"There behind lay Mirkwood, blue in the distance, and darkly green at the nearer edge even in the spring. There far away was the Lonely Mountain on the edge of eyesight. On its highest peak snow yet unmelted was gleaming pale."
|First published September 1937.|
THE PLOT: Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire, is hired by a wizard and a group of dwarves to journey to the Lonely Mountain to contend with Smaug, the dragon who has taken up residence in the dwarves' ancestral home and possession of all their treasure.
It was interesting to re-read this immediately after finishing the other LOTR books. The tone switch is a refreshing change after the sustained anxiety of the War of the Ring. Anxious moments abound in The Hobbit, of course, but it's all rather light-hearted. Bilbo's ancestor, for example, who lopped off a goblin's head and sent it flying into a hole, is claimed to "have invented golf at the same time." Hard to see Tolkien putting a line like that in any of the other LOTR books.
Or consider when Gollum is introduced. Tolkien writes "I don't know where he came from or who or what he was... I don't know where he got the ring. (...) Perhaps the Master who ruled them could tell." That last line was undoubtedly part of the revisions he submitted for the second edition of the book (1951). It fits the narrative tone of The Hobbit while not contradicting anything from the stories written after. But it should not be taken to mean it took writing The Hobbit to start Tolkien down the path of Middle Earth; he'd been worldbuilding that since before World War One.
From a letter to Milton Waldman in 1951, reprinted in The Silmarillion.
"Once upon a time, I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story (...) which I could dedicate simply to England, (my country.) It should possess the tone and quality, the clime and soil of North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean (...) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic. (...) I should draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole (...) Some escaped from the grasp of this branching acquisitive theme (...) The Hobbit was quite independently conceived; I did not know as I began it that it belonged. But it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole (...) As the high legends (of The Silmarillion) are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes a virtually human point of view."
So while The Hobbit began life as an independent story, it fits seamlessly into the larger story of Middle Earth (Silmarillion) and serves as the perfect apéritif for the Lord of the Rings saga. For me the more Middle Earth context you have, the greater each and every sentence becomes. Nonetheless, if you have neither the time nor inclination, you can make do with just The Hobbit.
|But why would you want to?|
"'Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!' said Bilbo.
'Of course!' said Gandalf. 'And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!'
'Thank goodness!' said Bilbo, laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar."
|Hobbits and wizards sure love smoking. What are they growing up there in the Shire?|
The Rankin/ Bass animated movie was broadcast on Sunday night, November 27, 1977, against All in the Family and The Six Million Dollar Man. It was seen mainly as a way of selling the storybook that accompanied it:
|Which I had, of course.|
1. The Opening. Abridged somewhat, but Bilbo joins up with the dwarves in more or less the same manner.
|Orson Bean pitches his voice slightly differently for Bilbo than he would later do for Frodo.|
|And John Huston's Gandalf is even better here than in ROTK.|
|Hans "The Grinch" Conried voices Thorin.|
2. Trolls. Again, more or less the same scene, just a little compressed. I wasn't a huge fan of the visual they picked for the trolls:
|When it comes to trolls, I'll forever have the '77 Monster Manual in mind.|
3. Elrond/ Rivendell. After they escape the trolls, they make their way to Rivendell. Making Elrond the only character to appear in each Middle Earth book.
Technically, I guess, you could say Sauron does, as well, though he appears only off-stage in The Hobbit, as the Necromancer. I only half-count it.
The music all-around is pretty tough going. It's more or less the same deal as the Rankin/ Bass ROTK, but I'm (slightly) more forgiving of the music in the later film. Here, ugh - it all just grated on me. I woke up with one of the songs in my head and wanted to punch myself. I mention it in this section because the musical representation of Rivendell/ the Elves reminded me more of the opening tune from That Thing You Do ("Loving You Lots and Lots", a song I love, incidentally) than anything I'd associate with the High Elves.
4. The Storm and Goblins. Not bad - this sequence more or less follows the book exactly.
|I like this look better for goblins than I do for orcs in ROTK.|
|"Hello... what's this?"|
We do see the Warg attack and subsequent rescue by the Eagles, though.
7. Mirkwood. Tough call here for the animators, as the Mirkwood of the book is the ultimate enchanted forest of the imagination. I don't envy anyone's task in trying to evoke the atmosphere of the novel. That said:
|The animated feature does okay with the spider attack -|
|- but falls a little short with the Wood Elves.|
|It's a trip, though, that they got Otto Preminger to voice Thranduil. Huston as Gandalf, Preminger as the Elven King... I wish they'd found a way to cast Hitchcock or Billy Wilder.|
8. Smaug and Laketown. Smaug walks away with the movie, naturally. If you have a dragon in your story who doesn't, you blew it.
|Voiced by Richard Boone.|
Here is one small change, as instead of the thrush hearing Bilbo tell the dwarves about Smaug's weak spot, Bilbo instructs the thrush himself to go and deliver the news to Bard in Laketown below.
|Bard comes across pretty well here. I don't think he's ever mentioned again - further-traveled Tolkien readers are encouraged to correct this in the comments, if wrong, as I'd love to learn what happened to him.|
9. Battle of the Five Armies. Somewhat lame.
Removing the Arkenstone from the story also removes the late innings conflict between Thorin and Bilbo. This necessitates a scene where Thorin calls Bilbo a coward so he has something to make right for on his deathbed soon to come.
10. Return Home. Gandalf's several-years-later visit to the Shire with Balin (poor Balin) is grafted onto his and Bilbo's journey home. An economic choice. There's no busting in on his relatives selling off his things, but, like the Scouring of the Shire from LOTR, it's an understandable choice.