The Hobbit

Wanted to re-read this classic, delightful tale before the first of two Peter Jackson movies debuts later this year. What struck me this time was the amount of narrative interruption, moments when the narrator addresses the reader directly. It doesn’t happen on every page, or even every other page, but it happens often enough to stand as a motif:

It was just at this moment that Bilbo suddenly discovered the weak point in his plan. Most likley you saw it some time ago and have been laughing at him; but I don’t suppose you would have done half as well yourselves in his place.

I have never heard what happened to the chief of the guards and the butler.

What would have happened if the door had still been open I don’t like to think.

This is neither the tiresome, self-important voice of a “post-modern” (whatever the hell that means) narrator breaking the fourth wall between author and reader, nor evidence of Tolkien’s immaturity as an author (I haven’t studied this point I’m about to make, he writes with respectful trepidation, but I’m confident there are far fewer of these moments in “The Lord of the Rings”). These passages are seldom yet regular, seem strategic rather than accidental.

While it’s easy to think that Tolkein is addressing his readers in these passsaages, it’s important to understand that is the narrator, not the author, who is speaking at these moments. The narrator speaks as someone indirectly involved in Bilbo’s adventure, perhaps one charged with telling the tale. This makes the narrator of “The Hobbit” a character with a vested interest in the story’s acceptance. Rather than breaking down a wall between author and reader, these passages create another wall between the text and the reader — wall being an ill-fitting metaphor, perhaps stage would do better.

In “The Hobbit,” Tolkein creates a clever, subtle narrator who appears often enough to remind us that we are experiencing Bilbo’s adventures as a tale, told by a non-participant who nevertheless is closer to events than we are as readers. It is a story not only about dwarves and horrible monsters and the feats of heroes, but also about how such stories are told.

And in conclusion, I do so hope the two upcoming movies are far superior in quality to my above attempt at litery analysis.

5 thoughts on “The Hobbit

  1. It’s such an important but subtle difference, and I think you articulated it quite well! I am accustomed to thinking of this in terms of my work on Homer, but had never noticed it in the Hobbit – now I want to go back and reread it too 🙂

  2. That’s very interesting. I have read the Hobbit as a child numerous times and I was also planning to re-read it soon, especially since I have developed a slightly negative view of Tolkien as a writer. I will definitely need to keep this in mind.

    • FWIW, I encourage you to re-read Tolkien with a critical eye. His works have been the object of near-scriptural devotion for decades, and the only way “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” will endure is if a more sophisticated understanding of them is cultivaed.

      • I would hope so, although I have been working on some LotR projects and that kind of ruined my childhood Tolkien experience. It was a research program for a book being written. Anyway, I was not dealing with the style but the story itself, and I will take your advice and read with a more critical eye this time. As I said, it’s been years and I definitely will pick these out without much effort.

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