The Magazine

Making Middle Earth

From "The Hobbit" to "The Lord of the Rings."

Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By DANIEL KENNELLY
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Praise for The Hobbit was largely glowing--the New York Herald-Tribune named it best children's story of the year in 1938--and sales were brisk. Thus it was no surprise when his publisher, Allen & Unwin, asked Tolkien to write a sequel. Neither his publishers nor Tolkien himself would have guessed that this "New Hobbit" would morph over time into the sprawling, half million-word epic trilogy, the Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien's earliest manuscripts demonstrate the vast departures from the sequel he initially set out to write. Bilbo was originally to be the hero of the new tale. The ring of invisibility he obtained in The Hobbit was to be somehow important to the plot of the Lord of the Rings, but a far cry from the overwhelming presence the Ruling Ring later became. Aragorn, the tall, grim-faced Dunedain ranger and heir to the throne of Gondor, began his life as Trotter, "a queer-looking, brown-faced hobbit" who wears wooden shoes.

LIKE SCAFFOLDING left behind after a construction project, some Hobbit-like elements survived the process of revision to retain a place in The Fellowship of the Ring. One such passage is a scene in which a fox comes across Frodo, Sam, and Pippin camping in the Shire at the outset of their journey: "'Hobbits!' he thought. 'Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There's something mighty queer behind this.' He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it." Tolkien no doubt recognized such passages as failures in tone, but he could be very tenacious in holding on to ideas he privately treasured throughout the slash-and-burn process of revision.

The unexpected appearance of the black-clad Ringwraiths who menace the hobbits throughout the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, came as a surprise to the author--or so, at least, he claimed--and it established that the story would have a much darker tone and a more developed understanding of evil than its predecessor. Thus, for example, the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit exhibits greed, vanity, and wrath on a gargantuan scale, to be sure, but those vices dwindle to peccadilloes when compared with the evil in the Lord of the Rings: the wizard Saruman's tragic descent into the depths of pride or Sauron's unrestrained will to power.

BUT THAT CREATES its own literary troubles for Tolkien. You can almost taste his problem. Can the same narrative world that contains the comedy of The Hobbit be made to bear the seriousness of the Lord of the Rings? Fairies and ghosts are both supernatural beings, no doubt, but even Shakespeare would have shied away from the prospect of introducing Hamlet's father to Titania, or setting Midsummer Night's Dream in Denmark.

Part of Tolkien's solution is a change of diction. In The Hobbit the enemy soldiers are called "goblins," a name connoting a mischievousness that the Lord of the Rings cannot stand--which is why Tolkien slides into calling them "orcs," a word deriving directly from the Old English orcnéas, or the "demon-corpses" of the Beowulf-poet.

Most of the books recently published to cash in on the success of the feature films concern evil in the Lord of the Rings--as, indeed, they must. It is the dominant feature of the book, compelling Tolkien to abandon the successful formula of The Hobbit and to write a book set entirely in the heroic world, even if its hobbit heroes are not the traditional stuff of heroism.

John Garth's biographical sketch, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, sheds light on the unique way in which Tolkien's experiences in World War I and the Battle of the Somme shaped his literary endeavors. But among all these new books, Ralph Wood's The Gospel According to Tolkien stands out for its discussion of the Christian theology that informs the depictions of evil in the Lord of the Rings.

Other writers--notably Joseph Pearce and Bradley Birzer--have written on the orthodox Christian character of the trilogy, but many of these authors tend to overplay the superficial Christian elements like the eucharistic symbolism of the elven waybread lembas, or the Marian imagery behind the depiction of the elven Lady Galadriel. By taking a less overt, less defensive, and more meditational approach to the work's Christian character, Wood ends up presenting a more complete and convincing discussion of the Catholicity of Tolkien's work. Far from being home to cartoonish villains or black-and-white representations of evil, the Lord of the Rings, Wood argues convincingly, depicts "malign magic as the product of panicked despair."

The vision of evil in the Lord of the Rings is so developed, its presentation of sin and fallenness so painful, and its conclusion mixed so strongly with grief and joy, hope and despair, that one would be justified in asking why anyone would think that reading such a novel is an escape from reality.

Which is why, perhaps, the final film of Peter Jackson's movie trilogy, The Return of the King, falls short of Tolkien's vision of evil. Fans of the books will likely bristle at many of the innovations Jackson and company employ in the conclusion. Denethor, the steward of Gondor, who in the book immolates himself and his dying son on a funeral pyre out of "panicked despair," is all but drop-kicked into the flames by an action-hero Gandalf in the film. Revisions, like the presence of Aragorn's ghostly army at the Battle of the Pelennor Field, undo Tolkien's meticulous plot structure. And far too much of the responsibility of visual interpretation is surrendered to fantasy illustrators such as Alan Lee and John Howe. Thus the film depicts Sauron as a marble-shaped cat's eye, wreathed in flame, scouring the land like a fluorescent-orange spotlight from the top of the tower of Barad-dur.

Then again, this is Hollywood. The formula for a film's commercial success (if not for Oscars) has always been its ability to make the audience forget the problems of their own lives for a few, short hours. At this task, The Return of the King will no doubt succeed, to the delight of moviegoers. Tolkien, however, would likely have called the films a Flight of the Deserter rather than an Escape of the Prisoner.

AS ROUSING an adventure tale as they are, perhaps Jackson's films would have risen above the level of mere fancy if he had been able to translate a few of the book's subtler scenes into film. In one such scene, the ring-bearer Frodo Baggins and his simple hobbit companion Samwise Gamgee have a poignant exchange on the outskirts of Mordor, one of the darkest moments in their journey:

"I used to think that [adventures] were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for . . . a kind of a sport as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folks seemed to have been just landed in them, usually--their paths were laid that way, as you put it. . . . I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?"

"I wonder," said Frodo. "But I don't know. And that's the way of a real tale . . . You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don't know. And you don't want them to."

The readers of the Lord of the Rings know, of course, "what kind of a tale" they're reading. As in all fairy tales, good must triumph over evil: Sauron will be vanquished and the Ruling Ring destroyed. Frodo and Sam cannot know this outcome, and from this ignorance derives their temptation to despair about their own particular endings. But from their ignorance comes as well their almost Christian hope in the providential order of the world--which is what creates and allows their resolve to continue the quest.

Daniel Kennelly is senior editor of The American Enterprise magazine.