The Hobbit as Metaphor
These days one may as well lose touch with reality in favor of Middle Earth. Exasperated by the ambiguities and uncertainties of the modern world, paralyzed by our helplessness to effect change in a broken political system, we yearn instead for a world in which individuals confront foes directly, without the burdens of diplomacy or compromise. With two more installments of The Hobbit trilogy to look forward to, at least escape remains a viable option in the years to come.
The theme of good versus evil of Lord of the Rings is retroactively tied in to Peter Jackson's The Hobbit in order to establish some continuity with Lord of the Rings. In fact The Hobbit is essentially a kids' book, and so it and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy are worlds apart aesthetically. The Hobbit as a novel is lighthearted and funny, whereas Jackson's is ominous and foreboding. But Jackson's decision to bridge this gap is artistically valid, and necessary if he wanted to create the same feel. Ultimately this decision to unify the two trilogies was a good choice. It is also ambitious -- how could The Hobbit, a normal length novel, be made into three movies? Why not? After all, one likes to see some idealism in an otherwise cynical consumer market which caters to short attention spans.
Thematically, The Hobbit film exploits a dramatic opposition of moral forces, abandoning the whimsy of the novel. I read somewhere years ago that The Lord of the Rings perpetuated the "neoconservative" ideology of a world of dichotomous good and evil. It begs the question whether the nature of evil -- or more precisely, whom we may give to such a label -- has become more ambiguous from the time when Lord of the Rings films were released in the post-9-11 political environment, a time when we at least knew precisely who the enemy was. Regardless, it is refreshing simple to envision a world with such clear distinctions.
Clear distinctions obviously did exist during the World War II era, for which the trilogy is a metaphor, originally having been published in the mid-fifties. Mordor in the East being evil, Gondor and the Shire in the West being good. But it just doesn't speak to our cultural sensibility -- "Why are the Orcs so judged?" we might ask. The eagles which save Bilbo and the dwarves are symbolic of the Americans saving the Brits from the Nazis; the hobbits themselves are metaphorically British, being provincial yet surprisingly hardy when called upon in a clutch situation. This is precisely what Bilbo's character demonstrates in its evolution in The Hobbit: he grows from being close-minded and aloof towards non-Shire related happenings, to outgoing and empathetic towards the political and spiritual needs of his new dwarf friends. Tolkien writes: "There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow." (Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring P.137) This could be applied universally to the human condition, yet it seems especially applicable to the British who faced the Nazi wrath, and heeded Churchill's injunction to never, never give up.
It is probably worth mentioning that Tolkien himself denied any such allegorical intention: "As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical". (Tolkien, J. R.R. "Foreward to the Second Edition." The Fellowship of the Ring XIV-XV)
He further noted that "many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory,'" yet this is a rose by any other name. Despite his denial, the metaphorical connections are too strong to overlook. Authors are always inexplicably coy about explicating the themes or metaphors of their work (with the exception of Arthur Miller, who tells readers in the stage directions of The Crucible that it is meant as an allegory for McCarthyism). Tolkien implies that the tale could have just as well been an allegory for World War I, which was no less horrific, in his opinion, than World War II. Then there is the theory that authorial intent is not critical when interpreting literature. Without conceding that point, it does leave some room for an author to be somewhat unaware of his sublimated creative processes. The man did not like allegory as a literary tool, but for all that he may have used it inadvertently.
The bearded dwarves, exiled from their home in the mountain Moria, remind one of the Jewish Diaspora. Bilbo laments their de facto homelessness, and the disillusionment which accompanies this cultural and geographical dispossession. Perhaps we can all find something to relate to in that. The dwarves' melancholic nostalgia serves to balance the fast-paced action sequences, giving the movie some dramatic depth. But their nostalgia may also hit close to home for many of us, remembering better days.
Malcolm Unwell is an English teacher. Contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org