Monday, November 10, 2008

From An Unexpected Party to Riddles In The Dark

So, we were speaking of The Hobbit.

As I mentioned, I decided to finally -- I've had the book for about three and a half years -- read the first-edition copy of The Hobbit that my wife gave me.

So far, in the limited amount of time I have to read for pleasure (other than on the subway, which is not something I'm going to subject a seventy-year-old rare book to) I've covered just over a hundred pages -- from the start of the story to just past the ending of Chapter Five.

Chapter Five, 'Riddles In The Dark', is of course the chapter that's radically different from the version of The Hobbit that most of us are familiar with, the chapter that Tolkien felt he had to ret-con in order for Lord Of The Rings to work. More on that another time. The four chapters that precede it, in comparison, are not altered as dramatically. Minor changes at most -- a word here or a sentence or two there, that's about it.

And the overall difference is almost shocking.

It's not that the book isn't outstanding. It's just strikingly different. And, to anyone familiar with Lord Of The Rings, sometimes bizarrely so. The idea that one of Bilbo's Tookish ancestors had married a fairy is followed by a paranthesis noting that less friendly people suggested it had been a goblin. And Elrond refers to his High Elven kindred as "gnomes".

But it goes deeper than that.

The Hobbit, in the version that most of us are familiar with, is full of anachronisms and things that strike a tone that's not entirely consistent with Lord Of The Rings. But anachronisms and inconsistencies of tone are a huge part of what Tolkien cut -- so those elements are even more pronounced in the original.

The overall effect, for me, was that the story reached, and then crossed, some sort of tipping point. That tipping point was in Chapter 2, 'Roast Mutton', on page 43 in this edition.
The Dwarves are discussing the dubious character of the region they and Bilbo are crossing (as they do in both versions). The italics are mine, for emphasis: "These parts are none too well known, and are too near the mountains. Policemen never come so far, and the map-makers have not reached this country yet."

Policemen? In Middle-Earth?

In the long-abandoned wild lands between Bree and Rivendell? What policemen? Whose? How?


And with that, the balance of the familiar and the fantastic, that Tolkien was such a master of, was thrown irrecoverably off.

Again, none of this makes the first edition of The Hobbit a bad book, or a poorly-crafted one. It's a great book, wonderfully written. But it clearly doesn't take place in Middle-Earth, not really. It takes place in a world much more like our own, that uses the languages, and history, and some of the characters of Middle-Earth to enrich a fine and very engaging story.

Fantasy fiction depends on striking that balance -- what and where it lies depends on the story -- between the familiar and the fantastical. And what I've realized, in reading The Hobbit as it was originally written, is how small and subtle the choices that balance rests on can be. A single word, a single idea that doesn't quite fit, can make all the difference.

Fantasists, it is sometimes said, are playing God, freely creating entire worlds to tell their stories in. Well, this is a reminder of the tremendous responsiblity that accompanies that freedom. The existence of an imaginary world is always provisional; it depends on the reader continuing to believe in it. And the smallest inconsistency or wrong note -- a single word! -- can tip the balance from belief to unbelief. And then poof. A whole world gone, like that.

As a writer of fantasy, I haven't decided yet whether the fact that even Tolkien struggled to find and maintain that balance takes the pressure off me... or just makes me feel doomed.

Next time: Riddles In The Dark.

1 comment:

Greg Beettam said...

I think, on the question of whether to feel comforted or doomed, it also depends in part on how many rounds of revisions you're willing to subject yourself to (or how many you're at liberty to, given the rigours of a regular production schedule). One only has to look through The Return of the Shadow -- which chronicles the many drafts Tolkien went through as he meandered back and forth through hundreds of handwritten pages figuring out what this "Hobbit sequel" was going to be about, before arriving at the tone you're speaking of -- to develop a keen appreciation for just how much Tolkien had to WORK (or rework) for that genius we associate with his writing. For my own part, I find it somewhat comforting to know this... but then, of course, I've been re-writing the opening chapter of my new project for the last, what, 6 years now? ;)