Monday, November 24, 2008

The Riddle of Riddles in the Dark

On to Chapter Five: 'Riddles in the Dark'. Bilbo, lost and alone in forgotten caves beneath the Misty Mountains, finds a Ring, finds Gollum and finds his way out. And some riddles are exchanged.

That much is the same.

There's so much that fascinates me about the changes between Chapter Five of the first edition of The Hobbit and the revised version, released after the success of The Lord of the Rings, that most of us are more familiar with.

(I'm going to stop at this point to somewhat belatedly acknowledge that what follows is going to contain rather a lot of spoilers. Although if you don't already know what happens in The Hobbit, why the heck are you here? Go read it. Now. Come back later.)

Obviously, Tolkien's big ret-con* is the centrepiece. Over the course of writing The Lord of the Rings, his conception of what the seemingly innocuous ring of invisibility that Bilbo found deep under the Misty Mountains actually was changed so dramatically, that Chapter Five of the original version of The Hobbit simply made no sense at all anymore. So Tolkien came up with the brilliant idea that the story as originally written was a lie that Bilbo told, and wrote in his memoirs, because he wanted his claim to the Ring to be indisputable, and was ashamed at the thought that he'd stolen it.

Tolkien had a little bit of fun at his own expense, as well, when Frodo and Gandalf discuss Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring and Frodo describes the "true" version of the story as "much more likely."

And then, of course, Tolkien rewrote The Hobbit, emending many minor details (as discussed in one of my previous posts) and altering Chapter Five extensively, making it reflect the "truth" as described in The Lord of the Rings.

But that vital change was made up of countless other changes, major and minor. One of them in particular is surprising to me: Gollum barely matters to the story at all.

The Hobbit was written by a man who had studied, and who understood, myths, folklore and fairy-tales right down to the core of his being, so it's no surprise that The Hobbit shares at least some of the classic characteristics of the Hero's Journey as articulated by Joseph Campbell. Campbell suggests that the Hero's Journey consists of a call to adventure, a journey out, a series of tests, some sort of ultimate trial (usually a confrontation with death) and if the hero succeeds, a journey back, with a reward.

Of course these criteria are sufficiently general that they can be applied to a very broad range of stories. But I don't think that it's entirely a coincidence that the subtitle of The Hobbit is There And Back Again.

The point of this digression is that The Hobbit is a story about a journey, a going and a returning. It's also an episodic story, well-suited to being read aloud a chapter a night at bedtime. Bilbo goes from one point to another in his travels, meeting new characters and having fairly discrete adventures along the way.

But the interesting thing is that virtually every character that Bilbo encounters returns at some point. Every character becomes important again later on, either at the climactic Battle of Five Armies or during Bilbo's return home at the very end of the story. Elrond, the Goblins and Wargs, Beorn, the Elven-King. Even the trolls, indirectly, when Bilbo and Gandalf pick up their treasure on the way back.

Except Gollum. Gollum, after Bilbo leaves the Misty Mountains, never matters again in the story. He was a mechanism for getting Bilbo the Ring and getting him out of the caves.
Gollum, who is arguably the pivotal character of The Lord of the Rings -- key to the theme, the unfolding action and the resolution, the tragically fallen counterpart to Frodo -- doesn't matter.

He's also a rather more pathetic figure, who apologizes to Bilbo for losing the Ring that he apparently genuinely intended to give him for winning the riddle contest, and tries to make up for it by leading him to safety. He's clearly not a very nice person (the reference to him eating Goblins, when he can, is present in both versions) but he's not the treacherous, debased, tragic, obsessive figure we know from The Lord of the Rings. His last words to Bilbo are directions: "It musst squeeze in and sneak down. We dursn't go with it, my preciouss, no we dursn't, gollum!"

Compare that to the blood-curdling accusation and threat, "Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!" that echoes in Bilbo's ears, and across the pages of The Lord of the Rings right through to the conclusion.

Gollum was a minor, almost a throwaway character.

That Tolkien had the chutzpah to change things so dramatically is frankly astounding.

It's also inspiring, and illustrative.

It's a reminder that tales can, and sometimes should, grow in the telling. That I -- that we -- can grow creatively, and that the process of creative growth never really ends. That earlier works can be reinterpreted in the light of later ones. That characters too, can grow and become more than they were.

That these changes, sometimes even retroactive ones, are not something to be feared, but opportunities to be explored.

Tolkien was good enough, and wise enough, to grow with his work as his work grew with him, and he was smart enough to use that growth as a solution to the story problem it created.

None of which means that I'm about to rewrite the past to support the revelation that Christine is actually a spider elemental, or that Delric is really a giant who only looks like an elf because he's been merged with a magic sword.

But the reason not to do those things isn't because they'd be ret-cons, but because they'd be stupid. I think that's my take-away from all this, and a new mantra: Embrace change, but avoid stupidity.

After all, Tolkien managed it.

Next: 'Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire'. Yes, that's what Tolkien actually called Chapter Six of The Hobbit.

* That's geek-speak that means a retroactive change to continuity.


Patrick Heinicke said...

What? Christine isn't a spider elemtenal? Pity, that would have been fun to draw. What's a spider elemental?

Stephen Geigen-Miller said...

Spider elemental? Oh, the usual: Someone who's the heir to the ancient power of the spider as a totemic spirit-animal. According to J. Michael Straczynski, Peter Parker is one.

If you really like the idea, we can talk. :)