Friday, January 17, 2014

Tolkien Will Never Be a Hobbit With Me

We here at the Jade Sphinx spent the Christmas holidays reading The Hobbit, written in 1937 by J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973).  It was the sole blot on a wonderful season.

I should state here that I have been reading – with great satisfaction and complicity – works of science fiction and fantasy for more than 40 years.  In my high school days (or, perhaps, daze), Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was pressed into my hands by appreciative classmates, and I was never able to get beyond the mid-point of the second novel.  I have been allergic to hobbits, trolls, orcs and dwarves ever since.

As I reached my middle years, I have become more and more fascinated by the great works of children’s literature, books that I missed entirely during my actual growing up.  I did not read Wind in the Willows (1908) or Peter Pan (1911), or the Pooh or Oz books until well into adulthood.  Friends insisted that The Hobbit was a classic children’s novel, one of the most important of the 20th Century, and that I could not seriously say that I have read deeply in the field until I have digested this book.

My misgivings were exacerbated by the spate of recent truly awful film versions of Tolkien’s books.  I had an uncontrollable fit of the giggles during the first Lord of the Rings film (exploding into loud hilarity when I saw Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen beat up one-another), and the visuals of the films never quite gelled with the fleeting mental pictures I had made while trying to read the books.  I always think of hobbits as sort hominid rabbits, and seeing well-known actors in big-foot shoes and Mr. Spock ears does not quite gibe with my mental image.  We left the first film after the mid-way point, and kept our distance from all others until the recent first-film of The Hobbit series, and saw, with disappointment, that things never got any better.

But, on to the book.  The Hobbit deals with Bilbo Baggins, a member of a race of little people called hobbits, who travels away from his comfortable home in the company of dwarves to kill a dragon called Smaug and retrieve the treasure Smaug stole from the dwarves.  They are accompanied by a wizard, Gandalf, for the first and final halves of the journey – he is unaccountably absent from the hazardous middle-section.

At the end, dragon dead and dwarves reunited with gold, various groups of dwarves and elves and men, now in conflict over the treasure, band together to defeat a marauding band of goblins.  After much death and slaughter, Bilbo returns to his country home, a sadder but wiser hobbit.

In summary, it sounds like an interesting read, but the entire book is rendered a thudding bore by Tolkien’s lugubrious, turgid literary style.  Tolkien struggles to give his work the cadence of fairy tale or baldric epic, but succeeds only in creating faux-King-James-Bible or slightly rancid Kenneth-Grahame-knockoff. 

It is amazing that Tolkien, who made his career as a philologist as well as a professor of English Language and Literature, should have such a tin ear, but there it is.  Listening to The Hobbit read aloud (as I did to my better half during much of the holiday), is to experience a particularly donnish deconstruction of a tale created to excite into something quite bland and uninteresting.

The sections of The Hobbit that I enjoyed the most were those passages in the early part of the book where Bilbo Baggins is at home.  Hobbits, it seems, like good food (and lots of it), pipes and tobacco, a wee dram of something every now and then, warm homes and a life close to nature.  In short, all the best things found in Wind in the Willows and the Pooh books.  I actually love that part of the book … and certainly wish there was more of it.  (I dimly recall the opening birthday party scene of The Lord of the Rings, and hoping the books would get back on track with that – to no avail.)  As soon as the ‘adventure’ starts, my sympathy evaporates.  Tolkien obviously shared my sympathy for a pre-Industrial world, but the quest tale he creates for his ancient world invariably disappoints.

More telling, too, is that Tolkien often writes himself into a corner and then takes the easy way out.  Gandalf seems to have extremely limited powers for a wizard (he seems to be quite good with fireworks, and that’s about it), and the one time Gandalf can actually do some good, Tolkien absents him from the action while he is away on “other business.”  Worse yet, for a coming of age story, Bilbo uses his ring of invisibility much too often to keep himself out of any real danger; indeed, during the climactic battle, he spends most of his time literally invisible on the sidelines, keeping out of trouble.

Tolkien also drapes his cultural prejudices a little too thinly.  Clearly hobbits are the rural English, caught up in outer-world events not to their tastes and beyond their control.  The avaricious dwarves seem uncomfortably Jewish to this reader, and the wood elves a bit too much like gypsies.

Some wag at The New Yorker has called The Hobbit The Wind in the Willows Meets The Ring of the Nibelungen, and I can’t seem to top that. 

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