Voyage and return

Sugarloaf mountain near Abergavenny: an inspiration for The Lonely Mountain?

J R R Tolkien: The Hobbit,
or There and Back Again
Illustrated by David Wenzel
Adapted by Charles Dixon with Sean Denning
Harper 2006

I scarcely need to introduce the story of Bilbo Baggins, a halfling who is persuaded by a wizard and thirteen dwarfs to go on a long and dangerous journey to an isolated mountain, where treasure is guarded by a wicked dragon, and who finally returns home (as the subtitle proclaims).

First published in 1937, revised in 1951 and adapted for radio, animated and live action films, and for the stage, The Hobbit has been around in in its many guises for over 80 years now. As a graphic novel illustrated by David Wenzel it first began to be issued three decades ago, in 1989, and was reissued with revisions and thirty pages of new artwork in 2006.

Each medium has its advantages and drawbacks and so the question to ask when confronted by David Wenzel’s most famous work is, what does it add to the experience of Tolkien’s original saga?

First off, most of the original text is present, so you won’t be small-changed there, or not by much. There is some adapting — tenses changed, reordering of sentences and phrases, a few excisions (some verses from the songs, for example) — but this is largely Tolkien’s own words. Occasionally the text overloads the images, showing how difficult a compromise it is to remain faithful to the original in a medium in which the guiding principle is ‘show, don’t tell’.

Next, how enamoured one may be with the illustrations depends on characterisation and on the artwork itself. If you’ve accepted the image of Bilbo from the Peter Jackson films then you may be disconcerted by the appearance of Wenzel’s Hobbit, middle-aged and with a Beatle haircut. (On the other hand, this may be closer to Tolkien’s vision, who probably thought of Bilbo as a aspect of himself.)

Gandalf is hard to get wrong but the Rivendell elves are less fay and more medieval than the movie versions while the Mirkwood elves could be extras for a Robin Hood film. The dwarves (this is Tolkien’s preferred spelling) are neither Disneyesque nor Jacksonesque, more like grumpy garden gnomes in Lapplander clothing, and Gollum is as you’d expect, bug-eyed and tricksy.

Wenzel goes for a pen-and-ink with colour wash approach, a style associated more with children’s picture books (think Raymond Briggs) than with comics or graphic novels. The page layout is never the same twice, occasionally going for a full page illustration as with our first view of Smaug (more impressive than Tolkien’s painting, though clearly inspired by it).

Smaug by Tolkien (left) and Wenzel (right)

So, what’s the final verdict? Certainly this is an enjoyable way to envisage Bilbo’s epic voyage to and return from Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, and once you get used to the finish misses little out in the retelling. When the text dominates the presentation too much that’s to its disadvantage, but to my mind this is a more successful adaptation than, for example, that of the Ralph Bakshi fotonovel of The Lord of the Rings, however innovative the truncated animated film was.

The Hobbit graphic novel (2006)

My review of Tolkien’s original (the third edition) is here.

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18 thoughts on “Voyage and return

  1. This sounds like a fun interpretation/version of the book. I like the Hobbit the best of the LOTR series- the rest takes a while to get one’s head around, and while I admired what must have gone into writing that book, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the Hobbit ( though a ‘book friend’ has assured me that it took her a couple of revisits before she really began to enjoy the books, so there’s certainly a chance that I will too.)

    1. It’s interesting, I’ve read The Hobbit a couple of times over the years but could never get over the awkward transition from whimsy to saga (as I said in my original review) whereas here there was was more of a uniformity of tone, with the whimsy leavening the epic feel rather than fighting it.

      It may have been the editing of the text (removing most of the goblin songs, for instance, which always struck me as contrived, especially given how critical the situation was for dwarves and hobbit) along with the consistency of the artistic approach that made this work better for me. But that’s just my opinion, and I appreciate your preference for this over LOTR.

      As for LOTR, Tolkien still felt a need to introduce that whimsy in the Tom Bombadil and Goldberry interlude, but overall there was a heft throughout that Bilbo’s story only gradually took on.

      1. My preference is based actually more on my ability to grasp the whole story better than LOTR. I can appreciate the creativity and work that went into the latter but in that world often feel a little lost if that makes sense.

        1. I do know what you mean about grasping the whole story, or rather not grasping the whole story. My next read would be the fifth since the 60s, and I’m always discovering some new insight on each occasion.

          I suppose I’m drawn to LOTR from reading about it and around it from the very start, particularly all those cheaply available, mostly American, paperbacks that came out in the late 60s (along with the newly issued one-volume paperback of the trilogy that I bought) edited by the likes of Lin Carter. I remember there was a lot of discussion about structure, especially parallels with the plotting of The Hobbit, which helped me grasp the whole story arc better.

          I suppose I ought to go back to those US publications which still sit on my shelves, though the glue holding them together will fail as I pull the copies down…

  2. I recently heard that Hobbiton and Hobbit’s journey was inspired by Tolkien’s visit to Switzerland… The comic book looks pretty good – I prefer the original, but I’m sure it would be a great companion book! 🙂

    1. I had to check this out online, Ola, and it appears to be spot on. Writing to his son, Michael, he wrote that from “Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains the journey, including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods, is based on my adventures in Switzerland in 1911” when he was 19 (according to a BBC page http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20140523-in-alpine-villages-hobbits-lurk).

      On that walking holiday there were apparently thirteen other companions and a local guide, suggestive of the dwarves and Gandalf presumably (https://thefairytaletraveler.com/2015/05/14/real-inspirations-for-middle-earth/).

      However, as with everything online, I’d have to do some more rabbiting about, as I know that not all the stories about Tolkien in the Usk valley here, for example, are factually correct.

      Of course, like all good authors, he’d have drawn inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, and that the Misty Mountains were inspired by the Swiss Alps is certainly tenable. (But I know someone who prefers the landscapes of South Africa!)

  3. This looks wonderful! I’ve got a fairly large collection of books of art related to Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories (as well as most of Tolkien’s books of course), but I haven’t got this graphic novel in the 1989 or 2006 version. The art looks quite individual and interesting. I’ll have to add it to my TBR list! One of the things I loved about Peter Jackson’s LOTR film adaptations were that he based so many scenes on artwork I already knew really well and he was reasonably true to the story. He even hired some of the artists I knew from these books as concept artists for the films so it was like seeing those pictures come to life. Thanks for this post.

    1. I’ve always admired Alan Lee, Jo, and so was pleased to see he’d contributed designs for the Jackson films—and also that he appeared in the documentary featurettes that came with the extended DVD LOTR box set along with the other artist (John? Forget his last name).

      You may well like the art in this adaptation, lots of nice details and composition in Wenzel’s interpretation though occasionally some images feel a bit perfunctory. But at its weakest its artwork is better than some of that offered in the David Day Tolkien references (see my criticism in https://wp.me/p2oNj1-Fr).

      1. Alan Lee’s work is very beautiful. It was a collection of LOTR art which got me into the books the first time. Alan Lee was a favourite from that book. I looked up some other pages from Wenzel’s work and they do look really lovely.

  4. This sounds like a perfect way to get my little Bs into reading Tolkien! The illustrations remind me a little of the Rankin/Bass animated film, which always felt like walking storybook pictures to me. I know Tolkien’s a big challenge for kids in single digits, so having pictures that work equally with the text to tell the story should help ease that challenge and still prepare them for reading straight Tolkien text in the next couple of years. Thank you!

    1. Ideal in many ways for the Bs—pictures get them into the story and then, when they’re ready or of a mind to read, the words can be gone back over (especially as they include at least 85-90% of Tolkien’s original text anyway! I watched a bit of the animated film on YouTube a while back and it wasn’t half bad.

      1. The Rankin/Bass film was a fav of my dad’s, unlike Bakshi’s adaptation–and I don’t blame him. I’ve seen that film, and that rotovision nonsense is just AWFUL. No surprise they went to Rankin/Bass to finish off the trilogy, which meant skipping a chunk of Two Towers entirely. But then, I feel like their animation for that film wasn’t up to the same standard they had for The Hobbit. Maybe they just needed more folk singing…

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