May 26, 2015
When the editor of Conservative Home phones me, he often begins by wryly declaiming some line or other from Tolkien. If I can, I reply with the next line, and so on. He tends to get the better of our exchanges: his knowledge of the text is encyclopaedic.
Nor is he unusual among Tories. I watched the opening nights of all three Lord of the Rings films with Chris Heaton-Harris, the wittiest M.P. on Twitter, and Theresa Villiers, the patriotic Cabinet Minister, both at that time M.E.P.’s. The Northern Ireland Secretary, in particular, can recite the most abstruse details from the corpus, down to the family trees of the minor characters.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. Tolkien’s novels are, in the most literal sense, conservative, bathed in an almost overpowering sense of loss. A lot of Leftist intellectuals find them uncomfortable, and so mock them. Philip Pullman dismisses them as “infantile.” Richard Eyre calls Middle Earth “the kingdom of kitsch.” There are also Leftist Tolkienians, of course, but even some of these are uneasy about the fact that Númenóreans are fair-skinned and assailed by dark foes from the East and South. (In fact, anyone who doubts Tolkien’s anti-racist credentials should read his magisterial reply when the Nazis asked if he was Jewish.)
Conservatives, by contrast, have few such complexes. We are not in the least bit troubled that Tolkien, an unfussy Catholic, filled his works with moral purpose. Because the professor dealt in archetypes, he wrote with an unembarrassed grandeur that can grate on the modern ear—though, in general, not the ear of the young reader, who has not yet been taught to be cynical. If you’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings, you’ll know what I mean.
Now let me run a slightly more controversial suggestion past you. Much the same can be said of The Hobbit.
If, like most people, you haven’t read the shorter book since childhood, you might vaguely think that, next to its majestic sequel, it is limited, even twee. That’s more or less what I used to think—until I read it to my children.
Here is a book that, as much as any I can think of, needs to be read aloud. Tolkien, like many Catholics of his generation, understood the power of incantation. He knew that—as, funnily enough, Pullman once put it—a fine poem fills your mouth with magic, as if you were chanting a spell.
Most of us are aware that The Lord of the Rings draws on the alliterative Anglo-Saxon verse which Tolkien loved. We tend to forget that The Hobbit does the same thing, right from the start:
The dwarves of yore made mighty spells
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep where dark things sleep
In hollow halls beneath the fells.
Its prose, like its poetry, pulses with Old English words, and there is rhythm in even the most fast-moving passages. Try reading this paragraph aloud:
The great bow twanged. The black arrow sped straight from the string, straight for the hollow by the left breast where the foreleg was flung wide. In it smote and vanished, barb, shaft and feather, so fierce was its flight. With a shriek that deafened men, felled trees and split stone, Smaug shot spouting into the air, turned over and crashed down from on high in ruin. Full on the town he fell. His last throes splintered it to sparks and gledes. The lake roared in. A vast steam leapt up, white in the sudden dark under the moon. There was a hiss, a gushing whirl, and then silence.
That’s not the way you remembered the prose from childhood, is it? In fact, the language in The Hobbit traces much the same arc as in the subsequent trilogy. Both begin in a manner that seems conventional for a children’s tale, before swerving into the not-quite-archaic saga style which Tolkien made his own. The switch is less marked in The Hobbit than in The Lord of the Rings, and comes at a later point in the story. The hinge is when the party reaches Laketown. The dwarves emerge grumbling and bedraggled from the barrels in which Bilbo has floated them down the river, still recognizably children’s characters. When a Lakeman asks who they are, their leader replies: “I am Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror, King Under the Mountain! I return!” From then on, the story becomes grimmer, and the prose darkens commensurately.
I’ll be watching the final sequence of events at the cinema this weekend with my enthusiastic daughters, who weren’t yet born when I began my December pilgrimages to Leicester Square with Chris and Theresa. Watching with kids makes me aware of how complicated some of the themes are in what we still think of a children’s story (Who, for example, has the right to Smaug’s treasure?) Yet children love the films, as they love the book.
Me? Well, like most adults, I regret that Peter Jackson allowed a fast-paced book to spin into three excessive movies. As Bilbo says to Gandalf in a different context, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
But here’s the paradox: though they went on for too long, I’m wistful as the films finish. Typing these words, I feel something close to the yearning, the melancholy, that infuses the books.
O Lórien! The Winter comes, the bare and leafless Day;
The leaves are falling in the stream, the River flows away.