Revisiting “The Hobbit”

In a moment or two I shall depart to my High Street bookseller – yes, I have a real world hard copy bookseller and yes Unity Books is located on High Street in Auckland. They have a special anniversary edition of  The Hobbit  available which I ordered some time ago. I’m told that they also have a copy of “Hobbitus Ille” – “THE Hobbit” in Latin which can sit alongside my copies of “Winnie Ille Pu” and “Alicia in Terra Mirabili.” It will be interesting to see how the translator deals with Gollum’s curse – “Thief, thief thief! Baggins – we hates it forever” Tentatively I have reach “Fur, fur, fur! Baggins!  Id in aeternam odimus!” (Although some would suggest “nos odit eam in aeternum”)

I have had cause to reflect a little upon “The Hobbit” and the resonances that it brings. I am currently reading “There and Back Again” by Mark Atherton, a piece of work that I am enjoying immensely. Although one reviewer finds the publisher’s blurb “shameful” (the rest of the review is more positive) it has been well-received in Tolkien quarters.

What started the resonances particularly were the references by Atherton to the idyllic and atavistic location of  the beginning of “The Hobbit” in the pre-idustrial English country-side. Reference was made especially to the colour painting of “The Hill” that Tolkien executed in 1937-38. I remember that painting as the first encounter that I had with Tolkien’s world when I was 10 and opened “The Hobbit” for the first time. That, and the opening passages, I found imparted a warmth and a safety within my own mind that recognised that there were greater things in the wide world, but that certain places – home in particular – should be untouched by the tribulations of the outside world. For me that picture is so representative of tranquility and peace that every time I see it I recollect the feelings that I had when I first saw it.

Atherton puts it this way

“Hobbits live in a world that resembles an idyllic version of England in about 1890; a ahistorical English countryside – one that never underwent the notorious enclosures of the early 1800’s that so taxed rural workers and was captured in, say, the writings of the poet John Clare. It is an ordered ‘respectable society’ with a municipal organisation (signposts) and some basic industrial production (baked tiles) but otherwise basically a pre-industrial modern world. In brief it is anachronistic, a vestige of rural England.”

The extraordinary thing that happens whenever I read “The Hobbit” is that I am not only entering Tolkien’s world but returning to another world that I inhabited in 1957. The resonances and remembrances from that time are startlingly clear and the feelings and sensations that I had when reading it then return now. There are occasions when the same thing happens when I read “The Lord of the Rings”. The first appearance of the Black Rider in “The Fellowship” was a sleep-depriving experience and I still feel the dread when I re-read the passage. My reading the “The Lord of the Rings” was a somewhat complex process, for I borrowed each volume separately from the library. After I finished “The Fellowship” the second volume “The Two Towers” was not on the shelf. However, Volume 3 was and I borrowed it, so hungry was I to return to Middle-earth and thinking that I could pick up the threads later. But the problem is that the final images of “The Fellowship” and the sundering of the Fellowship at Amon Hen and the funeral of Boromir lead straight to the image of Pippin bouncing along with Gandalf to Minas Tirith after the episode with the Palantir following the fall of Isengard. “The Two Towers” came later and it all made sense, but first impressions, it seems, endure.

I suppose part of the explanation for these apparent “flashbacks” lies in the fact that I came to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” at a very impressionable age. But why the enduring memories and the continued fascination. Is there an aspect of avatism at work that keeps certain archetypal resonances alive. Certainly some of the themes in Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings are constants throughout the tales of all cultures. This is not surprising, given that his objective was to create a “mythology for England”. I have written on Tolkien’s themes, symbols and myths in my “The Song of Middle-earth – J.R.R Tolkien’s Themes, Symbols and Myths”. For example the quest of the hero and the stages of development of the heroic figure, so graphically identified by Joseph Campbell, are apparent in Aragorn. The tragedy of Turin Turambar, recounted in “The Silmarillion” and “The Children of Hurin” as well as in “Unfinished Tales” reflects themes of incest that occur in Northern mythologies as well as in those of the Greeks. The Creation myth appears in “Ainulindale” in “The Silmarillion” and a clearly worked eschatology is present throughout, reaching a partial demonstration in the fall of Numenor.

It was a certain curiosity and dissatisfaction that caused me to write “The Song of Middle-earth” in 1984-5. I said then that I thought that there was something greater, more significant, more meaningful than was on the printed page. Part of that derived from the depth that Tolkien himself had created. Gondolin, the origin of the eleven blades that appear in “The Hobbit” is mentioned by Elrond, and there are hints of an earlier time throughout, exemplified by the telling of tales from days gone by when Bilbo returns to Rivendell after the completion of the dwarves quest.

Part of my enquiry in “The Song” involved a consideration of “what had gone before”. AT the time of writing, the monumental twelve volume collection – “The History of Middle-earth” – had not been published. Indeed, “The Book of Lost Tales” was published as I was readying “The Song” for publication.

The dissatisfaction that I felt was with much of the (then) published literature about Middle-earth. With the exception of Carpenter’s “Biography” and “The Inklings” and Shippey’s “Road to Middle-earth” most of the writers and commentators had missed a vital point. I did not think that Tolkien’s work was ,erely derivative – that he had examined other mythologies and extracted tales, elements and themes and had plopped them into his creation. That to me was a simplistic approach and unflattering to the creator. Nor did I think that critical comparisons with the earlier greats of English and Europens liertature wholly productive. There was soemthing deeper and more meaningful to Middle-earth than that.

I decided to eschew the derivative approach and avoid, as much as I could, comparisons with other works and examine and analyse the Middle-earth works as they stood – alone. And the obvious starting point, and one which has received scant examination in the earlier literature, was myth. Tolkien had left for me, and for others, an abundance of clues- that he was creating a Mythology for England- and I began my examination from the point of view of myth and mythology.

Rather than examine the works as derivative from other mythologies, it became clear that the approach should be thematic – study the themes that are common to most, if not all, mythologies and ascertain what elements are present in Tolkien’s work. As the book showed, the elements are satisfied.

The starting point must be The Silmarillion, a difficult book to read and with which to come to terms. But it is essential to an understanding of the creation and development of the Tolkien cosmos, as well as being a history of the Elves in Middle-earth, and it establishes the framework within which is set the Third Age as portrayed in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Yet The Silmarillion gives hints of other writings and accounts that deal with the Matter of Middle-earth. Some of these accounts are collected in Unfinished Tales, and in this volume we find more detail of the acts of Tuor and of Turin, a background to the realm of Numenor, the Tale of Aldarion and Erendis, and much information about the Istari, the palantiri and the early history of the Third Age. For one interested in the stories, Unfinished Tales is essential. For the aficionado it provides a penetrating insight into the manner in which Tolkien worked.

As I have said, when “The Song” was being prepared for publication, Lost Tales I was published. I made the following observations at that time which, with the bebenfit of hindsight, still are valid.

The Book of Lost Tales I comprises a part of what may be called a ‘protoSilmarillion’. Most of the ingredients of the tales of The Silmarillion are present, although it is obvious, both from the Tales themselves, and the notes by Christopher Tolkien, the editor, that the Tales underwent many fundamental changes before they became The Silmarillion. But Lost Tales I is, in my opinion, almost as significant as The Silmarillion in that it indicates that it was always Tolkien’s desire to create a Mythology for England. To give even greater credence to his intention (as if we needed more than the confessed desire of the writer), the manner of the telling of the Tales is significant. Eriol, a traveller from Middle-earth (or The Great Lands), comes to the Isle of Tol Eressea and in his travels in that land comes to a dwelling which is, in some respects, a forerunner of Imladris in Middle-earth. During his sojourn he requests and is told tales of early Arda. Most of the tales are told in a common-room before a Tale-fire which is ‘a magic fire, and greatly aids the teller in his tale’.  The tales are told by Lindo, Rumil and Gilfanon, Elvish inhabitants of Tol Eressea. Now the significance of the setting is that the Tales are recounted orally, and indeed are so written that they have a lyric and rhythmic quality when read aloud.

Thus, in introducing his myth, Tolkien resorts to the oral or bardic tradition of story-telling, a feature of mythological tale-telling that predates Homer. Apart from the themes of the cosmological myths that comprise Lost Tales I, the whole cycle is distinctively myth oriented and is a clear indication of Tolkien’s desire and intention. Christopher Tolkien gives us tantalising hints of things to come in later publications, but perhaps most interesting is the reference to Aelfwine of England. Aelfwine is another realisation of the character Eriol.

 Later, his name changed toAelfwine (Elffriend), the mariner became an Englishman of the ‘Anglo-Saxon period’ of English history, who sailed west over the sea to Tol Eressea – he sailed from England out into the Atlantic Ocean; and from this later conception comes the very remarkable story of Aelfwine of England, which will be given at the end of Lost Tales. But in the earliest conception he was not an Englishman of England: England in the sense of the land of the English did not exist; for the cardinal fact (made quite explicit in extant notes) of this conception is that the Elvish Isle to which Enol came was England that is to say, Tol Eressea would become England, the land of the English, at the end of the story.

 Apart from the very method of tale-telling, the major themes that I have examined in The Silmarillion are present, as one would expect, in Lost Tales. Certainly some major changes in plot as well as changes in matters of detail have occurred. But this too is consistent with the development of myth. The tales of myth are never constant, and there is no one ‘authorised version’ (even the Bible has its Apocrypha). Rather, as I note later, the tale-tellers vary, refine and embellish. But the constant ingredient is the basic theme, and certainly the themes that Tolkien propounds and illustrates do not change.

The Silmarillion, Lost Tales and, to a degree, Unfinished Tales set the stage for the drama at the end of the Third Age recounted in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The mythology is complete and the questions that have been bedevilling readers for the last forty or fifty years may could finally be answered. But I believe that the main inspiration for the questions and the curiosity that readers have for Middle-earth lies deep in the realms of myth. Because the Middle-earth saga was conceived as a mythology the reader, perhaps only subconsciously, recognises myth as the sound of a far-distant trumpet echoing through the mind. Can the reader, perhaps, recognise within his own experience the desire for a subcreated realm of faerie that is as meaningful to him or her as were the great tales that rang through the rafters of the mead halls of early England and the Viking lands, or which were majestically and sonorously intoned by Homer sitting by the tale-fire on an evening in ancient Greece.

Perhaps that ‘desire for dragons’ that we all have is now realised in Tolkien’s created mythology for England.

But is there more than mythological depth that allows us to recognise many of Tolkien’s characters and description, albeit vaguely? What is it that transports us back to that first reading so vividly and completely. The archetype may provide an answer – the wise old man, the Lady in the Wood, the dark stranger are all recognisable.

Without heading too deeply into the area of psychoanalysis, some of these issues are dealt with in an excellent and amusing work entitled “The Individuated Hobbit – Jung, Tolkien, and the Archetypes of Middle-Earth” by Timothy O’Neill (Houghton Mifflin 1979) The book provides a provocative and highly original explanation for the phenomenon of Tolkien’s works on the modern imagination. Correlates between Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and Tolkien’s mythology for Middle-Earth. O’Neill points out case after case of how the themes and characters of The Lord of the Rings closely parallel’s Jung’s archetypes, and how the entire narrative can be read in Jungian terms as the central human struggle for what Jung called individuation – the healthy realization of the self. 

O’Neill was in the military when he first came to Tolkien and then was a professor of Engineering Psychology at West Point – hence his reference in a passage that follows to “Othello’s trade”. He sets out his purpose as follows:

The real power of Tolkien’s world is as much in form as in content. The difference between myth and a story is just that: a story becomes myth (or, in diminutive form, “fairy tale”) when a certain form is imposed on it. What that form should be is the subject of this book. The most immediate hallmark of that form is the degree to which it evokes images in the reader – images that are in harmony with the common psychological heritage of all Man.

 What I am really suggesting in these pages is that there are two kinds of reality: the objective reality of personal experience and perception, which we call consciousness, and the subjective reality which is outwardly directed. The first is practical, demonstrative, and concerned with outward-looking energy and social reality. The second is inward-looking, symbolic, and profoundly affected not only by Man’s day-today encounters with the world, but also by the collective experience of Man through the ages. The power of enchantment in Middle-earth is not to be found in this outward-looking consciousness, but is rooted in a deeper, far more ancient part of Man: a seldom-glimpsed realm “where the shadows lie”

 Just how this happens has, I think, escaped the critics and cultists. There have been detailed explorations of odd place names, exhaustive searches for obscure source and mythological parallel – for the “meaning” that Professor Tolkien assured us repeatedly was not there. To the extent that there is no allegorical meaning or hidden satire, I am in agreement with the author. But meaning comes in various disguises, and if plot and content are to be taken at face value and simply enjoyed, then the reasons for the attractions must be found in form. The meaning, if meaning is the correct word, of this source of attraction is unique for each reader; each man’s psyche is his own, despite strains of commonality, and will make of the charms and joys of Middle-earth what it will without the slyness of satire or the blunt instrument of allegory.

 My purpose is to demonstrate that the framework of Tolkien’s world is truly in harmony with “real” myth and fairy tale, that they are woven of the same strand of human psychology. The common denominator of all such expression is to be found in the theoretical framework of analytical psychology – in the concepts of the collective unconscious and in the search for Self-realization. This is the vast complex perspective of Carl G. Jung and his inheritors, a set of theories only dimly grasped by most psychologists and frequently (if unfairly) dismissed as nonempirical, mystical, and nearly incomprehensible. Although the impact of Jungian theory is considerable- more in art and literature than in psychology – its delicate mechanics (what we will call its “constructs”) are hardly even addressed in introductory psychology texts. It is this obscurity which has, I think,caused its applicability to Tolkien’s work to elude readers. I hope to correct this oversight.

O’Neill’s book is thorough but is not without amusement and a certain whimsy. The following passage discusses the archetype of the dragon and the encounter between Smaug and Bilbo:

But Bilbo is not through spelunking – ahead lie the Lonely Mountain and a far more formidable foe than wretched Gollum. Bilbo must now earn his title of burglar – or “expert treasure-hunter,” as he would doubtless prefer to be called – by dickering with Smaug the Mighty, “greatest and chiefest of catastrophes.”

 The dragon is a common symbol in the mythologies of a variety of times and cultures. In form, it is a fusion of serpent, bird, and other animals, and I cannot resist digressing for a few paragraphs in honor of this fantastic beast and its importance in understanding the imagery of the psyche.

 The winged snake is encountered in odd places. The medical profession in this country has embraced the caduceus as its symbol. This is actually an error- the proper symbol, and that which is used elsewhere, is the staff of Asklepios, a stick about which is entwined the single serpent. I shall not bother with the mythological basis for this emblem, since it does not influence our present concerns; but the caduceus, whether it is appropriate for the medical profession or not, gives us a hint about winged snakes in general. The caduceus is the winged staff of Hermes, the Greek god who served as messenger and patron of travelers. He is also the intermediary between gods and the underworld; unifier of light and darkness, his common symbol being the phallic berm placed at crossroads. He is also the guide of dead souls, which is not encouraging for patients whose doctors embrace his staff. The symbolic nature of the caduceus is fairly straightforward: the serpents are chthonic, earthy, close to the underworld, suggestive of Man’s lowly phylogenetic origins. The wings reflect the soaring soul of Man, the consciousness that sets him apart from his scaly and furry forefathers. The central staff binds the two together- mating snakes, the instinctual substrate, flying bird, the sunlit potential of consciousness.

 The union of opposites is thus an essential part of such figures, among which we must place the dragon. Those familiar with mythology will point out that the Serpent of Midgard, who gnawed for ages at the roots of the Norse world tree Yggdrasil, was a “worm”: creeping and wingless. Remember, however, that he was compensated (as was the rest of the complex Norse world) by the eagle that perched in the top branches of the tree. The two symbols are not yet fused, and carry on no more than a spirited dialogue through the good offices of a squirrel whose fate it is to scamper up and down Yggdrasil’s loftiness from one to the other until the day of Ragnarokk.

 But Smaug the Mighty is a full-fledged (should one say “fledged”? His wings are batlike and featherless) fire-drake, long of tooth, broad of wing, bad of breath, and shudderingly articulate. Tolkien, for some reason which will remain unguessed, was very nonevaluative in his general treatment of dragons. The worms of The Silmarillion are a pretty grim lot, true; but then there is little frivolity about that work, composed of the tear-soaked chronicles of the Eldar’s trials in Middle-earth. I have already made clear to the reader that I am not impressed by the Elves’ studious garment-rending and handwringing Had they bothered to stop and talk for a few moments with any of the dragons set against them, they might have found entertainment enough to offset the confounded eternal weariness of the world. When Tolkien removes his Elvish persona and confronts dragons as the plucky hobbit or the sturdy yeoman-farmer, worms fare better. Chrysophylax Dives is merely living up to his miserly name, and doing so with wit, gusto, and a pinch of pathos. Smaug is certainly not to be trifled with, and admittedly dealt rather summarily with the Dwarves in the time of Thrain; but he is older now and perceptibly more mellow, at least willing to chat for a while before belching napalm and ending meaningful dialogue. And if he is greedy, well, that is what dragons are supposed to be; we cannot blame him for that, nor expect altruism of a fire-drake any more than empathy from a weeping crocodile. I really find Smaug altogether more worthy of sympathy than some hobbits – Lobelia Sackville-Baggins would have smitten the pesky lizard with a furled umbrella and sent him off whimpering. But perhaps after all pestiferous and acquisitive relatives are more likely to interrupt our serenity in contemporary times than thundering dragons.

 Bilbo is terrified. Sting and Ring are hardly more than lucky charms in the great treasure cave, not proof against the fearful flamethrower. Smaug is what we of Othello’s trade call an area weapon: precise location of the target is not required, nor is fastidious marksmanship necessary for good terminal effect. But Bilbo has guts that belie his species’ reputation. None of the Dwarves, not even the venerable, muchdecorated Thorin Oakenshield, who proved his mettle in the Goblin Wars, has volunteered to help him burgle treasure with the dragon so near. As he treads the tunnel coming ever nearer to the uninviting red glow the “least Tookish part of him” wavers, wishing yet again for the comfy hole at Bag End.

This is the persona (the “good decent hobbit”) railing impotently at the anima (the Tookish part, personified as the great Belladonna, from whom he has surely inherited the propensity for disturbing sleeping dragons); but the objections are too little·and much too late. He is committed to the path of Self-realization, like it or not. In fact, the controlled social mask is already slipping away, no longer supported by the need to maintain a reputation for the neighbors. The nature of Bilbo’s journey across the landscape of the psyche is revealed by his reply to Smaug’s inquiry: “Who are you and where do you come from, if I may ask?”

 “You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air. I am he that walks unseen.”

 Over hill and under hill, indeed; Bilbo is too modest (if that is possible). “I am the friend of bears [a reference to Beorn, the theriomorphic figure we will discuss in more detail later] and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer….”

This is a complex and pregnant sort of name. It traces his path through conscious and unconscious (over hill and under hill) that has led him this far; establishes his foundation in both worlds (“friend of bears”- i.e., chthonic, earthy, bound to the animal shadow, the instinctive foundation of the psyche; and “guest of eagles”- one who may also soar at will in the light of consciousness). He glories in his new position as pivotal figure in the drama, the link between worlds (Ringwinner) and the key to fortune (Luckwearer) by possession of the magical transcending treasure.

 But Bilbo succumbs to a near fatal weakness at this critical point. He has in the euphoria of the moment reveled too thoughtlessly in Belladonna’s triumph, ignored the conscious part of him, which would have been more cautious and circumspect in talking to dragons. Smaug is sure-footed in the dark world, he has dwelt there long; Bilbo is a stranger in the perilous realm, and he has barely stepped into it before the incautious foot is thrust in his mouth, tipping off the wormto dangerous details of the plan. “Thief in the Shadows!” snarls the beast, “my armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt,my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”

 This uncouth outburst is one that reveals the volume and fury of the long-repressed libido, the surging, powerful energy that has for so long been denied conscious symbolization.Smaug has for the moment ceased to be a transcendental, transforming symbol and become pure animal power, untamed psychic drive. But transforming symbol is his major role still, the winged serpent, and like St. George, Bilbo must slay or outwit the beast to pave the way for the Self’s advent. He has already done this, though he has no way of knowing it, with his careless clues – Smaug is soon up and around for the first time in years, and Bilbo has provided the clue through the help of the magic thrush that allows Bard the Bowman to finish the monster and quench his flames. The black arrow pierces the gap in Smaug’s armor, and the treasure is now lying unguarded in the darkness under the mountain.

What O’Neill does is that he takes the themes of myth and weaves them into consciousness in a way that allows the reader to exclaim “of course!” But the starting point must always – always – be myth. For this is what Tolkien wrote and this was the object of his creation and he weaves his mythic creation into his narrative tales of the Third Age of Middle-earth.

Peter Jackson has assisted in the creation of a sub-myth. Part of that is to describe New Zealand (or parts of it) as Middle-earth and we immediately recognise Jackson’s re-creations of Tolkien’s creation. In some respects, Jackson has added extra layers to the myth and has re-visualised it, for reading Tolkien activates the mind’s eye. For that reason, making a movie adaptation is difficult and fraught with risk, because it may challenge an internal visualisation by the reader. For me, Jackson’s  movies work. There is a part in “The Return of the King” when the Rohirrim arrive with the dawn at Minas Tirith. Tolkien is probably at his best, and it is one of my favourite passages. It is a long way from “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” to the Homeric majesty of the Ride of the Rohirrim.

“But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City.  For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle; and then as the darkness closed there came rolling over the fields a great boom.

At that sound the bent shape of the king sprang suddenly erect.  Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before,

Arise,arise, Riders of Theoden! 
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! 
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, 
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises! 
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

With that he seized a great horn from Guthlaf his banner-bearer and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder.  And straightway all horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.

Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away.  Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it.  After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them.  Eomer roder there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first eored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Theoden could not be outpaced.  Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Orome the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young.  HIs golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed.  For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.  And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and the sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.”

Jackson’s rendering was brilliant and he added stuff that wasn’t in the text, but could have been. The scene where Theoden rides up the line of the assembles Rohirrim, touching their spear tips with his sword is sheer genius. My young companion at the premiere leaned over to me and said “someone has dreamed the same dream”

The apparent hopelessness of the task ahead – the phrase “ride now to ruin and the world’s ending” carrying echoes of Ragnarok and the eschatological myth also summon up the ntaure of sacrifice for a cause epitomised by Macaulay

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?”

There can be no doubt either that along with stereotyping, advertising uses its own archetypes and develops its own mythic backstories.  Although it is a blatant piece of commercialism a very clever “pre-flight briefing” as been developed by Peter Jackson and Air New Zealand. It is entitled “An Unexpected Briefing.” Enjoy.

Along with the book I reckon I might just grab some tickets for “The Hobbit”. They are on sale now and the movie opens on 12 December.


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