By Christopher Howse -- 7:00PM BST 29 Sep 2012
The tale of The Hobbit will survive the film (with Billy Connolly as a dwarf warrior and Stephen Fry as the mayor of Lake-town) in the same way that the Iliad survived the film Troy (with Brad Pitt as Achilles). For The Hobbit, published 75 years ago, is not a fantasy-adventure as it is being described, but a myth, or part of a mythology.
J R R Tolkien’s telling of The Hobbit in 1937 was just one way that the story could have been told. Its narration is quite different from that of The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is joky, domestic and aimed at children. Tolkien happily illustrated it himself, unlike his more serious work, and the mysterious runes on the dustjacket are simply a transliteration of the English: “The Hobbit or There and Back Again, being the record of a year’s journey made by Bilbo Baggins…”
Peter Jackson’s film trilogy of The Hobbit – the first a royal performance in December – will iron out some of these differences. Film is only another form of story-telling. If you don’t like Tolkien’s prose (as many do not), then rewrite it in Latin hexameters if you wish. Someone once did that to Milton’s Paradise Lost in the vain hope of improving it.
People such as Billy Connolly find Tolkien “unreadable”, as he says, because they suppose it to be a fantasy of the dungeons and dragons genre. Tolkien’s aim was immeasurably higher – to provide England with the mythology it had lost. He may have been no great stylist (though his high, biblical register in The Lord of the Rings is often inattentively read, as attempts to parody it demonstrate). But he was an astonishing mythopoeist.
Tolkien’s starting point was the same as that of the Grimm brothers, whose work is in vogue once more: language. The Hobbit falls in the genre called Märchen, house-tales, or, in the misleading English translation, fairy tales. But it began with a word, Hobbit, for which Tolkien had to find an origin. For him, origins of words went to the mythic roots of the people who used them, even when those people were imaginary.