The Riddles of The Hobbit

The Riddles of the Hobbit - Adam Roberts Adam Roberts is a very busy fellow. He has produced huge numbers of straight satirical books which I’m afraid don’t appeal to me very much. He also has an impressive list of novels behind him. Those I tend to either love or want to throw across the room, depending on who he appears to be snarking at this time, and how soft a target he has chosen. But he is also an academic, a professor of Nineteenth Century literature no less. He’s good at this. I was hugely impressed watching him deal with the students at the Finncon academic conference when he was a guest there, and he understands the work being done by smart people like Merja Polvinen far better than I do. What’s more, when he does write academic books, they tend to be very readable, which is a significant achievement in a field were so many people pride themselves on the obscurity of their texts. As a result, when I was offered an ARC of his new book, The Riddles of The Hobbit, I leapt at the opportunity.

Yes people, you read that rightly: an Adam Roberts book about The Hobbit. I can see you licking your lips in anticipation from here. But wait, this is not what you might expect. You see, like many of our generation, young Adam encountered Middle Earth while in school, and soon became enraptured by it. This is not a book fueled by snark, it is one rooted in a deep and abiding love for our furry-footed friends and the world conjured by their pipeweed-smoking creator. I can see some British fanboys turning in their memberships of the Adam Roberts Society of Extreme Snark over this.

What is more, we learn a new side to Prof. Roberts though this book. He is, it turns out, a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature. In tracing the roots of Tolkien’s inspiration, Roberts delves deep into the archives of the English literary heritage, even providing his own translations of some of the material. You can almost see him channeling his inner Michael Wood, purring over some ancient manuscript in the British Library as he intones a Saxon riddle in the original Olde Englishe.

Of course there is some danger in this sort of thing. Roberts is a professor of literature, not of history, and the book is littered with references to something called the Dark Ages which I suspect will have actual historians of Saxon Britain cringing. I look forward to hearing Edward James (who is a professor of Saxon history) discussing this work.

Potential inter-disciplinary nit-picking, however, should not detract from the basic argument of the book, which is literary rather than historical. After all, there is something very interesting to be revealed here. Roberts is, quite famously, a practitioner of Postmodernism. How the heck is he going to square this with an admiration for the deeply conservative Tolkien?

To give him credit, he recognizes this up front, noting it with the sort of self-deprecating humor that is perfectly Hobbit-like but may come as a surprise to Roberts’ many fans:

There are various sorts of ironic storytelling. One goes by the name of Postmodernism, something with which I personally have a great deal of sympathy, but which we can be fairly sure that Tolkien himself (had he lived long enough to see its coming into vogue in the 1980s and 1990s) would have cordially disliked to an even greater degree than he disliked allegory.

What, then, does Roberts find so attractive in Tolkien’s work? The key is in the title of the book, and indeed in Anglo-Saxon literary history. Tolkien and Roberts are both fascinated but the art of riddling: Tolkien perhaps because it is an ancient game; and Roberts perhaps because the ability to sense multiple meanings in the same words, which is key to deciphering riddles, is also something that is a core technique of Postmodernism.

Roberts is by no means the first person to attempt to read meaning into the riddling words of ancient sages. There are times in the book where he flirts with the ideas of Robert Graves, as expressed in the inimitable White Goddess. Roberts, however, is far too sane to follow Graves off the deep end into what Liz Bourke recently described as a mythological version of conspiracy theory. Instead he studies the riddles of The Hobbit with a view to enlightening us about Tolkien and his work, and about the original material that provided so much of the inspiration for it.

I particularly like the story of the riddle match between Thor and the dwarf, Alvíss, the moral of which is that, while Thor might be dumb, he is not so dumb as to be incapable of outwitting someone who is too clever by half. Roberts even manages to illustrate this tale with a woodcut that portrays the dwarf as an egghead, but it dates from 1908 so can’t be proof of the antiquity of that term.

The story of Alvíss provides the inspiration for Bilbo’s encounter with the trolls, and here again Roberts has an opportunity to display his comedy skills:

Tolkien’s three trolls are called William Huggins, Bert and Tom (we are not vouchsafed Bert and Tom’s surnames): good solid English names, all. They are a bit dim, a bit quarrelsome, small-c conservative and they like a bit of cooked meat washed down with beer — in other words they could hardly be more English, excepting only their propensity for cannibalism, something generally frowned upon in England.

One wonders whether trolls read the Daily Malice. I suspect that they do. They probably also think that consuming Hobbits, who are quite clearly members of another (doubtless inferior) race, is in no way cannibalistic.

There is much more of this sort of thing in the book, as Roberts mines Norse and Saxon folklore (in particular Beowulf and the stories that inspired Der Ring des Nibelungen) for clues as to the meaning of various aspects of Tolkien’s work. Among the questions addressed are why Tolkien chose a ring as his symbol of power, the nature of the “Two Towers”, the meaning of the words ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Earthsea’, and of course the meaning of the phrase “Good Morning”.

Along the way, because it is his job to do such things, Roberts pontificates on the nature of fantastic fiction and the reasons for its current popularity. I was pleased to see that he defends the project as a whole:

What is wrong with Art that insists too severely on pressing people’s faces too insistently against the miseries of actual existence is not that we should not have to confront Dafur or Iraq, poverty or oppression; it is that such art rarely gives us the imaginative wiggle room to think how things might be improved, or challenged, or even accepted. Imaginative wiggle room, on the other hand, is something SF-Fantasy is very good at.

while at the same time being aware of the disillusionment that has made it so addictive:

We prefer stories of Marvel superheroes to stories of actual ‘crime fighters’ (policemen, soldiers and so on) because we have lost faith in the latter, or more precisely lost faith that the latter can ever exhibit the kind of perfect heroism we want our stories to articulate.

Overall I think that the book does a wonderful job of illustrating the depth and complexity of thought inherent in Tolkien’s work, without ever losing sight of the deeply religious and conservative nature of that work. It is a fine example of the skill of distancing appreciation of literary craft from the nature of the literary work under examination — something that all serious students of literature ought to learn but far too few book bloggers seem capable of comprehending.

I note also that the book will hit the stores shortly before the second Hobbit movie reaches the cinemas (probably around the same time that the Extended Edition of the first movie becomes available). It is also amusing, intelligent, and rather sentimental about a well-loved literary favorite. In short, it is ideal Hugo material, and I would not be at all surprised to see it on the Related Work ballot in London.

For more information about Adam Roberts, see the SF Encyclopedia.

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