A friend and I took in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night, somewhat against my better judgement. I’ve actually read the book, which wasn’t the case with The Lord of the Rings, despite a youth spent, in part, playing Dungeons & Dragons and an adulthood reading, in part, some fantasy lit. I was concerned that Peter Jackson–or the movie execs funding the films–made the decision to stretch the book out to a trilogy. Early reviews confirmed the mistake: where Jackson cut The Lord of the Rings to a well-paced trilogy of films, he added material (from various Tolkein sources) to pad the lightweight, overly episodic narrative in the original novel to make a trilogy that, from the evidence at hand, has an at-best viscous flow.
I’ll also note that though I know that Tolkein’s partisans point to the detail with which he sketched out his world’s mythology, ethnography, and history. Jackson put a bunch of this stuff into the film to pad the length to three hours and, I am told, to resolve some inconsistencies between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I don’t find the hobbit to be a “great novel,” nor Tolkein a “great writer,” but he definitely knew what he was doing, and all the backstory he sketched he, significantly, kept out of his novels. Putting the backstory back in to the narrative does violence to the work, and does not make for a better experience. The Hobbit would have been better left as a light, fun, kids’ story.
None of the foregoing was original thinking. What I will report is that I found myself becoming sickened and angry at the amount and character of the slaughter in the film. I am well aware that this is all part of the novel itself and Tolkein’s general take on the genre. Personal qualities are applied to wholesale to races or species. There are only good hobbits, and there are no good goblins.
Slaughter–witness the bloody scene when Gandalf, the dwarves, and Bilbo escape from the goblins. I would count the number of the dead and calculate the ratio against dead good guys, but division by zero is impossible. Not a single one of the adventuring party, dwarf, wizard, or hobbit, dies in the film. Lots of goblins, who as a group only threaten harm to the party when the party enters, uninvited, their underground kingdom.
Orcs and trolls are slaughtered, as well. Orcs are the most vicious, and by appearances congenitally so. They seem to have no cause for grievance against anyone, but grievances against everyone. They live to kill. Trolls–the first slaughter of the film is of three trolls–kill for food, and are notably, in the words of a dwarf, “half-witted.” To be clear, we have three creatures who are hungry, who capture and cook other creature for food, meat, that is, and who are not smart enough to walk through the full ethical implications of their actions. The dwarfs, wizard, and hobbit slaughter them all without remorse.
The point isn’t whether Tolkein was or was not a decent human being. He seems to have been personally very decent. The point is the content of the structure of his literary creation. Above all, somewhat obviously, and somewhat frequently discussed is the racialization of subjects in his work. Distinct personalities only show through in the “good” races, hobbits above all. Hobbits are stand-ins for good English country folk, of the Village Green Preservation Society type. Specific instances of the “bad” races are distinguished only by the extent to which they’re able to be bad. The big, white orc isn’t ethically any worse than the other orcs, he’s just physically able to do more damage.
More interesting is that it is precisely in their ability to slaughter what appears to be hundreds of the “bad” races without a trace of regret that the “good guys” distinguish themselves as “good guys.” None of the goblins here would have been convicted in a court of law, at least of murder, because they hadn’t killed any of the principals in the narrative. Their crime, worthy of death, was that they were goblins enforcing the laws of what everyone agreed was their kingdom. Gandalf and crew we could argue had a higher calling, but in that case the goblins capital offense was that they were in the way.
This doesn’t strike me as simply an expression of racialized thinking that I’d expect from any member of a settler class. Though it bears noting that Tolkein wasn’t born in England, but as a white child in British South Africa. It seems to some great extent to be the collision of this racialized thinking with the personal experience of warfare. Tolkein himself noted the importance of the experience of the :
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.
Tolkein’s mental world, a product of the world through which his life passed, was one in which slaughter was normalized. War on a massive scale was unifying experience of people of not only his place and generation, but the generation to follow. All of his fiction was conceived, if not entirely executed, while this slaughter was going on or in the fairly immediate aftermath. The experience of British soldiers at the Somme was that they were to slaughter as many Germans as they possibly could, not because of something those Germans had done, but because they were Germans. And what aim did those Germans have? To slaughter as many British (or British colonial subjects) as possible, because of who they were.
This is simply how modern warfare works and at some basic level both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings reflect this arrangement. I won’t say that Tolkein or Jackson glorifies the slaughter itself, though surely they glorify the ones doing the slaughter. What Tolkein does do, however, is simply accept this type of mass killing as a normal part of the process of human life.
It is not, however, normal. It is a total aberration from the precedent of our species’ development over hundreds of thousands of years. For most of our history–before the development of states some 10,000 years ago–we surely had inter-group conflict, warfare if one wishes to call it that. But there’s no evidence of genocide per se, which is, be clear, what Tolkein depicts. That’s a thoroughly modern crime, and certainly one impossible to imagine without the development of states. This I think is what sickened me as I watched the film.
We need a fantasy series that examines how the process of war itself brutalizes all sides involved. To some extent George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, on TV as Game of Thrones, does this, though not from a pacifist perspective.