Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hobbits Never Say "Lo!"

Tolkien found the conversation of Hobbits one of the surprising joys of writing LOTR. That writing did not come naturally to him, but he enjoyed listening in on them as much as his readers do. His natural tendency was to grand and formal speech, which we see especially in The Silmarillion. Less than half of LOTR fans liked TS, and the lack of hobbits was the most frequent complaint.

Even in LOTR, nearly all non-hobbit characters speak in formal style, enough so that it is easy to parody. Just this week I realised I would find the book barely tolerable without hobbit-talk. In the original Hobbit the dialogue is a touch stilted in another direction, toward the childlike and overly-playful. The dwarves, or even Gandalf, are the more reliable link between the serious and the comic at first, though over the course of the book Bilbo rather grows into his own and stands in both worlds. Older words and elements – runes, wars long past, dangerous monsters and archaic names – are only gradually introduced into the story, as Bilbo moves out of his predictable and normal world into the frightening world without. Yes, normal, even in a fantasy context. The Shire, for all its invention, is more like our own world than all beast-fables and most realistic fiction.

Tolkien may have been most devoted to the remote landscapes and sweeps of history of the LOTR appendices and The Silmarillion, but for the reader, these are the background, the canvas on which the hobbit-story is written. Hobbits never say “Lo,” never say let us gird ourselves and weep no more, or It is long indeed since we saw one of Durin's folk in Caras Galadhon. By the very end, Frodo might be able to say, like Gandalf, It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, Sam, but even then, it would be a stretch. None of the other hobbits come near it.

Hobbit-talk is the center of the story. The great events of an invented world, however edifying, matter little to us – at least as far as the pull of the narrative. It is that these poor rustics are caught up in the great events – persons less dignified and heroic than ourselves. What is happening to hobbits, and listening in on their encounter with the enormities of war, monsters terrible to even think about, succession of kings, and grudges of a thousand years are all we care about. The lone exception is the section devoted to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, first in their pursuit of the hobbits, then in the wars of the age. Yet it is in this section that Gimli’s speech changes a bit, becomes less formal. He becomes the necessary hobbit for those scenes. Not coincidentally, these are the most memorable and beloved episodes about any dwarf in the books.

Span of years roughly correlates with this grand archaism. This makes an intuitve story-sense, that those who live longest speak most toward eternity, with High Elves being most formal of all.


karrde said...

It seems strange, but I loved the The Silmarillion more than the Lord of the Rings...

That might have had something to do with the ages at which I read The Hobbit, LotR, and TS. (Respectively, ~11, ~13, ~16).

However, I read kids-enclopedia-versions of Greek myths between these books, and loved Oddysey for its archaic feel in college, and read Iliad and Beowulf for fun later...so I may be an outlier.

I agree, the Hobbit characters (and Gimli, when no Hobbits are handy) humanize the great heroes and vast expanse of history. I missed them a little bit when I read The Silmarillion, but I loved the grand scope of the story, and its tragic rise and fall.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have at least one other friend who prefers The Silmarillion, for reasons similar to yours. I wanted desperately to like it, and bought a copy the first day it was available (a less common occurrence in those days).

karrde said...

I still wonder if the Silmarillion would have been attractive without the introduction to Middle-Earth via the eyes of the Hobbits.

Dubbahdee said...

I'm not sure of which friend you speak, AVI, but if it ain't me, you can add another to your list. I lost count of how many time I have read LOTR, but I think I have traveled TS at least 5 times, and loved every bit of it.
It captures much of the sense of "northerness" that Lewis spoke of so much. I remember immediately recognizing it as being of a different order still (sylistically) from LOTR as LOTR was from the Hobbit. It is more lofty, more grand, less colliquial.
But as I am all about quiddity, I love them all as they are for what they are.