Reviews of The Hobbit (1937) and related work

The Hobbit (1937Text)

J. R. R. Tolkien (writer).

The dignity of The Immortal Hour (1899) added to the template of a more Germanic fairy story for children.

References here: On re-reading The Lord of the Rings after 20-odd years, Princess Mononoke (1997).

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The Lord of the Rings (1954Text)

J. R. R. Tolkien (writer).

Three races seek to prevent an innocuous magical artifact from falling into the hands of evil. They decide to destroy it, but who can be trusted to sacrifice something so powerful? Dwarfs have little interest in or influence on the surface world anymore. Humans are short-lived, fickle and divided; they’ve already failed the mission once. Elves, while clearly a superior race, are abandoning the continent to live with their distant gods. A non-human wizard, set apart, realizes that a fourth race is more suitable: a little-known people called hobbits, who helped the dwarfs once before. Earthy and narrow-minded, they resist the corrupting call of the artifact better than the others.

It falls to a group of hobbits, protected by a fellowship made up of the stronger races, to carry the artifact to where it was forged, a volcanic fire at the heart of darkness. It may be possible to survive the long journey, but not to do so unchanged.

Note: I originally wrote up my thoughts on this novel in On re-reading The Lord of the Rings after 20-odd years. Having since expanded the review section of this site to include books, I have moved the majority of the text here, despite it being about the book’s influence on role-playing games.

Tolkien is a very careful, measured and ambitious writer, with beautiful results. His dry wit is well chosen. His most striking archaism is the use of the tiny word “hi” to attract attention, not as a greeting. The finest piece of poetry in the work, even better than Eärendil was a mariner, is Gollum’s second song, Alive without breath. It’s clever, catchy, humble and illustrative of character.

The use of poetry only bothers me on two occasions. The first is when Legolas and Aragorn take turns singing the praises of Boromir at his funeral (book III, chapter 1), and the second when Sam sings in the Dark Tower (bk. VI, ch. 1). Their songs are improvised, presumably in imitation of medieval literature. It’s the sort of thing one expects to happen in an Icelandic saga with its poetic kennings and occasional longer phrases, a naïve filming of a chanson de geste, or a modern musical film. It’s out of place in the faux-historical, chain-of-cause-and-effect mode that dominates LoTR as it dominated Beowulf (ca. 700–1000).

Perhaps intentionally, the most lyrical and most implausible scene in the epic stems directly from that of Boromir’s burial, where Legolas and Aragorn sing their verses. This is the scene where Faramir sees his brother’s corpse floating down the river. LoTR would have been a very different and fascinating book if it had all been written like those two scenes: Boromir’s burial and his last appearance, respectively. Not many people would have read it.

Immediately before he is killed, Boromir kills “twenty at least”, while fighting almost alone against an expeditionary force of orcs. In the battle of the Hornburg—a.k.a. the battle in Helm’s Deep—Gimli and Legolas compete and count their kills, each of them reaching over 40. This is a strange combination of three things: cartoonish levels of violence, callous accounting, and the superiority of the Fellowship’s “good guys” compared to the ”bad guys”. Tolkien did not invent this combination. It was already prominent in the pulp fantasy fiction that preceded The Hobbit, and in the Icelandic sagas before that. In it, I see a seed of Dungeons & Dragons, with its perverse marriage of personal violence, dry statistics and vicarious empowerment. In Tolkien, it has as much to do with the aforementioned spontaneous poetry as with a morbid imagination. His protagonists seem to be superb killers for the same reason that they are poets. Being important has those particular side effects in the sagas.

Even Merry and Pippin attain tremendous personal importance in the story. I dislike this for two reasons. First, it implies a guiding hand of providence in shaping the Fellowship, which dilutes the drama. Second, it aligns with a foolish royalism, here based on notions of the genetic superiority of monarchs, a factual circumstance of Arda’s fictional societies. The nobles of Gondor live longer because of their “purer blood”. It is only after associating themselves with the rulers of Rohan and Gondor that the two hobbits find the strength for their great deeds. Merry, Pippin and Frodo are all effectively nobles by birth. The baser Sam’s greatest hope is to be Frodo’s good servant, even after he thinks Frodo has died. The internalized drive to serve a “gentlehobbit” is what pushes him to heroism: a foolish character. The great human heroes all seem to be nobles, and the wicked nobles are corrupted from without, not by power. That’s neither realistic nor lively for a fantasy. The whole plot thread of Aragorn revealing his heritage is a bore lined with silly scenes where he stops slouching for a moment and the onlookers are flabbergasted.

The ascent of Merry and Pippin brings to mind two more features of Dungeons & Dragons: levelling up, and party balance. Starting with the former, D&D has notoriously poor rules for character development, and LoTR is weirdly consistent with them. As they develop, Merry and Pippin don’t seem to need much study, and they do seem to get more “hit points”. They blithely ignore the threat of combat with a bunch of medieval ruffians at the end of the story, as if travel and mail have made them immune to arrows in the face. A healthy, experienced character in D&D cannot be killed by a single arrow, nor does that happen to anyone important in LoTR, which detracts from the idea that combat could be dangerous.

The influence of LoTR on the notion of party balance is more interesting. Protagonists are identifiable in part by their influence on their narrative, as opposed to being points of view. In LoTR, Merry and Pippin are clearly among the protagonists, even more so than Boromir, Legolas or Gimli. The two hobbits get whole chapters to themselves, separated from other members of the Fellowship, influencing great rulers. They also distinguish themselves in battle. Merry helps kill the Witch-king, and kills the enemy leader in the battle of Bywater. Pippin inexplicably slays a troll officer. Thus all the members of the Fellowship are marked like Beowulf as great heroes, comparable in their extraordinary personal abilities.

Tolkien’s structure probably influenced the role-playing medium. In a game like D&D, the protagonists are likewise similar in their abilities, or at least in their technical potential, for the sake of actual fairness. The protagonists are the only characters in D&D to be directly controlled by players. Approximate technical equality averts jealousy and bullying. I don’t recall encountering this in pre-Tolkien fantasy literature. Robert E. Howard, for instance, pairs up his Conan with the occasional sidekick, but these are invariably inferior to the true hero.

In LoTR, only Gandalf outclasses the rest of the party, with Aragorn and Legolas occupying a middle tier of sorts. Interestingly, Gandalf seems to be as good as the others even in agility, dexterity and brute physical strength: “He leaped up on to the faggots, and raising the sick man lightly he sprang down again” (bk. V, ch. 7). Intelligent, learned, massively experienced, able to return from death, and a wizard, his only weakness is to the ring. Even his gruff personality marks him as honest, not arrogant, and he is an effective diplomat in spite of it. Given the dry tone of the romances, I get the feeling Tolkien viewed the character’s asexuality as another positive trait.

Throughout its development history, D&D has struggled in vain to include wizards reminiscent of Gandalf as a playable character type. In the interest of balance, D&D wizards are fragile and clumsy with martial weapons, and they cannot learn many spells, nor repeat them freely. The latter mechanism is derived from Jack Vance and is absent in Tolkien. Even so, wizard players tend to outshine others in the late game, through the clever use of spells. The results often look a lot like the battle against the wolves in book I, chapter 4, where Gandalf’s pyrotechnics win the day.

The magic in that battle feels especially crass. There are far worse offenders in later fantasy literature, but Gandalf’s magic in general seems clearly defined and reliable, quite appropriate for a game. It works a bit like IT. His attempt to open the gate to Moria sounds like password guessing at a command line. His first duel with the balrog reads like two hackers using SSH on the same computer, at cross purposes. One of my favourite parts of the epic takes place in Lothlórien, where Tolkien implies a definition of magic.

“Are these magic cloaks?” asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.
“I do not know what you mean by that,” answered the leader of the Elves. “They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make. [---]”

Sam and Pippin think of magic as a spectacular, clearly delineated power available to some people, which it is with Gandalf, and which it became throughout D&D. The elves, on the other hand, just have a deep understanding of nature. They do not bother to reserve a special name like “magic” for an arbitrary subset of their techniques, in the same way that real people do not have a word for both dyeing cloth and SSH. I find this to be a brilliant move by Tolkien, though Lothlórien is actually influenced by a ring of power, and therefore an unnatural place even in the context of its fantasy world: a cultural landscape of sorts.

The book uses an omniscient narrator. Amusingly, this narrator directly contradicts the guiding hand of providence in one particular instance: “‘Why, it might have been put there a-purpose!’ [Sam] said to himself. [---] The path was not put there for the purposes of Sam.” (bk. VI, ch. 3). The narrator generally fails to make such comments on the many other coincidences required to keep the story on track. I am glad that Tolkien uses it to provide a grounding realism in Mordor, explaining how its troops are fed. Volcanic ash tends to act as a fertilizer over time, but how the crops are watered is a mystery, given the extreme dryness near Orodruin, behind all the same mountains.

Three mountain ranges, all at close to right angles, enclosing a remarkably low “plateau” centred on a single low volcano: Mordor’s geology is fanciful. One assumes it is artificial in the context of the fiction, where the gods created the world through music rather than plate tectonics—a theory not fully accepted in academia when LoTR was published—but for what reason would Mordor take this specific shape? The mountains would naturally make Mordor dry, and the volcano makes it dark. Both features are for Tolkien’s poetic use, yet the author’s devotion to realism is strong enough that he chooses Sauron’s chief weapon to be despair. It seems that Sauron has settled in a naturally bleak land, and made it more so by unnatural means, to discourage his enemies from assaulting his fortress.

There is no such implication as to why Sauron keeps his forge at Sammath Naur open and empty at great expense. The forge is, presumably, his practical reason for rebuilding Barad-dûr, but he doesn’t use it even after losing thousands of troops and their equipment. Surely, Sauron would have preferred to live as in Minis Tirith, on a tall volcano or any mountain with a blast furnace, from which he could spy on enemies further afield.

The One Ring has the effects of the “Ring of Gyges” in Greek mythology, including the metaphorical effect of testing moral character, which Plato brought up through the figure of his brother Glaucon in book 2 of the Republic (ca. 375 BCE). That connection to Plato and his utopia adds a little depth to Tolkien’s moral polarization. Fortunately, Tolkien chose to make everyone vulnerable to temptation, whereas Plato’s ideal philosopher-king would not be.

Not using Gwaihir to destroy the ring is a plot hole, but the two obstacles to such a plan are obvious. Gwaihir would be tempted to take the ring, or else fail to understand its importance—the argument against Tom Bombadil—and might be spotted and outrun by the Nazgûl and their dragons. I would have liked to see Gwaihir slain by a dragon on a scouting run to Mordor, in preference to the way Tolkien reveals the dragons: as easy prey for Legolas. Instead, Tolkien has Gwaihir and his kin attacking the dragons in the last battle of the war, begging for skepticism.

The historical timeline should have been compressed for believability. That said, I like how the ring spends almost 2500 years in the mud at the bottom of the Gladden river, while Gondor almost collapses, and how it takes Gandalf many years, even decades, to understand what Bilbo has found. This is in keeping with Gandalf’s description of Sauron’s deceptively gradual recovery. Compare real-world scholars recovering a Babylonian account of the deluge myth in the mid-1800s, on clay tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, where they had lain undisturbed for just about 2500 years. However, Sauron’s purposes are hardly served by Gollum, whose extreme endurance after losing the ring stretches credibility. The scenes of Gollum working as Frodo’s guide are very good, but it was hardly necessary for Gollum to escape from the elves and track the party from Moria to achieve that purpose. Tolkien apparently spent all his love of moral ambiguity on Gollum, leaving too little for the other characters, despite their temptations.

Even in Gollum, morality in LoTR is mostly masturbatory, inapplicable to reality. Sauron and his orcs are cartoonish in their extreme hatefulness, neither plausible nor relatable. As Farmer Cotton characterizes the moral philosophy of the Shire bandits, “There’s no longer even any bad sense in it” (bk. VI, ch. 8). This, too, may come from Plato. In book 9 of the Republic, the philosopher took pains to paint tyrants as victims of tyranny, so that bad sense was punished of its own accord. I was surprised to re-learn how often the orcs actually speak, since this implies that Tolkien wanted somehow to humanize them, but their lines are dull, distastefully littered with classist vocabulary, and cast no sympathetic light on the species. They seem very concerned with hierarchy, as is Tolkien’s entire world except for Tom Bombadil. That alone makes the inclusion of Bombadil relevant to me.

In the ultimate example of LoTR morality, towards the end of the work Saruman is thrice pardoned for his horrific deeds. This is after Sauron has been destroyed, and his influence lifted. In the last instance, the old wizard tries to kill Frodo, who simply lets him go. It seems, for a moment, as if Saruman begins to question his choices, but he does not cross the near-visible barrier between good and evil. Instead, Saruman is killed by his own servant. Frodo’s hands are clean and the audience gets the blood that Frodo’s instincts surely called for at that moment. It’s wish fulfillment for the audience, queasily conflated with superhuman virtue. Again, my thoughts go to the influence of LoTR on D&D and its inane alignment system.

The treatment of Frodo’s price is vastly more mature and meaningful than the other moral elements of the story. The pain of his many wounds, the change in his perspective after long temptation, and the degradation of the Shire—where Frodo remains largely anonymous—are all perfectly apt. It is just a shame that Lobelia, his asshole cousin-in-law, is linked to the scouring of the Shire, so that Frodo gets Bag End back. It is appropriate that he can’t properly enjoy it.

Bizarrely, no women are mentioned among the two hundred or so men controlling the Shire when the heroes return. Éowyn is very similar to Robert E. Howard’s paradoxically strong Bêlit, and other female heroes in the genre: Her femininity is frequently emphasized to avoid any confusion regarding her sex. The androgynous Galadriel is more interesting, but idolized by the all-male Fellowship as a romantic object. A lock of her hair is rendered a fetish, and Gimli blusters to defend her name as if he competed to own her: a comedy in poor taste. Ioreth the healer is eventually reduced to boastful gossip, and whereas ents roam the forests, the entwives chose gardens over nature, linking the female to domesticity even for a race of talking trees. It’s not a great record on sexism, but it’s better than Lovecraft.

With the advantage of years, Tolkien is also a step ahead of Lovecraft when it comes to racism. In particular, there is one beautiful moment where the racist impulse is questioned: “[Sam] wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace—all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.” More generally, the forces of darkness refer to elves categorically as “terrible”, implying racism on both sides. It is possible to make a benevolent interpretation of this, but as they are named by Hirgon, the Gondorian messenger to Théoden, “Swarthy Men” are similar to “Orcs”, who are bred for evil and risibly prone to abandon their duties and kill their fellows instead.

Speaking of racism, the debates between Gimli and Legolas regarding natural versus artificial environments are probably a major reason why Tolkien’s interpretations of “dwarves” and “elves” have had such an enormous influence on subsequent fantasy literature and games. In a couple of brief exchanges, starting in book III, chapter 8, Tolkien deftly establishes the symbolic opposition of the two species, with humankind in between. Though the staleness of Tolkien’s imitators undermines my reading, and there is remarkably little other information on his dwarves, these particular passages are well written. Both sides are allowed to remain both complex and sympathetic. I would love to read an ecocritical study of Tolkien, since the preferences of dwarves and elves also intersect. The mountains themselves are natural, and Lórien is weirdly clean and static for a forest, a little too much like the mountain halls. The ents and huorns are relatively well done, in the tricky field of humanized nature spirits. The ents may have been inspired by the prophetically moving forest in Macbeth (1606).

With the obvious exception of ents and trolls, Tolkien’s humanoid species are fascinatingly similar to human races, which is rare in modern fantasy. Hobbits have their hairy feet, but are not implied to look anything like the strange creatures of Rankin-Bass animation. Judging by the first meeting of Aragorn and Arwen in the appendix, elves have no obvious physical features distinguishing them from humans. The same is true of wizards. Dwarves are simply smaller, not round or hugely bearded, as they would become with Tolkien’s imitators. Even orcs are surprisingly humanoid: Merry kills “a great squint-eyed brute like a huge orc”, i.e. a human. Tolkien’s distinctions aren’t visual. He wasn’t looking to have his work filmed. The distinctions he does make are fascinating. His elves sleep with their eyes open, and can use telepathy in place of speech (bk. VI, ch. 6). That is as appropriately alien as pointy ears would be.

References here: Nerd argues about distinction between fantasy and science fiction, On re-reading The Lord of the Rings after 20-odd years, Fantasy with and without consistency, Worldbuilding for television production, Berserk (1989), The Stand (1994), “Prophet Motive” (1995), After the Campfires (1998), Metodboken — Bibel 2000 (1999), “On the Film Dark Blue World: A Dialogue with Producer Toshio Suzuki” (2002), Knife of Dreams (2005), “Wales: Great Britain’s Wild West” (2019), “Tystnaden – en film om Silence, musiken och tiden” (2020).

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‣‣ Sagan om ringen (1971Moving picture, 28 minutes)

Seen in 2022.

The story up to the formation of the Fellowship at Rivendell, including Bombadill.

The runtime of 28 minutes includes a minute and a half of recapitulation at the episode break. The production is extremely cheap, including bad chroma-key and footage of “travel” that look as if it was shot secretly from an SJ train. Bo Hansson’s beautiful music is central, but this is not just a series of music videos for it. The narrator tries to tell the story quite seriously and the watercolour pictures are cozy, but I can’t help laughing.

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‣‣ The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001Moving picture, 178 minutes)

Review refers to the extended edition.

Live action with an encyclopedia’s worth of trick filming and CGI, featuring that astronomer kid from Deep Impact (1998) as Frodo. This, the first third of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, is more faithful to the novel than Bakshi’s version. Jackson adds much, especially more crude humour and violence, and subtracts some good stuff.

The 2001–2003 trilogy is awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, the heart of the story is still a universe predicated upon incomprehensible moral strictures. Ugly is evil (and cool) and wants to rule a dead world for unexamined reasons, but monarchism is wonderful, nature will literally fight back, and so on. The basic precepts, along with the depiction of the evil horde as asymmetric, bent and vaguely oriental, are all in Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924). There are many fine impulses toward greater realism, and it’s hard to imagine a better interpretation within the flawed framework, but I can’t forget the basic foolishness of blowing up an Aristotelian double plot to epic scales without the other visceral rewards needed to uncouple reason. Also, there are a couple of flaws in execution, notably in the late extended scenes.

References here: Wild About New Zealand (2000), “On the Film Dark Blue World: A Dialogue with Producer Toshio Suzuki” (2002).

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‣‣‣ The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002Moving picture, 179 minutes)

Review refers to the extended edition.

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‣‣‣ The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003Moving picture, 3.4 hours)

Review refers to the extended edition.

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‣‣‣ The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012Moving picture, 169 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

More of a prequel than a straight adaptation of The Hobbit.

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‣‣‣‣ The Hobbit: The Bilbo Edition (2015/2020Moving picture, 4.5 hours)

Seen in 2021.

This review refers to version 4.0 (2020) of Daniel Elijah Udell’s fan re-edit, The Bilbo Edition, of the entire 2012–2014 The Hobbit trilogy. The re-edit is 4 hours and 32 minutes long, centering on Bilbo as a point of a view and cutting out most of the material where he is absent, “while being as faithful to the book as possible”.

I have not seen the last two films in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, because I do not want to. Even with Udell’s heroic effort, there are plenty of hints left in his version that the original production was a bloated series of spectacles with a range of commercial tie-ins and celebrity bit parts, weighed down by weightless CGI. There are also hints of filmmaking greatness. The turning points of Bilbo’s own journey, in particular, are indeed very good, and deserve to be central.

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The Hobbit (1977Moving picture, 90 minutes)

A cel-animated musical feature version of Tolkien’s eponymous prelude. The book resembles traditional children’s literature, and this film resembles traditional children’s animation. Bass and Rankin directing. John Huston, playing Gandalf, sounds a bit like Leonard Nimoy, who recorded “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” in 1967; alas there is no real connection.

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‣‣ The Lord of the Rings (1978Moving picture, 132 minutes)

Ralph Bakshi (director).

It’s only the first two thirds of Tolkien’s epic by the same name. Much of the animation is traditional cel stuff, some of it aided by rotoscoping. As in the battle scenes of the director’s Wizards (1977), cheaper rotoscoping on a larger scale takes over towards the end. As usual with Bakshi, shadows don’t exist; a poor stylistic choice for this story. A few things are done well enough. There’s honesty and gravity to the darker scenes, something that had been taboo in animation for a long time. With far more time and money it might have escaped the now total shade of Jackson’s version.

References here: The Return of the King (1980), The Secret of NIMH (1982), “Thoughts on Japanese Animation” (1988).

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‣‣ The Return of the King (1980Moving picture, 98 minutes)

Seen in 2016.

The last third of Tolkien’s epic, with many omissions and curious changes. Elrond has a glittering halo for some reason. Eowyn gets her crowning moment, while many other major characters are cut. Aragorn’s army, apparently of the living, is lifted away from Mordor by Gwaihir’s buddies, really highlighting the classic plot hole. Weirdly, Gandalf prophesies that hobbits will merge into the human species by gradually becoming taller, which I suppose is an allowance for an audience of children, who will do something similar in real life.

Musical in the style of the original, defying the serious turn of the underlying literature. Less desperate and less creative in its execution than Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings (1978), to which this is not a sequel, despite the timing and minimal overlap of the three projects.

Apart from the leading motif of “Frodo with the nine fingers”, the darkness of the novel is not effectively represented here. It is therefore not clear why Frodo chooses to leave Middle-Earth. The plot can’t make much sense to people who’ve never read the novel, nor seen Bakshi’s film.

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The Silmarillion (1950s/1977Text)

Christopher Tolkien (editor), Guy Gavriel Kay (editor), J. R. R. Tolkien (writer).

Read in Swedish, in childhood.

References here: On re-reading The Lord of the Rings after 20-odd years.

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The Book of Lost Tales: Part One (1983Text)

Christopher Tolkien (editor), J. R. R. Tolkien (writer).

References here: On re-reading The Lord of the Rings after 20-odd years.

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The Book of Lost Tales: Part Two (1984Text)

Christopher Tolkien (editor), J. R. R. Tolkien (writer).

References here: On re-reading The Lord of the Rings after 20-odd years.

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