“Good-bye then, and really good-bye!” said Gandalf, and he turned his horse and rode down into the West. But he could not resist the temptation to have the last word. Before he had passed quite out of hearing he turned and put his hands to his mouth and called to them. They heard his voice come faintly: “Good-bye! Be good, take care of yourselves— and DON’T LEAVE THE PATH!”[i]
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a story that I never seem to tire of re-reading. Written as a children’s story (300 pages) in 1937, with it’s dragon, dwarves, elves, magic, and—of course—it’s hobbit, the novel stands the test of time today, and I suspect will engage future generations of readers well beyond the 22nd century.
It is not the Peter Jackson’s polarizing interpretation, which will conclude with the final installment of The Hobbit on December 17, 2014. As enjoyable is I thought the series thus far, the tone is certainly different. The high octane and visually stunning movies are no G-Rated experience.
The Hobbit is light compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (LOTR). But this is for good reason as LOTR is a grim story of sacrifice and fortitude to save the world from eternal darkness. Engaging story in it’s own right, LOTR is filled with history and lore, complex characters fighting for their souls and free will—Boromir, Frodo, and Gollum—just to name a few. Whereas the Hobbit is meant to draw children of all ages—from youth to adult. The experiences are both risky and dangerous, yet reassuring as Tolkien acts as a guide along the way.
How did Tolkien craft a story that has such lasting staying power? What lessons can we learn from him to infuse into your and my craft? That is the path we will follow, laid out by Tolkien by way of three technical craft skills from his writer’s toolkit:
- The Aside: Author conversation with the reader
- Protagonist identification with the readers
The Aside: Author conversation with the reader
History and lore is the backdrop of the Hobbit, but it’s not on full display as with LOTR. There is some storytelling about the Misty Mountains in Bilbo’s Hobbit hole, and songs are sung by Dwarves and Elves that reflect their respective cultures. Tolkien deliberately excludes the role of lecturer, keeping the story simple with rich world development that hints at the hidden treasure just beneath the surface.
At different points in the story, Tolkien breaks from 3rd person point of view of the characters to himself talking to the reader. At these times, he shares short details that the characters could not know. His intent seems to give the reader a broader context of the world, or a heightened sense of the desperate situations the 14 adventurers were in because they lack the knowledge that Tolkien, the author, shared with the reader.
Gollum: “What iss he, my preciouss?” whispered Gollum (who always spoke to himself through never having anyone else to speak to).[ii]
Later in the Mirkwood forest, the adventurers kept finding lights and song. But when they drew near, all would go dark, and the lights and song would reappear in the distance. About this, Tolkien tells the reader:
“The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise.”[iii]
The Hobbit is on the surface a story about dwarven revenge and reclamation of their identity. Thorin leads 12 dwarves to return to the Misty Mountain where Smaug the dragon sleeps. Long ago, at the height of dwarven power, Smaug swooped in and single-handedly wiped out the Dwarf and Human kingdoms. He ate most of Thorin’ s people and usurped the Misty Mountains as his home. This story could easily have been a dark tale of vengeance, deadly combat, political intrigue, and—Oh wait…it is all of these without the “darkness.”
Tolkien keeps the story light by taking grim events and inserting humor that keeps off the edginess that comes with monsters and life & death situations. In chapter two, Roast Mutton, the 14 adventurers encounter 3 trolls.
These brutes are dangerous, with more hunger than brains, capture the dwarves and Bilbo, and immediately make dinner preparations. The trolls bicker like siblings, and are sucked into a conversation with a hidden Gandalf (unlike the movie part 2, where it’s Bilbo) about how best to cook dwarves for the best flavor.
“Trolls simply detest the very sight of dwarves (uncooked).”[iv]
In “Riddles in the Dark” (Chapter 5), Gollumn—the tragic loner, sociopath—talks to his bad self about how best to cook Bilbo during a riddle contest. Bilbo wins with a questionable riddle, which Gollum should have appealed if only there were decent instant replay.
“What have I got in my pocket?” he said aloud. [Bilbo] was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset. “Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in its nassty little pocketses?” Bilbo seeing what had happened and having nothing better to ask stuck to his question, “What have I got in my pocket?” he said louder.[v]
In Chapter 9, “Barrels out of Bond”, the dwarves are locked in the dungeon of the Wood-Elves, where they can expect to live out their remaining years because their leader is too stubborn to compromise with the elven king. Fortunately, Hobbit with magical ring that turns the wearer invisible + elves partying late into the night with wine = dwarves escape in the empty wine casks. Irony?
“Come give us a taste of your sleeping-draught before we fall to! No need to wake the turnkey yonder. He has had his share by the looks of it.” Then they [Wood-Elves] drank once round and became mighty merry all of a sudden.[vi]
Protagonist identification with the readers
While the surface story is about the adventure, the internal story that is the magical glue that makes the novel worth reading again, and again, is Bilbo. Tolkien crafts a character that the reader can identify with. The title character is someone we look at and say “there but for the grace of God could be me.” Don’t believe me? Consider when Gandalf laments (insincerely one might suspect) that he can’t find anyone to go off on an adventure:
“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”
If some eccentric old dude that you’ve heard was good at producing fireworks events propositioned you to drop everything and go on a trip with no guarantee of returning alive, would you answer differently?
“I should think so— in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins[vii]
Tolkien creates in Bilbo Baggins someone who lives a normal life, without life and death decisions to make every day. Bilbo thrust himself into a group of dwarves and a wizard for what the possibility of adventure might unfold. He doesn’t know if it’ll be good or bad, but he believes he’ll regret not going for the rest of his life. Bilbo is a civilian among seasoned warriors. He has an unrealistic idea of the travels ahead, but he maintains an endearing personality throughout his experiences on the road. Such as on first seeing Trolls, which Tolkien emphasizes Bilbo’s naiveté with humor:
“But they were trolls. Obviously trolls. Even Bilbo, in spite of his sheltered life, could see that: from the great heavy faces of them, and their size, and the shape of their legs, not to mention their language, which was not drawing-room fashion at all, at all.”[viii]
Bilbo is like us, minus needing size 50 shoes, not that hobbits need shoes. By the end of the story, Thorin, thus far consumed with revenge and regaining the wealth of his home, on his death bed realizes the true value of Bilbo:
“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!”[ix]
How do 13 dwarves + 1 hobbit expect to defeat a dragon where two kingdoms failed? Well, it is a children’s story. Tolkien keeps it light through humor that leads us to believe, “Well, they’ll think of something—providing they survive Orcs (think muscle-bound human with a pig’s head) on wargs (gigantic wolves), giant spiders, 3 armies, and… oh… a fire-breathing dragon who eats kingdoms after a good nap.
Next Author: Nathan Hawke of Gallow: The Crimson Shield
[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 1994-1997). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 1069-1070). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 2386-2388). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 597-598). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
[v] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 1165-1169). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
[vi] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 2572-2574). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
[vii] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 100-102). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
[viii] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 547-549). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
[ix] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 3999-4000). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
I’ve never read The Hobbit, but you give a masterful, complete description of its virtues. Tolkien had a talent for storytelling. Thanks for pointing out how we can be great storytellers, too.
After reading this, I understand “The Hobbit” better.
Great, John… Thanks for entertaining me!