Monday, October 27, 2008

In A Hole In The Ground There Lived A Hobbit...

For me, it all begins with Tolkien. And that means that it begins with The Hobbit.

The Hobbit, besides being a genuinely great book, is a very interesting one from a writer's standpoint. It's the reason that The Lord of the Rings exists -- no Hobbit, no call for a sequel, and yet it was never intended to introduce people to Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit for his children -- he wrote a great deal for his children, including annual letters from Santa that were eventually collected as The Father Christmas Letters -- and as such it was mainly intended to be an exciting, entertaining adventure. But it's also, and this was quite unusual in fantasy for children at the time, clearly set not in a generic fairy-tale setting, but in a very concrete world different from our own -- a world with a deep and meaningful and mysterious history that was only really hinted at.

Of course, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit while he was also involved in his life-long project of creating the languages and mythology of Middle Earth -- the stories that became The Silmarillion. So he went to those tales when he needed names and events from the distant past of Bilbo Baggins's world. Elrond, the legendary blades of Gondolin and the ancient battles between Elves and Goblins (they weren't called Orcs yet), these are all Tolkien bringing his secret obsession to life by putting elements of it into a story that other people would actually see.

But in doing so, and by being so unbelievably good at it, he set in motion a chain of events that would lead to him writing The Lord of the Rings, and eventually (after his death) to the publication of The Silmarillion, in a version compliled by his son Christopher Tolkien with the help of Canadian and later fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay.

What that means, is that what was intended to be a one-off story for children that had a few minor references to Middle Earth became most people's actual introduction to the actual Middle Earth.

So there were a number of discrepancies, in both tone and detail, between The Hobbit as originally written and Tolkien's vision of the "actual" Middle Earth. And since Tolkien was before all else an inveterate world-builder, this bothered him.

What did Tolkien do about it?

As a writer, I find what he did very interesting.

First of all, when The Hobbit was re-released in the wake of the success of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien went back and changed things, mostly minor details. Terms that that had fallen out of his evolving "translation" of the languages of Middle Earth, and words that didn't quite convey the right tone were most of it.

But there was a much bigger change along with the minor ones, and it's something Tolkien included in Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings contains an early example* of what we Big-Time Geeks call a ret-con -- a retroactive change to a story's continuity. Without giving too much away, it has to do with how Bilbo Baggins gets the Ring from Gollum. Tolkien's changing notion of what the Ring was by meant that the story as originally written didn't make sense anymore.

So Tolkien, through Gandalf and Frodo, explained that the version of the story that appeared in The Hobbit had been a lie, made up by Bilbo to justify keeping the Ring.

But the new, "true" version of the story was also incorporated into the revised edition of The Hobbit -- Tolkien rewrote that whole chapter. So the ret-con in Lord of the Rings read a bit strangely to anyone, like me, who first read the revised Hobbit. Because it was a fix for something that wasn't broken anymore.

I love that story. It's a wonderful illustration of Tolkien's brilliant, meandering and incremental creative process. But I've always wanted to read the original version, to see for myself how it differs, and to find out just what Bilbo said when he lied to the dwarves.

Yes, I'm a huge Tolkien geek.

I am also, now, the proud owner of a first edition of The Hobbit. It was an engagement present from my wife, which is a whole other story that deserves its own post.

But the funny thing is, I still haven't actually read it. There's always so little time -- and with work and family obligations, I've never had the time to read it in a place and situation where the book would be safe. A first edition of The Hobbit is genuinely rare, and when a book is genuinely rare and also one that you personally revere and that was an engagement present from your wife... well, you don't just take that book on the subway for the morning commute, you know?

But I think it's time, now, to read it. To see what Tolkien changed, and what he didn't. To read 'Riddles in the Dark' as it was originally written. And to share my impressions.

I'm looking forward to reading The Hobbit for the first time. See you in a couple of weeks with some thoughts on the subject.


*"Early" is a relative term, of course. A genuinely early example of a ret-con would be the idea, which seems to have been popularized in the Athenian tragedies of the Fifth Century BCE, that Helen had not actually gone to Troy, but had sat out the Trojan War in Egypt while a doppelganger was in Troy in her place. So, you know, she hadn't actually done anything wrong, and it was okay that she and her husband got back together after the war because she wasn't really responsible for the death of thousands. But I was speaking mainly about Western popular fiction.

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