Sunday, 25 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 4: J R R Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)


We're into the closing straight: the top 4 best-selling books of all time. And I had better disclose, fully: three of these four are texts I have no critical distance upon at all. They're books I have loved from a young age, and love still.  That fact interpenetrates anything I might write about them, and therefore erodes the necessary critical distance. Ah well: can't be helped.

Chief among them is The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, which I read and heard (in 1974 my parents gave me a cassette-tape talking-book version, narrated by the never-knowingly-underacted Nicol Williamson, to which I listened obsessively over and over) and adored as a child.  What to say about a text to which I'm so close?

Well, one thing I can say is that Tolkien wrote two versions of the story of The Hobbit.  In the first, a troop of dwarves, to use what Tolkien insisted was the proper plural form of the word, are planning to trek to a distant mountain in order to steal a great pile of treasure guarded by a lethal, fire-breathing dragon -- or more properly, to steal it back, since they claim it belongs to them.  They are looking for a professional thief to help them in this dangerous business.  The wizard Gandalf, for reasons that appear largely capricious, tricks the dwarves into hiring Bilbo Baggins, an ordinary, sedentary, unadventurous hobbit; and likewise tricks Bilbo into going along.  This situation is played broadly for laughs, because Bilbo is so patently unfitted to the business of adventuring.  'Unfitness' also seems to characterise the dwarves, mind you: the party stumbles from disaster to disaster as they journey, escaping death by hairs' breadths half a dozen times at the hands of trolls, goblins, wolves, spiders and hostile elves. They are saved from their early misadventures by Gandalf's interventions, for though eccentric he is considerably more competent than they.  Later, though, Gandalf goes off on his own business, and the party has to rescue itself.  As they continue to stumble into a series of potentially fatal pickles, they somehow manage, by a combination of luck and hobbit-judgment, always to get away.  Indeed, following Bilbo's development from massively incompetent to marginally incompetent is one of the pleasures of the narrative. At one point in the story, as the group passes through subterranean tunnels and caves underneath a mountain range, Bilbo gets separated from the others, meets a fellow called Gollum. The two play a gambling game, guessing one another's riddles, and when Bilbo wins Gollum hands what he had wagered -- a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible.

Ownership of this ring, and a very shallow learning curve, gradually make Bilbo better at thieving and sneaking about.  When, against the odds, the party reaches the dragon's Mountain, the quest is achieved, much much more by luck than judgement.  Bilbo does use the magic ring to creep into the dragon's lair and to steal one cup from the great hillocks of piled pelf; but that's as much as he can do. Luckily for all of them, the loss of this single piece happens to enrage the dragon, causing him to leaves the mountain with the furious intention of burning up the local town of men. One of the defenders there, warned by a talking bird, shoots a lucky arrow that kills him.  After this there is a big battle: armies converging on the mountain and its now undragoned hoard.  The leader of the dwarf-band is killed, but otherwise things work out well for everybody.  Finally, having spent almost all the novel adumbrating the 'there' of the novel's subtitle, the story sprints through the 'and back again', hurrying the materially enriched Bilbo home in a few pages.

I stress the 'incompetence' angle in my retelling here because, really, that's what characterises the main players. It's an endearing incompetence, used partly for comedy; partly for dramatic purposes (by way of ratcheting up the narrative tension and keeping things interesting) and partly to facilitate the readers'ourengagement. Because we can be honest; we'd be rubbish on a dangerous quest. We're hobbitish types ourselves, and our idea of fun is snuggling into the sofa with a cup of cocoa and a good book, not fighting gigantic spiders with a sword. Or more precisely, we enjoy fighting giant spiders with a sword in our imaginations only.  The book has sold as many copies as it has in part because the Hobbits are able (textually-speaking) so brilliantly to mediate our modern, cosseted perspectives and the rather forbidding antique warrior code and the pitiless Northern-European Folk Tale world.

That there is something haphazard about the larger conception of this adventure is part of its point: obviously, it makes for a jollier tale if an clearly unsuitable comic-foil is sent on a dangerous quest than some super-competent swordsman alpha-male. The bumbling, homely qualities of Bilbo, and the pinball-ball bouncing trajectory from frying pan to fire to bigger fire of the narrative, are loveable aspects of the whole. And that's right: the motor of the story is the idea that adventure will come and find you, and winkle you out of your comfortable hidey-hole. It's a beguiling idea, in part because it literalises the action of story itself. We settle ourselves to read, in physical comfort; but the story itself transports us imaginatively out of our hole and away, upon all manner of precarious, exciting, absorbing and diverting journeys.

This is The Hobbit that appeared in 1937, to both acclaim and commercial success. But there's another The Hobbit.  I don't mean the upcoming film.  I mean a second The Hobbit written by Tolkien, comprising revisions to this first edition, additional material written for the Lord of the Rings and the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, plus other material -- most importantly two separate prose pieces, both called 'The Quest for Erebor' that were collected in the posthumously-published Unfinished Tales (1980).  JRRT's first revisions were confined to the 'Riddles in the Dark' chapter: for after writing he first Hobbit Tolkien came to the conclusion that 'the Ring' was more than just a magic ring, more even than a ring of Gyges: that it was indeed the most powerful artefact in the whole world, one with which people became so besotted they lose their souls.  Gollum, he reasoned, would not freely give up such an item.  So he rewrote the scene. But this is symptomatic of something larger -- a reconceptualising (Tolkien purists might say: a distillation or focussing) of the now-celebrated JRRT-legendarium: no longer a folk-story, now a grand sacramental drama of incarnation, atonement and redemption.  I can't say I'm particularly fond of Tolkien's coinage 'legendarium', by the way, which to me sounds like a Bluewater store selling lead Warhammer miniatures.  Not, I might add, that there's anything wrong with Warhammer miniatures. My point is this: Tolkien's celebrated 1939 essay 'On Fairy Stories' actually celebrates two modes of Fantasy, homely and transcendental. Traditional fairy tales, which Tolkien sees as beautiful and profound narratives of escape and resacralisation; and the New Testament, which he thinks shares those qualities with fairy stories but which he also thinks exists on a higher, truer and more important plane.  This is how he puts it: 'the Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the "happy ending." The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.'

My beef, if I may slip into a nonvegetarian idiom for a moment, is not with Tolkien's religious beliefs, which (although I do not share them) are clearly essential to the dynamic of his art. My beef is with the notion that all our bents and faculties have a purpose. In Tolkien's second version of The Hobbit, it is precisely the haphazardness, the intimations of glorious, human, comic incompetence, that must be sanded, smoothed and filed away. It is no longer enough for Gandalf to turn up on the doorstop of the world's least likely adventurer merely because that is the sort of thing batty old wizards do. Now he must do so because he has a larger plan.  In the first version of the story it doesn't really matter why Gandalf chooses a hobbit, of all people; or more precisely, his whylessness of choice is actually the point of the story. ('I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging,' Gandalf says, with what sounds to me rather like desperation, 'and it's very difficult to find anyone.') This is because the novel is not about Gandalf's whys, it is about Bilbo's adventure: why he is chosen matters less than the way he acquits himself on his journey, and the extent to which he sheds his unheroism and becomes a better fellow. That's what matters because we are he. That's how the reading experience goes.

But in Tolkien's second version of the hobbit everything has to happen for a reason. Gandalf was not idly arranging an adventure; he was setting in motion one crucial play in a larger strategy of a grand war against Evil.
I knew that Sauron had arisen again and would soon declare himself, and I knew that he was preparing for a great war. ... The state of things in the North was very bad. The Kingdom under the Mountain and the strong Men of Dale were no more. To resist any force Sauron might send to regain the northern passes in the mountain and the old lands of Angmar there were only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills, and behind them lay a desolation and a Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect. Often I said to myself: "I must find some means of dealing with Smaug." [Unfinished Tales, 322]
Just to be clear; I have no problem with retconning; not in the least (for I take 'text' to be fundamentally fluid and adaptable). I can go further, and say that one of the things that gives Tolkien's art depth and resonance is precisely the way he layers medium and deep historical pasts into his present-set tale; and having this secondary perspective on the material of The Hobbit adds echoey, plangent splendour to the whole. But that's not to say that this piece of retconning makes sense. On the contrary: it compels us to believe that Gandalf, deciding that it was a strategic priority that Smaug be eliminated, thinks not of sending an army, and certainly not of going himself and tackling the dragon with his, you know, magic and that. Rather he thinks: "I'll go to the extreme other end of the continent, recruit a number of dwarves, some of them manifestly not up to the task (Bombur?), plus a hobbit without any experience or aptitude for a mission of this sort whatsoever, and send them off travelling halfway across the world past unnumbered perils in the hope that somehow they'll do the old worm in."  Why the dwarves? Well, I suppose they can at least be persuaded to go, since they regard Erebor as rightfully theirs; although you have to wonder whether a military strategist who wasn't actually senile mightn't think first of approaching the men of Dale. But there is no reason in this scenario why Bilbo would be anyone's first, or thousand-and-first choice. In his second version of the story, Tolkien comes up with three reasons why it's a good idea to wager the entire success of the operation of Bilbo -- a figure of whom Thorin rightly says 'he is soft, soft as the mud of the Shire, and silly,' a judgement with which Gandalf concurs ('"You are quite right", I said' [Unfinished Tales, 325]). Those three reasons are:
1. That Hobbits don't wear shoes, where Dwarfs do ('suddenly in my mind [I pictured] the sturdy, heavy-booted Dwarves ... the quick, soft-footed hobbit'), a consideration, certainly, since Dragons have good hearing; although you might think that advising the Dwarves to take off their boots might be less precarious than hanging the success of the enterprise around the neck of a sort of Middle-Earth fur-footed Homer Simpson.

2. That Smaug would not know Bilbo's scent, where he would recognise the smell of Dwarves, although apparently Tolkien added this as an afterthought to his MS ('a scent that cannot be placed, at least not by Smaug, the enemy of Dwarves'). A scent that cannot be smelt at all by Smaug would make more sense, but OK. The fact that he smells a thief in his lair but can't immediately place the thief's provenance might confuse him for ... six seconds or so. The third reason is the most arbitrary of all --

3. Gandalf just feels in his water that it would be a good idea: 'listen to me Thorin Oakenshield ... if this hobbit goes with you, you will succeed. If not you will fail. A foresight is on me' [325]. Hard not to see this as code for 'I've already written this story and know how it turns out', which comes dangerously close to a cheat.
The story of The Lord of the Rings is that even 'the little people' (that's us, of course) have their part to play in the great historical and martial dramas of the age -- and it is a potent and truthful story, well told. But The Hobbit is that story only in its second iteration. In its first, the one we are chiefly considering here, The Hobbit is not about the great dramas of the age; it is about us-sized dramas of people being taken out of their comfort zone -- whisked away by Story.

I'm happy that there are two versions of The Hobbit, and feel no desire to try and force them into some notional procrustean 'coherence'. Only narrative fundamentalists, the textual Taliban, believe that all stories must be brought into that sort of rigid alignment. But of the two stories, really I prefer the one (homely, funny, a little bit slapstick and a little bit wondrous) over the other (grand-verging-on-grandiose, theological, epic and strenuously, to coin a phrase, eutragic). Although I do love them both. And I love the Dwarves vastly more than any number of elves. I love precisely their lack of graceful elegance. Thorin Oakenshield has some noble speeches in The Hobbit it's true; but his Dwarves are better at stuffing themselves with food and drink, and getting (with endearing incompetence) into ridiculous scrapes. Consulting the Dwarf family tree, in the appendices to Return of the King, I discover that amongst Thorin relatives are "Borin" and "Groin". A little more groin would have done The Lord of the Rings no harm at all, I think. Not borin' in the least.


Rich Puchalsky said...

"Because we can be honest; we'd be rubbish on a dangerous quest. "

This gets to the heart of the thing. _The Hobbit_ was and is memorable for me, though perhaps not as much as you describe. And one of the things that I remember -- though it may be contamination from Lord of the Rings rather than from The Hobbit itself -- was how baseline competent hobbits were at the kinds of things that people in the America of my childhood were just then forgetting how to do. Really basic things, like taking long walks through the woods. Bilbo Baggins may be hopeless as an adventurer thief, but if I remember the book rightly, there's not a lot of complaining about the basic mechanics of journeying. It's believable that he'd last long enough to learn things.

Although Tolkien denied it in part, the Shire is clearly Britain in LOTR -- or the parts of it that Tolkien liked -- and Sauron is you-know-who. If the retcon is going to be grafted on, there needs to be a reason to choose a hobbit. And there is ... though none of the ones that Tolkien mentions seem that good. It's important to have a hobbit because of their good-hearted incompetence. If Gandalf had found a competent Dwarf army to kill Smaug, during LOTR they would have been embroiled in a pitched war against the men of Dale to keep the treasure, and wouldn't be able to be brushed aside.

Basically, starting with a warlike and competent group means that you start with the very people who you have to get away from the treasure -- Smaug's treasure functioning in The Hobbit almost exactly as The Ring does in LOTR. You need people who are capable of learning how to fight, but who don't have the mindset of a fighter.

Nigel Heffernan said...

Tolkien was a resoected professor, an academic linguist and a folklorist who played with ideas of tales and lore and legend, and started writing it down.

He did, indeed, create the output of an entire culture in these writings , or a significant part of it; and he did so with a depth that is lacking in 'fantasy' writers who lack his academic training in the source material of real folklore.

Some, but not all, had been written when he thought to write a story for his son. And here, he did a very clever thing: he wrote a childrens' story, a fairy-tale, a thing comparable to the journey taken by *real* legends through stories told by bard ands stories told by mothers; and ancient lore published by Grimm and tales retold by Hans Christian Anderson.

Thus, The Hobbit is amusing, soft and sweet for children, and darker things within it are concealed; the deep secrets of ancient mages are the eccentricities of an elderly magician; the stone and iron of the Dwarves and the dark fate of Durin's heirs are hinted at but drowned out by Tolkien's version of a 'HiHo, hiho Hi!' and the dreadful nature of an ancient ring and its murderously-corrupted keeper are hidden in a game of riddles.

I think that Tolkien wrote better than he knew and, not realising what he'd written and achieved by accident, he forgot that much of his life's study - 'real' folklore and legends - had become exactly the childrens' stories he created of his own tales.

Thus, The Hobbit, in it's first and beautifully-imperfect first publication.

David Bratman said...

If it was nonsensical for Gandalf to send a band of bumbling dwarves and an inexperienced (much more so than incompetent) hobbit up against a dragon, how much more nonsensical was it for him to send the One Ring to the Fire in the hands of another pair of hobbits. Indeed, Gandalf says it's folly, but it's the only hope they have. As for why he does it, you say you acknowledge the importance of Tolkien's religion to his thinking, but saying it comes dangerously close to "I already know how the story comes out" brushes the fundamentals of his religious faith aside with scorn.

Lastly, it might be noted that while there is a little of this stuff in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, as a way of tying the books together, Tolkien never published "The Quest of Erebor". Maybe he knew better. He also didn't publish, or even get very far with, an abortive rewriting of The Hobbit more in the mode of The Lord of the Rings that he undertook about 1960, and which may be found in the major scholarly study of the Hobbit text, The History of The Hobbit by John D. Rateliff.

Some dude said...

I think it made more sense for Gandalf to rely on hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. Because they are not so easily corrupted by the ring. I think it is mentioned in the book.

Gareth Rees said...

Retconning was a fundamental part of Tolkien's inventive method—he would imagine the dramatic event, and then work through many permutations of history, explanation, and motivation, until he considered the result satisfactory—but what was satisfactory to him might not be the most satisfactory to his readers.

Christopher Tolkien wrote in The History of the Lord of the Rings:

"It is deeply characteristic that these scenes emerged at once in the clear and memorable form that was never changed, but that their bearing and significance would afterwards be enormously enlarged. The ‘event’ (one might say) was fixed, but its meaning capable of indefinite extension; and this is seen, over and over again, as a prime mark of my father's writing."

It was this tendency to indefinite elaboration of the event that enabled Tolkien built such a sense of deep time into the fabric of The Lord of the Rings (and also which prevented him from finishing The Silmarillion).

(Coincidentally I've been writing about this in two pieces on my blog.)

Gareth Rees said...

we'd be rubbish on a dangerous quest

Well, maybe—but remember that Tolkien had fought at Thiepval Ridge on the Somme in 1916.

Richard B said...

I think I agree with Gareth, in that I've no idea where a young Tolkein could get the idea that a bumbling Authority could turn up, turf you out of your comfortable home, send you out across the countryside by foot, have you involved in some no-doubt strategically important but tactically cluster-fuckingly dumb shenannagins and then send you home at a moments notice without a second thought.

Thanks Heavens that 'The Hobbit' marked an end to Tolkein's war analogies!

Alex said...

Or as Spike Milligan would say: had we ordinary layabouts really defeated the Formidable German Army? "Mother: Ve haff been defeated by the Ordinary Layabouts. Signed, Formidable German Army."

quincyscott said...

This is a great read. For what it's worth, I read Gandalf not as someone who knows everything, but rather a character with strong intuition. He is sort of half human, half divine, a Jesus figure. That human-ness limits his understanding. So, although he has a strong hunch that this adventure has something to do with the big scheme of things, he doesn't have all the answers.

John Scalzi said...

"Because we can be honest; we'd be rubbish on a dangerous quest."


Oh, fine. I would suck too. A dangerous quest for me is taking my trashcan down the driveway. THERE ARE TERRIBLE SQUIRRELS.

Cas said...

The retaking of Erebor, in retrospect, was essential for victory in the War of the Ring, as was the routing of the Necromancer (Sauron) from Dol Guldur. Without that land clear of Smaug, an entire front of the war would have been lost. The dwarves are the obvious choice because the mountain was theirs historically. No one else had a motive. Taking Erebor also set up a base of operations and funding source for Balin's doomed mission to Moria, without which the orcs would have been stronger and the Fellowship not able to safely cross the Misty Mountains.
Choosing Bilbo is the only thing that isn't immediately obvious. The Shire was on the way, actually, since Thorin's band were in exile in the Ered Luin, so they didn't cross the continent on his account. But why a hobbit for the burglar when anyone on the way would have done as well? Possibly simply because it was so improbable, that it would provide an element of unpredictability, and because in his travels he grew to like them and appreciate talents others overlooked. Their humility, relative lack of greed and ambition, and freedom from big power politics were big assets.
And this was something understood intuitively to a wizard and servant of Iluvatar, that seems otherwise like caprice. He was just following Iluvatars song.

Rich Puchalsky said...

In response, sort of, to Cas: I don't think that rationalizations afterwards really have much to do with how the story got written, which I imagine (and have heard) was visions first, plots later. But people who do want to rationalize it have to remember one central fact: thieves really suck.

I mean, would you want to go on a dangerous mission with a thief? They're greedy, and they betray people. Professional thieves presumably may be skilled at stealing by stealth, and less likely to betray a job casually, but they're almost always associated with other professional criminals who aren't averse to just using violence to take things. They would be natural allies of all of the bad people in the series.

So the humorous let's-recruit-a-hapless-hobbit thing is really kind of necessary, because he isn't really a thief. They don't want an actual thief. They want someone who can learn some kind of stealth, but who is naturally honest and trustworthy, and has none of the mental habits of an actual thief.

In The Hobbit, the dwarves do have this conception of adventuring thieves who would be trustworthy for this kind of adventure. But of course, they can't actually find one. We never see one elsewhere, as far as I know.

The whole hobbit thief thing very much contributed to the D&D idea of thieves -- you need one in every party, they mysteriously are loyal to the group -- to an extent to which it's difficult for many people in that subculture to look back at how strange the idea is, really.

Lastly, the idea of thieves doing this kind of thing may have been taken from Lord Dunsany, at least as a proximate source. He has some classic short stories about fairly instantly recognizable D&D type thieves going out to steal gems from idols, that kind of thing, But his thieves are not good people, and meet bad ends.

RFYork said...

The Hobbit was the first book we read to our son in 1972, he was 2. I first read it in the early 60's.

Since I was not aware of Tolkien's two versions until right now, I really believe that Tolkien/Gandalf chose the hobbits as ring-bearers because of their innocence or, as Some Dude said, their incorruptibility.

All of the travelers in The Hobbit may seem incompetent because almost all are far outside their comfort zones. Bilbo is, of course, the most uncomfortable of all. That is certainly why Gandalf chose him.

I'm not sure that incompetence fits as much as improbability. Both Bilbo and Frodo (with the aid of the great Samwise) show strength of character and competence when confronted with the myriad dangers which evil presents.