This post is part of the Battle of the Five Blogs, or six blogs to be precise. It is a throw-down of various Tolkien bloggers who are thinking about the release of the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Other bloggers in this series are Kat Sas, James Moffett, Sørina Higgins, Crystal Hurd, and Matthew Rettino. Follow the links to check out their reviews, recaps, and rants. We encourage comments and links to your own reviews, recaps, and rants.
The Hobbit as Living Text
There is a curious thing that happens to C.S. Lewis’ writing: He made friends.
I think that most true J.R.R. Tolkien fans are going to hate The Hobbit: The Battle of 5 Armies, the newest and last installment of Peter Jackson’s series. Some of those fans detested the Lord of the Rings trilogy on film, while I loved them. I lack the technical, absolutely precise knowledge of the massive myth project that are the books that make up The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and the dozen or so other books that tell us about the History of Middle Earth. The second language in my home is not Quenya or Entish, and I haven’t tracked the number of new moons that pass in Frodo’s long journey to Mordor.
I loved the LOTR films. And though there are moments that make you wince in The Hobbit trilogy—poor computer imaging, characters bent out of narrative shape, unclear lusts and motivations, uneven storytelling, genre confusion, and a general lack of Hobbitishness—I have quite enjoyed the films, as films. I went last night to The Battle of 5 Armies and had a great night out with friends.
But even I, who am willing to throw myself into the adaptation projected on screen, felt uncomfortable at times with how Jackson seems to bend what is to me a pretty straight story.
And yet…. And yet… I want to suggest that Jackson’s bending of Tolkien, and my discomfort with it, and the 100s of angry reviews online are all part of the tale.
Let me explain why.
In the 1930s, Tolkien and Lewis were good friends and literary allies on campus. Dissatisfied with the adventure stories of contemporary fiction, they dared each other to write a story they’d privately love. Tolkien drew the “Time Travel” straw and never finished the tale. Lewis drew “Space Travel” and very quickly had a Science Fiction novel in print (with Tolkien’s help). Lewis followed this original H.G. Wells-like space journey with his own failed Time Travel novel and the rest of the Ransom Cycle.
Though Tolkien had never completed a Time Travel story, he did publish The Hobbit (with Lewis’ help), and became an international superstar. He quickly began working on “the New Hobbit,” hoping he’d have more hobbits for the public in a year or two. Seventeen years later The Fellowship of the Ring was published. During that time the world of The Hobbit grew into the complex Middle Earth legendarium we all know and love.
“Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that still exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien.”
Lewis and Tolkien both thought that LOTR was on its way to completion at this time. Although it was a still a decade more until publication, Tolkien was reading chapters at meetings of the Inklings, which explains why Lewis spelled Númenor wrong—he had only ever heard it aloud. Over the years, Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe become more and more complex and intricate, and Lewis recognized that it formed a new mythology for England, one set in pre-civilizational ages.
Some Tolkien fans may dislike Lewis’ handling of Núminor in That Hideous Strength. But Lewis’ instinctive use of the “New Hobbit” mythic framework shows us what is true about The Hobbit and all of Tolkien’s subcreated world: it is a living text.
For example, when Tolkien discovered the depth of the world behind The Hobbit, he edited the actual text of his little fairy tale. What you and I typically read is not what was first published. As far as I can tell, Tolkien never really saw The Hobbit as finished. It is especially so with The Silmarillion. There is not just one Silmarillion, but several editions that were never finished in Tolkien’s mind. The edition edited by Christopher Tolkien (with help from Guy Gavriel Kay) is the one he selected to be most helpful and complete. In fact, Christopher Tolkien’s work on dozens of incomplete manuscripts shows the living and adaptive nature of the text. J.R.R. Tolkien is not the only author of his books.
As Diana Pavlac Glyer tells us, Tolkien relied on feedback and even editing from his friends in the Inklings, including C.S. Lewis. The idea of “authorship” grows wider and wider, doesn’t it? Publishers shaped the text, and Tolkien added drawings and maps to aid the reader. Eventually Tolkien would publish prefaces and appendices to go with LOTR—a book for which there was never a fully definitive text.
The text grows even more as Tolkien gave interviews and answered letters, augmenting our understanding of his mythology. There were audiobook recordings—dramatizations that offered a new interpretation—music written for the poetry, and artistic impressions. Clubs formed, societies of Tolkien fans and experts developed, and newsletters transformed into conferences and blogs.
And then there is the Middle Earth Effect: a generation of writers who, for better or worse, make their way along the fantasy wood-path that Tolkien struck in the wilderness. C.S. Lewis was among the first to do so, but there is little high fantasy that does not owe its imaginative possibilities to Tolkien. Add role playing games, and screenplays in the dustbin or top drawers of aspiring writers, and off-broadway performances, and ComicCon rap battles, and late night games of Golfimbul at MythCon….
These are all part of the living “text” of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.
So, now to Jackson.
It is clear that Jackson has diverged greatly from the little fairy tale called The Hobbit. For one, he has brought in other elements from the History and The Silmarillion, adding new storytelling possibilities that I quite liked. For another, Jackson loops together the LOTR Film Trilogy with The Hobbit Trilogy by bookending the three Hobbit films with references back (ahead) to LOTR film #1. Jackson supressed some aspects—friends of mine have noted how Beorn is minimized in the battle, and the chapters after the Battle of 5 or 6 Armies are left behind—and he draws out new themes.
No matter how greatly Jackson has diverged, the reality is that the 6 Middle Earth films by New Line Cinema are part of the story, part of the “text.” The music, the characters, the landscapes, the rabbit trails and frayed threads of Jackson’s films have changed forever the way that I read.
They are part of the living text.
And so is this blog, and the other bloggers that make up this magnanimous and self-effacing Battle of 5 (or 6) Blogs. We are shaping the text as we speak.
So, no, I don’t think Peter Jackson created a particularly faithful Hobbit. I wish he called me and floated some of his ideas. But he made good films—films that I will watch over and over again, films that I will show my son as I pass The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on to him.
Because that’s part of the living text too: reading books aloud in a warm chair, sitting on the couch with the screen flickering before us, and lining up at Christmas time this one last time to see how the unending tale that is The Hobbit finally ends.