The Tolkien Nerd’s Guide to The Hobbit | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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The Tolkien Nerd’s Guide to The Hobbit

Peter Jackson’s blockbuster movie draws upon stories behind stories behind stories, just as J.R.R. Tolkien’s original works did

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Editor's Note, December 10, 2013: With the second chapter of The Hobbit trilogy opening in theaters soon, and the third and final film to be released next winter, refresh your memory about what happened in the first film.

For readers of The Hobbit, which became an almost overnight classic following its 1937 debut, the new movie may elicit some puzzlement. Seemingly extraneous flourishes clog up what many remember as a simple fairy tale, and random characters appear at every twist and turn throughout Middle Earth.

Yet those fans who went on to immerse themselves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s wider lore will find inspiration. For the most part, director Peter Jackson does not exercise an extra heaping of artistic license. Rather, Jackson—reportedly something of a nerd himself—borrows from the larger Tolkien literature to create a rich Hobbit tableau.

“Jackson knows the lore pretty well and wanted to bring that larger material in there wherever he could,” said Michael Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College who founded the academic journal Tolkien Studies and edited the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. It’s this so-called textuality—or texts behind texts behind other texts—that lends Tolkien’s work the air of reality, he said, and which Jackson seeks to capture in his films.

Jackson isn’t free to tap into any detail he wants from Tolkien’s wider works, however. “He had a very difficult task in that the movie rights extend only to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings,” said John Rateliff, an independent Tolkien scholar and author of The History of the Hobbit. “He’s well aware that there’s a great deal more material set in that world, but contractually not allowed to use that material in the movies.”

More information about some of the plot threads from The Hobbit movie appear in Unfinished Tales (published posthumously by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, in 1980), for example, and The Silmarillion (also published posthumously, in 1977), but Jackson can only hint at the content of these rich texts.

Throughout the film, Jackson tiptoes around this problem, alluding to the larger Tolkien universe when he can. For instance, the mysterious blue wizards, who Gandalf briefly mentions to Bilbo in the movie, are identified by name only in Unfinished Tales, hence Gandalf conveniently “forgetting their names” to spare Jackson a potential lawsuit.

Similarly, while Hugo Weaving’s elf lord of Rivendell, Elrond, recognizes that one of the swords recovered from the troll cave hails back to the goblin wars and once belonged to the king of Gondolin, an Elven city that fell to darkness, he fails to mention the king’s name, Turgon, and does not add that Turgon is actually his own great-grandfather. These details come from The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales (published posthumously, in 1983 and 1984). “Elrond could have quite easily have said, ‘Hey, thanks for bringing that back, we wondered what came of that sword over the last 7,000 years,’ but he doesn’t,” Rateliff said.

At one point, Jackson edges dangerously close to the fine line of intellectual rights. “The Quest of Erebor,” a story contained in Unfinished Tales, retells the opening chapter of The Hobbit from Gandalf’s point of view. In it, Gandalf justifies his uncanny attraction to Bilbo, a hobbit with “a love of tales” and “eagerness in his bright eyes.” In the film, Gandalf chidingly asks when Bilbo became more interested in china and doilies than in adventure, mirroring those lines from Unfinished Tales. “I wonder if the Tolkien estate will sue over it,” Drout said. “They are litigious.”

Some of the other references are easy to spot, like Frodo’s appearance at the beginning of the The Hobbit harkening back to The Fellowship of the Ring. Others are more cryptic, however. With Jackson's obfuscation about where the many threads came from, it would be easy for even the mild Tolkien fanatic to get confused. Recognizing some of these twists may help dubious fans be more supportive of Bilbo’s tri-installment cinematic journey—and also appreciate Jackson’s own celebrated nerdery.

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