Imagining Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: Part Three
In Imagining Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, guest writer Eric M. Van draws together the threads of known facts, and add a dash of logic to speculate on how Peter Jackson and his crew may have imagined their version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
This third part of the series continues to analyse the unique challenges Jackson and his fellow screenwriters face adapting The Hobbit for the screen — and examines how the unusual way J.R.R. Tolkien constructs the fantasy world of The Hobbit introduces its own special set of headaches. Warning: this feature contains spoiler images.
Imagining Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit
Part 3: The world of The Hobbit and its challenges
I am going to make a bold assertion: many or most Tolkien lovers have utterly forgotten one of the principal charms of reading The Hobbit for the first time, because the experience of reading LOTR forever changes our sense of the nature of Middle-earth. The two tales are in fact set in very different Secondary Worlds, and when we re-read The Hobbit, we mentally transplant the action so that it takes place not in the world inherent to the novel, but in the sometimes downright contradictory world of its sequel.
Consider the principal map accompanying The Hobbit, that of Wilderland. By the standards of later Tolkien maps, it is startlingly incomplete; there is no clue at all as to how far off the edge of the map to the west Hobbiton lies. And consider, too, the blurb Tolkien wrote for Allen & Unwin’s December 1936 catalog and which they then used for the front flap of the first edition dust jacket; it begins “If you care for journeys there and back, out of the comfortable Western world, over the edge of the Wild, and home again…” (emphasis mine). The Edge of the Wild, marked so clearly on the map, is thus a concept essential to the setting of The Hobbit as originally conceived and portrayed.
(And in fact when Tolkien began writing The Hobbit, it was set much more explicitly in our Western world than the finished text admits to. We hear Bilbo tell the dwarves that he is willing to “walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert,” but as initially drafted, he was willing to “walk from here to the Great Desert of Gobi and fight the Wild Wireworms of the Chinese.” (!) It was only when Tolkien connected this tale for children to his very adult legendarium that such references to contemporary geography became counterproductive to the effect he was trying to achieve.)
The notion that is central to The Hobbit (and missing from LOTR), then, is that the world is a comfortable and familiar place, but if you get on a pony and ride far enough in the right direction, if you ride literally for a month, something extraordinary will happen: you will reach the Edge of the Wild, beyond which magic is real, and perilous adventure not only possible but unavoidable. And even though we know this is not now the case, the idea that things were once this way exerts a powerful pull on the imagination of the naïve reader. (And perhaps if you first read The Hobbit when young and have since re-read both it and LOTR many times, reading this will help you recover that initial sense of wondrous possibility, just as writing this has done for me.)
While there was so little fantasy written before Tolkien that it makes no sense to characterize such a setting as “conventional,” there is no escaping the fact that some version of it is the rule in Tolkien’s predecessors and chief influences. In Lord Dunsany, the threshold between the ordinary and magical worlds shows up repeatedly as “beyond the fields we know.” And it is evoked with supreme power in William Morris’ masterful The Well at the World’s End.
In critic David Langford’s description in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, “It is a long, varied haul from Upmeads to the furthest point where merchants care to travel, and then onward to the ultimate-sounding Utterness and Utterbol … But beyond again is the cloud-piercing mountain range called the Wall of the World, on whose far side lie numinous regions.” (And if that doesn’t make you want to read this if you haven’t already, I don’t know what will.)
[Editor's note: To add somewhat to the above, William Morris wrote a number of remarkable and influential fantasy novels, including The Well at the World's End and The Waters of the Wondrous Isles. Those two essentially established the concept of the Secondary World. Morris lived, wrote and published during the late 1800s, and is in many ways the proto-fantasist that the modern fantasy genre descends from.]
And yet Tolkien made two innovations to this model. First, note that the journey from the everyday to the wholly fantastic occupies most of the Morris novel. In The Hobbit, the entire journey from Hobbiton to the neighborhood of the Edge of the Wild (where they encounter trolls who have strayed over the Edge and taken up residence on the ostensibly tame side) is related in a mere two paragraphs early in the second chapter. First they ride through hobbit-lands, then through lands “where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before”—a line so brilliantly evocative and hence crucial to the effect of the passage that Tolkien left it in when he revised these paragraphs in 1966, even though no such lands or people exist in the world of LOTR (unless the party has accidentally strayed south to Dunland).
Then an intermediate threshold is crossed, and we’re in the Lone-Lands, devoid of inns or people and marked by evil-looking castles on hills (in the original edition, the Lone-Lands were not named as such and inns were merely “rare and not good”). The downright Wild must surely be next. We will see shortly just why Tolkien was able to cut to the chase and get to the magical adventures nearly at once: it wasn’t simply because he had the storytelling chops to evoke the transition in a handful or two of sentences.
And the other innovation is one that you are no doubt puzzling over already. This comfortable, tame Western world already contains fantastic elements, to wit, a hobbit, a wizard, and thirteen dwarves (in fact, that’s all it contains). What Tolkien has done here is nothing less than combine elements of all three possible structures for unambiguous fantasy, as identified by the critic Farah Mendlesohn in her book The Rhetorics of Fantasy. Mendlesohn’s taxonomy is simple and logical, and enormously helpful in thinking about fantasy stories.
In the portal-quest fantasy, characters leave the known world and go through a portal or cross a threshold into the fantastic world; such crossings invariably involve a quest of some sort to be accomplished before returning home. The opposite is the intrusion fantasy, where fantastic elements invade the known world (as in many horror stories). And finally, there’s the immersive fantasy, where there is no passage between known and fantastic worlds, and hence no contrast between them, except by implication: the story begins in the secondary world, where the fantastic elements are accepted as real and possible by the characters.Posted in Characters, Green Books, Hobbit Book, Hobbit Movie, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, LotR Books, The Hobbit, Tolkien on December 1, 2012 by newsfrombree