Thursday, May 11, 2017

Back to the Hobbits

Coming to the end of the semester, I find myself indulging in reading more things that haven't been assigned for a class lately. I started reading The Fellowship of the Ring again, getting quickly and very happily drawn in. I've probably watched the Peter Jackson movies about twenty times since the last time I read the books but I'm surprised to find I generally don't picture the characters as the actors who played them in the movies. It's not to say I don't like Elijah Wood or Sean Astin, but Frodo and Sam are so different in the book. Frodo's older, of course, and he comes off that way in the way he deals with people. The man I picture is something like Ray Milland. I understand the reasons for the changes Jackson made to pick up the story's pace and give an audience hungrier for young faces someone to be attracted to. But the feeling of a man with years of life experience having contemplative, intellectual conversations with Gandalf by the fire is a nice vibe. I suppose I could say I wish the movie were more like that, but then I do have the book, after all.

The Hobbits as a people are a bit more three dimensional in the book, too. I was surprised by this level of contempt Frodo expresses for his people:

"I should like to save the Shire if I could--though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them."

Earlier, Tolkien mentions how the Hobbits have grown complacent due to the Shire's isolation from war. Like so many things these days, I look at this through the prism of Trump. Here's the virtue of Tolkien's dislike for allegory--one can see how Tolkien was likely inspired by the state of England before World War I, but because he doesn't explicitly tie it to that, it invites the reader to look for commonalities in human nature to-day or in any other time. If I think of the people who didn't vote in the last election or were mentally complacent enough to think they could vote for Trump in the name of trolling reality, I can apply Frodo's frustration, which leads me to attempt finding also his love for his people. That's a lot harder.

Considering what happens with "The Scouring of the Shire" in the end, and, from what I remember, the Hobbits' complicity in that, it works as an inversion of the connexion dependence on assembly line, steel working, and coal mining blue collar industry Trump's campaign hearkened back to, and which also seemed to have been a big motivating factor for Brexit. Tolkien was writing about the waste and ugliness of it at the beginning, and here that ugly thing exerts its influence even as it grows undeniably obsolete.

I've always liked how the journey in The Lord of the Rings seems to be from a sort of Victorian world in the Shire into a more mediaeval world to the east. If one does apply Tolkien's experience in World War I, it's an interesting contrast to the progression of poetry from idealised odes to valour in war by Alfred Lord Tennyson to the grim reality of the trenches composed by Wilfred Owen. Tolkien seems to stand in direct opposition to that trend. It's oddly heartening that he could see the incredible horrors of the World War I battlefield and somehow digest it and produce years later a work about beauty and magic.

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