The first part of the Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, is not yet available on DVD, though the Howard Shore soundtrack is. But it’s available in two theater versions, one in 2D at 24fps and in 3D at 48 fps. It’s been available in print for decades. But its literary role is something of a mystery. The Hobbit is commonly regarded in its literary form at least as inferior to Tolkien’s later magnum opus. Yet anyone who has read his landmark paper on Beowulf will instantly realize that the comparative simplicity of the Hobbit is due not to Tolkien’s immaturity as a writer but rather to the fact that he was laying down the foundation stones for his later creation.
Although described as a “prequel” to the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit is really a different version of the same story; less “pre-telling” than a the narrative of the same universal experience from a different perspective. Almost every element in the Hobbit reappears in the Lord of the Rings, familiar, as the Shire was to Bilbo when he returns, yet changed.
The Quest for Erebor clearly forshadows the Journey into Mordor; Smaug, the last of the old monsters, prefigures Sauron the destroyer of souls; Thorin Oakenshield is the proto-Aragorn. And the homesickness for Shire adumbrates the longing the Undying Lands. There is the Lonely Mountain for Mordor and the sojourn through Goblin Town in place of that in Moria. In both cases the company issues out onto a open hillside, in the first case missing Bilbo and in the second Gandalf, though both will return. Even the giant spiders that Radagast finds in the greenwood are echoes of Shelob.
The parallels are no coincidence. They are linked stories. The difference between the treatment of themes in the Hobbit and the LOTR is one of level, it is not fundamentally one of time. The dilemmas and dramas faced by the company of Thorin Oakenshield are neither different nor inferior to those faced by the Fellowship of the Ring, they are simply the same things seen at different depths.
Of the characters in the story only Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield are explicitly aware that the superficial plot may be part of a larger tale. Jackson lets us know by hints and signs that Gandalf’s true purpose in organizing the Quest for Erebor is not to simply help a company of dwarves reclaim their ancestral hoard. He could care less about trinkets, jewels and gold — but more deviously to eliminate Smaug as a factor in the coming War which he even then fears is approaching.
Thorin also understands, but through some gift of his kingly greatness. He shrewdly guesses that Gandalf would only choose a hobbit to burgle Smaug’s den if it served the wizard’s purpose in far wider sense than the mere recovery of Erebor, the dwarven kingdom occupied by the Great Worm. Though he cannot clearly see what Gandalf’s ends are, he understands that Bilbo’s selection is part of vaster canvas. “I will not be responsible for his safety,” he tells Gandalf before the start of the journey. “Nor will I be answerable for his fate.”
This is a key riff. From the time of his scholarship in Beowulf, which Tolkien called his greatest source material for his later writing, he concerned himself with the two lives of every man. The first and the one we all know, was the mortal “life”: the question of physical survival from one day to the next. The second we lead, sometimes quite without knowing it, is role we played in the history of things. Our part on the Road. It is what Thorin called “fate”. The dwarf prince understands these two matters are separate: indeed Bilbo’s safety, though often threatened, is assured; but it is Bilbo’s fate which is sealed. He is doomed to set in motion and play a part in the matter of the Ring.
For properly understood, Bilbo ends Middle Earth.
Tolkien in his landmark essay on Beowulf, ascribes the greatness of its poetry to an awareness that it straddles two eras. The anonymous author could tell the story of the old pagan gods, of their defiance and courage (‘absolute resistance, perfect because without hope’) while simultaneously embodying the new Christian hope that both evil and death would ultimately be vanquished. Tolkien wrote of Beowulf:
We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse. Grendel inhabits the visible world and eats the flesh and blood of men; he enters their houses by the doors. The dragon wields a physical fire, and covets gold not souls; he is slain with iron in his belly. Beowulf’s byrne was made by Weland, and the iron shield he bore against the serpent by his own smiths: it was not yet the breastplate of righteousness, nor the shield of faith for the quenching of all the fiery darts of the wicked.
It is the role of the Hobbit to carry a similar burden of memory. We get a glimpse of trolls, Storm-giants, goblins, giant rabbits, oversized spiders, wargs, talking birds and giant eagles once more — before they finally disappear — to be replaced by abstract things. By the time of the Lord of the Rings, even Sauron has become disembodied. He has lost all human shape. He gives unending life — or shall we say existence — to the Ringwraiths, but life is nothing to Sauron by then. He lusts not for the flesh, but for the domination of the spirit.
The day of the monsters passed. And Bilbo in his allegorical way ends it. But for those who see the Hobbit, they can be seen for the final time in their full glory as Beowulf beheld them and as no doubt Bilbo did. “A desserte of lapwyngs, a shrewednes of apes, a raffull of knaues, and a gagle of gees” And a wilderness of dragons. It’s not called the Desolation of Smaug for nothing.
Gandalf, determined to press on, is cognizant of the peril, and aware even then that by succeeding he will be speeding his own passing. The wizard seeks counsel from Galadriel. In what viewers will recognize as another keynote dialog Galadriel asks the Gandalf, “why did you bring the halfling?” He answers, “perhaps because I am afraid.” He adds words we could have written ourselves. ‘Saruman believes that only the great can face evil. Yet I believe it is often faced down by those familiar with simple things, the warm hearth-fire, who hear laughter among friends and know daily acts of love and kindness.’
Whatever you think of the cinematic values of the An Unexpected Journey, all the great Tolkien themes are certainly there. I will not be guarantee your visual experience in 2D or 3D. Nor will I be responsible for your fate.
More perspectives on The Hobbit at PJ Media:
Andrew Klavan: The Case for Restricting Artist
John Boot: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Chore