John "The Gneech" Robey (the_gneech) wrote,
John "The Gneech" Robey

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In a Hole in the Ground...

Since coming back from Comic-Con, I've been rereading The Hobbit, which I certainly remembered fondly but had not actually read since something like 1992 or so. Coming at it fresh, now that I'd read and assimilated Lord of the Rings (and seen the Peter Jackson films), read a lot more stuff both in and out of the fantasy genre, and written a few (unpublished) novels of my own, was almost like a completely new experience. :)

The first thing I noticed was that there is some truth to Moorcock's snarky referral to The Hobbit as basically being House on Pooh Corner with elves. Not always, but every once in a while, Tolkien does get into this kind of "Oh dear isn't Bilbo in a tight spot now, little children?" mode. He also does a lot of summarizing. For instance, Bilbo's first stay in Rivendell -- which I remembered as being this beautiful chapter describing the perfect sort of cozy country house -- is more or less brushed over by saying "Weariness passed quickly in the house of Elrond, and then they were off again."

The story still has depth, and the writing still has depth, but a lot of it is sort of glossed over and left for the reader to work out on their own. The implications of some of the Master of Lake-Town's shenanigans (and Lake-Town politics in general), for instance, or Gandalf's "errand to the south," or even the Sackville-Bagginses' attempt to snatch Bag End, are mentioned but only in passing, in a kind of "that's the kind of things grown-ups have to think about, I'll tell you more when you're older" way.

There's a reason for that, of course; The Hobbit was meant to be a children's book. But there are times when it rather forgets that for a moment, and becomes just a really good fantasy book. One passage that caught my attention this time in a way it hadn't done before, came when they had managed to open the "back door" to Lonely Mountain and the dwarves all stood back and basically said to Bilbo, "Okay, burglar, off you go."

For a long time the dwarves stood in the dark before the door and debated, until at last Thorin spoke.

"Now is the time for our esteemed Mr. Baggins, who has proved himself a good companion on our long road, and a hobbit full of courage and resource far exceeding his size, and if I may say so possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance -- now is the time for him to perform the service for which he was included in our Company, now is the time for him to earn his reward."

You are familiar with Thorin's style on important occasions, so I will not give you any more of it, though he went on a good deal longer than this. It certainly was an important occasion, but Bilbo felt impatient. By now he was quite familiar with Thorin too, and he knew what he was driving at.

"If you mean you think it is my job to go into the secret passage first, O Thorin Thrain's son Oakenshield, may your beard grow ever longer," he said crossly, "say so at once and have done! I might refuse. I have got you out of two messes already, which were hardly in the original bargain, so that I am, I think, already owed some reward. But ... somehow I don't think I shall refuse ... I think I will go and have a peep at once and get it over. Now who is coming with me?"

He did not expect a chorus of volunteers, so he was not disappointed. Fili and Kili looked uncomfortable and stood on one leg, but the others made no pretence of offering -- except old Balin, the look-out man, who was rather fond of the hobbit. He said he would come inside at least and perhaps a bit of the way too, ready to call for help if necessary.

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 little fellow doing it if he would; but they would all have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it, as they did in the case of the trolls ... 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 enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.

This frank (and none too flattering) appraisal of the dwarves from Bilbo's point of view is a terrific bit of characterization, both of Thorin's pompousness, and Bilbo's no-nonsense view of life.

It also brings up Balin, whom I'd never really noticed in my earlier readings, but who gains added importance after you learn his eventual fate in Lord of the Rings. Of all the dwarves in the company, Balin is the most likeable and the most "down to earth" -- which seems weird to say about a company of dwarves. He's a grizzled old vet and a worthy fellow to have along -- so one can infer that his expedition to take back Moria from the orcs was not any kind of half-arsed venture like Thorin Oakenshield's trip to Lonely Mountain. The fact that it met with such a bad end is all the more poignant when you think back to Bilbo, Balin, and Gandalf sitting around the den and reminiscing at the end of The Hobbit.

Finally the thing that struck me about The Hobbit is how "Hobbit: The Next Generationey" Lord of the Rings seems when you think about it. We've got:

Frodo: Bilbo's nephew and ward
Gimli: Son of Gloin
Legolas: Son of Thranduil the Elvenking
Aragorn: Not a descendant of Bard, but there are interesting parallels
Merry and Pippin: Fili and Kili transposed to hobbits, perhaps?
Gandalf: duh
Gollum: duh
Elrond: duh
Bilbo's ring: duh
The Necromancer: duh, it's Sauron in disguise
Mirkwood spiders: lesser versions of Shelob

You could probably make a reasonable case to map Boromir and Faramir to Thorin and Dain, respectively, but it's a bit more of a stretch. (Perhaps Denethor to Thorin?) There don't seem to be any real clear connections or parallels to Sam, Theoden, Eowyn, Galadriel, or Arwen, but then again LotR is like five times longer than The Hobbit, I should hope it had some new material!

Still, it's worth a read, and even better, worth a re-read. But it was good to remind myself of what the book actually was, because for quite some time, I only had in my mind the book as I remembered it being. The two things are not always the same!

-The Gneech

PS: Oh, and yes, I want to see Ian Holm, Ian McKellan, and Andy Serkis in the film version. 'twould still rock, although it might require some extrapolation.
Tags: adventure, fantasy, reading, writing
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