Reading The Hobbit: Riddles in the Dark or Let’s Play with the Monster who wants to EAT Me!

Riddles in the Dark is probably the most famous and well-known piece of Tolkien’s writing. This is primarily due to the great character he introduced here which is wholly unlike anything to come before or after in literary history: Gollum.

What makes the chapter even more fascinating, beyond its own merits as a tale, is the fact that it played a crucial role in the creation of The Hobbit’s sequel, The Lord of the Rings. It is well-known that Tolkien returned to this book, and largely this chapter to revise the tale in line with its successor. However, rather than toss the original form, Tolkien makes of this revision a meta-narrative, folding the revision into the new and more sinister conception of the Ring.

The revision becomes part of Bilbo’s story. The original tale of Gollum’s “gift” is the story Bilbo tells the world, and initially reports in his diary (The Hobbit). The tale most of us are familiar with today, as currently published, is the true tale of the finding of the Ring by chance and the harrowing escape from Gollum.

I received a copy of John D. Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit this past Christmas, so of course I made a beeline for this chapter! Rateliff’s book publishes the earliest surviving manuscripts of Tolkien’s Hobbit. (Though not terribly different from the first edition text, I will be returning to this post to insert that text as well, where different from either edition).  The remarkable fact is that there is very little difference between the first story and the second history.

The wording of the finding of the ring versus the Ring is very interesting:

In the first:

Certainly he did find what felt like a ring of metal lying on the floor in the tunnel. He put it in his pocket; but that didn’t help much.” (THoTH p151 vol. 1)

And in the revised:

“...till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket, almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment.” (TH p81)

Notice the addition of the words “suddenly” and “without thinking.” These two slight changes are actually monumental in their implications. It is said later by Gandalf in the FotR that Bilbo was indeed meant to find the Ring.  His deduction is based on the fact that Bilbo finds the Ring by chance occurrence in the dark. How easy it would have been for his hand to slip past the Ring over the rock! So too the second change is crucial to an understanding of the fact that the Ring left Gollum and chose Bilbo. Here we see, as is much more pronounced in the LotR, the same association of the Ring with seemingly subconscious and automatic action. It may seem a stretch, but the wording is too similar to not imply the same relationship between Ring and bearer.

First, there’s Bilbo’s fire side scene:

“At first he put it on the mantelpiece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck it in his pocket.” (LotR 34)

And during Frodo’s scene 17 years later:

“…then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away-but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.” (TH 59)

It is a very slight resemblance, yes, but it is there none the less, and begs the question if this was the reasoning behind the change in the wording.

One of the things I’ve always wondered at during the “Shadows of the Past” is when Frodo expresses such dismay at Gollum’s ownership of the Ring; surely he knew of this part of the Ring’s history. Yet if we look at the original draft, Gollum, though in some ways a very honorable monster (I’ll get to this later), is quite a bit more monstrous than the final version. This is how he was once described:

“…as dark as darkness except for two big round pale eyes…” with” …pale lamp-like eyes…like telescopes” and “long fingers” (THoTH p155 vol.1 ) and “long webby [feet]” (THoTH p158 vol. 1)

It is obvious from this description, Gollum is quite far from the depraved hobbit he will become. I wonder though, if this description somehow remained in Bilbo’s retelling of the true (revised) tale to Frodo. If so, this would certainly explain Frodo’s disgust upon the discovery that Gollum is indeed a hobbit just like Frodo and Bilbo, and maybe not such a monster after all!

Between the two versions, the riddle game largely remains unchanged, with one exception: the declared reward for the winner. Gollum remains quite enthusiastic about eating Bilbo in either case, but Bilbo’s reward is quite different:

“If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we gives it a present: Gollum.” (THoTH p156 vol. 1)


“If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!” (TH 87)

Unbeknownst to Bilbo, this proposed gift is the very ring he placed in his pocket earlier. The Riddle Game ensues, with the same result, Bilbo wins. How Gollum reacts is quite different in either version of the tale. In the first, Gollum is immediately ready and willing to hand over his present, Bilbo has nothing to worry about.

“For one thing the Gollum had learned long long ago was never to cheat at the riddle game.” (THoTH p 160 vol. 1)

So Gollum paddles off to his island to retrieve the ring, only to find it’s gone. As in the revised tale, he wails and shrieks and scrambles about it distress. However, in this instance it is to be wondered whether this is more due to the fact that he cannot fulfill his promise or due to the loss of the ring. Gollum, very apollogetically, explains the situation to Bilbo and the nature of his present, even so far as describing its powers. The narrator (presumably Bilbo) admits “I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s pardon” (THoTH p160 vol. 1).

Gollum, in this incarnation, is perfectly honorable and nothing like you’d expect of the monster waiting to eat you in the dark. He holds true to his word, and when he cannot, instead of “offering a substitute reward” he is “pathetically eager to make good on his debt” (THoTH p167 vol. 1).  Though monstrous in appearance, and monstrous in appetite, Gollum is still honor bound by the riddle game and its agreed upon reward. It is hard, reading this segment of the original version, to see Gollum as a monster at all.

It is all turned around. Bilbo of course soon realizes what he really has in his pocket.  What does he do? Does he tell Gollum? No, “Finding’s keeping!” (THoTH p 160 vol 1) Not only that, but he guilts Gollum into giving him further reward, saying:

“‘Never mind, the ring would have been mine now if you could have found it, so you haven’t lost it. And I will forgive you on one condition…Help me to get out of these places.” (THoTH p161 vol. 1)

Gollum, now established as the more honorable of the two, docily agrees, and leads Bilbo to the tunnel leading to the back door. Bilbo does experiment with the ring in the tunnel following Gollum, but removes it and puts it back in his pocket after a short test. And so he is spotted by the goblins.

Now to return to the current or true version of the tale.

In the original tale, as in the final, upon winning the riddle contest, Bilbo places his back against the wall with Sting out prepared for devilry on Gollum’s part. In the first case, his worry was completely unfounded. In the second, he was right. Losing the contest, Gollum “[is] angry…and hungry…and he already [has] a plan” (TH 95). He convinces Bilbo he must return to his island to get some items in preparation for the journey out. As in the original, though now unknown to Bilbo, he returns to find the Ring.

Discovering the Ring is gone, Gollum soon jumps to the conclusion that the Ring is the answer to Bilbo’s last “riddle.” He returns in a rage, and Bilbo, now wondering and afraid, feels for the Ring in his pocket and it slips on. Again, as in the finding, this is not a conscious decision. And so Bilbo discovers the nature of his find.

Gollum rushes through the tunnels thinking Bilbo actually knows the way out, and all Bilbo has to do is follow. That is, until Golum reaches the final tunnel and can go no further. Here Bilbo is met with great temptation: to rid the world of this monster. An internal battle ensues:

“He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.” (TH p 102)

All this courses through Bilbo’s mind, and just as quickly he makes his decision and makes his fateful leap to escape. Gandalf will tell Frodo later, when describing this moment:

“It was Pity that stayed his hand…And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.” (LotR 58)

And so, with a few simple changes, Tolkien, or should I say Bilbo, has set the stage for the first eucatastrophic moment of the Lord of the Rings, established Bilbo as the more honorable character and primed Gollum for all his future deeds.

Let’s return to the final moments of the chapter in the “true” version. Bilbo leaps over Gollum and rushes up the tunnel to the goblin guard chamber before the back door, all while still wearing the Ring. Or so he thinks. Reaching the chamber, he is shocked to find the goblins can see him.

“Whether it was an accident, or a last trick of the ring before it took a new master, it was not on his finger.” (TH 104)

As many of the other revisions, this one is quite small. Like the others, however, it bears great weight. This contrary aspect of the Ring: it’s apparent ability to change size and weight is of great import in the larger legendarium. This trait alone causes the death of Isildur and leads to Gollum finding the Ring, and much later allows the Ring to leave Gollum for Bilbo. It is a defining moment in the transition of the ring to the Ring, the one Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

The comparison of the two texts is eye opening. Yes, some of the “tale” is related in the “history” in both The Hobbit’s current edition and in the Lord of the Rings, but it is really worth reading in full. What is really amazing is how well the meta-narrative ends up working. It follows the “truism” that the best lies are made of the most truth. Extremely little of the structure or sequence of events is changed. Really the only overt change is the addition of Bilbo’s great leap and his great decision which immediately precedes it.

This parity only lends further credence to the notion of the cover up by Bilbo. Also the nature of Gollum, and Bilbo’s logic in keeping the ring in the original lends itself well towards building up Bilbo as the burglaring type, at the same time as it should (and does) cause suspision. It is a rather weak tale, when the “monster” ends up more sympathetic than the hero. Tolkien painstakingly made these revisions, I’m sure, and I can only say I am thankful and amazed at his brilliant sollution: not to reject the original, but to explain its origin as a part of the fabric of the new tale that he was documenting in the LotR.

Reading The Hobbit: Under Hill and Over Hill or Bilbo Saves the Day…Sort of

Under Hill and Over Hill marks the first time in the quest that the inclusion of Bilbo in the Company proves its worth. Travelling from Rivendel, they head for the path through the Misty Mountains. It is a challenging journey, and the punishing weather continues to stalk them, even up the mountain pass. As is fairly common in Tolkien’s tales, we find ourselves back in familiar territory: bad weather and slight misfortune or danger forcing the path towards apparent safety or opportunity. This is how the dwarves are caught by the Trolls, and later by the spiders and then the elves. Unwittingly, the company follows the same pattern here.

Fili and Kili find a cave in which they can shelter for the night out of the weather and the path of the stone giants’ projectiles. Gandalf, of course, mistrusts this sudden turn of luck, but is ultimately satisfied after completing his own inspection.

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something…You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” (TH 69)

This slightly omminous truism prefaces the finding of the cave. But while well suited for this particular circumstance, it bears thinking on in a larger context as well. The dwarves were looking for a fourteenth member to their band, a burglar to be precise. They looked, and on Gandalf’s prodding, found one: Bilbo. He is not what they were after, that can be assured, so the question becomes: what did they find in Bilbo, and what will Bilbo find in himself because of the finding?

This is the first time, at the Goblin’s front door, that Bilbo proves authentically useful to the company. They all settle down to sleep in the cave, but Bilbo

“…could not go to sleep for a long while; and when he did sleep he had very nasty dreams. He dreamed that the crack in the wall at the back of the cave got bigger and bigger…he dreamed that the floor of the cave was giving way, and hew as slipping…At that he woke up with a horrible start, and found that part of his dream was true.” (TH 71)

The crack is opening! The ponies disappear in the dark! And Bilbo, naturally, yells out in surprise. He wakes the dwarves and Gandalf. His shriek gives Gandalf the warning to wake and fight, to remain free; and therefore it follows that Bilbo has saved the day! Alright, I’ll admit this is a vast overstatement, but none-the-less this is a turning point for Bilbo. It is the first action in a string of seemingly small choices and acts which begin his transformation into the burglar hero the dwarves originally sought.

It can be argued where Bilbo’s unease came from, and what caused him to apparently dream true. As with the great coincidence of the Moon Runes in Rivendel and the coming to the Side Door for Durin’s Day, there is implied a certain level of Fate, or outside help. This moment in particular reminds me of the coming of Ulmo to Finrod and Turgon or the guiding of Tuor to Vinyamar. This of course stretches fairly non-existant hints in the tale, which now that I’ve an eye open for it, I seem to be seeing all over the place. However, as before, it bears thinking about. What does it say about Bilbo that he would be granted these visions? What more would it say if we suppose these visions find their origin in the Valar?  At the very least, it lends further authority to Gandalf’s choice of Bilbo. It also raises up the smallest of the company (in every sense of the word) rather than the greatest.

We are left with this instant of inadvertent heroism which leads to the later liberation of the dwarves and the hobbit, and then instantly set back to the modus operandi: Bilbo the extra company member, the lucky number. He and the dwarves are forced down to Goblin-Town. Later, once freed, Bilbo is again little more than baggage, carried by one dwarf or another in order to gain the speed necessary for escape. He becomes nothing more than a hinderance. And so it is little wonder that when goblins attack, he falls from Dori’s back and is, again by chance, set on the path towards his destiny.

It should be noted here, though it is more evident later as Bilbo begins making his own luck, how much luck and chance is inextricably tied to the actions of Bilbo. He is the lucky number, being the fourteenth member of the company, eliminating the inasuspicous number thirteen created by the dwarves. But he is also followed by luck throughout his adventures; luck, chance, Grace, Providence…take your pick. In the initial stages of the journey such circumstances define all Bilbo does, but later come of his own making as he discovers his own heroic nature.

Reading The Hobbit: A Short Rest or What Makes a Story

Chapter 3 of The Hobbit, A Short Rest, is in reality short on everything, except, perhaps, some writing wisdom. After being saved from the trolls, the company heads to Rivendel, where they are greated by a band of quite silly elves. If you ask me, these elves are not so much High elves as they are the fairies which inhabit many of our childhood tails. They are carefree and whimsical and alltogether a bit too joyful to fit within Tolkien’s concept of the elves.

And yet they live in the Last Homely House, a perfect place, “whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best” and so it would seem they are entitled to joy (TH 61). The elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth endure so much sorrow, it seems right and just that in this haven of peace they can be as children once more, looking in wonder on all things and experiencing the pleasure of simply living.

Yes the elves don’t quite fit, but it must be remembered that we are reading Bilbo’s story, and how the elves appeared to him. Rivendel is the perfect place for him, and as a hobbit, the simple mirth of simply living life well would strike a chord. Bilbo’s memory of the elves is colored by his experience in their home, and his romantic conception of them. True, he would later come to live with them and translate many of their tales and thus truly understand their long defeat; but here he is reminiscing of his glory days, his great adventure.

Though his sojourn in the Last Homely House is surely great fun and restful for Bilbo, he has very little to say. Here, as on a couple other occasions, Tolkien pauses to illuminate the nature of stories:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.” (TH 60)

As have been seen already with the Unexpected Party, the encounter with the trolls and the dismal trek through the rain and wilds, the moments that really matter in a tale and prove each character’s worth are the moment’s of strife. This is much like Sam’s comments made on the stairs of Cirith Ungol. Yes that may be the unpleasant part, we may want to stop reading, but it is in those moments where the true courage and ability of the protagonist is revealed, not when they’re comfortably blowing smoke rings outside their front door.

The primary event of this chapter is the discovery of the Moon-Runes by Elrond. By chance or fate or the will of the Valar, the dwarves happen to give the map over to Elrond for study on the very night in which it may be read. As in the mysterious circumstances of the gathering of the council members in The FotR, there is something inexplicable at work here, which is largely left unsaid. Yet looking in the Silmarillion it is easy to guess. In these moments of apparent chance, and allignment of circumstance, it is often attributed to some far off force, whether it be the Valar or Iluvatar himself.

As I’ve stated in a couple other posts, Gandalf himself is a representative of that power. Though at this time in the “gestation” of Middle Earth maybe not yet a maiar, Gandalf is still a wizard, and therefore inextricably tied to the Powers of the world. Later it is explained in “The Quest for Erebor” that Gandalf’s primary concern in the quest is the elimination of Smaug as a possible future weapon of Sauron. In this can be seen, if we want to read that far into it, a sort of divine mission. So wouldn’t it make sense that apparent “coincidence” would side with the Company?

Of other note here are the brief mention of Gondolin and the Great Goblin Wars, and the dwarves war for Moria. To use Shippey’s term, these are moments of interlacement, one of the few explicit examples to be found in The Hobbit. It is here that the glacial slide of the Shire into the vast world of the Silmarillion becomes evident. Yes there are other hints, but here are the first definitive links: Gondolin, Moria and Elrond himself. So do hobbits, unwittingly, make their way into the tales of Tolkien’s Faerie. And in quite hobbit fashion, it is softly and quietly, with little fanfare.

Reading The Hobbit: Roast Mutton or The Reality Check

The Unexpected Party awakens the Tookish thirst for adventure in Bilbo, exciting his curiosity and filling him with the thrill of fear. He has geared himself up for a great adventure. He is still a typical hobbit, and a Baggins at that, and so put out by the pretentions of the dwarves and their generally ungrateful attitude. Throughout the Party, though discomfited beyond belief, Bilbo is the very picture of politeness, polite to fault you could say. One can forgive his frustration, and his subsequent “revenge.”

Bilbo sleeps in. When he awakes not a dwarf or wizard is in sight. Other than the atrocious mess, it would appear the events of the previous night were nothing more than a dream. And so he goes to work setting Bag End to rights, and settles in for a second breakfast, falling back into the comforts of home.

Much like any of us readers, Bilbo has had his fun contemplating the notion of leaving on an adventure, but he is “really relieved” to put it all behind him (TH 34). At the same time, however, like us, he is “just a trifle disappointed” to not be included in the quest, to see the world, to prove his mettle (TH 35). This is why, given minimal prodding by Gandalf, he sets off in haste forgetting all his worldly comforts. He’s left behind his handkerchief, his hat, and his money; as far as we know, he has little more than the clothes on his back.

When was the last time you left the house without preparation? Without worry? Without baggage of any kind? These things are ultimately unimportant. The opportunity must be grasped, and when it comes we need to be ready to pick up and leave and not be tied down being owned by our own possessions. This is what Bilbo does. He is caught up by the romance and glamour of adventure, but it is not to last.

As they enter the Wilds, the weather turns sour:  full of rain and wind. Bilbo realizes that “adventures are not all pony-rides in May sunshine;” they are full of such discomforts and toil (TH 39). This, of course, puts the entire company in a foul mood which makes them prime pickings for the trolls when they spot their fire in the distance.

A couple things struck me about the encounter with the three Trolls. First is the absence of Gandalf. Like Tom Bombadil, in the LotR, Gandalf’s primary function thus far has been as a sort of guide and guardian. Stopped in the rain, trying to light a fire, the dwarves realize he is gone. Little do they know this moment would prove to be instrumental in demonstrating their mettle. As in the guardianships of LotR, it is in the absence of said guardians that we really learn about the protagonists.

They do not yet trust each other. They are quick to foist unpleasant and possibly dangerous tasks on Bilbo, a very inexperienced hobbit. Bilbo is desperate to impress and therefore lacking in prudence. No dwarf for that matter seems to have any either. They are incapable of doing much of anything to help themselves, except perhaps Thorin, who does get in a few good blows.

In the end, though, it all comes back to Gandalf. He saves them through his care and ingenuity. He is the glue and the heart of the company.

This is the baseline. This is the standard by which we can follow the growth of Bilbo and the company. It also sets up a similar pattern of guardianship, by Gandalf primarily, which will continue until Bilbo (in particular) grows in stature to take his place.

The second point of interest here are the trolls themselves. I’ve written before regarding the nature of evil and questioned the nature of the orcs. It would seem a relevant question to put towards the trolls as well.

They are thoroughly reprehensible, yes. They’ve murdered and eaten countless people: elves, men and dwarves. Yet all the same, they don’t seem entirely in the black. Granted they have eaten their fill of mutton, but following the capture of Bilbo, William at least is quite keen on letting him go.

“’Poor little blighter,’ said William. He had already had as much supper as he could hold; also he had had lots of beer. ‘Poor little blighter! Let him go!’” (TH 44)

The moment is akin to a later scenario: the Riddles in the Dark. There too the “monster” has recently eaten and so is more disposed to talk or in the that case play. In both cases, this endears these characters to the reader. The knowledge of their atrocities remain, but their deeply buried “humanity” is also revealed for all to see. It is a reminder that not all things are evil; they are made so, twisted from good, but the good is not utterly destroyed.

Gandalf tricks the trolls by playing on their distrusting nature, inciting conflict between them until the coming dawn turns them to stone. Though it is later said in Tolkien’s other writings that the Trolls come from Ents that have been corrupted, in The Hobbit they are said to come from the mountains, from stone. In the light of the sun “[trolls] go back to the stuff…they are made of,” in other words, the sun reveals their true nature (TH 50). They are of the earth. They are defeated by the light, not necessarily of the sun, but the light of Truth.

Reading The Hobbit: An Unexpected Party or An Invitation to Faerie

Reading the first chapter of Tolkien’s The Hobbit can sometimes seem a chore. It is the reader’s first introduction to hobbits, the Shire, Bilbo and Gandalf, and an enormous cast of characters; of dwarves and far off lands and adventure to come. It can be positively mind-boggling at times. We land, just like Bilbo, directly in the thick of things. And like Bilbo, we can be forgiven for wanting to sneak away or shriek “struck by lightning!” Yet like this simple hobbit, we are inexplicably drawn on.

You see, the Unexpected Party is much more than cause for sensory overload. It is our, meaning Bilbo’s and the reader’s, invitation to wander in the lands of Faerie.

Through his mother, Bilbo is grandson of the Old Took. And it is explicitly stated that there is something odd about the Tooks; “that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife” (TH 5). They inclined to be absurd and go off on adventures, to find and experience the unknown.

Yet Bilbo is a Baggins and if ever there was a stick-in-the-mud, stolid, home-body type it is literally defined by the Baggins clan.

Bilbo is firmly placed between these two extremes: the love home and the known and the enflaming desire to see beyond. His Tookish aspect is just buried, and only needs a little prodding to be awoken:

Far over the misty mountains grim

To dungeons deep and caverns dim

We must away, ere break of day,

To win our harps and gold from him!

The Hobbit, 19

Upon hearing the dwarves’ song, “something Tookish woke inside [Bilbo], and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick” and so do we (TH 19).

Myth and legend, song and tale kindle in a us a desire for the unknown, the fantastical, the wondrous things and events just beyond our sight. It is soon quashed by fear, as seen in Bilbo’s case, but once planted, is not easily uprooted.

Though terrified out of wits, it doesn’t take much to get Bilbo back in the Tookish frame of mind. His curiosity has been awoken. The thrill of fear and his own apparent weaknesses do little more than increase the desire in his heart to prove both the dwarves and even himself wrong.

We have stepped to the threshold of Faerie. The Shire is home. It is the world, largely as we see it. And like Bilbo, at first we are unaware that somewhere beyond our sight, in that very same world, there are dragons.

It may be wondered, why Bilbo? Why are we invited to follow?

Gandalf tried to find a Warrior or a Hero; “but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighborhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found. Swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish-covers; and dragons are comfortably far-off (and therefore legendary). That is why I settled for burglary-especially when I remembered the existence of the Side-door. And here is our little Bilbo Baggins, the burglar, the chosen and selected burglar. (TH 27, my emphasis)

Heroes, warriors, dragons…they are all things far away, and, as Gandalf states, therefore myth. They are outside the Shire, outside our understanding of the world; dangerous and fascinating…alluring in their otherness.

It is the same sense of other, of magic, wonder and fear that we feel when contemplating travel to Rome or Paris or Moscow. They excite our passion for the unknown and awaken the imagination to create marvels larger even than later reality would prove. Here we stand at the gates of Faerie, where even those spectacles remain true. Like Bilbo, we have only to take the next step.



Merry Christmas!

Wishing you all a most blessed and joy-filled Christmas. May all friends of Wandering Paths, new and old, be blessed this day to know the great eucatastrophe of the birth of our Lord which we celebrate today.

Enjoy your breakfasts, second breakfasts, elevenses and all your feasting. May your stomach be round and cheeks flushed with good cheer as we experience the holidays with the simple hobbit-like love of life.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Secondary Impressions, TH:AUJ

I just got home from seeing The Hobbit for the second time, this time in 3d at 24 fps. As expected, having seen the film once, knowing what to expect, I was a bit freer to just sit back and enjoy the ride this time around. This doesn’t mean the elements I found distasteful previously were palatable, but that I was able to overlook them to find the more redeeming aspects of the film’s interpretation.

Actually, what caught my attention most this go around were more differences of vision; ie. how Jackson and Co’s vision of the locales of Middle Earth, and various scenes differed from my own. These sort of issues I am happy to embrace, as everyone is entitled to their own imagination. The sad part is that often films banish nascent visions of the new reader and replace them with their own.

Though the film’s Dale, Erebor and Goblin town are awe inspiring sites, they are completely foreign to my own interpretation. For myself, I’ve never actually had a clear vision of Dale, I just know Jackson’s is not it. The Erebor of the film is much too grandiose and expansive within. I envision a much more hewn, architectural character, rather than the expansive hollow shell of mammoth proportions. Remember Gloin speaking with Frodo at the House of Elrond?

“Gloin began then to talk of the works of his people…’We have done well…But in metal-work we cannot rival our fathers, many of whose secrets are lost…Only in mining and building have we surpassed the old days. You should see the waterways of Dale, Frodo, and the fountains, and the pools! You should see the stone-paved roads of many colours! And the halls and cavernous streets under the earth with arches carved like trees; and the terraces and towers upon the Mountain’s sides!” (LotR 223)

Moria is meant to be the great palatial city of the dwarves in ancient days, not Erebor. Initially it is but a shadow, later to be embellished and built upon after the quest for the Mountain. The film’s Erebor is much too grand, and makes the Mountain into too much of a hollow roof, rather than giving the feeling of something that has been pain-stakingly carved out over time. This is not to say Erebor is claustrophobic or rustic, but it should be entirely different in character to Khazad-dum and akin to a younger sibling.

My reaction to Goblin-town is similar. It is much too expansive and open. Part of the horror and confusion of Goblin Town is its claustrophobia, its overarching darkness, the crushing weight of stone. I can see the “throne room” of the Goblin-King being open and cavernous like the film, but the rest should consist of constricted and tortuous tunnels and dark caverns…a haunting and disconcerting environment wholly absent beyond Gollum’s cave.

However, though Jackson’s vision does not conform to my own, it still works (particularly Goblin-Town) for the type of film he created. They fit within his own canon of Middle Earth. And my consolation remains that my own vision of these parts of the tale may remain untarnished and wholly my own.

Seeing the movie again only reinforced the genius of Jackson’s team when it comes to casting…none more-so than the casting of New Zealand as Middle Earth and Howard Shore as the creator of its emotional soul.  Yes the actual character actors are great, but these two elements are as much characters as any of them. No place on earth could better reflect the nature of Middle Earth on Earth than New Zealand. And no cinematic score can do a better job of evoking the sense and soul of Middle Earth than Howard Shore’s. One of the interesting things about this endeavor is that now after four films and about ten years the true scope and meaning of Shore’s music can come to light. I was able to follow many of his leit-motifs throughout the film, and actually use them as they are meant to…adding layers of meaning unsaid to the action on screen. This is particularly true of the Shire motif, the Ring, and what I would call the Ring Wraith or evil motif. It will take many more viewings and study of the soundtracks to fully appreciate, but in this the music is finally coming into its own as an ever more active character in Middle Earth.

So with my analytical hat largely left behind, I was able to more fully appreciate the scenes J&Co got right. The “Good Morning” scene is priceless and was great to see. I liked the Unexpected Party, largely due to Bilbo’s reactions throughout. Though not present in the book, I loved the wager scene where the quest truly begins.

Galadriel and Gandalf’s relationship is wonderfully realized during the White Council scene. In a few glances, some body language and speaking mind to mind we are able to see the mutual admiration and respect the two have for each other. As well as some of how Galadriel favors Gandalf over Saruman. It is a masterful stroke. This also establishes the skill of the Wise to speak mind to mind, which only reappears on the trek home at the end of LotR.

I still am troubled by the Morgul blade fiasco and the “tomb of Angmar” as this treads in dangerous territory and appears to be setting up Angmar as something other than the Witch-King, the King of the Ring-Wraiths. The idea that the men of the North could defeat him and seal him in a tomb is preposterous if this is to be one and the same character. Unless the thought is that in “death,” Angmar loses his corporeal form to become fully wraith? And in the wars of the North he was still but a king of men, but bearer of one of the nine, not yet fully turned? I’ll admit it is a curious and exciting idea, if true, but ultimately completely unfounded in Tolkien’s written word which explicitly states in the appendices with regards to the fall of Angmar and Arthedain:

“Then so utterly was Angmar defeated that not a man nor an orc of that realm remained west of the Mountains.

But it is said that when all was lost suddenly the Witch-king himself appeared, black-robed and black masked upon a black horse. Fear fell upon all who beheld him; but he singled out the Captain of Gondor (Earnur) for the fullness of his hatred, and with a terrible cry he rode straight upon him. Earnur would have withstood him; but his horse could not endure that onset, and it swerved and bore him far away before he could master it.

Then the Witch-king laughed, and none that heard it ever forgot the horror of that cry. But Glorfindel rode up then on his white horse , and in the midst of his laughter the Witch-king turned to flight and passed into the shadows. For night came down on the battlefield, and he was lost, and none saw whither he went.

Earnur now rode back, but Glorfindel, looking into the gathering dark, said: “Do not pursue him! He will not return to this land. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.” These words many remembered; but Earnur was angry, desiring only to be avenged for his disgrace.

So ended the evil realm of Angmar; and so did Earnur, Captain of Gondor, earn the chief hatred of the Witch-king; but many years were still to pass before that was revealed” (LotR, Appendix A, pp 1026-7)

As stated in my previous review, the Riddles in the Dark scene was near perfect. Though the nature of Gollum’s personality is not explicitly established in the books, the film continues the dual/split personality of the previous trilogy to great effect. The scene is chilling, humorous and touching all at the same time. I can rationalize some of my issues with the finding of the Ring, as there are still hints of actual “finding,” but the scene still reads as a conscious decision on Bilbo’s part to seek out and find it, rather than the subconscious and accidental finding of the book:

“He…crawled a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel…He put the ring in his pocket almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment.” (TH 68)

The finding of the ring is completely subconscious, a chance occurrence in the dark. When Bilbo asks “What have I got in my pocket?” it is not a question for Gollum, he’s wondering himself. He doesn’t know what he has. It can be argued whether Providence, Grace or even the Ring influenced this outcome, but what is certain is that Bilbo had no conscious part in it.

Following the game of riddles, comes Bilbo’s escape. In the last moments, where the light of the sun is visible and the way out clear, Bilbo is stopped by Gollum, firmly planted in his way. This scene has become one of my favorites. It wonderfully conveys the internal struggle of Bilbo in an external way, showing the triumph of pity and mercy in a tangible manner. It also firmly establishes the emptiness and lost character of Gollum, truly making him pitiable. It is a marvelously executed scene. Granted Bilbo’s great leap leaves something to be desired, but it is still a greatly touching scene, that adds much to the nature of both hobbits.

Lastly, there’s Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire. I don’t think there is much more to say here, other than that on second viewing my frustration with this scene, as previously described, remains.

As to the 24 fps versus 48 fps question, I remain undecided. Both have distinctive qualities that make one either better or worse, but neither truly wins me over to one side or the other. I felt the 3d aspect was actually much more powerful and evident in the 48fps, but the 24fps felt smoother and more cinematic. The 48 fps, as has been said by others, often feels more like a documentary and often the the action seems choppy and hyper speed. It takes getting used to. I do have this to say though, Jackson and Co. have given us an excellent excuse to go see the movie at least three times!

I had meant to also discuss the Battle of Azanulbizar, but I’ve already gone on for quite a bit longer than I’d originally intended, so I’ll leave that for another time.