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You Don't Know J.R.R.: A Real Tolkien Expert On Everything You Need To Know About The Hobbit

You shall not pass…your weak knowledge of all things Hobbit off as expertise. Dr. Corey Olsen knows everything about Tolkien and he’s here to ease your concerns about a certain upcoming trilogy.

If you’re like me, you talk a big game when it comes to J.R.R. Tolkien. You read The Hobbit as a kid, watched the 1977 cartoon version on VHS (or, gasp, BETA), devoured The Lord of the Rings as a teenager, and feel quite insidery to be able to pronounce Silmarillion correctly (even though you haven’t read it). I’m guessing you waited for over an hour to see Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring. And you congratulate yourself for getting the “darkest depths of Mordor” allusion when the classic rock station plays Led Zeppelin’s "Ramble On." You might even take your fandom a step further and, at your book-themed wedding, sit your father at the “Tolkien” table.

VHS Box

And when you learned that Peter Jackson had taken The Hobbit, a book of only 333 pages, and stretched it into three feature-length movies, you felt outraged. You were certain that Jackson had succumbed to the Evil One himself, undermining the purity of Tolkien’s masterpiece for the sake of profit.

But friend, if you’re like me, it’s time to face the facts. You are a Tolkien dilettante. And since you know not what you speak, allow me to introduce you to someone who does: Dr. Corey Olsen, expert on all things J.R.R. Olsen is a professor of Medieval Studies and author of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, published earlier this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s the host of a popular podcast, The Tolkien Professor, and last year, he started the Mythgard Institute, an online educational community that offers college-level courses in science fiction and fantasy literature. I spoke to him at length and I assure you: he’s legit. And since Olsen isn’t terribly worried about Jackson’s three-part Hobbit, it means the rest of us can relax.

Here’s why.

The Idiot’s Guide to The Hobbit

The Hobbit was published in 1937 as a children’s book. It’s a light-hearted and comedic story about the hairy-toed Bilbo Baggins, who along with a bunch of dwarves, is sent by the wizard Gandalf to recover treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug. En route, Gandalf tells Bilbo to avoid an evil sorcerer called the Necromancer who lives in Mirkwood Forest. Bilbo also meets the slimy, lisping Gollum, who has lost a super cool ring. (It makes its wearer invisible.) Bilbo finds the ring and takes it. In the end, the dragon is killed and Bilbo returns to his quaint country home. The end.

First Edition Cover of The Hobbit

What About The Lord of the Rings?

The Hobbit was a huge hit, so in 1938, Tolkien started a sequel: a series of short tales for children, tentatively titled “The New Hobbit.” Seventeen years later, he completed The Lord of the Rings. The manuscript was a thousand pages long, and because England was still experiencing a paper shortage from the war, Tolkien’s publisher split the book into three.

It was over the nearly two decades during which Tolkien wrote Rings, that he developed the history of Middle Earth, the Silmarillion legends, the fictional languages, and the three ages, culminating with the war over the ring. But Tolkien had produced much more material than he could fit into a single narrative--even one divided into three books. He ended up drafting essays, appendices, and even an additional book to make sure that every invention, legend, and crazy-named ancestor was accounted for. It was only after the fact—decades after The Hobbit appeared on shelves--that Tolkien began to think of his children’s story as a precursor to Rings.

“Bilbo got a ring in the original Hobbit, but it wasn’t the Ring of Power,” says Olsen. He goes on to explain that Smaug was just a greedy dragon holed up in a mountain. He wasn’t allies with the Necromancer. And the Necromancer was simply a wicked sorcerer. He wasn’t an early manifestation of Sauron (i.e. the original Voldemort). Gandalf, meanwhile, was just a funny wizard, who really enjoyed his pipe. He wasn’t trying to save the world from an Orc apocalypse.

Olsen says that Peter Jackson used some of this additional material in his Rings movies. (Arwyn and Aragorn’s love affair is the prime example.) And Olsen believes that Jackson will be using quite a bit more of it in his Hobbit movies. “In The Hobbit, we don’t know anything about Gandalf’s motivations for sending Bilbo with the dwarves,” says Olsen. “But once these things are placed in the larger story of Rings, they become really significant.”

So if you’re thinking about The Hobbit as a prequel, the way that Tolkien came to see it 20y years after its creation, then it’s a much longer story, and one that deserves at least two movies. If not three.

What Should We Expect To See In Peter Jackson’s New Trilogy?

At the end of chapter 7, Gandalf leaves Bilbo and the dwarves to finish their journey alone. “He just wanted to get Gandalf off the page,” says Olsen. “The original manuscript makes it clear that Tolkien had no idea where Gandalf was going.” By the end of the novel, however, Tolkien had invented a reason for Gandalf’s abrupt departure. He’d gone to attend a “great council of the white wizards,” a strategy session for pushing the Necromancer out of Mirkwood. But remember: When Tolkien wrote this, the Necromancer was just a random bad guy. Seventeen years later, Tolkien decided that the white council had met because they knew the Necromancer was really Sauron.

Olsen speculates that Gandalf’s dealings with the white council, which were never dramatized in The Hobbit, will play a primary role in the movies. He also expects an elaboration on the scenes in Rivendale, where Gandalf will also discuss the Necromancer’s (i.e. Sauron’s) containment with his elf friends Elrond and Galadriel.

Warning: Tolkien Wonk Ahead

Olsen hopes that Jackson’s movies will include the Battle of Azanulbizar--an ancient conflict between goblins and dwarves at the Mines of Moria. This war is detailed in Appendix A of The Return of the King, and it includes the story about how dwarf Thorin (one of Bilbo’s companions) got the nickname, Oakenshield.

“I’ve been joking on my podcast for last year that I’d like to see the whole dwarf-goblin grudge match,” Olsen says. “It’s the perfect setup for Battle of Five Armies at the end of The Lord of the Rings.” Olsen admits that he’s been watching the Hobbit trailer frame-by-frame for signs of this particular battle. “I’m really excited!” he says.

Cleary, Professor Olsen is a fan as much as he is a serious scholar. Sure, he never taught himself to speak Elvish (“Tolkien only created 12 verbs, which makes it hard to have a conversation!”), and he generally doesn’t put on rubber ears. But if you want to put on rubber ears and dress up like a dwarf for The Hobbit’s big screen premiere, he won’t call you a dilettante. Just promise him that you’ll finally read The Silmarillion.

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6 Comments

  • Nicole Renée

    I feel that, as cool as it will be to see the extra appendix/background stories get some life on the big screen, they have convoluted the story. It is The Hobbit after all. Tolkien wrote it very specifically with children in mind. I just feel like they're milking his works a bit; I'm sure PJ will do great, but I still feel like The Hobbit could have just been the Hobbit and just had one bad guy and would still do just as well. -sigh- Regardless, I'm sure the movies will be beautiful and I will go to all of the midnight showings, and buy all the fancy Blu-Rays when they come out.

  • Godzillageek

    The fact that the events that have been added to pad out the Hobbit films (mostly) exist in some form in appendices and footnotes from other Tolkien volumes doesn't in any way lessen the accusation that the Hobbit movie trilogy is compromising much of what made The Hobbit book such an enjoyable story for the sake of trying to create another Lord of the Rings-type financial windfall. 

    Sadly, what seems to be happening is that the stretched-thin storyline doesn't succeed in matching the epic bombast of the LOTR movies, while also sacrificing the more whimsical and personal aspects of The Hobbit book in attempting to do so.

  • VLaszlo

    Olson doesn't have to speculate about anything, since Jackon has spoken explicitly, and publicly, about using material from the appendices for the last 3-4 years. This article is a little too uninformed to be so smug(cute?), and nothing in it required a so-called Tolkien 'expert' or their misleading, reductive outline of the publishing history of his books.