From whimsy to saga

winged

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien.
George Allen & Unwin (3rd edition 1972)

Wizard at the door?
Twelve dwarves too? You’ll be telling
me a dragon’s next!
I must have spent my childhood and adolescence skim-reading most of the literature I was introduced to, gaining impressionist pictures of those works but missing much of the subtlety of language, characterisation and narrative. Having taken it on myself in recent years to begin re-reading those books with more attentiveness The Hobbit seemed a natural choice.
Rather than merely summarising what must be one of the most familiar tales in modern fantasy I’ve opted to discuss the personal insights that this re-reading suggested to me.

The first insight I got is that Tolkien’s prose changes from whimsical to saga-like over the course Bilbo’s journey there and back again. Despite the revisions he made to two subsequent editions (I read the most common 1966 third edition), the avuncular approach he takes at the opening, very reminiscent of the tone of the posthumously published The Father Christmas Letters, sits ill at ease with descriptions of casualities in battle and the more serious and earnest language at the end; revisions clearly haven’t reconciled the two approaches.

The next insight was a reminder from studies I’d previously read of how The Hobbit could be viewed retrospectively as a practice run for The Lord of the Rings. The plot and narrative elements are similar, among them being the hobbit on a quest, fellowship, troll glade, Rivendell, mountain tunnels, Gollum, Gandalf’s disappearance, wood elves, spiders, beseiged habitations, climactic battle near a desolate mountain, intervention by eagles, and the giving up of a precious object.

There are numerous differences, of course, but by the time Tolkien came to what was published as a trilogy he was clearly determined to make the secondary world he’d created more coherent and more fleshed out, without simply retelling The Hobbit. But equally he wouldn’t want to jettison the arc of the storyline that had pleased him in the earlier tale, which means that the inherent conflicts in storytelling style of The Hobbit are made even more obvious. The rather perfunctory ending contrasts with the solemn and more satisfying conclusion of The Lord of the Rings describing the Scouring of the Shire and the Ringbearer’s final journey.

This edition features Tolkien’s own rather quaint illustrations. While no-one would claim that there was huge artistry involved (the line drawings in particular are not well finished) their evident stylisation and frequent symmetry add to the otherworldly character of the tale and help inform us of Tolkien’s creative intentions in structuring the narrative.

We come now to the songs with which Tolkien peppers the text. There is much to admire in his cunning alliterations, rhymes and use of metre, modelled on Middle and Old English examplars, and I don’t want to deny the artistry involved. But, like his drawings, their formality is, for me at least, a barrier to really liking them, and I am a little perplexed by his suggestions that elves, dwarves and goblins were able to improvise such crafted songs on the spur of the moment. However, these songs would benefit from being set to modal melodies in a folk or medieval style; I’m not a fan of the Donald Swann settings but, since Tolkien liked to appeal to the senses, the inclusion of sympathetically composed melodic counterparts to the verses could add immeasurably to this reader’s enjoyment.

The Hobbit is certainly not a masterpiece. A pioneering work, yes, one that broke the mould for children’s literature and created a template for much post-war fantasy writing; and though flawed definitely a thrilling adventure story that flies once it gets off the ground.

Nasty Bagginses
stole the Precious, yess, and we
hates them forever!


Repost for Talking Tolkien of a revised April 2014 version of a review first published June 2012; a review of the graphic novel version appears here. The next post in this series will look at interlace narrative in LOTR.

There and Back Again Lane, Bristol, a cul-de-sac of course.

29 thoughts on “From whimsy to saga

  1. I’m always amazed by how different the tone is in the Hobbit compared to the series. I read the Hobbit when I was eight and loved it and then I tried reading The Lord of the Rings and couldn’t get into it until I was an adult.

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    1. The story of Tolkien’s development of Middle Earth from ‘The Hobbit’ in the 30s to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in the 50s is fascinating, and the change in tone and audience matches his realisation that his secondary world should be given more gravitas. Wonder how the children’s book would have appeared if he’d written it after LOTR.

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  2. I’ve always thought that Tolkien’s register switches in LOTR — in Hobbiton, he’s light and whimsical, as you write. However, once Frodo enters Lothlorien and things get really serious, Tolkien shifts into high fantasy mode, with more complex sentence structures and a style that’s almost KJV Biblical — magisterial, if nothing else. He doesn’t switch back until the four hobbits return to the Shire. Readers caught up in the tale might miss this, but reading it aloud to my daughter made it oh so obvious. You have to time your breaths very carefully.

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    1. Thanks for noting this, Lizzie, I’ll look out for it on my next re-read (nowhere near your read-count though!). I’ll try and imagine an oral retelling too!

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  3. Really enjoyed this. Like TBM above, I too read The Hobbit at 8 and wasn’t really able to get into The Lord of the Rings until I was an adult and read the trilogy to my son (who had an easier time with the many–and to me interminable–battle scenes in it). I didn’t know about the three different editions of The Hobbit; now I’m curious to read the third, 1966, edition, since I now realize I must have read one of the earlier ones.
    I’m also interested in your theory about how Tolkien used The Hobbit as he wrote LOTR. I like the idea of going back and re-reading these books more closely as an adult. I have a soft spot for The Hobbit because of its more personal tone and the way it addresses the reader. Its opening chapter is just about perfect to me. And yes, my Precioussss, the scene where we first meet Gollum retains its power through the years, and still haunts.

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    1. I’ve only read the third edition of The Hobbit, but I’ve got a book of essays which includes discussion of the changes Tolkien made to the first edition to make it closer in tone to LOTR.

      I like second readings, and though some say the magic can be lost with later analysis I feel it can be replaced by a different kind of magic — the enjoyment of subtleties that the juvenile eye can miss.

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  4. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

    I also prefer LotR. I hope you will review it at some point.

    I don’t know what a modal melody is (looking it up now…) but here is the Misty Mountains song from the 1979 radio adaptation:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3uYtK

    I like the film version too; I’m not sure which I like better. I like the radio play better as an adaptation but both songs are good.

    And here is Adele McAllister’s version of The Road Goes Ever On & On:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qv41-EkLj4I

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    1. I hope to review LOTR soon, Beth, probably book by book rather than in one go — but I’ve been promising myself that for a few years now so we’ll see!

      The music for the Misty Mountain song: the version for Peter Jackson’s film is definitely modal and pretty close to what I’d hoped. As for the radio version I used to have an LP of that in the 70s but sadly can’t remember this rather cacophonous version of the song: I think I had just some instrumental highlights played on early, more medieval instruments.

      Adele McAllister’s version of The Road Goes Ever On is quite haunting, and her voice reminded me a bit of the qualities of Joan Baez’s singing with just a hint of Joni Mitchell in the wordless section. Thanks for sharing this!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I see we’re largely in agreement here, Beth! I’ll add a comment on your blog in due course, but in the meantime thanks for drawing my attention to your post — I have an explore presently.

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  5. I’ve still got to get truly immersed into the magic of LOTR I think perhaps because of the depth of the world (the complexities that you mentioned in a previous post)–I think I need revisits to really get my head around everything.

    The Hobbit, on the other hand, I enjoyed from the first read itself; I was thinking of Gollum yesterday as a character in the fantasy I reviewed is clearly influenced by him.

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    1. I’ve reviewed The Hobbit, as a children’s novel (as here) and as a graphic novel, and now I think I ought to give Tolkien’s original another chance—here I’m clearly smarting from disappointment and I really should get over that!

      I must look at your review presently, I’ve been a bit haphazard on the WordPress Reader in recent days.

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        1. I was, unfortunately, unclear in my reply: when I said I must look at your review I meant the one you mentioned in which you sensed a character was influenced by Gollum. I’m just going through posts in the WP Reader now! 🙂

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  6. “The next insight was a reminder from studies I’d previously read of how The Hobbit could be viewed retrospectively as a practice run for The Lord of the Rings.”

    It’s interesting that you say this because I’ve thought for a long time that Tolkien was almost trying out his ideas in the Hobbit and brought them to full fruition in LOTR.

    I wonder if the point at which his narrative style changes from avuncular to epic might have also been the point at which he began to see how this world and this story might be developed into more serious high fantasy. Was the change in tone that you noticed perhaps a literary marker to the very beginning of the LOTR?

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    1. It was an ongoing two-way process as far as I can see, Jo. The Hobbit was published in 1937, when Tolkien had already been beavering away at his Middle-earth languages and legendarium for many years, what he called his ‘secret vice’, and they form a hazy background to events in the book. As it went through various printings through and after the war years the text stayed the same although there were variations, mainly in format, illustrations, paper quality and dust jacket designs.

      As he worked on LOTR he realised there were inconsistencies emerging that needed to be ironed out, so a revised edition came out in 1951 with significant changes in several passages and adjustments to Gollum’s character to fit in with was was happening in LOTR. (This link details those changes: http://www.tolkienlibrary.com/booksbytolkien/hobbit/editions.htm.)

      Hints and commentaries I’ve read since I first wrote this review suggest that the avuncular-to-epic transition was deliberate on Tolkien’s part: Christopher Tolkien’s multi-volume ‘History of Middle-earth’ shows JRRT really liked writing the jokey ‘hobbit talk’, and LOTR parallels that very transition with the very domestic opening chapters in Hobbiton soon contrasting with the dangers the hobbits increasingly meet as they travel through Buckland, Bree, Weathertop and so on.

      So, to be more succinct, it seems Tolkien planned from the very start to contrast hobbit bourgeois thinking and cosy living with the exigencies of universal conflict, and that LOTR is the same story only writ large so as to incorporate his expanded legendarium.

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      1. “As he worked on LOTR he realised there were inconsistencies emerging that needed to be ironed out, so a revised edition came out in 1951 with significant changes in several passages and adjustments to Gollum’s character to fit in with was was happening in LOTR. ”

        This is interesting! I would never have pegged Tolkien as someone who would “retcon” a character! It makes me feel differently about the times other writers and organisations (LucasFilm in particular) have done that.

        “Hints and commentaries I’ve read since I first wrote this review suggest that the avuncular-to-epic transition was deliberate on Tolkien’s part”

        I would never have guessed this. I often think of fiction in terms of musical forms. So Tolkien style here would be transformative going from A to B. When I find stories like this I always want them to follow more of an ABA structure instead, or, even better, some variation of Sonata form.

        I suppose he follows an ABA structure in a way, in that the hobbits return to the Shire and when that return happens we see both the changes in the Shire, and in the hobbits themselves. So it is a recapitulation but the characters are more developed and everything feels different from the new perspective.

        (PS: Apologies if this doesn’t make sense – I’ve still got toothache and it’s doing my head in.)

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        1. So sorry to hear about the toothache, Jo, dreadful things to have; for me they too often seem to flare up at the weekend, and at night to boot, but it sounds as though yours has been rumbling around for a bit.

          What you say makes absolute sense—remember you’re talking to a trained classical musician! Yes, both LOTR and its predecessor, with their basic There and Back Again structures (although Frodo and Bilbo sail off at the end) are in ABA form, or at least ABA form, closer to sonata form, where the returning A section is substantially altered by a key change back to tonic (or, as in LOTR, with a new coda). In The Hobbit Bilbo returns, outwardly the same but substantially different inside, and the old comfy hobbit life never quite suits him. And I think that shows a little in the narration.

          Christopher Booker, by the way, lists among what he sees as the Seven Basic Plots the plot of Voyage and Return—essentially There and Back Again—with Frodo and Bilbo’s stories fitting this pattern. Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, showing the progress of a culture hero, was basically the same plot labelled differently.

          As for Tolkien doing a bit of retconning, thank goodness he did and was able to get it published! One of the contributors to an early compendium of writings about Tolkien’s Middle-earth details some of the changes he made, I seem to remember—I may need to refer to this in some future post about how his texts evolved.

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          1. Thanks for this! Before learning about Tolkien updating “The Hobbit”, I always thought of retcons as something screenwriters found themselves having to do due to insufficient preparation at the beginning. I don’t think anyone anywhere could say that Tolkien’s writing was ill-prepared which changes my view of retcons in other areas quite a bit. (I wish I knew a different word for this concept – “retcon” puts my teeth on edge for some reason lol.)

            It’s interesting that the Voyage and Return format corresponds so well the Hero’s Journey format. Thinking about though, it does make sense since I’ve always seen the Hero’s Journey drawn as a circle. I’ve tried a couple of times to read “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” but I find Campbell’s writing to be quite dense. I preferred the book “The Power of Myth” written as a conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Cambell. (Although that’s not to say I’ve finished it lol! It’s a book that gets me thinking deeply about all sorts of things so I tend to put it down part way through to pursue one tangent or another.)

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            1. The first example of retconning usually cited is Sherlock Holmes coming back to life after supposedly dying at the Reichenbach Falls, and the term ‘retroactive continuity’ introduced in the 1970s in an academic study before being taken up by comic fandom. (So it says on Merriam-Webster.) I agree that it’s an ugly term as an abbreviation even though it does its job, though ‘retroactive continuity’ is far too cumbersome. I prefer a phrase such as ‘retrofit the past’ as its meaning is a lot clearer but it looks like ‘retcon’ is here to stay—for now, anyway!

              I think I watched a couple of those Moyers-Campbell interviews — or at least seen excerpts from them included in some BBC doc looking retrospectively at Campbell’s life and work — but I haven’t read the accompanying book. I can’t say that I’ve done more than dip into The Hero with a Thousand Faces to pick out his main arguments, any more than you with The Power of Myth!

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            2. Ah ‘retroactive continuity’ – that’s where it comes from! I like ‘retrofit the past’ as a phrase – it makes the meaning clearer and sounds less cliquey. Thanks! 😊

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  7. I just listened to Andy Serkis reading The Hobbit – an excellent audiobook though I still found I didn’t wholly love the story. But Serkis sings all the songs, giving each an appropriate tune and style depending on whether it should be trollish, dwarvish, elvish, etc. One of the things I hate about audiobooks is that they never seem to provide any info, so I have no idea who made the music – perhaps from the movies which I haven’t seen – or for all I know Serkis just did it himself. They all sound based on traditional folk tunes. Singing rather than reading them really made them come to life and was probably the best part of the audiobook.

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    1. You’re right, no credit given online for who made up the music to the songs, and the sample on Audible didn’t have even the hint of singing! It’s possible they’re based on folk tunes, but there’s a extract on YouTube of Tolkien singing ‘Chip the Glasses and Crack the Plates’ to a tune that sounds folky but may be his own composition: https://youtu.be/Z7HFnbYc7MM
      Is this the one Serkis sings?

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      1. I can’t remember – it doesn’t sound totally familiar but it could be. The other unfortunate thing about audiobooks is it’s nearly impossible to find passages – no easy way to flick through and quite often the chapter breaks don’t even match the book chapters. So I can’t go back and check without listening to tons of it again!

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