Somewhere in the description of what literary academics do is, bless their hearts, “read way too much into everything.” Sometimes I think it’s fun to overthink books and impose my own ideas on what the author was doing. To really study them.
Sometimes a keen eye for books leads to a real discovery–if someone hadn’t been paying attention, we’d still think the Plowman’s Tale belonged in Canterbury Tales. I know what you’re thinking–that wouldn’t be a world you’d want to live in. (joke)
Sometimes I think close-reading is the most tiresome thing ever and I just want to read for fun.
I’ve been scouring the universe looking for interpretations and themes in The Hobbit and have found some pretty entertaining articles. If you ever want some serious–meaning weighty and gravitas-laden–criticism of Hobbit and Tolkien, jump into Ebscohost at your local library and search the academic journals. Come on, you always knew Bilbo Baggins was a fascist! Admit it!
To start with, let’s talk about allegory for a second.
What is an allegory?
An allegory is a story, however long, that can be shown to have a hidden meaning. For instance, Animal Farm is an allegory about events that happened in Stalinist Russia. The characters are disguised by using animals instead of people, but it’s about as thinly-veiled an allegory as you can have. And we are helped by the fact that Orwell admits that it is an allegory.
The Narnia books are an allegory of Christianity. Aslan the lion is an analog to Christ. I don’t know anyone who would dispute this.
But what happens when the author says that a work isn’t allegorical, but critics and students and readers insist that it is?
Tolkien resisted allegory
We’re going to get into Tolkien’s faith later next week, but suffice to say for now that he was Christian. Knowing this about him, there are critics determined to find Christian aspects in Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. If you’d like a piece to frame this discussion with I’d suggest reading Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author essay, and Foucault’s What Is An Author?
Tolkien said that his works were not allegorical. Barthes tells us that only the text matters and the author has nothing to do with the words on the page; we ignore the author and interpret the work based on the text, nothing else. That’s a simple view of the essay, but it’s too early in the day for heavy French Literary Theory. Read the essay if you’re curious.
So if Tolkien says his works aren’t allegories, should we take him at his word? Can allegory be unintentional? Just a couple of questions to think about.
I read Hobbit last week again and tried to pay attention to anything recurring. I came away from the book with this:
Small “people” doing big things.
I see the influence of small events and characters leading to big changes on every page. Part of this is because I know that everything that is happening in some way has bearing in Lord of the Rings. Think of everything that’s coming. It’s because of a little ring.
Characters/monsters that hit me this time around
Something that struck me on this most recent reading was the goblins. They don’t have names. I think this is a big part of what allows Hobbit to be a kid’s story and still have killing in it. There’s a pretty gruesome illustration in my book with a goblin getting his throat cut and black blood a-flyin’, but…it’s just some goblin, right?
It’s not someone with a name. Just a monster. Not a person.
If you knew nothing about Tolkien, you might wonder why the three trolls Bilbo runs into speak with cockney accents. Or why there is such an emphasis on how bad their manners are.
Are they the British underclass? The working men? The anti-bourgeois?
Does it matter? Would it matter if we only had the text and knew nothing of the author?
We’ll be talking about Gollum a lot more when we get to LOTR next week. Today I just want to say again that I think the Riddles In The Dark chapter is scary. I think the illustration of Gollum makes him look absolutely disgusting and alien, with big bulging eyes like those fishes that live down in the blackest water and never come up.
But this time I read the chapter knowing that I was reading a revised chapter. Originally, when Bilbo beat Gollum at the riddle game, Gollum actually shows him the way out and they part more cordially than the revised version which ends with Gollum howling “We hates it!”
This change was made because Gollum had been incorporated into the larger LOTR narrative and his relatively level-headed dealing with Bilbo (and the loss of the ring) in the original version didn’t jive with the madness and chaos that Tolkien had planned for the ring’s victims.
Gollum is also getting his fair share of scholarly articles, by the way. Who wants to read Cain-Leviathan Typology in Gollum and Grendel? Me either.
And so the rambling ends for another day of Tolkien month.
It’s time to get into Lord of The Rings next week.
Over to you. Themes in The Hobbit? Characters that might represent more (or less) than they appear to?