Monday, June 16, 2008

Thank The Hobbits

The Lord of the Rings is a great book. There is no other book that I've read so many times and I still enjoy it every time I read it. I'm not as fond of The Hobbit, though it's a good book too... it's just a little too "fairy-tale-ish" for me. The Silmarillion is Tolkien's other great work, and I remember reading somewhere that at one point, JRR Tolkien wanted to publish The Sil with LOTR as one big work: LOTR would be the last part of the story since it is very much rooted in the mythology of The Sil.

Well thank the powers that be that didn't happen. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy reading The Silmarillon, but it is definitely not an easy read. Parts of it are so dense that they're hard even for fans of the Tolkien-verse to slog through. Other parts, like Beren and Luthien's story for example, flow a lot easier. I read LOTR for the first time when I was in my early teens, then re-read it regularly over the years, but I couldn't even get into The Sil until after I had read LOTR many, many times AND after I'd seen the first of Peter Jackson's LOTR movies. Maybe it was the intense Tolkien-fandom that made me crave a fix so bad at that point that I finally managed to "breach" The Silmarillion.

Then last year I read the "new" Tolkien novel: The Children of Hurin, which is a story that is also mentioned in The Sil. It was a good book, but again, not as good as LOTR. Not as "catchy" I thought, not as vivid, not as engaging... but I really couldn't put my finger on what it was lacking exactly. I'd often wondered the same thing about The Sil. The Silmarillion has a lot of exciting tales, heroism, magic, conflict and sorrow, sadness and glory... many of the ingredients found in LOTR. But it's lacking in comparison. Something is missing.

And then it struck me: what's missing are the hobbits. It seems obvious, yet I had not really considered how important they are to how the story is told in LOTR and what they mean to the way Tolkien's world is revealed to us in that book. They are what make LOTR such a great story and such a seminal work of fantasy. Take the hobbits out of LOTR (a tall order, pardon the joke) and you have a story much like the stories in The Silmarillion: high fantasy with noble and evil men, elves and dwarves, brilliantly executed world, vast mythology, all of that. But no heart, no fun, no eyes for us as readers to see the world through.

Throughout the Lord of the Rings we have the hobbits constantly bringing the high fantasy down to earth: they think about food and where to sleep, they get scared, they comment on the strange dress and languages of elves and men, they poke fun and joke around, they don't always know what's going on and often get homesick. Many fantasy stories get stuck in the "high" mode where everything is "thee" and "thou" and nobleness and heroism and blackest evil, but without someone or something there to anchor the story, to be our own human eyes and ears and voice in the world created, those stories often fail to really touch us.

As much as I love Strider/Aragorn and his story, as much as I adore Galadriel as a character, and as much as I always weep for Theoden and ache for Eowyn, the hobbits are what make LOTR great. The brilliance of The Lord of the Rings, is that it married the wonderful invented language, the epic drama, the expansive mythology and "high" tales rooted in The Silmarillion with the earthy, grounded, more familiar sensibilities of The Hobbit and ended up with something much better than either of those two books.

Thank the hobbits. They are not mentioned in the creation stories of The Silmarillion, but they are definitely the key invention of Tolkien. Without Sam and his pots and pans, without Pippin and Merry searching the flotsam and jetsam, without Frodo's fear of the road ahead, without the hobbits' eyes there for us to see the world of Middle Earth through, it would not have been as wonderful a place to visit.

Screencap of Dominic Monaghan as Merry, pledging allegiance to King Theoden - from Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King", extended edition.

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