Over the weekend I finally got the chance to see the final Hobbit movie, The Battle of Five Armies. In a strange mirror to my experience with the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, I only watched the last two parts at the cinema. I think that the cinema experience adds to films like these. They are lent an additional depth as you sit in a vast, quiet, dark space and focus on the movie and nothing else for the best part of three hours. You can almost imagine yourself seated in a hall in the depths of Erebor, peering out at events unfolding on the surface.
But today I don’t want to talk about movies, as such. I want to talk about a very important theme that Tolkien’s work seems to invoke. A theme that the movies by Peter Jackson replicate perfectly, and perhaps even convey better than the books.
I’m referring to the adventure, the journey, and how we are made to lament their coming to an end.
If you’ve ever been on a really enjoyable holiday with a group of family or friends, you probably will have experienced the same thing that the characters in Middle-earth often do. You’ve been swept up in this grand experience for days, weeks, even months, and now you’re at the point when it’s coming to an end.
You all depart the holiday, perhaps say goodbye to some new friends, and make your way onto the open road. Perhaps at the next service station your group have to say goodbye to a few more people, as they depart for home. You make it to the airport and then have to bid farewell to yet more dear friends. As you touch down in your own country, you are down to just two cars and you accompany each other as you make for home. But, just before that point, you have to part ways with the last of the group, the final members of the Fellowship.
Everyone has to go home. The group has to disband.
That’s probably a rather dramatic depiction of the end of a holiday, but it’s the structure that both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit follow. Throughout both stories, we meet many interesting characters who represent many different cultures/races within the world. As the story progresses, we grow used to the company of these characters. Because we usually view the story through the eyes of a hobbit, the unfamiliarity and wonder of the world is amplified.
The Hobbit did this first, and while it does a good job of it, it’s surpassed by LOTR. Bilbo and the dwarves at first appear to be as different as chalk and cheese, but they soon come to understand and respect each other. Gandalf acts as the group’s mediator and guide, but he is frequently absent, intensifying that feeling of the “big, bad, unknown wilderness”. It is when the group reach Lake Town that things become particularly interesting.
This is where the movies come in. The Hobbit book glosses over a lot following the defeat of Smaug. It was a children’s book, so it’s to be expected. But Peter Jackson’s movies expand upon this final third of the story to great effect.
Bard the Bowman is not just a hero and leader to his people, he’s now a concerned father, a negotiator for Thranduil and a pivotal figure in the final battle.
Thorin and his dwarves are not just a bunch of bearded stereotypes. Kili gets to fall in love. The excellent Balin gets a hugely expanded role and almost becomes the group’s surrogate Gandalf. Dwalin develops into this fearless warrior, but one who is fiercely loyal and bound by honour. Bofur is given heart by James Nesbitt, who acts the part brilliantly. And Thorin himself undergoes a dark transformation which looms over the entire third act and actually drives every event that takes place.
So, to tie that into my original point, in the third act of The Hobbit we are made to love and/or hate these characters. The journey up until that point is memorable, and it helps build the characters, but it’s at the gates of Erebor where everyone comes into their own.
And when the dust settles, the enemy is defeated and a few friends are lost, it’s time to go home. The thing about these stories is that the hobbits make so many loyal and characterful friends, all of whom would welcome them to visit and even go on more adventures. Bilbo is urged to stay for a grand party in Erebor at the end of The Hobbit, but he politely declines, insisting that he must journey home. He once loved the Shire and Bag-End, but when he returns he feels as if something is missing. Deep down, he wants to fill his life with more experiences and quests. He misses the adventure that has ended and the friends he shared it with.
Both the Hobbit and LOTR books and films have always resonated with me, far more than any other work of epic fantasy. It’s that return to the Shire, that departing of friends and that journey’s end that seems to elevate these stories to something magical, for me.