Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Hobbit: A Classic on Many Levels

I recently re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit for the first time in probably ten years. Once I got past the older and awkward narrative viewpoint (in Tolkien's defense, the omniscient point-of-view was in vogue back in 1937, especially for what was considered a children’s book), I was reminded of how rich and wonderful the story is. I also realized how classic the tale is on so many levels. Not only is it a prototypical journey tale, but it incorporates all the classic archetypes of fantasy fiction.

This illustrated edition is one of the best!
I’ve written a number of posts on journey tales, including what the late screenwriter Blake Snyder called “The Golden Fleece.” These stories embody the classic quest myth; or, as Snyder puts it, a “hero goes ‘on the road’ in search of one thing and winds up discovering something else – himself.” The same transformation occurs in The Hobbit. Bilbo begins the story content never to leave the Shire, and more worried about his dishes than anything else, only to be reluctantly drawn into the dwarves’ quest to reclaim their treasure from the dragon Smaug. By the end, and after numerous adventures, Bilbo has become a genuine leader and hero – tricking the dragon, stealing the Arkenstone, and trying to broker a peace between the men, elves and dwarves before the Battle of the Five Armies.

Looking forward to the movie on December 14!
The Hobbit also embodies all five of the archetypes I wrote about in my series on the Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction. As I noted back then, these so-called clichés are actually classic archetypes, and often fundamental elements to great fantasy fiction.
  • The Farm Boy With A Secret: This element represents the Messiah archetype – the everyman chosen to save the world (this archetype goes back to the biblical David, and maybe before then). Bilbo is certainly an everyman (and without any secret or hidden powers), but through courage and determination, he becomes a true hero: an ordinary person who accomplishes extraordinary things.
  • The Wise Wizard: Gandalf embodies this archetype, a mentor character whose wisdom helps guide Bilbo in his quest.
  • Orcs!: Or rather goblins in this one, but the archetype of the monster lurking in the darkness to threaten men is alive and well in The Hobbit. The trolls, spiders, and even Gollum also play this role.
  • The Magic Weapon: This archetype represents the protecting power of destiny, or a form of divine aid. In The Hobbit, the ring plays this role. It’s the device that allows Bilbo to escape Gollum, free the dwarves from the spiders and the elves, and trick Samug into leaving his lair. (Incidentally, Tolkien re-wrote the scene with Gollum and the ring after he started writing The Lord of the Rings; in the original version, the ring was not the object of pure evil that it's later revealed to be.)
  • The Overwhelming Ancient Evil: This is the weakest of the five archetypes in The Hobbit. The Hobbit lacks an overriding antagonist, but instead includes a series of opponents along the journey. If there is a central antagonist, it would be Smaug, who might fit the definition of an ancient evil. But even he is gone before the final act, giving way to the conflict between Thorin and Bilbo before the Battle of the Five Armies (the conflict with Thorin, I must admit, was one of my favorite twists in the novel).
Lastly, The Hobbit contains all of the classic elements of a great epic. The journey involves a fairly vast setting and takes a considerable amount of time. The stakes are huge, and while they start out small – the fate of the dwarves’ treasure – they end up being quite large as the massive goblin army arrives for the Battle of the Five Armies. This battle is also a truly grand event, as is the scene with the dragon at Lake Town. And, Bilbo plays the role of a true hero (Bard also has a cameo in this role when it comes to slaying the dragon).
Overall, I’m glad I re-read The Hobbit, and look forward to the film next week. And, I’ll look forward to reading the novel again in a few years time. It is part of the bedrock of the genre, and every time I read it, I discover something special.

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