Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Something to Bore or Amuse

Or, Thoughts on The Hobbit.

Question answered: Although The Hobbit is a novel written to entertain, there is a strong values agenda. What are the serious themes, lessons about human nature, dramatizations of good versus evil that you could lead a child to discover. (This one will be something you’d actually have to figure out if you teach language arts!)

John R. Shirley
21 February 2008

In The Hobbit, everything needed to both entertain and educate a child is part of the language, characterization, and plot. The education in this case is a moral one, to accompany the delightful nonsense and imaginative “fairytale” world Tolkien creates. Perhaps the first lesson or aspiration Tolkien might have wanted to instill in young readers is one of simple contentment in the good things in life. In The Hobbit’s opening chapter, we find that the world of middle earth is filled with magic, but the protagonist (who Tolkien certainly must have wanted readers to sympathize with) only has “the ordinary everyday sort”. There is a “magic” in the simple good things in life, and Tolkien’s hobbit hero enjoys the fruits of his labor in his kitchen and highly polished and neat little hobbit-hole of a house. There are both LARGE and small lessons throughout The Hobbit, and perhaps the first small lesson (for contentment with a reasonable lot is certainly a major lesson) in the book is that good people are innately polite.

Doing the right thing is not always easy, but Bilbo Baggins extends hospitality almost against his will to Gandalf the Wizard and dwarves alike, even with the dwarves’ surprise tea-time to dinner visit and wreckage of his home as they prepare breakfast before leaving the next morning. Evil characters, on the other hand (such as trolls, orcs, spiders, and corrupted dwarves), are invariably rude unless attempting to deceive.

Greed leads to trouble. This is perhaps a different way for Tolkien to drive home the lesson to be content. Whether the travelers get in trouble because they are not content with the simple provisions in their bags, or whether trolls are turned to stone after theft and murder, greed has strongly negative consequences. Even otherwise good characters who let themselves be stricken by the “dragon’s disease” might be led into destructive actions, such as being willing to wage war against natural allies instead of paying them fairly, as Thorin was willing to do against Bard, and the elves and lake men.

Perhaps the single strongest lesson in The Hobbit is about the essence of a hero (which could be also translated into being a worthwhile person). Bilbo Baggins is not as large as anyone else he encounters, making him a worthy model for children. He is not the strongest or wisest of the very many characters encountered in The Hobbit. He is easily frightened, which must seem like a strange thing for a hero, at first glance. Life is full of potentially frightening encounters, and true bravery is not actually the absence of fright. It is reasonable to be afraid when confronting things that can badly hurt or kill, and Bilbo is indeed afraid. What makes his actions heroic, and provides a worthy lesson to young readers, is Bilbo’s persistent choice to help his friends, whether they have been captured by spiders or elves, or are in danger of another sort. Bilbo is even willing to help his friends against their will.

Even good people (or perhaps elves or dwarves) can make mistakes, or be blinded to the negative consequences of their actions. At such times, true friends will choose to act in ways most helpful to their friends, even if those friends do not recognize the act for what it is. Bilbo is willing to take an action he knows will alienate Thorin from him, by giving Bard the Arkenstone to trade for a share of the treasure. By this act, he is showing extreme generosity (another worthwhile trait for children to model) while being willing to accept Thorin’s wrath. It is truly heroic and very, very difficult to do things for which your friends will hate you. Bilbo is attempting to be fair by giving the river men a reasonable share of the treasure for their help, and in recompense for the losses they have suffered from Smaug the dragon. At the same time, Bilbo is also trying to make peace between dwarves, elves, and good men, who should naturally be allies.

Evil has a face, and by showing evil, Tolkien in The Hobbit also shows what children should not be like. Evil is greedy; evil is needlessly violent; evil is deceitful; evil is uncouth; evil has bad manners; evil smells bad. Children are not trolls, orcs, dragons, spiders, wargs, or even mistaken elves or corrupted dwarves. By following the principles that Tolkien suggests in The Hobbit, they will also never become bad men. Many of the characters in Tolkien’s Middle Earth are inherently evil, but some choose or have chosen to become so. In some ways, the most pathetic and sinister figure in The Hobbit is Gollum.

Hobbits are inherently good, just like children, and the faults they have are minor sins. They enjoy eating and other creature comforts immensely, but even these jolly little harmless people can be reduced to a miserable existence of crawling in the dark, misshapen by years of evil and solitude, preying on despicable things eaten raw. Even the best of us can be brought low through our own folly of greed, and this has happened to Gollum. Though perhaps not the most dangerous of foes (that would be the large, powerful and innately evil Smaug) in The Hobbit, Gollum is definitely the creepiest. This evil little figure, with his glowing eyes and fangs, stands in sharp contrast to the tender-hearted and good Bilbo, but Tolkien gives several hints (“riddles….had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes”; “he had lived with his grandmother in a hole in a bank by a river”) that tell that both Bilbo and Gollum were once hobbits, and in fact, are probably related, since the Tooks had lived near The Water.

The depth of the lessons in The Hobbit varies, but Tolkien has provided ones that range from the simplistic to the deeply ponderable. We as humans have great potential for good or evil, based on the choices we make. This is ultimately Tolkien’s greatest lesson, and it is a worthy one for children old enough to read The Hobbit to reflect upon.


staghounds said...

I'll be burnt at the stake for this, but here goes:

I don't think the lessons are obscure, they seem pretty clear to me. But like all great art they are presented in a way that makes them impalpable to the receiver until afterward.

I first read The Hobbit as quite a young child, maybe eight. I really liked it, it resonated with me. (When I read it again later, even more so.)

I believe it's because of all the things you talk about. I lived in an unpredictable and difficult environment, as of course do almost all children to one degree or another. A lot of these themes you've laid out are ways to cope with being limited and helpless.

I suspect that Tolkien's experiences in the sausage machine of the Western Front reminded him of the terrifying confusion children live in daily, and reminded him of these simple, valuable lessons.

Thank you for helping me think about these things.

The burn at the stake part- LOTR just never worked for me.

J.R.Shirley said...

Heh. S'okay- it's literature. It should be deeply personal. I think I agree.

tiger said...