Wednesday, 6 January 2021

The Forgotten Hobbit

I went with the family to visit my aged mother over Christmas. Having finished all the books I'd brought with me earlier than I expected, I was at a loss for bed-time reading, so I rooted through the shelves and discovered this old 1970s edition of The Hobbit:



You have to love that old school cover.

I probably last read The Hobbit about 7 or 8 years ago - enough time to forget lots of little details. As these came back to me, it gave me cause to reflect on the evolution of the fantasy genre; a lot of Tolkien's ideas have been picked up and run away with during the course of the last 50-70 years, but there are a number which simply haven't. Indeed, as you read The Hobbit now, you encounter many little throwaway lines that have had almost no impact on the development of the fantasy genre and which, if they had, may have altered its flavour considerably. For example:

Wicked dwarves allied with goblins. For some reason dwarves being the enemies of orcs and goblins has become a trope, but here on p. 58 of my edition we find: "[Goblins] did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everyone and everything, and particularly the orderly and prosperous; in some parts wicked dwarves had even made alliances with them." Although there are shades of Warhammer chaos dwarves and their alliance with hobgoblins, here.

Weapons which gain power when a particular foe is around. We're used to depictions of elvish weapons glowing to reveal the presence of orcs, and we're also used to weapons which eat souls or gain power from shedding blood, or whatever. But Glamdring gets sharper just because goblins are nearby. From p. 60 - "It burned with a rage that made it gleam if goblins were about; now it was bright as blue flame for delight in the killing of the great lord of the cave. It made no trouble whatever of cutting through the goblin-chains and setting all the prisoners free as quickly as possible."

Gollum wears trousers. Okay, so not exactly a trope, but I think everybody now has the image of Peter Jackson's Gollum in their heads when they now imagine the character. But he originally had pockets, and thus surely trousers. From p. 73 - "[Gollum] thought of all the things he kept in his own pockets: fish-bones, goblins' teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing..."

Giants. Even Tolkien himself seemed to forget that there were giants in Middle Earth once - they don't appear in The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion unless I am horribly mistaken. But they're there in The Hobbit. On p. 88 - "'I must see if I can't find a more or less decent giant to block it up again,' said Gandalf [referring to a mountain pass through which goblins are coming], 'or soon there will be no getting over the mountains at all.'" They appear to be good giants as well. 

Animal Fantasy. On p. 115 - "Inside the hall it was now quite dark. Beorn clapped his hands, and in trotted four beautiful white ponies and several large long-bodied grey dogs. Beorn said something to them in a queer language like animal noises turned into talk. They went out again and soon came back carrying torches in their mouths, which they lit at the fire and stuck in low brackets on the pillars of the hall around the central hearth. The dogs could stand on their hind legs when they wished, and carry things with their fore-feet." Later there are sheep serving dinner and ponies helping set the table.

Talking giant spiders. We're all used to giant spiders, but Tolkien's talk. Not for him the boring concept of 'Animal (1)' intelligence.  On p. 145 - "[T]hen in the silence and stillness of the wood he realised that these loathsome creatures were speaking one to another. Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said. They were talking about the dwarves! 'It was a sharp struggle, but worth it,' said one. 'What nasty thick skins they have to be sure, but I'll wager there is good juice inside.'

Elves who like a piss-up. On p. 164 - "Then Bilbo heard the king's butler bidding the chief of the guards good night. 'Now come with me,' he said, 'and taste the new wine that has just come in. I shall be hard at work tonight clearing the cellars of the empty wood, so let us have a drink first to help the labour.'" They end up getting shitfaced and blacking out. These are not your father's elves, are they?

The tone of The Hobbit is different because it's for children, of course, but also because Tolkien's ideas clearly developed a lot in between its publication and writing The Fellowship of the Ring. Who knows what would have emerged if The Lord of the Rings had never been written and The Hobbit had remained the genre's ur-text? 

32 comments:

  1. I’m so glad Tolkien never followed through on his briefly held plans to ‘update’ The Hobbit so it fit better into the LotR world. This additional fairytale-ishness, the whimsy and talking animals etc, is one of the things that makes it so great.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I agree. Although I think he did update it a bit after LOTR came out. I remember reading somewhere that he 'retconned' Gollum to make him more evil. In the original version he was more normal and sympathetic, I believe.

      Delete
    2. That is correct. I own a facsimile of the 1937 printing of The Hobbit, and Gollum is not as bad therein.

      Delete
    3. Retconning a NPC to be more evil because the PC did something mean to them— what a DM’s trick!!

      Delete
    4. That's right. I own a facsimile copy of the 1937 printing of The Hobbit, and Gollum is less wicked therein (though he is still unsavory).

      My favorite illustration of Gollum is that by Tove Jansson. I find her Gollum much more interesting than the pukey little fellow nearly everyone else draws.

      Delete
  2. I've always like the alliance of wicked dwarves and orcs. If I'm remembering correctly, one of the petty-dwarves uses orcish mercenaries in (some version of) the Silmarillion. If you look at the original illustrations for Tolkien's acknowledged source for his orcs, The Princess and the Goblin, you might infer that Tolkien imagined orcs and dwarves as more similar to each other than subsequent illustrators and gamers have tended to see them; certainly, Gimli prefers fighting Uruk-hai to Dunlendings because of the former's shorter stature.

    I'd say the biggest thing that people forget from The Hobbit is that "goblin" and "orc" are synonyms - as the note at the start makes clear, and as the translation of Orcrist ("goblin-cleaver") does too. There is that line about "goblins, orcs and hobgoblins of the worst description", but then Tolkien absolutely loves that sort of repetitive trope, e.g. "orcs and wolf-riders" in LotR. (When it comes to LotR, people forget that the Uruk-hai are described as goblins more than once.)

    If you take an etymological line, you might argue that there *are* good giants in the final conception of Middle Earth: ents/eoten (cognate with ettin and jotun, as I'm sure you know). I think taking an etymological line is always a fair approach to Tolkien!

    The talking spiders and drunken elves are great. I reckon Tolkien's elves are at their most boring in LotR and are much more compelling in both The Hobbit and the Silmarillion corpus. The refraction of the LotR version through countless iterations in RPGs has made them even more boring!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I noted 'hobgoblins' as well - I think there is just one mention in The Hobbit, but nowhere else.

      Your point about ents - of course!

      Yes, elves are boring in LOTR, but then that is kind of the point, and the point that Peter Jackson and his cronies totally missed. The elves are going over the sea and leaving Middle Earth. They've lost interest. We're passing into the world of Men now, and it's Men (and hobbits) who will triumph over evil, not elves or Valar. That is the meaning of the series!

      I love the Silmarillion elves, though - the Noldor at least. It's almost like a mafia family. Feuds, vendettas, pride, anger. Great stuff.

      Delete
    2. I came here to say all these things, and you beat me to it. Grand.

      Delete
  3. These are good reminders! Also, Tolkien's dwarves apparently cannot see in the dark. Even the subterranean goblins seem to prefer the benefit of red torch-light, although some sneaky goblins, "their very swiftest runners with the sharpest ears and eyes," go in pursuit of the dwarves without torch-light of their own. Arguably, they were following along blindly in tunnels they already knew well, keeping their eyes out for any light made by their prey.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yeah! Great point. I never even thought of that before. But you're right - they can't see in Mirkwood either.

      Delete
  4. Giant spiders in AD&D have Intelligence Low and are Chaotic evil rather than Neutral. I've always assumed that came from The Hobbit.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting. I completely forgot about that, if I'd ever known it in the first place.

      Delete
  5. I mean, there's D&D-esque mythological giants which need their whole own lore entries right? and there's giants like Fezzik in the Princess Bride, who was presumably born to regular humans but possesses superb natural size and strength. surely Gandalf could've just been talking about one of those? that could slot in well enough with their lack of prominence in Tolkien's other works. just big dudes, hard workers, gandalf's on decent terms with a couple ...?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Don't forget the Stone Giants in Fellowship that hurtled boulders down upon them while trying to cross the mountain pass.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In the book I had always wondered whether that was supposed to be metaphorical or real.

      Delete
  7. I think modern fantasy gaming could do wit more fairytale inspired elements, such as talking animals that are still animals. Unfortunately D&D realism doesn't really like this sort of stuff. So instead of animals acting like humans in some ways while still remaining animals, we now have humans with animal features (cat people, wolf people...). They look like human-animal hybrids but are fundamentally human, much like the men-in-rubber-suits aliens you find in Star Wars.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That would be good. Talking animals, capricious fae, folk magic... now there's an idea for a setting.

      Delete
    2. You can have all these things, but the realist and systematizing mindset of D&D would work against the naive sense of wonder fairytales often have, by ultimately wanting everything to fit into a sensible coherent world, with a naturalistic ecology and magic as a form of science & technology.

      Delete
    3. Fits right in with OD&D, if you choose to DM it that way...

      Delete
  8. Do you have any more information on that cover? It almost looks like the work of Tolkien himself, but the piece itself is unfamiliar.

    I agree that there should be more goblin/dwarf evil teamups. Glamdring getting sharper in the presence of the goblins is an interesting interpretation - I'd always just read it as that the sword was That Sharp. Similarly, I think I've always pictures Gollum's "pocketses" as being more like a pouch than anything we would think of as trouser-like. But your reading certainly gives it a unique spin, and that can be a good thing. Like in the middle Hobbit movie when the spiders' speech was re imagined as being an effect of Bilbo wearing the ring - that was possibly the best reinterpretation in those movies.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are correct, the cover is by Tolkien

      http://www.tolkienbooks.net/php/details.php?reference=21350

      Delete
    2. I thought it likely - nice to have it confirmed. He wasn't a bad artist actually.

      Regarding the Hobbit movies, I found the first one so boring and the tone so wrong I couldn't stomach the other two. I would have loved to have seen it get the Guillermo del Toro treatment.

      Delete
  9. I prefer the free-spirited tone of the Hobbit to the dead serious wording of LOTR with all the implied preaching. The first Hungarian edition, published in 1975 in an Eastern Bloc country completely oblivious to western fantasy lit (pulp or otherwise) had many names translated, so Gollum was called "Nyelem" (literally "I swallow it"). I wish I could show the quirky illustrations by Tamás Szecskó, a prolific children's book illustrator of the era. Here's Bilbo threatening Nyelem (pants shown):

    https://kep.cdn.indexvas.hu/1/0/260/2607/26073/2607354_23b95c85125f032b086e56851520a947_wm.jpg

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice. 70s illustration for kids' books is universally so creepy.

      Delete
    2. Actually one can check all the illustrations out on a Polish fanpage. Gandalf is easy to sort out, but can you spot the Wood Elf King? (If anybody is wondering about the title, yes, even the "hobbit" got translated to "babó", a word invented just for that purpose. Later editions had the somewhat lackluster "hobbit" properly.)

      https://tolkien.com.pl/hobbit/collection/hobbit-hungarian-1975-1st.php

      See the reinterpreted maps on an Italian page here:

      https://tolkieniano.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-babo-prima-edizione-ungherese-dello.html?m=1

      Delete
    3. The wood elf king must be this guy? https://tolkien.com.pl/hobbit/collection/hobbit-hungarian-1975-1st.php

      Delete
    4. If u meant #18 (accusing Thorin), then yes... But #30 got me thinking, it depicts some farewell after the Battle of Five Armies, but the mounted guy in the half-moon helmet can be anyone, maybe the king again? Btw clicking through all these images (instead of perusing the book on the shelf a step away) brought to mind again how anthropomorphic these beings were for the illustrator, and perhaps it's not too far-fetched to assume that at this early stage of develepment, to Tolkien as well. Even the goblins look like nasty-scrawny humans, the trolls like fairy-tale giants. And the elven vintners on #19 really do look like a pair of drunken hobos!

      Delete
  10. This blog is gradually putting together a setting called Wilderland based on the conceit that The Hobbit existed in isolation:

    http://riseupcomus.blogspot.com/2017/09/1937-hobbit-as-setting.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I know that post. Has he put up any more stuff?

      Delete
    2. Yes, there's a few posts there with the Wilderlands tag, in his latest one he's said he's going to try putting things together into a zine. There are some nice ideas, like character 'classes' as diagetic, so more like organisations you can join or titles you can obtain, and there's a magic system which is quite flavourful if a little fiddly.

      Delete
  11. The Animal Fantasy aspect isn't entirely gone from LotR. From Chapter 3:

    > A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.

    > ‘Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I always preferred The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings as well: from a personal preference standpoint, The Hobbit just flew, the reading felt light and airy; meanwhile, LotR trodded along, describing everything and getting bogged down in detail that didn't feel necessary to the plot. I remember there's a point in the last section of The Two Towers where I just have to skip ahead to Return of the King.

    ReplyDelete