Psychoanalyzing “The Hobbit”

* Matthews, Dorothy. “The Psychological Journey of Bilbo Baggins.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. A psychoanalytical approach to The Hobbit that accomplishes at least one thing to its credit: an (unwitting) exhibition of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the psychological theories of Freud and Jung. (These guys make medieval allegorical interpretation in its more, um, “creative” moments look like sober and sound exegesis.) Swords as phallic symbols (teehee) gets mentioned at least twice, and we are reminded with a straight face of the “Freudian sex symbols” of “keys, locks, caves, chalices, and cups,” items prevalent in “coming-into-manhood” stories such as The Hobbit. Here’s a choice morsel on Gollum: “The association of this adversary with water and the attention given to his long grasping fingers and voracious appetite suggest a similarity to Jung’s Devouring Mother archetype, that predatory monster which must be faced and slain by every individual in the depths of his unconscious if he is to develop a self-reliant individual.” Whatever. (But perhaps I’m being unfair, and am aggressively acting out my own repressed but otherwise well-adjusted childhood.) Matthews, to be sure, does make a number of insightful comments in the course of her article (for example, her answer to the question why it is not Bilbo whom Tolkien makes responsible for killing Smaug), but it is noteworthy that almost none of them have really anything to do with her psychoanalytical reading of the text.

Revisions in the character of Gollum and the Ring in “The Hobbit”

*** Christensen, Bonniejean. “Gollum’s Character Transformation in The Hobbit.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. Originally published in 1975 (along with the other articles in this volume), this piece undertakes a side-by-side passage comparison of the first and second editions of The Hobbit, noting the changes that Tolkien’s work on The Lord of the Rings exerted retroactively on the character of Gollum and the Ring in The Hobbit. As Christensen summarizes her findings, “Tolkien’s chief alterations in ‘Riddles in the Dark’ change the stakes in the riddle-game, introduce the Ring as a ring of power—sentient, malevolent, addictive, and independent—define the opposing forces in the universe and convert Gollum from a simply lost creature to a totally depraved one…. The alterations clearly increase Gollum’s role and remove the story from the realm of the nursery tale… [T]he transformation of character indicate[s] that Tolkien attaches great importance to Gollum—more than is necessary or even suitable for his function in The Hobbit. But his prominence is appropriate to his expanded role in The Lord of the Rings.

A few (minor) criticisms. While Christensen does a good job of documenting the fact of the influence of The Lord of the Rings on The Hobbit, some further reflection on the significance of this influence, either for the works themselves, or for Tolkien’s craft as a writer, would be appreciated. Related to this, I was surprised Christiansen didn’t mention one item I would think pertinent to her discussion, namely the way Tolkien, in the preface to The Lord of the Rings, ingeniously faults Bilbo’s own initial dishonesty about how he came to acquire the Ring as the reason why there are two significantly differing versions of The Hobbit (clever when an author can blame his own characters for inconsistencies in his work). Finally, I found myself bristling a little at her claim that the imagery of Bilbo’s “leap in the dark” over Gollum’s head is an allusion “so explicitly Christian and so commonplace in theological discussion that again one is tempted to assume that Tolkien has employed common expressions without thought…. Faith: the leap in the dark that a man takes. Bilbo, a hobbit, takes it. The anticlimactic conclusion reinforces the Christian interpretation: man is a weak and insignificant creature who through faith and God’s help overcomes insurmountable obstacles.” Amen to the sentiment about man, but as an interpretation of the passage or its imagery, it seems to assume far too much affinity between Tolkien and Kierkegaardian Christian existentialism than is probably warranted (though to be perfectly fair to Kierkegaard, not even he described faith as a “leap in the dark,” a myth based on the mistaken assumption that the “author” of Fear and Trembling, one “Johannes de Silentio,” is a mere pseudonym for Kierkegaard himself and not the name of a character of his own invention).  These quibbles aside, a valid and worthwhile study of some important changes in The Hobbit.