhile, learns to relinquish wealth--he gives up the Arkenstone, and his fourteenth share in the treasure, in the hopes of making peace between Thorin and the besiegers, and when he returns home takes only a small reward from the dwarfs, and even leaves unmolested the treasure that he and the dwarfs took from the trolls on their way out.

All this isn't enough for Tolkien.  He doesn't just want to make the point that money is evil.  He wants to say that it isn't even important.  Modern fantasy writers consider characters like the dwarfs in the quote above, who are decent enough if you don't expect too much from them, to be the holy grail of the genre, but for Tolkien, characters who were businessmen rather than heroes were worse than useless.  The final chapters of The Hobbit see the petty concerns of the novel and its characters subtly replaced, making way for the ones that will occupy The Lord of the Rings.  Bard of Lake Town, who is described as grim-faced but steely, and is the descendant of the last king of Dale, is a proto-Aragorn, and when he slays Smaug the people of Lake Town mutter that the master of the town "may have a good head for business ... but he is no good when anything serious happens!"  The novel climaxes with the army of Thorin's cousin Dain about to face off against the joint forces of the men of lake town and the elves of the forest, though the elven king is loath to start a "war for gold."  The battle is interrupted by the arrival of a goblin army, which gives them all something serious, something meaningful, to fight over.  At the end of that battle Thorin is dead, the more open-minded Dain is king under the mountain, Bard is cemented in his leadership role (and later rebuilds Dale), and the first shots of The War of the Ring are fired.  As much as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings differ in tone, at the very end of the first novel one can sense the second coming into being--it describes a world passing from an age of commerce to a heroic age.

Of course, Tolkien was no communist.  Bilbo decides to renounce treasure, but not all worldly possessions.  He still returns to the Shire an even wealthier man than he was before, and his first act upon returning is to drive off those who would claim his property.  Tolkien may not like the pursuit of wealth as a goal in its own right, but he certainly has no objection to being comfortably well off (so long as you don't work too hard to make that money, I suppose).  So in its own way, I find The Hobbit even more reactionary and troubling than The Lord of the Rings--probably because the battle between good and evil feels more remote from my every day concerns than the questions of the role that money and the pursuit of it play in my life.  At the same time, it's a reminder that, for all that we like to mock Tolkien for his linguistic obsessions and compulsive worldbuilding, he had a very definite worldview, which he expressed in his novels with skill and intelligence.  That's something worth remembering even if we don't like what he was trying to say.  I can easily imagine Peter Jackson pouring a heroic story into The Hobbit's mold, and I might even enjoy that movie, or at least find it less disconcerting than I did this reread of the novel.  But a part of me wishes that he will try to tackle the novel as it is, just to see what he, and we, make of it.


Matt Hilliard said...

Tolkien may not like the pursuit of wealth as a goal in its own right, but he certainly has no objection to being comfortably well off (so long as you don't work too hard to make that money, I suppose).

I don't think that's quite right, especially the snarky bit in parentheses. Tolkien, arch-conservative that he was, had no problem with wealth so long as it was earned, whether through ordinary labor, risking one's life on an adventure, or (and here's where he's particularly old-fashioned) by inheriting it. In the various cases you mention where the pursuit of wealth is portrayed negatively, the reward outstrips the effort (or the justice) in acquiring it.

This is complicated by Tolkien's also old-fashioned dislike of hubris. I haven't thought about this much but offhand I think modern society mostly feels hubris is a virtue (you can be anything you set out to be). The various objects of greed in Tolkien--magic rings, the palantir, the Silmarils--are associated with power that is beyond the station of those seeking them. To modern ears, this smacks of oppression and rightly so. But Tolkien wasn't trying to restrict power to an elite. I'd argue he disliked power in pretty much all its forms. Aragorn becomes king essentially out of necessity and you get the impression all things being equal he'd probably prefer life in the woods (the narrative also swiftly gets him offstage before he ever exercises his regal power over ordinary people lest we, and the author, start to dislike him). The happiest ending in Lord of the Rings is Sam's, who goes back and becomes mayor but certainly lives a very small life compared to the great matters he's been involved with. Sam's successful resistance of the ring's temptation is also linked to his humility.

It's been a long time since I read The Hobbit but I think it was less swords and sorcery and more the beginning of Tolkien's theme of nobility coming unexpectedly from ordinary people. That Bilbo, the dwarves, the forest elves, etc. in The Hobbit are mercantile doesn't make them evil or even necessarily bad, but it does make it seem unlikely they could ever do anything noble, yet by the end they do. Sort of (I remember that whole goblin battle thing is pretty clumsy).

Oh, and I'd love to be proved wrong, but I think there's no chance that a movie version of The Hobbit is going to be anything other than The Hobbit: Extra Epic Edition, with the further downside that they will have to deviate pretty far from the original (that could be good, but the changes from the original in the Lord of the Rings do not inspire confidence).

Athena Andreadis said...

Most societies based on hierarchy and aristocracy of descent have despised commerce and merchants, from pre-Meiji Japan to pre-WWI England. There's the additional implication of vulgarity if someone works hard, the ideal being the gentleman dilettante with a sense of noblesse oblige.

Of course, negotiations (messy and unheroic as they are) prevent outright pillage and slaughter, and commerce is willy-nilly linked with exploration. But painstaking bargaining with high stakes doesn't make too stirring a spectacle, except to people who are emotionally adult -- absorbing films such as Endgame notwithstanding.

communicator said...

In Britain the survival of the feudal fighting-class into the bourgeois age of commerce drives guilty nostalgia for a romantic age of martial values. The new rich "may have a good head for business ... but (they are) no good when anything serious happens!"

Then of course 'something serious happened' in 1914, with ambiguous impact on the reputation of the upper classes.

It seems a waste of Richard Armitage's lean charms to CGI him into a dwarf form. Though in Spooks at the moment he does play pragmatic and amoral.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


As Athena says, there is a sense of anti-mercantilism in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. You're right that both books look fondly on characters who make their fortune through adventure, but there are precious few working characters in either book - Barleyman the innkeeper in Bree, the master of Lake Town, the miller who sides with Saruman at the end of LOTR - and most of these are negative characters. There's also very little social climbing of any sort in the books. Most of the good characters come out ahead at the end of both stories, but they're still within their original social class. Sam is, I think, the only exception, and it's worth noting that his new class is conferred upon him - he would have been happy continuing to serve Frodo for the rest of his life.

I'm also not sure I'd say that The Hobbit is only opposed to unjustified or unearned reward. That's part of it, to be sure, but the emphasis on wealth in the chapters immediately preceding the battle of five armies - the anticipation, on the part of both the dwarfs and the people of Lake Town, that Thorin's return will mean a return to the days of prosperity of old, when the river ran with gold - is treated with some ambivalence by the narrative. It's at this point that Bilbo starts disassociating himself from Thorin, and it's this attitude that eventually leads Thorin to destroy himself, even though all he really wanted was to work for a living.

That said, I do agree that The Hobbit doesn't think any of its characters are bad - see the quote at the beginning of this piece, which explicitly says so. It does think that they aren't heroic - aren't noble, as you say, though Tolkien would probably use that word in a stricter sense - which is a problem.


We know that Tolkien was deeply affected by WWI. As you say, for some people that war rang the death knell for the upper classes, while for others it was a cause for nostalgia for a lost age. Tolkien was clearly in the latter camp.

sebmojo said...

Great essay.

<a href=">Hilariously</a>, NZ is gripped by fear that the production will go overseas as a result of exactly this kind of drearily commercial negotiation. I'm almost certain we're going to get some hilariously ill-conceived legislation to keep it here (Warner Bros never pay tax in NZ again! Noone has any rights if they work on the film!)

sebmojo said...

Ah, no HTML - here's the URL:

stu willis said...

From what I understand, Jackson is writing *two movies* for the Hobbit. Only the first one is based on the novel. The second is a bridging movie for the LOTR.

Matt Hilliard said...

Abigail: Well, I cast around my memory looking for counter-examples but I guess you're right...from what I recall in the Silmarillion the only people who get paid for things (mercenaries, the Dark Elf, etc.) are all pretty disreputable.

I guess I'm reluctant to call it anti-mercantile because in Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion the usual targets of anti-mercantile literature do not appear: bankers, nouveau riche, etc. In general very little mention, positive or negative, is made of paying for things. There's a lot of craftsmen running around among all the races but you rarely see goods and services actually being exchanged. People seem familiar with the concept of money, but is anyone minting coins? Are there gold pieces with Elendil's face on them?

I think that Tolkien just wasn't much interested in economics. You're right of course that no one is upwardly mobile in his work, but there's not really anything that resembles what we would think of as a lower class to be mobile out of. The various cultures differ from each other--the hobbits live a comfortable suburban lifestyle, the Rohorrim are mostly nomadic herders, it's not clear what the Elves do, exactly, they might be hunter gatherers for all we know--but within them they seem pretty homogeneous. We might assume there's urban poor in Minas Tirith, but I don't think that's ever shown or even implied. The only reference to poor people I can think of is the brief allusion to slave plantations in eastern Mordor.

Anyway, it's been too long since I've read The Hobbit so I could be way off. Since I have the same relative disregard for it you describe at the beginning of your post I really appreciated hearing what you thought.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


That was the original plan, but according to the article I link to, he and Boyens are now planning to split The Hobbit over two films. Which, having reread the book, makes sense. There really are two stories here - the episodic adventure of getting to the Lonely Mountain, culminating in the escape from the forest elves, and the battle with Smaug and over his treasure.


It occurs to me that I've left out the most important working character in the two books - Sam, who is Frodo's gardener (and whose father, the Gaffer, was Bilbo's gardener before him).

You're right that Tolkien just wasn't interested in economics. It's clear that his world is modeled on early 20th century England, and that means that there are serving and working classes that enable the middle and upper classes to live comfortably, so there's some of that in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - Sam and the Gaffer, the workmen who build the tents for Bilbo's birthday party. Even the forest elves in The Hobbit have lower classes - Bilbo frees the dwarfs by taking advantage of the drunkenness of the king's butler and the captain of the guards, in a very strange scene that seems to contradict everything we learn about elves in LOTR (more than anything else, it reminded me of conversations between orcs in that book - except much less cruel, of course - and the frequently made observation that they are depicted as ordinary working stiffs). On the other hand, when Gandalf and the dwarfs descend on Bilbo, he cooks for them and cleans up after them himself. It doesn't make the least bit of sense, and the fact that none of the institutions of a working financial system are there is just part of that senselessness, though to be fair to Tolkien it's only in the last decade or so that fantasy writers have started to give serious thought to how the economy of their invented world would work.

But I don't think it's necessary for a work to excoriate bankers and nouveau riche to be anti-mercantilism. It can just, as The Hobbit and LOTR do, pretend that they don't exist and that we're all better off without them.

Raz Greenberg said...

It's been many years since I've read either "The Hobbit" or LOTR, and I'm hardly an expert on the subject, but could the difference between the two works be traced to Tolkien's influences?

LOTR is perhaps written in the mold of the great old heroic sagas, where heroes went on adventures and quests for sake of fighting evil or merely making name for themselves. "The Hobbit" is perhaps more closely modeled after modern adventure literature - the heroes of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" or H. Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines" (not sure about the former, but the latter is often referenced as an influence on Tolkien) went on adventure to find riches - yes, "King Solomon's Mines" presented other motivations for its protagonists, still. It should be noted that, not unlike Tolkien, both works also cautioned against greed while not making their protagonists or their quests any less appealing. So, of Tolkien's two best-known works, "The Hobbit" is perhaps the more "modern" adventure.

Great post as usual, Abaigail, and again - congratulations!

Anonymous said...

It may be worth noting that the Hobbit was written for children, and the world of childrens knows no monetary system and probably little of social classes.

Lord of the rings does not deal with these matters either as all the characters of the fellowship except Sam seems to come from rich or royal families within their own societies.

At least each of the characters appear to take onto themselves the responsibilities and hard work of the quest.

Anonymous said...

i've always enjoyed the hobbit far more than the LOTR tbh. it had more to say about the true nature of people than LOTR did. it was his more honest work, i think.

i also felt that the characters in the hobbit were richer and more complete than in the LOTR, but that may be because I've always despised angsty frodo.

also the writing in the hobbit had such humor in it; there was "wink" on almost every page:
"dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much." come on, that's wonderful!

and has any book, other than pride and prejudice, had such a delightful, opening paragraph as, "in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and oozy smell; nor yet a dry bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: no, it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort."

i'm not sure that the generation who fought in the trenches had too much use for heorism after the war tbh. and tolkien never seemed that enamored with it, even in LOTR the heroes are just doing what they must and putting one foot in front of the other, and getting on with it, and even so, in the end they fail anyway. despite everything, it all came down to fate or chance. frodo failed.

as to the anti-mercantilism, that is there for sure and is most certainly on purpose. tolkien hated what he saw the industrial revolution doing to the countryside and to the people. and he grew up in poverty, and like many people who grow up in poverty, he escaped into imaginary worlds without poverty and without money (for if you have one, then you must have the other). also, he was devout catholic. and most seem to forget that catholic dogma is still, even today, pretty hard on materialism. after all, the reformation would never have happened if people hadn't wanted to make a buck. the real allure of protestantism was that is sanctioned profit for the first time in christendom.

but also, money rarely plays part in any book really, if you think about it. just as pissing and shitting rarely do. and if it does play a part, that part is often an unpleasant one--ala dickens. this is as equally true of realistic, contemporary fiction as it is of fantasy fiction. there is a universal distaste for discussing money in the writer class..

as for class, tolkein's portrayal of class seems more american than british to me. his classes mingle as equals socially, which still doesn't happen in england to this day. and any character can sit on councils, even gardeners, and all can question kings directly without fear. his classes function more like job titles, than a rigid social ranking system.

Aonghus Fallon said...

An old post, but I couldn't resist commenting.

What I like most about 'The Hobbit' is how we are presented with a fairytale world - dwarves, elves and dragons - that is undercut by very mercantile concerns. So Tolkien not only created a certain type of fantasy, but subverted it. In this context, I would see LOTR as something of a regression - a book peopled by 'heroic' characters doing heroic things.

I reckon one big influence on the book (and an influence on which I've commented elsewhere) is Wagner. George Bernard Shaw theorised that the Ring cycle was in fact an allegory on modern capitalism, with Siegfried as the Nietzschean Superman. In this context the transformation of one character (a giant) into a dragon after accumulating vast wealth is significant. The giants supposedly represent the middle-classes, so the character is making the transition from one class to another (ie, to successful capitalist).* I think Shaw's commentary was a big influence on Tolkien and on the Hobbit.

A key example (for me) would be Bag End, which people generally see as a cute little underground home for a cute little creature but which I would see as an attempt by Tolkien to draw a deliberate corollary between Bilbo and Smaug; both live underground (Bilbo under a hill, Smaug under a mountain) alone and surrounded by all their worldly possessions.

* Eustace Scrubb suffers a similar fate.

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