The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

The thing that stuck with me from my first reading of The Hobbit (nearly forty years ago, now), was Mirkwood. A place of darkness, where so little sunlight filters through from above it’s a shock when Bilbo climbs a tree and gets a reminder of what daylight looks like (plus a glimpse of Mirkwood’s weird, black butterflies). It’s as much a psychological gloom as a lack of light, with Bilbo and the dwarves having for the first time to do without Gandalf (who so far has been the one to rescue them from trolls, goblins, wolves, and hunger), and soon finding themselves helplessly lost in an unforgiving and almost alien environment, where even the water is dangerous. Mirkwood has its roots pretty clearly in classic fairy tales, but for me it’s the moment when Tolkien’s particularly Tolkien-ish invention kicks in. As he himself wrote in a letter to Stanley Unwin in 1937, the year the book was first published:

“Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it [i.e., his Silmarillion mythology] — so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.”

Even before the spiders appear, Mirkwood feels like a ramping up of peril for Bilbo and the dwarves. But it’s not yet the sort of peril — the quality that leant its name to Tolkien’s term for Faërie, “the Perilous Realm” — that you find in The Lord of the Rings, which combines mortal danger with an addictive draw, and whose physical threat is secondary to its moral, psychological, or even spiritual danger. In The Lord of the Rings it’s embodied in the One Ring, but in The Hobbit, you feel it most around treasure, and in particular gold “upon which a dragon has long brooded”.

As I found out when recording The Adventure Film Podcast with my brother, gold pops up with surprising frequency in adventure stories, and almost always with the same result: it lures you on the adventure, but once you’ve acquired it, a whole new set of troubles begin. Adventure-gold has the uncanny ability to bring out the worst in people. (As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or The Man Who Would Be King.)

Tolkien’s treasures come with an added dimension, though, as we find out when Bilbo & co. discover a cache of valuables acquired by the trolls. Casually lying there in a wayside cave are two legendary swords, Orcrist and Glamdring. Elrond, who identifies them, suggests how they might have ended up in such a lowly hoard:

“…one may guess that your trolls had plundered other plunderers, or come on the remnants of old robberies in some hold of the mountains.”

Treasure, in Tolkien, does not just have monetary value, it comes laden with historical associations, and in a world like Middle Earth, where old songs and stories are constantly being retold — often by long-lived beings who themselves witnessed them, or have family ties to their protagonists — historical weight can be just as compelling as monetary value, and can take on both deeply personal and highly political ramifications.

The basic effect is initially the same. Just as the One Ring makes you paranoid, secretive, and ashamed, so treasure, in The Hobbit, isolates, makes you selfish and suspicious. Gollum is the first example of this we see, a creature debased by “endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering”. Smaug is a dragon, therefore solitary and vengeful by nature, but he dwells in the heart of a place called the Lonely Mountain, just to underline the point. It’s when the “dragon-sickness” takes grip of Thorin we really see this effect at work. Thorin and company think of Smaug’s treasure as having been plundered from them, and so rightfully theirs, but as Bard points out, the dragon added to his horde over the years, so if they’re genuinely interested in restitution, some of it belongs to the descendants of Dale. It’s at this point Thorin starts calling everyone a thief:

“But none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we are alive.”

The question of theft — of how treasure is acquired — is a complex one in The Hobbit. Every treasure has a history, of being discovered in its raw state (mined by dwarves or goblins), of being formed into objects of beauty by craftsmen, of being given or bought, of being used in heroic deeds, of being honoured in songs and stories. To whom does it belong? Is not all ownership — of treasure, at least — the result of theft, in Middle Earth? (Except for things freely given, such as Bilbo’s mithril shirt.)

Tolkien, though, finds a shade of difference. Dragons, for instance, are nothing but rapacious thieves:

“Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically for ever unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value; and they can’t make a thing for themselves, not even mend a little loose scale of their armour.”

Cover art by Tove Jansson

Bilbo is several times called a thief, and in some cases (Gollum’s ring, for instance), may be acting as one, but he comes to think of himself as a burglar, and though it’s only a nicety that works in the fairy-tale world of Middle Earth, a burglar, here, is one who acquires treasure through a modicum of craft or skill, and perhaps bravery, and certainly through deeds around which a story might be told. This isn’t to say Bilbo doesn’t feel the “dragon-sickness” at times — as when he first sees the Arkenstone and is “drawn by its enchantment” (and how literally does Tolkien mean that “enchantment”?) — but crucially, he doesn’t give way to it when it comes to losing friendships or causing strife.

After all, Bilbo has no heroic notions about himself. All he wants, once the adventure is underway, is to get back home to his comfortable hobbit-hole, with perhaps a new tale or two to tell, and a nice-looking memento on the mantlepiece to dust off and reminisce about. He has no intention of installing himself as a king somewhere, and knows he has no chance of transporting a fourteenth-load of dragon’s gold all the way back to the Shire on his own, so he can’t see himself as a legendary hero. He knows he’s vulnerable, and still needs to rely on others. And this despite the fact that, once Gandalf leaves the dwarves, Bilbo is the one who takes over the heroic role, by saving the party every time they’re in danger. But whereas Gandalf saved them thanks to his magical power and wide-reaching knowledge, Bilbo does it through “some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring — and all three are very useful possessions”. Bilbo saves the dwarves not through Gandalf-style confrontations, but through using his wits, wits honed by knowing how helpless and unheroic he is, and so in full knowledge that only burglar-style tactics (or “sneaking”, as Gollum might put it) will work.

It’s almost impossible to read The Hobbit without feeling the weight of The Lord of the Rings bearing down on it. But it’s a fun book, and a neat little adventure which really starts to warm up once the dwarves and Bilbo get to Mirkwood, and then again once Smaug is dead and the Battle of the Five Armies draws near. It may be a toe-dip in the worlds of corruption and power that saturate the later trilogy, but I think that was all it was ever meant to be — there and back again, in time for tea.



I was almost put off going to see this biopic because of Mark Kermode’s review, which made it sound like nothing more than a series of crudely-drawn parallels between Tolkien’s life and his work. But I found the film far more subtle than that, perhaps because I already knew those parallels — the way the Fellowship of the Ring could be seen as owing something to Tolkien’s close friendships with his fellows in the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”, for instance, which only ended with their deaths in the First World War, or the obvious influence of the war itself. The way that dark figures like dragons and Black Riders form from the smoke, fire and devastation of a First World War battlefield — as seen through a trench-fevered Tolkien’s eyes — wasn’t just a nice touch, I thought it was the whole point of the film.

(It even managed to convince me of one more parallel, though I don’t know how factually accurate it might be: as the fevered Tolkien searches the trenches for his friend, Geoffrey Smith, he’s made to seem like a ring-weary Frodo being supported by his Sam Gamgee-like batman, Private Sam Hodges, struggling through Mordor.)

I think part of the trouble any Tolkien biopic will have is that the image we (I, anyway) have of him is as an old, betweeded, pipe-smoking don, mumbling to himself in Elvish and very much not writing about women. It’s a point emphasised by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, where, once Tolkien is ensconced as a professor at Oxford about a third of the way into that book, Carpenter says: “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.” And it’s the “nothing else really happened” Tolkien I tend to think of. The fact that Tolkien was, at one time, passionate about changing the world, and deeply in love with the woman he married — the fact that he was, at one time, a young man — seems difficult to grasp, so any film of his life can’t help but feel an exaggeration or romanticisation. (This film surely owes a lot to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, much more so, I’d think, than the Carpenter biography.)

But biopics have to work as stories at the same time as they’re serving as biographies, and Tolkien is an origin story, not a full biography. It’s about the experiences that led up to the writing of The Lord of the Rings — or, rather, The Hobbit, because it ends with him writing the famous opening sentence to that book. I think, overall, the film makes a good artistic point about the formation of Tolkien as a writer, and though by no means a definitive biopic — I really wanted to see Tolkien at the end of his life, bothered by hippies turning up on his lawn, brandishing copies of the Ballantine paperback whose cover he hated — it was certainly more than the TV movie style box-ticking exercise Mark Kermode implied.


Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth Exhibition

The Bodleian Library in Oxford is currently (1st June to 28th October) running an exhibition of items from the Tolkien archives. I’ve never been one to bask in, for instance, the particular chair an author wrote in (the chair from Tolkien’s study, and his little writing desk, are both on display), nor to get much from standing in the presence of an original manuscript, unless it’s been made more interesting with doodles (as with Mervyn Peake) or interesting corrections. I was, though, genuinely thrilled to see some of Tolkien’s original artwork, including two I must have known since first reading The Hobbit around the age of 10 or 11 — “A Conversation with Smaug”, which was used as the cover to my copy of The Hobbit, and his illustration of the trolls.

“A Conversation with Smaug” by Tolkien

What struck me about both was how small they were. Neither seemed appreciably bigger than the state in which I’d first seen them, i.e. the page-size of a 1970s paperback (they were probably more hardback size). And this smallness — tinyness, even — became something of a theme throughout the exhibition. For someone who created the first modern epic-sized fantasy, Tolkien, when he wrote, and when he drew, wrote and drew very small. The thing that really brought this home was seeing a letter written by Tolkien’s mother. Her handwriting was extremely neat, quite stylistic, but extremely tiny. I can’t find an example to reproduce, but I particularly remember her letter “p”, which had a strongly angled upright, with a little curlicue at the end, joined onto a perfect little circle. The whole thing looked as regular as typewritten text, but also, of course, being handwritten, entirely unique. And also tiny. Tiny, tiny, tiny.

Moving from that to some examples of Tolkien’s own writing, in his invented scripts, seemed more of a logical step than a leap of invention — with his invented letters being based around tiny circles with lines and curlicues attached, all so neat and tiny. Not quite as tiny as Mrs Tolkien’s, but tiny nevertheless. The tinyness of Mrs Tolkien’s handwriting could, of course, be put down to her writing on small letter-paper to keep down on postage costs, but to me, the tinyness of Tolkien’s runes and handwriting makes me think more of the privacy of imaginative creation, as though, in a way, he was making his “sub-created” world out of deliberately smaller elements, to contain it within our world, not make it stand on a par with it.

And I’ve no doubt that so much practice with tiny, neat calligraphy would have given Tolkien the control of his pen (and paintbrush) needed to produce his very neat drawings and paintings. There was a quote from Tolkien reproduced alongside one of his drawings, saying that he didn’t have the patience to be an illustrator and didn’t think he could draw, but I’m always impressed by how much the more successful of his artworks work because of the sort of sparseness and control you don’t expect to find in an amateur, who’d be more given to over-drawing, filling up the page with detail to compensate for lack of skill. Tolkien seemed to know what he wanted to draw, did it to the best of his ability, then stopped. And his use of colour on occasion makes successful use of quite restrained pastel shades, another thing I don’t associate with someone who “can’t draw”.

I have to add, though, that the last thing I looked at in the exhibition was Pauline Baynes’ watercolour map of Middle-earth, and there you could definitely see the subtle touches that showed a professional was at work. Despite being the original piece, I could only detect the barest hint of supporting pencil work — a very faint line running through the centre of the curves of text naming regions of the map was about it. (The colours were also a lot subtler and brighter than the image I’ve linked to.) Pauline Bayne’s illustrations (for the Narnia books) are something I’ve known for about as long as Tolkien’s Hobbit illustrations, so that was another thrill, seeing some of her original work.

One of Tolkien’s pages from The Book of Mazarbul”

Elsewhere, there were Tolkien’s maps — not just finished versions, but some work-in-progress versions, one of which had a second layer of paper stuck onto it, where frequent rubbings-out and corrections led to his needing to redraw a section. Role-playing gamers of a certain generation will no doubt be thrilled to see one map of Middle-earth drawn on green-lined graph paper, which was, for me, the go-to stationery for your serious fantasy role-play mapping (having smaller squares than standard squared paper, it seemed you were being that much more serious). Role-players will also be happy to see Tolkien’s artistic attempts to recreate pages from the Book of Mazarbul that the Fellowship find in Moria, recording the last days of the dwarves’ attempt to reclaim their old domain. Tolkien has artistically burned the edges and added suggestive smudges of blood-like red. It could be a prop from a particularly well-made dungeon crawl.

There were also letters. On display was a reader’s report from a young Rayner Unwin on The Lord of the Rings, and a few fan letters, one in runes, one from a young Terry Pratchett (praising Smith of Wootton Major), and some illustrations to The Lord of the Rings done by Princess Margrethe, two years before she became Queen of Denmark.

All in all, a good exhibition. Not many physical objects (a chair, a collection of pipes, an old — and, again, tiny — notebook), nor many photos, but the things I got the most out of, anyway, were the originals of the illustrations and book-cover designs (those for The Lord of the Rings and the first hardback of The Hobbit were all there). The exhibition was held in one reasonably-sized room, but it didn’t feel small, thanks in part to that intriguing Tolkienian tinyness.