Readers who have already been involved with Hobbitry, Middle Earth, and the fantastic adventure-romances of J.R.R. Tolkien will doubtless recall from the four volumes previously published passing allusions to epic cycles antedating those tales of the Third Age in which Bilbo Baggins and Frodo his faithful nephew play such impressive parts. These hobbit-adventures, which fully occupy not only The Hobbit* but the three volumes grouped under the generic title Lord of the Rings, describe just two brief moments in the history of Middle Earth, the years 2941-2942 and 3018-3019. Around these concentrations of episode, crucial though they are, lie enormous blank spaces of Middle Earth history; and it was only to be expected that these blanks should have been filled somehow, with legend, myth, genealogy, history, natural history—the busy business of Middle Earth.
So indeed they were; but the filling-in material was never published until now, and now only (it would seem) in part, and subject to considerable editorial arrangement and selection. The actual composition of the Tolkien cycle is thus revealed as The Hobbit first, with the mythical backgrounds filled in next, their presence now explaining to some extent that considerable difference of tone and feeling which is noted in the final compositions of the series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. What is published now as The Silmarillion is what Tolkien referred to, in the foreword to the trilogy, as “the mythology and legends of the Elder Days.” He described it there as “work done for my own satisfaction” in which he had little hope that other people would be interested. Consultation with friends, he says, changed “little hope” to “no hope,” and so the material remained unpublished.
It appears now, when the first four volumes have established a Tolkien cult; and by that cult the book is now being carried forward to enormous sales. But it is beyond question that there will be far more purchasers of the new volume than ever read it through, and one suspects had it been published earlier, it might well have laid a blight on the entire series. For The Silmarillion, despite the cuts that have evidently been made in the original materials, the selection and arrangement that have been imposed on them, remains an empty and pompous bore. There are epic elements in it, but they have been smothered by an overgrowth of genealogy.
The narrative is not in itself very sturdy. Oaths, feuds, sword fights, lost cities, doomed lovers, and ill-starred friendships abound; but there is a dearth of characters and an oversupply of stereotypes. The familiar Tolkien division prevails between level-eyed, steely-but-gentle good guys, and snarling, black-minded bad guys; but the action remains exterior and mechanical. Above all, Tolkien has a fascination with names for their own sake that will probably seem excessive to anyone whose favorite light reading is not the first book of Chronicles.
It came to pass [Chapter Ten informs us] during the second age of the captivity of Melkor that Dwarves came over the Blue Mountains of Ered Luin into Beleriand. Themselves they named Khazâd, but the Sindar called them Naugrim, the Stunted People, and Gonnhirrim, Masters of Stone. Far to the east were the most ancient dwellings of the Naugrim, but they had delved for themselves great halls and mansions, after the manner of their kind, in the eastern side of Ered Luin; and those cities were named in their own tongue Gabilgathol and Tumunzahar. To the north of the great height of Mount Dolmed was Gabilgathol, which the Elves interpreted in their tongue Belegost, that is Mickleburg; and southward was delved Tumunzahar, by the Elves named Nogrod, the Hollowbold. Greatest of all the mansions of the Dwarves was Khazad-dûm, the Dwarrowdelf, Hadhodrond in the Elvish tongue, that was afterwards in the days of its darkness called Moria; but it was far off in the Mountains of Mist beyond the wide leagues of Eriador, and to the Eldar came but as a name and a rumour from the words of the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains.
Three or four names for each city of the Dwarves represent only a very small beginning; there is also an intricate genealogy of Elves to be mastered, a complete pantheon of Valar, various groups and combinations of men, plus a whole spectrum of special creatures—Ungoliant, Carcharoth, sundry Balrogs, Glaurungs, Maiars, and Periannath, the latter being, as it happens, Hobbits.
Such a barricade of grotesque and semi-pronounceable names is no small obstacle to a venturesome reader; but in fact the names are also a good part of the book’s reward. Like the portmanteau words of “Jabberwocky” or the deeper and more violent conglomerates of Finnegans Wake, many of them sink into the mind, disintegrating the smooth and accepted conventions of everyday English to memorable effect. The dragon Smaug, the wicked and menacing Nazgûl, the Ents of Fangorn—such rich and mouthy names keep the mind busy tangling and untangling their phonemes. But when one has to keep Elendë (which is a name of Eldamar) distinct from Elendil the son of Amandil, and both distinct from Elendur the son of Isildur, while Elrond, Elros, Eluréd, and Elurín hover in the neighborhood, the effect is an irritating blur.
Such plot as the new book has deals, like the plots of the previous books, with the recovery of a treasure, the three precious stones known as the Silmarils. They were made by Fëanor and filled with the light of the two trees of Valinor, which makes them very precious indeed. Stolen by Morgoth or Melkor or Bauglir or Belegurth, The Dark Lord or the Enemy, they are long sought after and bitterly quarreled over by various factions and families among the Noldor. But like others in Tolkien’s thesaurus of magic and precious stones, they bring to their possessors more sorrow than satisfaction, so that nobody really achieves them. One ultimately disappears into the western heavens, and the two others are thrown away by their once-ardent pursuers, one into the depths of the sea, the other into the depths of the earth.
This story is interspersed with several idylls and romances, one of which, the story of Beren and Lúthien, will be remembered from earlier volumes; and these interludes bring us, at least, within hailing distance of something resembling $$$ and inwardness; but they are inbedded in a mass of genealogies, chronologies, and historical sequences from which no living features peer out, and which remain for that reason irresistibly inert.
There’s no need to dwell longer on the deficiencies of this latest volume, for which hardly anybody has had a good word to say, and which will, after all, have fulfilled its function if it enriches the estate of a more than respectable medievalist. The Silmarillion is a commercial and perhaps a social phenomenon of some interest, but not a literary event of any magnitude. The books which draw it along in their wake are another matter entirely. The appeal they exercise is deep as well as wide, and is based on their real literary qualities, not simply the quirks and fads of the popular mind. Still, they are very uneven books, both when compared to one another, and in their different parts as well.
The Hobbit, for example, stands well apart from the trilogy. As Tolkien’s first venture into Middle Earth, it was frankly a children’s book, written in a clucking, avuncular style. (“If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him [Gandalf], and I have heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale.”) The hobbit-hero, Bilbo Baggins, is a small, cheerful, comfort-loving humanoid, with feet that require no shoes and toes covered with thick brown hair. The adventure in which he is involved, without an excess of logic, comes straight out of Wagner’s Ring with perhaps an assist or two from Beowulf: stealing, for the benefit of some associated dwarves, a hoard of illgotten gold from a fire-breathing dragon.
In the course of this theft Bilbo acquires, by nothing more than blind accident, another standard property from the romances, a ring with the power of making its wearer invisible. The previous owner misses it, and is distressed by its loss, but he makes no effort to recover it; there is no hint that anybody else is concerned with it. Bilbo Baggins uses it as a handy gadget in the course of his adventures; and after he returns home, it is a convenient way to escape from troublesome visitors. But the real reward of his adventure is a healthy share of the dragon’s treasure-hoard, with which he retires to live a snug hobbit-existence at Bag-End, Underhill, Hobbiton, The Shire. Seventy-six years thus pass silently by before the next adventure begins.
Altogether different is the tone of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. At issue is not a gold-hoard but the survival of “civilization as we know it,” the humane values and the gentle world of nature, threatened by a dark, mechanical, collectivist tyranny from the east. Here the hobbits are small men, halfsized indeed, but well proportioned; and nothing more is heard of their hairy toes. Instead of werewolves, goblins, and fire-breathing dragons, all fairly stock properties of romances as popular as Walt Disney’s Fantasia, the hobbits are arrayed with and set against a panoply of supernatural powers, good and bad, working through an animistic nature.
Gandalf is not an artist in fireworks, but a white magician, tutelary spirit of the west, almost a warrior angel. And here in the creation of a crowded cornucopia of intermediate creatures, Tolkien displays extraordinary inventive powers. His proud, kind, stern heroes and noble maidens, like his glowering, misshapen heavies, spring directly from Victorian melodrama; but his elves, dwarves, Balrogs, Barrow-wights, Tom Bombadil, the Nazgul, and so forth are genuine imaginative achievements. They are not impressive individually so much as en masse; they flood across the page, and only a jaded reader could fail to ask himself, between joy and wonder, what is coming next. The narrative pace is not fast; there is a lot of consultation and explanation, and when the dynasts gather together, the air is often darkened by excessive archaisms, quasi-Biblical echoes, and assorted inverted eftsooneries. But the creatures redeem a lot.
In the books of the trilogy, the power and importance of Bilbo’s ring are multiplied beyond all calculation, so that instead of a handy magical plaything, the ring becomes the crux of the entire cosmic struggle between Good and Evil, the one object on which the grim power of Mordor mysteriously but absolutely depends. Gollum or Sméagol, from whom Bilbo took the ring, is by no means forgotten; but he is shown to be only a tool in the vast plots of Sauron who is in turn only one of the agents and lieutenants of Morgoth the black power of Mordor, who is the taproot of all evil, and has (it appears) power only as long as the ring survives.
In truth, the hobbits, Bilbo, Frodo, and their playmates, are not altogether equal to the suddenly enlarged stage onto which they have been thrust. And the actions they are called on to perform, however elaborately explained, don’t really make much practical sense. Frodo, who has inherited the all-important ring, is given the task, not of using it, nor even of concealing it or throwing it away (as the Silmarils, for example, had previously been removed very effectively from circulation), but of destroying it in the most dangerous and impractical of all possible ways, by carrying it unaided into the heart of Mordor and casting it into a volcano. In the various wars preceding and accompanying this action, the hobbits are dauntless enough, and occasions are provided for them to appear modestly useful; but essentially their roles are the subordinate ones assigned in traditional adventure stories to high-spirited and venturesome boys.
Very likely this circumstance contributes to the popularity of the hobbit books; readers can enjoy the spectacle of grandiose actions, but from the point of view of modest little onlookers—the formula is at least as old as the alliance of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and it plays off to a gratifying twist when the unheroic partner unexpectedly pulls off a climactic feat. In addition, the English specialize in grumpy, stouthearted, “natural” little people, domestic in their instincts, but brave as lions when aroused—Mr. Mole and Mr. Badger of The Wind in the Willows come immediately to mind. The hobbits make much the same appeal, to which Americans are far from immune. Speech patterns within the books are interestingly assigned. The hobbits speak unceremonious, colloquial, modern English, as against the antique Malorycum-King-James-Bible jargon of the lordly classes. They are free-spoken, natural. Sam, Frodo’s faithful retainer, is a forelock-tugging, homely countryman with the inevitable bad grammar and acute simplicity of the type; while the wicked Orcs, brought up amid Mordor’s satanic mills, gargle a debased cockney, complete with Ow and Garn.
Middle Earth is very British, in fact, physically as well as socially. Not the least of Tolkien’s charms is his gift for describing a rural landscape in loving, close detail. The hobbits are useful here in giving human dimensions and sensations to the story; they relish the landscapes and the homely physical pleasures to be found amid them. They love to eat, drink beer, and snuggle down before the fire with a good pipe (there’s tobacco in Middle Earth, though never cigarettes). But the hobbits are curiously exempt from the cravings of the flesh. Bilbo and Frodo are lifelong bachelors; indeed, there’s only one female hobbit in the books, and she comes on in the final pages as a bone to be tossed to Sam the faithful retainer. Apart from this necessary exception, hobbitry is a boy’s club.
Moreover, dynastic marriages among the big folk are chilly to the point of appearing odd. Aragorn marries a faceless creature for the occasion (having become a king, he needs a queen), and Eowyn marries Faramir because she cannot get Aragorn. There are a couple of ghostly, exquisite Elf-ladies who live with Tom Bombadil and Celeborn, but whether as sisters, wives, daughters, or nature-sprites cannot be told. It is a rare moment of feeling when the shy, gigantic, immensely old Ents of the deep forest express grief for their long-lost Entwives. Indeed, Tolkien’s avoidance of sex is striking; given the mode of romance, it’s a perfectly legitimate avoidance, but can’t fail to heighten the sense of infantilism in the fantasy.
A major element contributing to the appeal of the Tolkien series may be the notion of Middle Earth as a complete and self-sufficient place. Like the worlds of the Faerie Queene or even Star Wars, like Oz and the prophetic books of Blake, Middle Earth has flora, fauna, and natural laws of its own, and it stands in an ever-shifting, never-failing relation to our own earth. The exotic visual effects and rich linguistic textures absorb the reader’s attention and prevent him from feeling the simplistic poverty of Tolkien’s moralism, the repetitive monotony of the warfare. Tolkien’s strong points are names and creatures; he’s endlessly fertile in the creation of both. On the whole, he doesn’t invent new laws of nature, but animates old ones, particularly those of sympathetic magic, if laws they can be called.
With battles, sieges, and travels he’s less at ease, and shows it by repeating certain stock effects. The siege of Isengard is very like the siege of Gondor; again and again the heroes are called on to crawl through dark and perilous underground passages to which Agnew’s wisdom applies—when you’ve seen one tunnel, you’ve seen ’em all. And the hobbits take an inordinate number of forced marches cross-country, which exhaust not only the little creatures but the reader. Still, it is a world in which one can be caught up, with surprises and suspense to atone for the occasional longueurs, and a reassuring sense over all that Good is always good to its supporters and will certainly prevail.
Indeed, the success of Tolkien’s books may need no more explanation than this, that they contain a number of extremely good stories which many readers seem to be encountering for the first time. The books are a pastiche of stories and scenes in which the reader encounters motifs from Genesis and Revelation, bits of Beowulf, snatches of Wagner, pieces of Malory and of Macpherson’s Ossian, fragments of the sagas, Gaelic legends, Breton lays, elements of the Poema del Cid, the Chanson de Roland, Orlando Furioso, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and more, much, much more. This rich gallimaufry of narrative is softened here and melodramatized there for the modern taste, and exempt by being a fairy tale from merely rational criticism. People who have enjoyed it would be well advised not to try prolonging the pleasure by studying The Silmarillion. Instead, if the thought isn’t too solemn, they might try some of the books that Tolkien himself used to construct his Disneyized cycle.
November 24, 1977
An illustrated edition of The Hobbit has just been published by Abrams (220 pp., $35.00). It is based on an animated film version of Tolkien’s book, and will be shown on NBC television on November 27. ↩