The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien is one of the most influential books of the twentieth century and a classic in children’s literature. It follows the quest of Bilbo Baggins and a party of dwarves, lead by Thorin, as they set out on a quest through treacherous landscapes to reach the Lonely Mountain and reclaim a horde of old dwarf treasure from the dragon Smaug. Along for the ride for part of the way is the wizard Gandalf. Bilbo is not exactly your quest-type of character, but the Tookish blood in him sees adventure and wants in despite himself. He manages to get into and out of trouble, is separated from the dwarves, finds the ring of invisibility which he takes from Gollum (which forms the basis for the Lord of the Rings trilogy that follows The Hobbit), plays the part of the burglar for which he was chosen, and otherwise brings together a whole cast of strange characters – both helpful and harmful – in a final climactic confrontation which decides who gets the treasure. No wonder it was instantly successful and has never been out of print. Bilbo starts out as someone of limited ambition and develops skills that save himself and the dwarves on numerous occasions, much to their surprise.
At a recent Sydney Writers’ Festival session on adapting classics for the screen, there was a debate about how a screenwriter necessarily has to change things in order for a movie version of a book to work on-screen. I can’t wait to see what Peter Jackson et al do with The Hobbit. It is known that it will be a two movie story, and there is a magical trailer which suggests that every bit of fun, danger, wisdom, malevolence, and triumph that form part and parcel of this story will be part of the much-anticipated adaptation.
There is such a huge appetite for epic fantasy of which Tolkien is perhaps the father. Witness George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, also recently adapted for the (small) screen – and countless other such juggernaut series. A more circumspect (okay, excoriating) reflection on Tolkien’s influence is voiced by hugely successful British author, China Mieville, superstar of the ‘New Weird’ sub-genre of fantasy, who says of Tolkien:
[T]here’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.
There’s no denying Tolkien’s influence. His work is escapist and perhaps consolatory. And maybe there is a lack of moral complexity. This doesn’t diminish it in my view. That said, I think Mieville has a point about some of the vast bandwagon of authors who have since followed in his well-trodden footsteps. They have not extended the now clichéd tropes. I think there is room enough for both types of fantasy: the escapist and the confrontational. (And Mieville himself has edged away from these early comments in more recent interviews.) There are times when we want the epic quest, and there are times when we demand moral ambiguity and complexity and uneasy, challenging reads. After all, variety is the spice of life, is it not?
You can see a layout of Bilbo’s home here (along with some other famous houses in classic literature).
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
Source: a friend leant me their copy!