Monday, February 17, 2014

A'maelamin*, get me rewrite!

Came across a - to me, anyway - fascinating little piece of literary trivia over at Mannion's site today the sheds some rather different light on the whole issue of J.R.R. Tolkien's work and the Peter Jackson adaptations that I've been sorta-reviewing here (for Part 1 of The Hobbit) and here (for Part 2).

If you remember, The Boy and I pretty throughly enjoyed Jackson's first installment; good Middle-Earth thud and blunder and some clever character development, in particular Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins.

The second film, however, seemed to go off-track quite a bit more, especially in the roaring under-the-Mountain action sequence at the end and, as I observed particularly, in Jackson's insistence in making the Ring the Ring from Lord of the Rings instead of, as I saw it, a pretty gimmick for Bilbo to sneak around and trick others. Regarding that I said:
"I see Bilbo as Ringbearer as completely different. He's a bit of a wideboy, indeed, to him the Ring is nothing more than a nifty gimmick he uses to turn invisible to steal stuff. It's a burglar's tool to him, and he uses it as nothing more than a tool.

He spends the years between The Hobbit and the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring using it to duck local busybodies and prank his neighbors.

That's how he manages to stay free of the corruption of the Ring; he treats it like a shiny gold lockpick.

He's not a hero, not hungry for power. He's a retired wideboy, a former-burglar in slippers with his pipe, and his comfort, and his gold gimmick to play tricks and outdeal people. A tragic hero? A Boromir? An Isildur?

Not our Bilbo."

Well, as if to prove that no matter what we think we know we never know as much as we think we know, Mannion's post has a bit of incunabula that suggests that Tolkien himself was a little more like Peter Jackson that I knew. He cites Corey Olsen's work Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (which I now absoultely HAVE to read...) as showing that the old professor himself ended up making the Ring more like the Ring from Lord of the Rings and, in the process, Gollum more like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, as well.

I apologize for quoting so extensively from Mannion's work, but this entire bit is pretty important to get the sense of Mannion's argument. The emphasis in bold in the following, however, is mine:
"In the original version of The Hobbit Tolkien published 1937, Bilbo doesn’t steal the ring from Gollum or trick him out of it. According to Corey Olsen, in Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Gollum gives it to him as the prize for winning the game of riddles. And it is a prize. Tolkien himself didn’t know the ring the Ring because he didn’t know yet what he was going to do with it when he got down to writing the story that became The Lord of the Rings.

When Tolkien set down to write The Lord of the Rings as a sequel to The Hobbit...(h)e wanted...some link that he could establish between the story of The Hobbit and the later story, some seed that he could take from The Hobbit and grow into a new story.

The link he decided on was Bilbo’s magic ring, but in the process of developing the story of The Lord of the Rings, he decided that Bilbo’s ring would be much more than just a very useful invisibility ring. That change in the nature of the ring did not conflict with all of The Hobbit** but it did require a significant reconsideration of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter, and of the character of Gollum in particular.

When Tolkien sent his publisher some corrections to the text of The Hobbit in 1950, therefore, he made some very important changes to his original depiction of Gollum, making him much more like the [wicked and miserable] Gollum that we read about in The Fellowship of the Ring and finally meet in The Two Towers.

Thus, though the story of Bilbo and Gollum’s meeting was published twenty years before The Fellowship of the Ring, I think it is fair to say that the Gollum in The Hobbit, as it now stands, is actually based on the Gollum of The Lord of the Rings, and not the other way around."

**[Note: I'd argue that while changing the ring from a shiny gimmick to the Great Ring of Power doesn't really change the Tolkien Hobbit it does change the Jackson Hobbit due to the relative importance to the whole Necromancer storyline in the latter.

In the original the Necromancer is a very shadowy figure that primarily functions as a way to get Gandalf out of the story so that Thorin & Co. can get captured first by the spiders of Mirkwood and then by the sylvan elves.

The film version makes the Necromancer the Phantom Sauron Menace and an important plot point, so you can't really have the One Ring being the One Ring and not introduce that to the story of the Hobbit. You can argue that as such it distorts the story - in fact, you can argue that it distorts the story past the ability of the original to sustain the distortion - but you can't really argue that its not appropriate to make the change...]

So perhaps Jackson's interpretation isn't quite as wrongheaded as it seems to me; Tolkien himself retconned the original meeting between his two characters, the hero and the villain (or perhaps the tragic victim, depending on how you see ol' Slinker/Stinker...), to make his older story hew closer to his larger work.

At the very least it makes me willing to think a little harder about all of that.


The whole giant-dissolving-molten-gold-dwarf-statue bit?

THAT still sucked ass.

*[A'maelamin: Elvish for "beloved"; in other words, "Darlin' get me rewrite!"]


Syrbal/Labrys said...

I actually disliked "The Hobbit" as a book. (Perhaps because I also dislike riddling games -- perhaps I am stupid!) But I went to see the first Hobbit film, not realizing how MANY he was breaking one book into…and then I was enraged.

I somewhat doubt I will see the rest unless it is a VERY bored insomniac night on Netflix in the distant future.

As for Tolkien's thought process…he certainly couldn't have made much of a trilogy out of a party-trick Crackerjack toy right, could he?

FDChief said...

As I said in the earlier posts on the whole question of the book vs. the film issue - I'm not wedded enough to either one to get really pissed off one way or the other.

I enjoyed the story for what it was; a middle-aged mid-century Englishman's kids story. I enjoyed the film for what it was; a late-20th-Century New Zealander's adventure flick.

The latter has some connection with the former but if you're going to get irked ticking off where it diverges from the text you'll end up very irked indeed.

And I think what's key to looking at these stories as literature is to remember that Professor Tolkien was primarily a medievalist and a linguist. These stories exploded from his a) remembrance/meditation on the rural England he'd loved as a kid, and b) as an expansion of his studies of everything from Norse and Old English mythology to his own Catholicism, and c) a little of everything else. The guy was very much almost a cartoon of the Oxford don; curious about everything and everyone around him as well as the past and the future.

His first workings along those lines WERE a sort of trilogy - the five parts of what laver became the Silmarillion. The Hobbit was almost an after thought lotted down in the Thirties. I'll bet if he'd have known how popular it was, or if he'd had any notion of the story that would eventually become the LotR he might have made it into two or more volumes...

Anyway; long-winded way of saying that I have enjoyed both the old professor's works AND the films made from them...but as I said in the post, the last flick seemed to contain a bunch of choices that I see as poorly thought-out. I'm curious to see what Jackson does with the final third of the story but less than I was before I saw his latest outing...

Anonymous said...

If you're interested, Chief, Corey Olsen has published several audio lectures on the Hobbit here (, which I believe goes over some of the same material as the book you mentioned.

FDChief said...

Anon: Thanks for the link! I already scored the book through my terrific Multnomah County Library, too, so I'll be diggin' into some JRR like an Iron Hills miner looking for a big mithril vein...

Lance Mannion said...

Oh good, I'm glad Anonymous pointed you to Olsen's website. Also glad you're going to be reading the book. I think you'll enjoy it.

Thanks for linking to my post.

Syrbal/Labrys said...

I do love The Silmarrillion the best, I admit. It is the most obvious paeon of praise for the Finnish epic "the Kalevala" which inspired a lot of Tolkien's creation. And yes, I do think his Catholic view influenced his writing as well ---though, frankly, his was a much more tolerant and thoughtful Catholicism than we've seen in most of the last 20 years.

Generally, I don't always get a case of the ass at films diverging from books (I preferred Daniel Day-Lewis film of "Last of the Mohicans" for all the wrong reasons, lol!) But I simply didn't like the Hobbit much -- it WAS a kid's book and the hoopla around it irritated me. I feel the same way about people finding the secret of life in freaking "Peter Pan"!