John R. Shirley
28 April 2008
Gaming The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien and Orson Scott Card seem at first glance to be very dissimilar authors. In his novel The Hobbit, Tolkien constructs a fantasy world most technologically consistent with a world sometime after 1200 BCE, and definitely before the perfection of steel in 1859 (Abercrombie, Tolkien 216). Instead of looking backward, Card creates in his novel Ender’s Game a world at least two hundred years in the future, in which most of the action is science fiction. The core of both books is a traditional hero’s quest, and there are interesting contrasts in the language and goals of each author and the construction of childhood that can be assembled from each book.
Card and Tolkien take polar opposite approaches in these two books. Written fifty years before Ender’s Game, Tolkien writes a fantasy novel using often fairly advanced structure (his second sentence is forty-three words long; his fourth sentence is forty-six words long; his ninth sentence is fifty-eight words long, while his seventeenth sentence is sixty-nine words long!) in which he delivers some basic truths about the nature of childhood, and by extension, humanity. His lessons range from simple ideas about cleanliness, polite conduct, and contentment, to the major lesson of helping your friends, no matter how difficult or frightening giving this help is. Card’s science fiction novel is written in much simpler prose and revolves (as he explains in the 1991 introduction to Ender’s Game) around the much more complicated question of the changeability of human nature, and whether we as humans are doomed to perpetually repeat certain catastrophic actions such as total warfare, or whether we can escape our genetic tendencies to learn a more peaceful (and ultimately more useful and survivable for the species) way (xii).
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, but moved to England three years later. He graduated from Oxford University shortly before accepting a commission as an officer in the British Army and fought in World War I. He became an English professor at Oxford in 1925. The Hobbit was a story told to Tolkien’s children, but existed in manuscript form by 1932. It was published in 1937 (Hastings).
Orson Scott Card was born in Washington State in 1951. He grew up in the West, and was given Bruce Catton's The Army of the Potomac at ten years of age, introducing him to a realistic view of warfare. He finished a bachelor’s degree in theater after spending two years as a Latter Day Saints missionary to Brazil. Ender’s Game began as a short story written in 1975. Card earned a master’s degree in English from the University of Utah in 1981. The novel version of Ender’s Game was published in 1985 (Card, “Introduction” xvii, Card “About”).
Tolkien in The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins. Tolkien begins the story with what sounds like the opening to a children’s book: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” (15). It is a simple “where/what” statement including an imaginary creature. Tolkien continues with some good standard elements of stories for younger readers, with lots of adjectives and extensive description and a chatty narrative voice:
No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms,
cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had
whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-
rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the
same passage. The best rooms were all on the lefthand
side (going in), for these were the only ones to have
windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.(15)
Like almost every other hobbit, Bilbo is content, good natured, and simple in his desires. When the wizard Gandalf approaches him, he is frightened by the very idea of going on an adventure, for as he tells Gandalf, hobbits “are plain quiet folk, and have no need for adventures” (Tolkien 18). After he meets thirteen dwarves, Gandalf persuades the little hobbit to leave with them as a “burglar”, an occupation for which hobbits are well suited, since they are very small, good with their hands, and can “disappear quietly and quickly” when necessary (Tolkien 16).
Little Bilbo, despite his minute stature and natural inclination against taking risks, becomes a very clear hero in The Hobbit. He saves his dwarf companions a number of times, from spiders and elves and even- and perhaps most difficult- from themselves, when they are willing to fight their allies over a fair share of treasure. He saves others, too, when he flatters Smaug the dragon into showing him his under-armor. This information is relayed to the warrior Bard, letting him know of the gap in the dragon’s scales so the warrior can arrow the sole vulnerable spot to kill the dragon.
Ender’s Game is more obviously about children than The Hobbit. The first page of the book is a discussion between two unknown adults about a child. Despite the simple language, it is clear from the first sentence- “I’ve watched through his eyes”- that this will not be the typical story for adolescents (1). Ambiguity is present from the first word in this book: “I” and “he” who? This is even clearer when the protagonist at age six knows of adults speaking to children “Sometimes lies were more dependable than the truth” (2).
The story follows young Andrew Wiggin- called “Ender” because he is the last child allowed to his parents by the government- as he becomes a great military leader. The Hobbit’s foes are, with a sole exception, of other races, but the enemies Ender confronts throughout most of Ender’s Game are all too human. Before he is six, he is rightfully wary of his dangerous and sociopathic older brother Peter. As he grows older, he continually faces bullies he must outwit or physically defeat, and young Ender actually kills two bullies who attack him.
Aliens have attacked Earth’s space outposts, and Earth has been preparing for about a hundred years for a final battle to remove the alien threat. Children are the leaders of this war, children who are trained from about six years of age with the sole objective of turning them into tactical commanders who can direct fleets of ships to be used against the alien “buggers”. Ender becomes a tool that is ruthlessly used to crush the bugger threat.
Both Card and Tolkien have created some tragic characters who end in places or circumstances that might seem monstrous. Tolkien’s Gollum was once good, or at the very least not evil, as a common hobbit. His choice of murder and theft of the ring, and the years of corrupting influence from the ring, have left him misshapen and thoroughly evil. Card’s Ender Wiggin is a sweet and considerate little boy, who is cruelly forced by manipulative adults into situations where he believes his best options are very drastic ones. Ender becomes first a killer, and then a xenocide (in this usage, one who perpetuates genocide against aliens). Unlike Gollum, who is left without the option of genuine regret from his transgressions, Ender is fully aware after the fact of the killing he has been maneuvered into performing. His anguish and the strain on his body of years of intense training leave him in a catatonic state from which he barely emerges after five days. He then is forced to leave on a colonizing starship for a former bugger world.
The difference between Card and Tolkien in these tragic characters is that Tolkien does not treat his hero this way. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins returns to his home very content, much richer, and with the respect of elves and dwarves and with the great Gandalf as a friend. The final paragraphs of The Hobbit seem to indicate a kind providence:
Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?…you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all. (Tolkien 286-287)
Ender’s Game seems to have no such belief in an ultimately happy fate for good folk of any race. Ender is faced with a chance at redemption from the alien genocide he perpetuated, and as the book ends he has become a wandering preacher of a new religion, always searching for both personal and interspecies peace. Perhaps these endings are the single biggest clues of the very wide divide between these books. The Hobbit is escapist fantasy, and evil will get its due and true heroes will win: Ender’s Game can be seen as lament for how we use our young, and a cry to give peace a chance, not blindly or foolishly, but carefully and wisely. Alternatively, the difference in outcome in these books can be seen as reflective of the difference in religious perspective between the two authors. As a Mormon, Card believes that active repentance is necessary for atonement from (even perhaps accidental) transgressions, and Ender’s pilgrimage may be an unconscious reflection of these beliefs (Card “Orson” #7).
Tolkien throughout The Hobbit uses his narrator’s voice to describe hobbits in a way the reader can easily use to understand he actually is also talking about children. His hobbits/children are “little people…(with) little or no magic about them except the ordinary everyday sort” (Tolkien 16). These happy small folk love the simple pleasures of good food, warm fires, and telling stories and riddles.
Card’s children are not simple in any sense, and can vary from intensely empathetic (Valentine, an obvious and ironic name from a writer who scoffs at symbolism) to stupidly cruel (Stilson) to foolishly prideful (Bonzo) or even possessed of incredible Byzantine cunning like Peter (Card “Stories” 11). The loving Valentine may actually be the most powerful person in this universe, with the ability to sway both the masses through her writing and the other two most dangerous people- Ender and Peter- through her conversation. While both Tolkien and Card are imaginative, Card’s fictional characters are complicated.
Historically, The Hobbit has been viewed as primarily a children’s book. Tolkien does use some devices that make The Hobbit more childlike and accessible to younger readers than his “sequels” in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The use of multiple adjectives in the second sentence of the book is one of these devices: “a nasty, dirty, wet hole…a dry, bare sandy hole” (15). The simple poems and narrative comments are other clues. On the other hand, the sentence structure of The Hobbit is not going to be easy for those with less developed reading skills. Here is one example on the second page of The Hobbit:
As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit- of Bilbo Baggins, that is- was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill (16).
Teachers and administrators must ask: will this book stretch and strengthen the mental muscle of weak readers, or will Tolkien’s wordy style merely frustrate them?
Ender’s Game uses very simple language that is easily understood. It has a few words (“asshole”, for instance) that might be offensive to some readers or parents or teachers, and the Bernard and Shen episode, with its emphasis on “butt-watching” and “butt wriggling” seems to have some low-key homophobia. It has more realistic-seeming conflict and death, so the question for authority figures is this: is it more appropriate to show children conflicts that are unrealistic struggles between magical creatures, or conflicts that are a difficult choice between more concrete characters? Would children finding “less violent” death scenes be positive and appropriate?
Each teacher and administration will have to make specific choices, but with the students, the important thing will be to draw as many questions as possible from the books. There will be some clear right or wrong answers about plot and action, but more usefully, these stories can be used to force students to use critical thinking skills to ponder why someone fought, if fighting was a morally correct choice, and if the decision to fight has been made, when the correct (both logically and morally) time to cease fighting will come.
Questions about peers- to what extent are we or should we be shaped by those around us- are good questions for both these books. Bilbo sometimes makes decisions that put him at odds with the rest of his group. These decisions are often wise, such as when he acts generously and with a peaceful spirit, to prevent war between humans and dwarves. Ender Wiggins, on the other hand, makes choices that are not always foreseen by the adults who observe and maneuver his life, but he is forced into those actions. Students, depending on age level and maturity, can be asked about the role of peaceful resistance, of nonviolence, and introduced to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as other historical heroic or controversial figures like Nathan Hale and Abraham Lincoln.
Ultimately, the most positive use of both of these books in the classroom is in having students react to and think why people do what they do, and think about their own future choices. If the students find these books engaging, and are thereby encouraged to read other books, this is also an appropriate goal. Card believes that stories for their own sake- “escapist literature”- are ultimately more valuable than what he derogatively describes as “serious literature”:
“Serious” literature is so simple that it can be
decoded, its meanings laid out in essay form, while
“escapist” literature is so complex and deep that it
cannot be mediated, but must be experienced; and no
two readers experience it the same. (Card, “How” 158)
Card wrote that he “deliberately avoided all the little games and gimmicks that make ‘fine’ writing so impenetrable to the general audience” (Card, “Introduction” xviii). Whether Ender’s Game is a complex allegory, or like The Hobbit “just” a wonderfully engaging and readable book is for the reader to decide.
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