A while back, I watched a few friends on Twitter bonding over their shared dislike of The Lord of the Rings. It was so clearly a virtual fist bump of solidarity as opposed to an open discussion, that I didn’t comment, even in response to the rhetorical, ‘how can anyone like those stories?’
But I did go away asking myself exactly what it is that I love about them so much. Some of it’s nostalgia, I’m sure. I first read the trilogy when I was nine, and was determined to finish those very grown-up books because the older sister I idolized loved them. The stories continued to be a part of my life even as an adult, though, with regular re-reads even once I outgrew playing “Middle Earth” with a friend where we pretended to go on adventures with Legolas and Aragorn.
Still, I don’t know that I ever asked myself exactly what the appeal is of the stories as a whole (beyond, “loved this part”). If I’d never read the stories as a child, would I love them now? And even after thinking about it for a month or two, I don’t know that I have the whole answer.
Part of it is that I believe in both good and evil, which is somewhat unpopular now. And while I’m fully aware of the existence of gray, I like when the complications in a story are not about whether good is good or evil is evil, but accepts that both are what they are, and that it’s okay for them to be opposed to one another.
I like stories about nobility, and courage, and loyalty, and I’m unapologetically a fan of heroes. (Anti-hero stories bore me to tears. To me, characters aren’t that different from real people in one way: if I’m going to spend time with them, I have to like them, and I don’t like rude, selfish, arrogant, manipulative, or irresponsible people.)
I was thinking about all of this while watching The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug this afternoon.
I didn’t know what to expect, which is a bit odd for me. I’m not as familiar with The Hobbit as I am LOTR, probably because, having read the longer, adult story first, it was harder for the children’s story to keep my interest when I first read it. But Peter Jackson added to his Hobbit films from Tolkien’s bigger mythology, exploring what was going on in the larger world of Middle Earth while Bilbo was on his adventure, and I was just as interested in that, perhaps more so, as I was in Thorin’s quest.
One of the things I like in Tolkien’s work is that his heroes come in different sizes and flavors. At different times and seasons of my life, I’ve felt a greater connection to one of them over the others, but they all have their stories, and all are interesting to me.
Heroic doesn’t mean uncomplicated. Frodo is a hero, and yet he failed in his task, In the end, his story is one that defines heroism not as willpower – he was no more capable than anyone else of resisting the lure of the ring – but as compassion. If not for his compassion towards Gollum much earlier in the story, all would have been lost.
And Sam? Ah, Sam. How can there not be beauty in a story that places loyalty so far above traits often associated with success? Frodo has wizards, lords, and kings for friends, and they play a role in his story. But in the end? It’s the loyalty of a simple gardener who makes the difference.
When I was a child, I was more interested in the traditional heroes of the story, particularly Aragorn and Elrond. But as I’ve aged, I’ve come to appreciate Frodo, Sam and Bilbo more – probably because I’d be completely useless with a sword, and have no magical powers. But compassion and loyalty? I can strive for those.
Like Frodo and Sam, Bilbo is heroic precisely because he’s an ordinary guy (‘bloke’ seems more appropriate, somehow) who chooses to stay true to himself while in some rather extraordinary circumstances. There’s a point in this film where the question of why he’s there, doing what he’s doing, is raised. Is it still just for a share of the gold? (Was it ever?) The answer of ‘no’ is not explicit, but is obvious, I think.
There are a number of motives and stories here, from Thorin’s desire to reclaim his home, at perhaps any expense, to the loyalty of the dwarves who follow him, to Gandalf, who can’t be in two places at once, no matter how desperate is the need for just that.
And what about the elves?
Some of the parts of the story I was most looking forward to, honestly, involved the elves of Mirkwood, precisely because they’re not a major presence in Tolkien’s book, but were nevertheless very busy while Bilbo’s adventure was happening. And …hmm.
I loved seeing Legolas, because, well, he’s Legolas, and I’m just as nostalgic about the LOTR film trilogy that came out between 2001-2003 as I am my childhood experiences with the books.
But I am a little dismayed by Tauriel, the female elf created for the films, not because she’s not part of the book, but rather because the story they chose to tell for her…well, I’m going to have to think about that for a while, but it feels a little cliched to me. (“We need a female character. Let’s go the female elf route! She’ll totally kick ass as a fighter…and, oh! Let’s have her be involved in a love story, because that’s a completely novel idea!”)
Really, though, that’s my only quibble with the film. I love Bilbo, especially his relationship with Thorin; and I liked Bard a great deal. Smaug is very, well, Smaug-like, and it’s easy to see how all these different story threads are building to something amazing for the final film.
One thing that struck me was Jackson’s choice to end this on a cliffhanger. The film versions of FOTR, TTT, and the first chapter of the Hobbit all end at transition points of the story, quieter moments where the protagonists, having come through various battles, are regrouping for the next round. But this is a different type of ending from those, which I’m rather intrigued by.
I expect I’ll have more to say after seeing it again, but in the meantime, for those who are disgruntled by the film not being enough like the book (my opinions on that could make for an entire post on their own), I offer this, which I found interesting and well thought out, even while knowing the counter-arguments that will be made against it.
“If there is, in fact, a live dragon down there, do not waken it.”