The Hobbit an Allegory for the Inter-War Years
Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, an Unexpected Journey is finally in theatres, capping off a 2012 whose offering of films offered disappointingly few highlights. (It’s tough to say if 2013 will be much better.) This also means that JRR Tolkien is with us once again, as Jackson presents the prequel that inspired all prequels, as The Hobbit must inevitably give way to The Lord of the Rings (the trilogy that inspired all trilogies).
Just as with The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is about far more than merely the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorrin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). As the Lord of the Rings is widely recognized as an allegory for the Second World War, The Hobbit is recognized as an allegory for the inter-war years; a time when the world mistook itself as being at peace, when in fact the grim machinations of Adolph Hitler were making another war inevitable.
Approximately midway through The Hobbit viewers encounter a scene that is a sombre reminder of this: an impromptu council called by Saruman the White in Rivendell. Present are Saruman himself, Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel. Elrond and Saruman both insist that Middle Earth is at peace. Gandalf boldly disputes this.
Saruman doesn’t want Thorrin and his company to continue on their quest to reclaim their home, for fear that he may wake Smaug. Gandalf sees Thorrin’s quest as the best opportunity to destroy Smaug so that he may not be put to use by an even greater evil lingering in the fortress of Dol Guldur. Saruman dismisses the very notion of this danger, despite the presentation of what Elrond and Galadriel recognize as very disturbing evidence: a Morgol blade.
The evidence of Sauron’s imminent return is staring him in the face, yet Saruman refuses to acknowledge it. As a believer that only great power can hold evil at bay, Saruman foolishly believes that the power of the varied guardians of Middle Earth can keep Sauron at bay. Before the end comes, it’s this great love of power that will prove to be Saruman’s fall from grace, which in turn leads to his ultimate downfall.
Gandalf is a very different character. He’s neither eager for battle nor does he shrink away from it. Neither a hawk nor a dove, he’s what Benjamin Barber would describe as “Owlish;” very aware of the consequences of rushing into battle, utterly unwilling to do so needlessly, but nearly fearless when he must. The kind of individual who always weighs what can be gained in battle against the dangers of the battle before charging in. Throughout history, more of our leaders should have been so wise. This applies as much to Neville Chamberlain as it does to George W Bush.
The classic example of Gandalf’s strategic wisdom is actually the Battle of Helm’s deep. Those familiar with The Two Towers via the film will recall that, in the Peter Jackson version, Gandalf urges King Theodin not to retreat to the fortress, but rather to ride out and fight the forces of Mordor. Those who have never read the book probably don’t know it any differently. But in the book Gandalf urges Theodin not to ride out and fight, but rather to retreat to Helm’s Deep and wait out the enemy until he returns with reinforcements.
The desperate life-and-death struggle of the film is very different in contrast to the depiction of Tolkien himself, who presents it as an almost casual affair – even (and especially) upon the breaking of the wall. In the book, as in the film, Gandalf relieves the fortress not with the Rohirrim, but rather with an army of Ents.
The change may seem like enough to make one suspect that Jackson has discarded the spirit of The Lord of the Rings. But one shouldn’t mistake a decision clearly made to make his film more compelling – and perhaps better fit the current state of global affairs – for a rebuke of Tolkien.
Jackson embraces the spirit of Tolkien in what may well be the most sobering moment of The Hobbit, wherein Ballin (Ken Stott) recounts the battle of Moria – in which the Dwarves, led by Thror (Thorrin’s grandfather) attempted to re-take Moria from orcs. Yet in the face of Azog the Dephiler, the Dwarves manage only the narrowest of victories: a mere handful of them survive.
There is no joy in this victory. There are no feasts, no songs. Only sorrow. In fact, it isn’t really a victory at all. Even though they’ve defeated the orcs on the field of battle, they are too few to be able to reclaim Moria. They are left unable to achieve their objective.
Contrast this to the conclusion of Return of the King – wherein Aragorn leads the combined armies of Gundor and Rohan to the gates of Mordor. He’s prepared to sacrifice right down to the last man, right down to his own life, just to distract Sauron long enough for Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) to slip into Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring. Once again, Aragorn is wise enough to understand that victory is only won once the objective is achieved. The two battles present the opposite sides of this particular coin: a near-rout can be a victory so long as the objective is achieved. Fortunately, Frodo is able to spare them the rout.
Tolkien still has so much to teach us, and for at least the next two years he will continue to teach us still: Jackson has adapted The Hobbit into a trilogy.
Patrick Ross is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist