The Hobbit Book CoverIn our newest TORn Library feature, Brian Tither discusses the effectiveness of portraying Tolkiens’ story-telling via cinematography.

The potential of JRR Tolkien’s story-telling in The Hobbit movies


It is often my experience that whenever The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies are discussed it is said that they did a lot for Tolkien. This is because his heirs allegedly made a lot of money out of them from the increase in the sales of the books that they were based on, including an increase in sales for foreign-language editions of the books that did not exist before the movies were made. And these things are often said without any due consideration given to how the advent of the movies also created extra publishing costs. This includes the money that the publishers would have to pay to the movie studios for the publication of the cinematographic images on the movie tie-in editions of the books, and for the translation costs incurred for the new foreign-language editions. Furthermore, those translations could have adversely impacted on the etymologies that formed Tolkien’s story-telling, which were based on the philology that makes up Old and Middle English and Old Icelandic that he specialized in as an academic. And those etymologies are more on my mind when it comes to considering what the movies did for Tolkien than any increase to book sales.

Probably also these etymologies are what were on Christopher Tolkien’s mind when he said just before the release of the movies that the books were peculiarly unsuitable for dramatic visual transformation but that was also a question of art. And maybe that is also one of the reasons why he has had books such as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun and The Fall of Arthur published in recent years. This is because these include, along with verse written by his father in the Old Icelandic and Old English form, explanations of these forms by himself he having also specialized in these forms, as well as Middle English, as an academic. This is so to complement other publications such as A Middle English Reader and Vocabulary edited by Kenneth Sisam (who was Tolkien’s New Zealand-born tutor at Oxford University) and JRR Tolkien, which explains the Middle English form.

These etymologies could also be on the Tolkien Estate’s mind when taking out lawsuits against Saul Zaentz Ltd et al. This is because, besides these lawsuits testing whether or not there are parts of the movie franchises’ that breach the intentions of the original deed of sale, it could test whether or not there are parts of the movie franchises’ copyright that infringes on the etymologies’ general use. This is due to the possible adverse impact that such misunderstanding of copyright could have on promoting what forms story-telling like Tolkien’s so that the Estate can put any damages accrued from the lawsuits towards continuing this promotion.

For example, in New Zealand the impact that such misunderstanding of copyright could have had is narrowing the focus of various ‘Middle-earth’ tourism campaigns to over considering the copyright demands of these franchises. This has meant that small businesses have had their trade limited to when the movie studios have said that it is alright to reference the books and movies. Meanwhile, such campaigns have not considered alternatives based on the etymologies that Tolkien derived his Middle-earth from that did not even reference the movies and the books. And this would have circumvented these copyright matters and given these small businesses alternative ways to operate their trade using the ‘Middle-earth’ term.

Such alternatives could have involved consulting specialists in New Zealand in Old and Middle English and Old Icelandic who gave public lectures on what formed Tolkien’s story-telling at the time of the release of The Lord of the Rings movies and have also contributed to this specialty throughout the world. This included at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, where prior to them other New Zealanders had contributed a lot to their English schools. Indeed this was something that Tolkien said of New Zealanders at Oxford in his valedictory address, when he retired from his academic chair. This was while alluding to his close contest for his professorship with Kenneth Sisam, and subtly pitching, at the same time, for New Zealand-born Norman Davis to succeed him, which happened. And all this could have been brought out in a ‘Middle-earth’ campaign that was focused on New Zealand’s culture and heritage rather than the country being just a tourist and film-making destination, especially when considering that Sisam and Davis were graduates of New Zealand universities.

Also, such intellectual property was drawn on to help with the movies’ development through the productions’ employment of linguist specialists attune to Old and Middle English and Old Icelandic literature who also helped with the promotion of The Lord of the Rings movies to the latter’s benefit. Meanwhile, it has been to The Hobbit production’s detriment so far that it has not been promoted in the same way. This is with the latter production being too caught up in promoting the movies through the cinematography that has been used for it, with the latter having not been received too well by all movie viewers.

This raises the question about whether or not story-telling such as Tolkien’s is any better off because of the movies than if the books had of continued selling at the rate that they always sold at in the near half-century that preceded the making of the movies. And this also raises the question about how effective film is in reflecting such story-telling. Henceforth, after briefly explaining the essence of Tolkien’s story-telling, I will discuss the potential of such story-telling in the first Hobbit movie.

The essence of Tolkien’s story-telling:

The essence of Tolkien’s story-telling is that the world of his stories provides the means to give the language used in it expression and meaning, for which Tolkien applied his philology training in Old and Middle English and Old Icelandic. This is with an example being him creating the name and character of Hobbits by conflating the name of the character Hott, which is Old Icelandic for ‘small’, from The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, with Hott’s parents’ habitation of a house built in a hole in the ground, who would be referred to as holbytlan or ‘hole-builders’ in Old English, (i.e. holbytla singular). This conflation was then worn down to ‘hobbit’ singular and ‘hobbiton’ plural, thus reflecting how English words commonly wear down in Middle English.

Furthermore, Hott’s acquirement of the sword Gullinn-Hjalti, which is Old Icelandic for ‘Golden-Hilt’, and the bestowment of the name Hjalti on him after he becomes a warrior, is analogized in Bilbo Baggins’ character transformation. This is seen in the Hobbit’s name changing in meaning after he acquires a sword and becomes a warrior from ‘Dweller-in-a-dwelling-in-a-bag’ to ‘Dweller-with-a-sword-from-the-ones-in-a-bag’. This is when considering it as conflation of the Middle English words bilt (dwelling) bo (dweller) baggi (bag) inne (in) and the Old English words bil (sword) bua (dweller) bagge (bag) anum (ones). This is also enabled by Bilbo being referred to as a burglar by the Dwarves, which in Old English meant ‘plunderer of a burg’ (burg meaning fortress), which, in turn, came to mean ’invader of a borough’ (i.e. town) in Middle English and now means ‘thief of a building’, with Bilbo becoming more of a burglar in the original sense as the quest progresses.

Bearing this in mind, and both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie productions’ employment of linguist specialists attune to Old and Middle English and Old Icelandic literature, as I referred to above, I have come to the conclusion that the potential of The Hobbit movies is such that they could have delivered more of Tolkien’s story-telling than they have, and probably will, but are also limited in doing so. I will now attempt to illustrate how more of Tolkien’s story-telling could have been portrayed in the first movie.

The first Hobbit movie:

The movie begins with Bilbo narrating as he writes to Frodo: ‘My dear Frodo, you asked me once if I had told you everything that there was to know about my adventures. And while I can honestly say that I have told you the truth, I may not have told you all of it. I am old now, Frodo. I’m not the same Hobbit that I once was. I think that it is time for you to know what really happened’. I refer to these words because they are seemingly intended to introduce the movies as an embellishment of the book and how the Ring will be more potent in the movies, which will probably be introduced at the beginning of the second movie and developed more from there. And for this the movies will probably embellish on how Tolkien changed the story of Bilbo and Gollum’s encounter in The Hobbit’s first edition for the book’s subsequent editions to increase the Ring’s potency, which is also probably why the first movie ends not too long after the Ring comes into Bilbo’s possession. I refer to this to make the point from the outset that my own proposals are merely an embellishment of the movies and probably do not do much more in bringing the essence of Tolkien’s story-telling to the audience.

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