I was excited to see the trailer for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.
And now that I’ve seen the trailer, I’m excited to see the movie.
From the title of the film, we see that Jackson is sticking with J.R.R. Tolkien’s invented term for Bilbo Baggins and his people. As Tolkien wrote:
Hobbit is an invention. In the Westron the word used, when this people was referred to at all, was banakil “halfling.” But at this date the folk of the Shire and of Bree used the work kuduk, which was not found elsewhere. Meriadoc, however, actually records that the King of Rohan used the word kûd-dûkan “hole-dweller.” Since, as has been noted, the Hobbits had once spoken a language closely related to that of the Rohirrim, it seems likely that kuduk was a worn-down form of kûd-dûkan. The latter I have translated, for reasons explained, by holbytla; and hobbit provides a word that might be a worn-down form of holbytla, if that name had occurred in our own ancient language.
That’s from one of the appendices in The Return of the King, titled “On Translation.” It’s an odd little metafictional touch at the end of Tolkien’s epic. He had already established the conceit that his stories were his “translations” from the “Red Book of Westmarch,” a history compiled by the hobbit-protagonists of his fantasy novels. The full title, according to Tolkien, was actually, “The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King (as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise).”
“On Translation” is great fun and even, in a way, kind of funny — a joke told by an old linguistic scholar with a twinkle in his eye. But it’s just sort of tacked on at the end and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the books. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings don’t read like memoirs. They’re third-person accounts told from an omniscient perspective. They are, unmistakably, stories told by a storyteller — and not stories that are being, or that could be, told by any of the characters in them.
The storyteller sees things, knows things and tells things that none of his characters could see or know or tell. That includes things that Bilbo, Frodo, their friends and “the Wise” could not have included in their version of the story even if they had supplemented their own accounts with extensive research. They would have had to spend years tracking down and interviewing obscure figures — some of whom were already dead — in order to collect all the other perspectives portrayed in the story from dozens of peripheral figures, such as Bard, Eowyn, Butterbur, Shagrat, or the puzzled fox who remarks on the strangeness of finding four hobbits sleeping in the wilderness.
The inclusion of all those different perspectives can only be the work of a storyteller who is not himself a part of the story. The presence and work of that storyteller — the fact of that storyteller — undermines the conceit of the appendix “On Translation.” As whimsically delightful as that appendix is, we’re not really expected to believe it. Tolkien isn’t really asking us to accept the historicity of the Red Book of Westmarch because that’s not really the kind of story he has given us.
The talking fox tells us that this is not a memoir and is not meant to be read as a historical account.
And this has nothing to do with whether or not one finds the idea of a talking fox believable. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that foxes can talk. The problem with this particular talking fox is not that he can talk, but that no one else in our story heard him talk. Bilbo and Merry weren’t there. Frodo, Sam and Pippin were sound asleep. The only witness to the brief visit from the talking fox is the omniscient, third-person storyteller who describes the scene:
A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.
“Hobbits!” he thought. “Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.” He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.
That tells us all we need to know about the kind of story we are reading. Whatever the playful conceit of “On Translation,” Tolkien himself has given us a text that shows us and tells us what kind of story it is, and it is neither a memoir nor a historical account.
It is a story told by a storyteller — a delightful story artfully told by a storyteller. To read it otherwise and to treat it otherwise is to misread it and mistreat it.