The Hobbit at Eighty
The first Middle-earth book came out eighty years ago today, though at the time, it wasn’t a Middle-earth book. It was a one-off adventure story that was retrospectively shoe-horned into the world of The Silmarillion via The Lord of the Rings – a retrospective shoe-horning that continues to cause problems (and not just because it means Thranduil’s blond hair in The Hobbit is regularly brought up in debates about Legolas’ hair in Rings…). The issue is that, as with any shoe-horning, The Hobbit is not a natural fit with the rest of Middle-earth. It may allude to it – even, in the case of the Ring, profoundly affect it – but The Hobbit as of September 1937 was not written that way, and it shows.
My own experience with The Hobbit partly reflects this. You see, I read it after The Lord of the Rings (my first copy of which I devoured until the paperback fell apart) – which meant that I regarded The Hobbit for years with a twinge of disappointment. Eleven year-old me wanted the grandeur of Rings, or at least more information on Gollum and Balin (especially the latter. I’d encountered the tomb in Rings, but never read about the dwarf as living). But it didn’t work out that way – The Hobbit is decidedly not another Rings, but instead a bit of whimsy and wish-fulfilment with some darker stuff creeping in at the edges. The wish-fulfilment angle is particularly amusing if you see Bilbo as an authorial avatar: a middle-aged pipe-smoking fellow trapped in a mundane existence who would secretly love nothing more than a bit of Norse mythology to turn up on his doorstep and sweep him away.
Looking back on my childhood disappointment with the book, I now not only see that I was wrong – The Hobbit is an excellent book when you treat it on its own terms – but that this feeling is actually surprisingly common. It is, after all, one of the problems with Peter Jackson’s adaptation: the discrepancy between an epic-scale blockbuster, and altogether more humble source material (in other words, The Hobbit movies try to treat the book as another Rings, and fail precisely because it isn’t). But curiously this was a feeling even Tolkien himself succumbed to: he re-read The Hobbit in the aftermath of The Lord of the Rings, found it “very poor stuff,” and began a re-write to make the text less frivolous. The re-write stopped just before the trolls when someone pointed out to him that the story he was now telling was no longer The Hobbit – a criticism that was, of course, entirely true, but which simply reflected the fact that the original was intended as something entirely different.
As a footnote to my Hobbit experiences, last year I also finally got around to seeing the old Rankin-Bass Hobbit from 1977. This may have its issues (not a fan of the animation), but the film from an adaptive and storytelling angle is far superior to Jackson’s version. It cuts Beorn and the Arkenstone, but apart from that, is able to squeeze a movie that feels like the original book into a mere seventy-seven minutes. Which really just shows how much padding ended up in the live action adaptation.