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.