I’m not talking about the movie, which was so far from the greatness of the book it deserves its own dissertation, I’m talking by the original work by JRR Tolkien, originally published way back in 1937.
This book was a landmark for fantasy in a whole host of ways, and many of those ways are not at all obvious to those of us who have inherited the literary landscape of Tolkien. None of those new and original things would have mattered, however, if it hadn’t been a great yarn. Let’s talk about a few big ideas:
The main characters are all demihumans.
Those of us used to reading RA Salvatore or Markus Heitz might not think much about other “fantasy” races being the focus of the story, but this was rather novel when it was published. The main character is a tiny character, a hairy-footed fat hobbit, accompanied by a gang of onery gold-hungry dwarves and a mythical odinic wizard.
There are no “people” in the book until the party nears its final destination. Otherwise, they are dealing with trolls, orcs, wargs, talking eagles, a large berserker, giant spiders, and elves.
This is more than just fairy-tale fodder. Tolkien was tripping off into some extremely strange, even bizarre territory that while building on his forbears – men like Dunsany and Boroughs – was firmly in its own unique direction. This is not a tale of a boy wandering into the Fay, but rather one aspect of the Fay adventuring into another.
It is fundamentally about heroism
This is why it is so inspiring. You have a rather simple creature, Bilbo Baggins, who is neither brave nor wise, but through the stress of adventure ends up doing things that are both daring and clever, always to save his friends or, as with the buildup to the battle of five armies, to serve the good itself.
You have other heroes, too, like Bard the Bowman who stands and fights while the local aristocrat flees with his treasures, and even the dwarves themselves, who jump into trouble to save their fellows and the hobbit.
The characters are not perfect, but for their flaws and their sinful natures they still exhibit virtue, which makes us not only like them, but admire them.
It’s a Grand Adventure
It’s “There and Back Again” – what else better expresses the spirit of adventure?
It utilizes what I call the Odyssey plot structure, which isn’t so much a plot structure as an approach to story-telling. You have somewhere you need to go, and there are obstacles to that end along the way – as many as you need to grow to the challenge waiting for you at the end.
Tolkien takes us on a truly fantastical journey, sampling a lot of what his imaginary world has to offer, both in terms of geography and in terms of threat. Even though its peformed by demihumans, the journey is still of the fairie, or the perilous realm, where a character steps out of his door and the further away he gets, the stranger things also seem to get, until he has to face the ultimate terror at the end.
It Has a Dragon
And what a dragon! Smaug has personality at the same time as he is alien and terrifying. Bilbo acts with his usual cleverness, but the worm is a power far beyond him, and he nearly dies while bringing ruin onto an entire town (albiet unintentionally).
Dragons since then have been objects routinely used in fantasy (and why not, they’re awesome), but rarely in the sort of god-of-terror-made-real way that Tolkien used. They are often mere creatures, or they are friendly, or used as pets, or as mounts. Those uses might be fun, but they undo some of the mystical peril of a mythic creature.
They’ve become too mundane since, perhaps.
It Doesn’t Follow a Formula
To be fair, most of the story formulas people are used to using have sprung up after The Hobbit, or even modeling it, but as a writer it is clear to me this story would not make it as a hollywood script.
In fact, it didn’t, which is why Jackson and co. turned one of the best adventure stories of the western canon, understandable by even the very young, and turned it into a giant, contrived mess that discarded most of the things which made the tale memorable.
The story starts slow. It’s full of songs written in verse. There are no human beings until almost the end of the book. The hero doesn’t defeat the dragon, and he doesn’t even do much in the battle. The battle! There’s an ending AFTER the dragon is slain! Orcs out of nowhere?!
And poor Thorin, the one who instigated the quest, the lost king under the mountain, dies in a battle? What a downer!
DIDN’T HE READ SAVE THE CAT?!
Writers, take note. You cannot make something great by sticking to the formula. Nobody will pay attention unless you can break at least some of the rules.
Tolkien wrote a story he thought would be interesting, be good, and make his audience (his children, initially), feel the things he thought were worth feeling. The result is a kind of meaning that doesn’t fit into a three-act structure. It doesn’t fit in hollywood, which can’t concieve of stories with meaning other than what has been done a thousand times before.
That’s probably why the Rankin and Bass adaptation is the best you are going to get for a long time. The message about greed doesn’t fit the formulas of hollywood producers, and it offends their dark hearts.
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above horded goald, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!
I write fantasy novels, among other things. If you want a great adventure of the Fay variety, you can check out The Water of Awakening, Needle Ash, and Crown of Sight, all available on Amazon.