The Hobbit frenzy is building here in Wellington, not least through 7-storey high posters and Sir Peter Jackson’s surprise (dis)appearance in a Hobbit-themed Air New Zealand safety video.
I’ve got posts on this lined up for December, including a nostalgic tour through some of the old Lord Of The Rings shooting sites around Wellington.
It got me thinking about how good a book The Hobbit is, nearly 75 years on from first publication. Most books date. Some gain a kind of period charm. But not The Hobbit.
J R R Tolkien got it right. He created a timeless novel that speaks to us across the years – and there are lessons in that for writers – everybody from those sweating away over National November Writing Month to fantasy writers to, well, anybody wanting to write a great story.
For me The Hobbit reveals how masterful Tolkien was, in so many ways. Here’s what he did:
1. Writing style.
Tolkien got the style and tone right for his audience – kids (of any age). The Hobbit is also designed to be read aloud, complete with narrator voice. This didn’t happen overnight. A glance through the ‘first drafts’ of the book reveals evolution. Like everything Tolkien did, The Hobbit was written iteratively.
The Hobbit is the classic Hero journey – since defined by Joseph Campbell and used by George Lucas in Star Wars. Before them there was Tolkien and The Hobbit. Bilbo is pushed out of ordinary life into ‘the magic world’ by a mentor (Gandalf). He has adventures that allow him to grow – the Troll encounter, the riddle game with Gollum, Beorn, and Mirkwood. When he reaches Erebor, he is ready to face the dragon. He returns to the ordinary world changed for the better.
3. Pace and tone.
Tolkien kept the book moving. At 240-odd pages it was the right length for his audience. His plot had a lightness of touch. Gandalf disappears to fight the Necromancer for character reasons; Tolkien has to strip Bilbo of his mentor so Bilbo can grow. Gandalf’s story did not need telling; it was a device, not an omission. The equivalent scene in Star Wars was the death of Obi Wan Kenobi.
4. Sense of wonder.
The Hobbit is filled with the magic of discovery. Part of it came from the way Tolkien founded The Hobbit in his emerging mythos of Middle Earth. Nothing quite like this had been seen in literature. Although it wasn’t fully developed in 1935-36, when he was writing The Hobbit, he had enough to give depth that other childrens’ stories of the day lacked.
The take-home lesson for me is that enduring, quality fiction needs to follow Tolkien’s lead. Tolkien did not pander to the latest story ideas. He wrote a story that was conceptually founded in the consciousness of the western world. His tale spoke to readers on levels well beyond immediate plot. And that, I think, is a worthy aspiration for writers. Sure, that won’t sell the same way as transient salacious vampire fiction. But a lot of that doesn’t sell as we imagine either. And I think writers owe it to themselves to aspire to something better.
Tolkien was a master story teller. We need to attend to his lessons. I know I am. You?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012