The Great Age Equalizer: An Examination of the Resonance of Fantasy and Science Fiction with Young Readers

[[Sometimes, I find myself writing full-on academic papers on literary stuff. Sometimes (even more rarely) I feel inclined to share them. This is one of those times. – Doyce]]


For nearly fifty years, publishers, libraries, and even readers of mainstream fiction have readily separated their stories into “adult” and “child” subsets (often depending entirely on the age of the protagonist as the key distinction). By contrast, modern science fiction and fantasy resisted this trend for several decades; both genres perpetually seen as accessible to younger readers or, less charitably, too childish for serious adults. I would like to examine the evolution of the “Middle Grade and Young Adult” subcategories of fiction, and how the themes intrinsic to fantasy and science fiction strongly parallel those of mainstream middle-grade and young adult, thus appealing to readers of all ages. I believe these common themes in fantasy and science fiction neutralized the demand for “Middle Grade” and “Young Adult” designations for decades past their common usage in other genres, while at the same times painting these genres as “childish” or “not real literature,” despite a broadly diversified field with major influences on global culture and thought.

The Evolution of Adolescent Publication

The reader should not imagine I am implying that books specifically written for young readers are in any way a new phenomena. Such a statement is, of course, ridiculous: reading material printed specifically for children dates back as far as 1440 and the creation of hornbooks, and includes such classics as The Jungle Books, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh, and Charlotte’s Web.

But these stories, wonderful as they are, stand alone in a forest of fiction written for adults. In their time, they were exceptions that proved the rule: no subset within the publication of fiction was categorically dedicated to young readers until relatively recently. Until then, many of the books most popular with child readers were written and published for adults, and include classics such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Treasure Island, and The Hobbit. (Not coincidentally a science fiction, adventure, and fantasy story, respectively.) [Crowe, Tunnell][#history]

It wasn’t until the publication of The Outsiders in 1967 that a formal definition of young adult literature began to emerge. What separated S. E. Hinton’s story from the books people in this age range read prior to that point was simple: it was a book about young adults and written for young adults. Previously (and even contemporaneously, as with The Chosen, also published in 1967) books with young adult characters were not written for that age group [Wells][#wells].

This change was both a good and bad thing: good in that it began the shift in perception that would lead publishers to treat non-adult fiction as a special and noteworthy thing, bad in that the strong initial influence of The Outsiders and the simplistic criteria of “written about kids, for kids” led to a general guideline for identifying children’s, middle-grade, and young adult fiction based solely on the age of the protagonist, and ignoring any other factors that might be as important, or even vastly more important.

This isn’t to say The Outsiders flipped a switch and publishing suddenly perceived a new category of fiction: it took several decades for this subset of literature to reach the point where the work being put out by publishers consistently satisfied its intended audience. In mainstream Young Adult fiction, the 1970s were overwhelmed with “single problem novels”, dealing with problems young adults faced, but often in an unsatisfactory or simplistic way. The 1980s saw a boom in romance and horror fiction, but it wasn’t until the 1990s and the rise in “middle grade” literature, which expanded the publishers’ perceived audience, that YA authors were free to tackle more serious subjects and to introduce more complex characters and considerations of ambiguity. [Cart][#cart].

The Long Battles within Fantasy and Science Fiction

The genres of fantasy and science fiction had no similar watershed moment, triggered by the release of an “Elves versus Dwarves” version of The Outsiders. Luminaries in the field continued to write what they had always written, and paid no particular attention to the intended reader’s age, though they suffered no lack of popularity with young readers: Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which was published only two years after Hinton’s classic, won the Hugo and Nebula in 1970, and remains popular with readers of all ages; Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, published in 1977 (when mainstream young adult fiction struggled with mediocre “problem novels”) features a young boy in a military organization and explored themes that simultaneously appealed to young readers and even today make it suggested reading for many military organizations, including the United States Marine Corps. [USMC][#marines]

Lacking an “Outsiders moment,” these genres were able to produce stories free from strict categorization of adult versus non-adult, which allowed each story to find its best audience on its own merits.

Rather than needing to age-market their books, writers of science fiction and fantasy instead struggled with the perception that all of their work was unsuitable both for children and adult readers: in the first case, too dark or dangerous for the young…

… one friend of mine said, “I’ll tell you something fantastic. Ten yeas ago (1964), I went to the children’s room of the library of such-and-such a city, and asked for The Hobbit; and the librarian told me, ‘Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don’t feel that escapism is good for children.'” [Le Guin, Dragons][#lgd]

… while too whimsical for adults.

“A great many Americans are not only antifantasy, but altogether antifiction. We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible.” [Le Guin, Dragons][#lgd]

This paradox has plagued science fiction and fantasy writers for decades – critics dismiss the genres as vapid or trite, while at the same time denouncing them for the potential harm they can bring to impressionable younger readers introduced to serious topics before they are ready. It is not a recent development: Baum argued for the importance of imagination and the fantastic in the first introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, and Tolkien addressed the question in his essay “On Fairy Stories” decades before Le Guin wryly argued the critics were correct, but confused: the stories were both whimsical and dark, in exactly the way that made them perfect for both adults and children.

“Fantasy is the great age equalizer; if it’s good when you’re 12 it’s quite likely to be just as good, or better, when you’re 36.” [Le Guin, Dreams][#lgdr]

No Such Thing as Coincidence

It’s difficult if not impossible for any reader familiar with contemporary publishing to miss the fact these arguments (and criticisms) are remarkably similar to those leveled at Middle Grade and Young Adult writers and books today [Monseau][#monseau]. In almost every case, the top modern YA authors face marginalization and outright dismissal from “serious” critics for the same reasons (inappropriate themes, or jejune writing – the critics still can’t seem to decide [Gurdon][#wsg]), and have found themselves forced to justify their own work in the court of public opinion [Johnson][#yasaves] [Drew][#drewpop], as in this passage by Shedrick Pittman-Hasset, which could just as easily have been written by Ursula Le Guin in the mid-1970s.

The darkness exists. Always has and, [insert appropriate deity here] help us, always will. That we are now able to speak of it in the presence of those that have actually, or could actually experience it is a Good Thing. For those that have spent time in the dark places, these books demonstrate they are not alone; that with strength and perseverance, they can emerge and be free. Those that have not walked that dark path gain a degree of perspective on their own problems and also move away from the “blame the victim” mentality that often goes hand-in-hand with silence. As one fellow author brilliantly put it “We need to see someone be strong when they face their demons, so we can be strong when we do.” [Pittman-Hasset][#ph]

These commonalities between modern YA, and speculative fiction going back over a century point to clues that reveal the reason why science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream middle-grade and young adult publishing all produce stories popular with adolescents, while at the same time attracting both the scorn and censure of so-called serious critics.

The Elements of Adolescence

Adolescence can be characterized by a few key themes. Gisela Konopka of the Center for Youth Development and Research at the University of Minnesota developed a statement on the concept of normal adolescence in 1973. Out of her research with young adults, five key concepts emerged: an “experience of physical sexual maturity,” an “experience of withdrawal of and from adult benevolent protection,” a “consciousness of self in interaction,” a “re-evaluation of values,” and “exploration and experimentation” [Konopka, 298-300][#kono].

Examining these five elements as they relate to adolescent and adult fiction is enlightening.

Sexual Maturity

It’s not difficult to see the draw of this topic in fiction; “sex sells” has become more of a punchline than a guideline, but in the realm of adolescent fiction, the approach is more nuanced, and may often be one of the primary themes of the story, explored with care and consideration (rather than a way to spice up up chapter three).

“Can I hug you?”

“Do you want to?” said Bod.

“Yes.”

“Well then.” He thought for a moment. “I don’t mind if you do.” [Gaiman, 254][#ggyb]

It’s obviously no more difficult to find examples of protagonists exploring sexual maturity in science fiction and fantasy; the surprising thing is that the topic is often handled with just as much consideration, if not in fact a sort of circumspect care.

“Then, Eowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful. It may be that only a few days are left ere darkness falls upon our world, and when it comes I hope to face it steadily; but it would ease my heart, if while the sun yet shines, I could see you still.” [Tolkien, RoK, 238][#tolkienrok]

Withdrawal from Adult Protection

This theme is one we have revisited often in our study of Newbery award winning books. It is, if not ubiquitous in adolescent fiction, nearly so. Poor Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time must step away from the safety of adult protection no fewer than five times in a single story, leaving behind her mother, Mrs. Who, Aunt Beast, her father and, finally, rejecting the ultimate all-encompassing adult protection personified by IT [L’Engle][#wrinkle].

Among science fiction and fantasy ostensibly written for adults, perhaps one of the most definitive stories of the withdrawal from adult protection comes to us via the classic Ender’s Game, in which Ender Wiggin is not only taken from his family and forced through a constantly escalating spiral of adult responsibilities, but ultimately reverses the adult-child protection dynamic by saving all of humankind (and sacrificing his childhood in the process) [Card][#enders].

Consciousness of Self

This concept might be difficult to define or to identify examples, were it not such a critical element in young adult fiction. The realization that you are an individual being – someone and something separate from your family and friends – is a lightning strike of awareness, and any story that truly represents adolescence will encounter it.

Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman essentially opens the book with Alistair’s moment of clarity and consciousness, bought with the life of a boy named Luke Drake, when Alistair was only three years old.

The memory of Luke may very well be my first memory. Still, it’s not like those soft and malleable recollections we all have from our early years. It’s solid. I believe in it, as much as I believe in my memory of a few minutes ago. [Starmer, 6][#starmer]

It’s fair to say that the exploration of consciousness of self is one of the core callings in science fiction; it is hardly difficult to find examples of this exploration in the genre, especially in the classics of the early twentieth century, such as Asimov’s Robot series. But within my personal timeline, the definitive example is a short story by Robert Heinlein entitled Jerry Was a Man[Heinlein][#heinlein], in which the question of the sentience and free will of a genetically modified chimpanzee is decided in a court of law. In many ways, it set the bar for the search for the meaning of consciousness in a genre uniquely equipped for the task.

Re-evaluation of Values

To be completely honest, searching for this element of adolescence in fiction, while certainly important, is almost cheating: every expert on the structure of story can agree (where they agree on little else) that the protagonist’s re-evaluation of values is an intrinsic part of the conclusion of a story. It can be a private thing, as with Miranda slowly letting her relationship with Sal change in When You Reach Me, or powerfully defiant in Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, “the revolution”.

I want to write this down, that the revolution is like
a merry-go-round, history always being made
somewhere. And maybe for a short time,
we are a part of that history. And then the ride stops
and our turn is over.

We walk slow toward the park where I can already see
the big swings, empty and waiting for me.

And after I write it down maybe I’ll end it this way:

My name is Jacqueline Woodson
and I am ready for the ride. [Woodson][#woodson]

Among the genres of fantasy and science fiction, these moments are no less important, and form some of the most memorable scenes in our favorite books, as in this conclusion to Ready Player One.

“I’ve really missed you, you know that?”

My heart felt like it was on fire. It took a moment to work up my courage; then I reached out and took her hand. We sat there a while, holding hands, reveling in the strange new sensation of actually touching one another.

Sometime later, she leaned over and kissed me. It felt just like all those songs and poems had promised it would. It felt wonderful. Like being struck by lightning.

It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS. [Cline][#cline]

Exploration and Experimentation

As with the withdrawal from adult protection, this element is almost ubiquitous in adolescent fiction. From camping out in a museum in The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler to Fiona’s life in Aquavania in The Riverman to Meg learning to “tesser well” in A Wrinkle in Time.

Likewise, the genres of fantasy and science fiction seem to embody exploration and experimentation like no others, and at more levels: certainly, the protagonists of the stories embrace this idea, but at a more meta level the readers themselves are exploring – wandering the halls of Castle Amber, walking the paths of Mirkwood, sailing starry skies on Barsoom, or diving into the endless digital seas of OASIS – all worlds beyond the norm, beyond those we might find in tamer, mainstream fiction. And this says nothing about the authors of these stories: it is called speculative fiction, after all, and its creators are experimenting almost by definition.

Bringing the Five into One

In lay terms, these five elements are, of course, most easily and simply expressed as “coming of age,” perhaps the definitive theme of adolescent fiction, but also one at the core of fantasy and science fiction.

“The most childish thing about A Wizard of Earthsea, I expect, is its subject: coming-of-age. Coming-of-age is a process that took me many years; I finished it, so far as I ever well, at about age 31; and so far I really feel rather deeply about it. So do most adolescents. It’s their main occupation, in fact.” [Le Guin, Dreams][#lgdr]

Even setting Le Guin aside, it’s a simple matter to prove that science fiction and fantasy writers have always seen these elements as important to the types of stories they were writing.

Tolkien suggested that fairy stories allow the reader to review his own world from the “perspective” of a different world. This concept, which shares much in common with “consciousness of self”, “re-evaluation of values” and “exploration and experimentation”, Tolkien calls “recovery,” in the sense that one’s unquestioned assumptions might be recovered and changed by an outside perspective [Tolkien][#tolkien]. Susan Wood, in her introduction to Le Guin’s The Language of the Night, wrote at length on the “necessity for internal exploration, provided by fantasy, to produce a whole, integrated human being.” [Wood][#wood]

Let us, as a further example, consider a simple hobbit.

Bilbo Baggins arrived on the literary scene in 1937. At the outset of his tale, he leaves the safety of the only home he has ever known (the home built by his father and mother) and steps into the larger world by signing up for a mysterious undertaking with the potential for great reward and great risk. Before he can do this, however, he must (with the help of a strong nudge from an old friend) take a hard look at his life and realize that, deep in his heart, he longs for more; only then can he race out his door without his handkerchief or any other proper preparation, and into a grand adventure There and Back Again.

Put another (much more boring) way, he experiences withdrawal from benevolent protection, a consciousness of self in interaction, a re-evaluation of values, and a great deal of “exploration and experimentation.” He is, in short, coming of age, and his story continues to resonate with readers of all ages, but most especially those going through the same sort of things in their own lives – children.

At the beginning of the story, Bilbo is fifty-five years old.

By our modern standards, this could not possibly be a story meant for children, nor was it published for children at the time.

It was published for readers, and found those who needed and wanted it most.

The Critical, Yet Censured, “Kiddy Story”

Here, then, is part of the secret of a story’s appeal to young readers, and one reason why adolescent subsets of science fiction and fantasy did not gain real momentum in publishing until the late 1990s and early 2000s: these are stories that already speak to the core experiences of adolescence; that resonate with younger readers; that create an “age barrier” so permeable as to be virtually non-existent.

In the same way that speculative fiction has always attracted younger readers alongside adults, more and more young adult and middle grade stories attract adult readers alongside children. That both categories uniformly earn the scorn of serious literary critics is more a judgement on the critics, than the stories.

Conclusion

“I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. … Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like – the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature – you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.” [Gaiman][#gaiman]

As Ursula Le Guin might say, a story doesn’t have to be about real things to be about true things. This is the secret to the all-ages appeal of science fiction and fantasy – stories for adults that appeal to children, and (in the case of these newer adolescent categories) stories for children that entice all but the most jaded adult: truth. Science fiction and fantasy always, from their very inception, focused on themes that lie at the heart of the adolescence. For this, they have have always suffered casual dismissal, and enjoyed heartfelt adoration by those readers able and willing to recognize the wonder, whimsy, and (above all) childishness of their lives.

That they now have allies and companions within the mainstream is, in the opinion of this newcomer to young adult fiction, wonderful, hopeful news.


[#cart]: Cart, Michael. “From Insider to Outsider: the Evolution of Young Adult Literature.” Voices from the Middle 9.2 (2001): 95-7.

[#cline]: Cline, Earnest. Ready Player One. Random House. 2011.

[#drewpop]: Drew, Bernard A. The 100 Most Popular Young Adult Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1997.

[#enders]: Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. Tor. 1977.

[#gaiman]: Gaiman, Neil. http://neilgaiman.com. 2003.

[#ggyb]: Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. HarperCollins. 2008.

[#heinlein]: Heinlein, Robert A.. “Jerry Was a Man”. Assignment in Eternity. Fantasy Press. 1953

[#history]: Crowe; Tunnell. A chronology of history and trends in children’s and YA literature. 2012

[#kono]: Konopka, Gisela. “Requirements for Healthy Development of Adolescent Youth.” Adolescence 4 (1973): 291-315.

[#lgd]: Le Guin, Ursula. “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons”. PNLA Quarterly 38, Winter 1974

[#lgdr]: Le Guin, Ursula. “Dreams Must Explain Themselves” Algol 21, Nov 1973

[#marines]: REVISION OF THE COMMANDANTS PROFESSIONAL READING LIST. 2013.

[#monseau]: Monseau, Virginia. Responding to Young Adult Literature. Boynton/Cook Publishers. 1996.

[#ph]: Pittman-Hasset, Shedrick. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Darkness. June 5, 2011.

[#starmer]: Starmer, Aaron. The Riverman. Farrar Straus Giroux. 2014.

[#tolkien]: Tolkien, J.R.R.. “On Fairy Stories”. Essays Presented to Charles Williams, 1947

[#tolkienrok]: Tolkien, J.R.R.. Return of the King, Houghton Mifflin. 1955.

[#wells]: Wells, April Dawn. Themes found in young adult literature, April 2003.

[#wrinkle]: L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. Macmillan. 1962.

[#wood]: Wood, Susan. “Introduction” The Language of the Night (Le Guin): 17.

[#woodson]: Woodson, Jacqueline. “the revolution”. brown girl dreaming. Penguin. 2014.

[#wsg]: Gurdon, Meghan. “Darkness Too Visible”, Wall Street Journal. June 4, 2011.

[#yasaves]: Johnson, Lucas J.W.. The YA Saves Phenomenon. June, 2011.

The Future of the Book

or

"In which standards are always in steep decline, and things keep getting better."

I don't worry about the future of stories any more than I worry about the future of travel; people need stories the same way people need to go from Point A to Point B.

See, when it comes to travel, getting to point A to point B is usually the entire point, and if people argued non-stop that switching from horses to cars (or cars to trains, or trains to airplanes) was going to 'destroy travel', they'd been (rightly) seen as idiots.

Yes, switching to a car from a horse profoundly changes the "travel experience." Yes, I know it's just not the same for you without that 'horse smell'. Got it.

But you still got to Point B just fine?

And Point B is where you wanted to go? Yes?

Then shut up.

That's how the ebook versus paper debate strikes me: people debating the vehicle, when it's the thing inside that actually matters.

via +Mark Brueschke

The future of the book

Hidden Things in HIDDEN THINGS: A Behind-the-Scenes Podcast – Episode 1

One of the stretch goals of the Hidden Things audiobook kickstarter was something we called The Hidden Things in HIDDEN THINGS – a sort of “director’s commentary track” for the audiobook, in which I would share insights into the writing of the book and answer questions. It seemed like a fun, cool little thing to do.

It turned out to be a fun, cool, INCREDIBLY HUGE AND TIME CONSUMING thing to do, but I’m still very happy and grateful that we got to do it.

Every Friday, we’re going to post the HTIHT episodes that coincide with whatever audiobook episodes aired that week. You can subscribe to the HTIHT (“hit it”) podcast with your preferred podcast app right here.

HIiHT Cover
New HTiHT episodes every Friday.

But First, a Warning.

If you have not either read Hidden Things or already finished the audiobook, and you intend to do so, you should stop listening to this podcast RIGHT NOW, until you’ve finished the story. I absolutely guarantee this podcast will spoil the ending and quite a few interesting surprises along the way. If you don’t want that to happen to you, STOP NOW.

Also, if you prefer to think of your authors as all-knowing practitioners of their craft who always understand what’s going on or know why so-and-so did such-and-such, you should stop listening to this podcast RIGHT NOW. Some people prefer their Oz both great and terrible, and would not like to discover a flustered man hiding behind a curtain, pushing and pulling at buttons and levers to maintain an illusion.

This is little yappy dog of a podcast, dead set on pulling back that curtain.

So.

You only get one warning, and that was it. Here we go.

Now, on to the Podcast!

One More Hobbit/Desolation Post: Closure

After my post yesterday, Dave asked me what I thought about the ending of the movie. He was a bit vague with the wording of the question, possibly to keep from spoiling people reading the conversation on G+, but as I’ve read his thoughts on the subject, I had a pretty good idea what he was specifically referring to, and (huge surprise) I had some thoughts about it.

So, far more than yesterday, this post will contain spoilers. You’ve been cautioned.

Now then.

Disclaimer: I love Dwarves

This will come as a surprise to precisely no one, nor will the fact that it all started with The Hobbit. Character-building moments in the story are few and far between for anyone who doesn’t have furry feet, but there are a few; many involving Balin, who remains my favorite among the company as they are portrayed in the book. (I really like the movie version of Bofur.)

I think my preference for Balin grew out of the fact that he seemed the closest with Bilbo – he did things the other dwarves didn’t, and they were kind things. He was first dwarf to actually reenter the Mountain after 170 years. And he could speak to birds, which is pretty cool.

Balin put dwarves on my horizon. I kept my eyes out for them when I got to the Lord of the Rings, and I was rewarded with Gimli’s bluff and bluster and hidden heart of gold. He felt young to me – full of surety and ignorance, but not so calcified in his ways that he couldn’t change. He learned to see the wonder in things he once feared. Loved something he knew he could never have. Pledged himself to goals he believed utterly lost.

And he taught an elf something about beauty, which is a hell of a thing.

After four or five trips through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I picked up The Silmarillion. References to dwarves in this decidedly elf-heavy book are pretty thin on the ground, but the parts where they are mentioned, I remembered.

Since they were to come in the days of the power of Melkor, Aulë made the dwarves strong to endure. Therefor they are stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and in enmity, and they suffer toil and hunger and hurt of body more hardily than all other speaking peoples; and they live long, far beyond the span of Men, yet not forever.

So, in Tolkien’s creation, Dwarves aren’t like elves or men; they weren’t originally part of “the Plan.” They weren’t created so much as crafted by the smith of the gods. They’re the adopted children, the outsiders, the ones made according to a different set of rules; created to be strong and resistant to the evils in the world (one reason the Seven Rings didn’t bring any dwarves into Sauron’s service). They’re secretive, proud, tougher than any other people, and equally unable to forget a wrong or debt. They long for beautiful things, but at the same time don’t seem to know what to do with them once they have them, and this absolutely extends to matters of affection and love.

They’re noble and doomed, even more so than elves, at least in part because dwarves are far more visibly flawed. They never seem to get anything just exactly right; even when they get what they want, they push for more and ruin what they have. They do the wrong things for the right reasons, or the right things for the wrong reasons, and not only pay the price, but inflict that price on those they love and hold dear.

They’re pretty much the easiest thing in the world for a boy in his teens to identify with.

So let’s talk about Thorin’s company and The Hobbit.

An Unexpected Pity Party

From the very beginning of the book, we get the story of Thorin, his family, and everything the dwarves lost when the dragon came to Erebor. Did they make a place for themselves in the Blue Mountain and Ered Luin? Yes, yes, but that doesn’t matter, because there’s this Lonely Mountain, see, and the dragon took that from us, and we want it back.

Thorin &co. go on like this for the next 250 pages or so. Especially Thorin. I think it’s fair to say that the idea of some kind of showdown between these wronged dwarves and Smaug the Tremendous is pretty clearly telegraphed.

And then Tolkien lets us down.

The problem is, Tolkien functioned both as storyteller and historian for this amazing world he created. That’s fine, most of the time, but every so often he’d mess things up whilst sitting down at his desk and pull on one hat when he really should have been wearing the other.

In this case, Smaug hit the pages and Tolkien found himself in historian mode, instead of storyteller.

See, a storyteller knows that if you set up the Dragon and What The Dragon Did To Us for a couple hundred pages, you owe it both to those characters and the reader to give those dwarves some closure. A showdown. Something.

You know what happens between the dwarves and Smaug?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not one word is exchanged. No barbs are traded. No blows given or received.

Bilbo bandies words and steals a cup. The dragon flies around a bit and smites the mountainside, then heads off to Laketown for a some desultory wrack and ruin.

Bard kills him.

The dwarves cower in a dark tunnel for two days, send Bilbo down to see what’s going on, then spend the next week or so dumpster diving in Smaug’s horde.

Lame.

And why did it shake out this way? Because Historian Tolkien knows who Bard is, who he’s descended from, and the fact that because of all that, he has some of the same claim to vengeance as Thorin.

Tolkien knows that. The reader doesn’t really know any of it, but Historian Tolkien has assumed direct control of this section of the book, closure be damned, and he’s going to tie a bow (see what I did there?) on the virtually unknown epic cycle of the Men of Dale. So there.

Jackson Gives Us (Action-Packed!) Closure

Now, please don’t get me wrong: I agree that the last action scene in The Desolation of Smaug owes a bit more to the Temple of Doom than Tolkien. It’s a little over the top. Yes. Conceded.

However.

Just for fun, let’s ignore the crazy bits and look at what actually happens, because I believe Jackson managed to hide some really amazing story chocolate in the action peanut butter.

Thorin Needs Your Help

That’s what Jackson’s thinking as he squares off with this section of the story. The whole thing where Thorin never ever actually sees the dragon, or confronts him, or anything? That has got. to. go. That’s shit. Acknowledged.

But now you have a problem, and it’s the same problem Storyteller Tolkien had when he was writing it (which may be why he let the historian take the lead).

Thorin has no play to make.

He’s got no army and, let’s be serious: he needs one. Smaug is force of nature – an armored, hurricane-spawning volcano. What can Thorin possibly do?

He can use the mountain.

Yes, Smaug is the Chiefest and Greatest Calamity of the Age, but in this place – within Erebor – he is first and foremost a usurper. He might have slept on a golden bed in the bowels of the mountain for the last 150 years, but it is not his home. He doesn’t – can’t – know it the way he would if it were.

But Thorin does.

(“Home” is a big theme, have you noticed? There and Back Again, for both the dwarves and the hobbit.)

Over a hundred years of wandering. Losses suffered. Grandfather dead. Father mad and then dead. But still Thorin knows these halls, these stones, as if he never left. You can hear – feel – the love of the place in his voice when he steps inside the Door.

And he’s not alone. All the dwarves with Thorin (the ones old enough to have been here in the first place, I’ll note) remember it all, as if they had just shut the lights off and stepped out yesterday.

But so what?

It doesn’t matter how well you know the nooks and crannies – you still can’t fight Smaug. Dwarves are great fighters, but they are outmatched and utterly under-equipped – it’s impossible to fight.

But… here’s the thing.

Dwarves can fight, but that’s not who and what they are. Not really.

What they are is tough. Secretive. Cunning craftsman who never forget a wrong.

The first thing they do when they realize they need to face Smaug? They light the forges.

Dwarves make things – amazing, horrible, wonderful, terrible things.

So let’s just skip past all the action stuff. That’s movies – that’s just what you need to do at the end of a fantasy action movie. Deal with it. What’s happening throughout all that, hidden from us a bit, because they’re secretive, these dwarves, is that they’re making something.

Let’s get to that Grand Hall.

The forges have fired. The gold is flowing, molten and deadly and handled by the dwarves with such a native aplomb that you’d think they were carrying a glass of water to a sleepy toddler.

It’s all poured into this great mold, atop which stands Thorin, and here comes Smaug.

This is a moment. This is important. Thorin is back in his home, and it is his home, over which he has immediately and completely asserted his will and mastery. All the elements therein, that he knows so well, come together to allow him to face Smaug face to face; not just face to face but at eye level. To call him out and then, because this is Thorin and he still mourns his dead King, pull the cord and confront the dragon with Thrór – the true king under the mountain and, at that moment, the one thing within Erebor as mighty and majestic as Smaug himself, standing for all the dwarves who lost their home.

And then the thing comes apart and douses the Dragon in molten gold, because it’s dwarves who have done this, and a Dragon they are punishing, using their forges to drown him in the greed (theirs and his) that first brought him to to the mountain.

They are dwarves. They set out to do a thing, and they did it.

But, they are dwarves, which means they achieve exactly what they wanted – Smaug driven from their home – at terrible cost. An awakened scourge, set upon the land. A victory, bought with unavoidable tragedy.

They cheer, and Bilbo (who is not a dwarf and never will be) looks on in horror.

Is it an upbeat ending? No. There’s a victory there, though, and great and amazing symbol-heavy closure for Thorin, from my point of view. It’s so dwarvish my beard grew three inches just watching it.

It’s terrible, what’s about to happen, and an unexpected place to end, but for the story it was set to tell, it was (by my lights) exactly right.

“What have we done?” whispers Bilbo, and we have a year to think on all the answers to that question.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is Better than the Book It’s Based On

In the very first printing of The Hobbit, there are a few tiny errors. Inconsistencies in map labels. Misspellings of a few words.

And a little thing Tolkien charmingly referred to as “the issue with Chapter Five.”

What he’s referring to is that, in the first published version of the story, the Riddle Game ends with Gollum giving Bilbo his magic ring as a prize.

Just… gives it to him.

“Here you go, then. Nice job with all those riddles. Last one was a real head-scratcher. Well-played and all that, now off you go to the back door. Good luck and godspeed, you adorable scamp.” tousles hair

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Obviously, with the perfect hindsight afforded us by seventy-seven years worth of analysis (academic, obsessive fan, or both), we can see that this version of the story… raises a few questions – most of which begin “But if it’s the One Ring, why would…”

Or, in the words of my daughter (who hasn’t given it quite as much thought), “That would be really dumb.”

Her assessment of the original version of the scene (which I told her about the second time we read through the book together, and without her knowing anything about The Lord of the Rings) went something like this: “Why would Gollum give Bilbo anything like that for winning the contest? The ring is the only thing he has – he’s not going to give it away.”

I like having my daughter around to assess the relevant merit of various parts of The Hobbit because, like the story itself, Kaylee doesn’t know anything about Middle Earth.

Let me reiterate that: The Hobbit doesn’t know anything about Middle Earth.

Now, I’m not saying that the larger backdrop of the setting was completely unknown to Tolkein when he wrote The Hobbit – the first thing that directly tied into the larger story of the Ages of Middle Earth was something the man wrote when he was 22 years old – twenty-three years before Bilbo hosted his first Unexpected Party.

But, the author’s vague notions about First Age history aside, The Hobbit is essentially its own thing – undeniably a Tolkien thing, yes, with inspiration drawn from the Kalevala and Beowulf, but also (owing to his desire to write something that would entertain his children) something far closer to his kids’ copy of The Marvelous Land of the Snergs or The Princess and the Goblins. You don’t have to squint very hard to see those kinds of stories in this one: the adventures and misadventures are largely the same in tone and structure as any fairy story: Grumbling trolls that want to eat whatever they catch. Magic rings won with a riddle contest. Shapechanging, bee-keeping bears. Talking eagles. Sleep-inducing rivers. Talking-yet-fairly-stupid spiders. Fairy dinners at which mundane party-crashers instantly fall asleep. Dragons slain with a single arrow shot by a flat and altogether characterless Hero Guy.

It’s a fairy story… that just happens to be (almost retroactively) set in Middle Earth.

But ultimately even more challenging for the author, it’s set up as the slow-burning point of ignition for the grand conflict of the Third Age, as told in The Lord of the Rings.

Which is why you end up with “the issue in Chapter Five.”

The fact of the matter is, in terms of continuity, there are many more problems introduced within The Hobbit because it doesn’t know about Middle Earth – the riddle game in Chapter Five is only the most obvious – and it isn’t hard to find evidence of the effort Tolkien went to throughout the next seventeen years (and after) to patch the major gaps between it and the latter work well enough to let the whole thing hang together. The Appendices, Unfinished Tales, and various collections of his correspondence are full of snippets and backstory that help Tolkien justify this or that “odd thing” from The Hobbit. In some ways, making that story work as part of the greater whole was some of the hardest stuff he had to do – I have no doubt that if he believed he could have gotten away with it, he’d have written a ‘grown-up’ version of the story that made a great deal more sense in the larger scheme of things, and chalked the original up to Bilbo as Unreliable Narrator.

But he didn’t believe that was an option – stories, once printed, were all but set in stone (funny, considering the malleable epics he studied) – so he forced himself to play around the edges of the thing to make its odd corners and angles fit within the larger puzzle of Middle Earth.

Jackson gets to do what Tolkien believed he couldn’t – retell The Hobbit with the hindsight of what it would mean within the larger history and events of the setting, and get it to match the continuity and tone set in the larger and inarguably greater work that followed.

Which brings us to the latest Hobbit movie. Sort of. Almost.

There’s one more thing retelling the story as a movie lets Jackson do.

Skipping the Boring Parts

There’s a point (several, actually) in The Princess Bride novel (“the greatest love/action/revenge story ever abridged by a modern author”), where the author specifically calls out the fact that he’s “skipping the boring stuff” in the (fictitious) original classic on which his version is supposedly based: boring political history, a full chapter on the Buttercup’s preparations for the wedding, et cetera.

I have, more than once, wished for a “princess bride” treatment of The Hobbit.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the book. I read it and reread it multiple times before the librarian for our elementary school mentioned that there were “other books that happen after this one” up in the High School library (which sent me on a terrifying quest of my own, past trolls and evil giants). I’ve reread it many times since. It’s one of the first ‘chapter’ books I read to my daughter, and the only one to date that I’ve read to her more than once. I will, without a doubt, read it again to Sean when he’s a bit older, then again to Zoe, and I will do so happily, every time.

But it is in no way a perfect book. It’s not as slow a start as The Lord of the Rings, granted, but it has its moments, and those moments (already weak in the book itself) do not translate well to film, nor should they. Some of it is a matter of pacing: the dwarves are imprisoned in Thranduil’s halls for a month and a half – it takes Bilbo almost two weeks just to figure out where Thorin is being kept; the company spends roughly a month between getting to Laketown and opening the door into the Mountain, and spend a week of that time just sitting on the doorstep, twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the Sun/Moon to get to the right position. Some of it is emphasis in the book on elements of the story that make perfect sense in terms of what The Hobbit was (a fairy story for kids) and what it became (a prelude to Big Events and Epic History): as cool as the scene with the spiders is, for example, in terms of the big picture it’s quite unimportant.

So, we have two problems with The Hobbit – it doesn’t mesh well or easily with the rest of the “stuff” of Middle Earth, and there are points (more than a few) that just aren’t very good storytelling, especially in terms of pacing – Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings seventeen years later – it’s entirely to fair to say he became a better storyteller over the years, and certainly fair to say he grew into his own voice over time. (Who among us wouldn’t like to go back to a story we ‘finished’ years ago and give it a fix-up pass, if we could?)

So how did Jackson do in The Desolation of Smaug?

Tying it into the Larger Story

I don’t think there’s a misstep of any kind with regards to tying this section of The Hobbit into the larger Middle Earth story. In terms of both plotting and tone, we’re getting a much more unified and ‘whole’ retelling.

Gandalf Wanders Off and Leaves Us: The Dol Guldor stuff does a great job of setting up the Big Wizard Showdown coming in the third movie (and told in a fair amount of detail in various Tolkien appendices), and the whole “orc leader” side plot serves a necessary evil: the bad guys in movies need a face to play well with audiences, and Sauron doesn’t have one.

The Ring: The problem with the Ring as it appears in The Hobbit is that it’s entirely safe. All of the danger of corruption and evil falls within the scope of The Lord of the Rings and, with our perfect hindsight, we can see that it doesn’t make any sense. Using the ring is really never safe, least of all now, with Sauron stirring and making his first attempt at gathering forces together. It’s especially dangerous to put to use when you’re wandering through the same zip code as the guy ceaselessly searching for it (Bilbo’s not much further away from Dol Guldor when he traverses Mirkwood than Frodo is from Barad-dur when he and Sam pass Minas Morgul). Jackson handles this in most places by shortening the amount of time Bilbo wears the thing (thankfully, our poor hobbit doesn’t have to spend six weeks in Thranduil’s Hall wearing a homing beacon for the Dark Lord) and upping the danger of spiritual corruption associated with its use.

A great example/foreshadowing of this is with the spiders: as short as that scene is, Jackson managed to make it exponentially more significant to the “ring” story than it is in the original text – lots of people have mentioned the bit of ‘ring greed berserk’ that Bilbo displays here, and that’s good, but the bit where he slips on the ring and only then understands the spiders’ speech? Pure gold.

This section also reintroduces a theme from Lord of the Rings that is very useful later in the movie: the greater the evil that’s close at hand, the more dangerous the ring is to use. The few times Bilbo uses the ring in the first movie, he’s basically by himself. Then he uses it with the spiders and scary things happen to his personality. We get to the scenes with the dragon, and I was exactly where I needed to be with regards to the ring: torn. Of course he needs to use it, but how can he use it while standing right next to Smaug, Chiefest and Greatest Calamity of Our Age? Frodo found out the hard way that being around the Nazgul with the Ring was a hard row to hoe, but what are Nazgul? Corrupted men. Kings, maybe sorcerers, quite old, certainly, but… just men.

Smaug is a dragon. His voice alone is powerful magic (well done, Cumberbatch) – he is ancient and his kin have literally eaten more rings of power than still exist in the mortal realm in the Third Age. You can’t ‘activate’ something like that right under his nose and not expect problems.

And it’s not like being invisible helps that much against the dragon anyway, even in the book (eleven thousand clinking gold-plated aluminum movie coins aside).

Cutting Out the Boring Stuff

Under which I’ll also add “Cutting Out the Fairy Story Stuff that Doesn’t Entirely Fit in Middle Earth.”

Top marks for this, as two-month incarcerations are squeezed down into a day, fairy parties in spider-infested woods are removed entirely, and all thumb-twiddlings on the Doorstep go the way of ancient rooks. These sections of the story are better, by virtue of being better paced and more interesting, and the same can be said for most everything that happens with the dwarves in Laketown.

Adding in Stuff Tolkien Never Included

Under this, I include Tauriel and some but not all of the stuff with the two named orcs, since they actually both tie back into Appendices lore quite well enough, but take up a bit too much camera time chasing dwarves who I feel they’d assume would probably be eaten by a dragon anyway. Azog starts to feel like an obsessive Captain Hook searching for his Thorin crocodile.

Jackson scores major points for including a female character in the story. Tolkien wrote in a different time, and wrote this for his kids (of which three(?) were boys), so I’ll forgive him the gender bias, but I was glad to see some feminine presence on screen.

He then loses most of those points for using Tauriel to do little more than kick ass and deal with “love interest” entanglements – either being longed for by Legolas, longed for by Kili, or doing some counter-longing in both directions. I have it on good authority that women do more than participate in romantic feelings of one kind or another – it would have been nice to see that here, rather than a fairly well-trod situation with Legolas and the unaccountably ham-fisted writing of “the thing with the dwarf.” (Something I personally think could have been handled much better by the writing team before it ever reached the actors, echoing Gimli and Galadriel.)

Finally, he earns back a few points for a positively lovely call back to some real Silmarillion-grade ancient lore when Tauriel waxes rhapsodic about starlight. As one of the subset of elves who reached the Greenwood and decided to travel no further west toward Valinor (the Nandor Teleri, if you want to get pedantic), she comes from a people who never knew light other than the distant stars until the Sun and Moon were put into the sky. Her obvious passion for their beauty was something Jackson didn’t need to bring into this story, but which gave Tauriel the weight of a character thoroughly grounded in the oldest parts of Tolkien’s lore, and I liked that very much.

There were also some changes to the story that I think are going to bear fruit in the third movie – things that Tolkien might not have done even on a rewrite, but which I still see as a net good. The company splits up at Laketown in a way that never happened in the book, and I think it’s going to make for some very, very interesting scenes in the third movie. In the book, you have Thorin raging over his walls at “outsiders” and a hobbit he no longer trusts, and now we’re going to see that same thing with not only Bilbo, but a wise older dwarf, well-spoken (and fan favorite) Bofur, and both of Thorin’s heirs (Kili and Fili) on the outside and not at all ill-disposed to the people (elves, via Tauriel, and men, via Bard) who helped them when Thorin left them behind.

The Dark, Cliff-hanger Ending

No one complained at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring which is (in my daughter’s opinion) at least as grim. This ending, ignoring the classic Jackson final action scene, is actually quite close to what’s happening at that point in the book, but with awareness on the part of the dwarves and Bilbo: they’ve woken something up and set it loose, and how they each react to that will speak volumes in the third movie. They can’t claim ignorance and innocence when Laketown burns, and that’s both better and more interesting than the blinkered treasure trove diving they’re doing in the book while Bard saves the day.

I could say more about pretty much any part of the book (Black Arrow as a masterfully forged ballista bolt = great choice, especially when we already have at least three master archers already on screen), but instead I’ll wrap up with this.

The Book and the Big Screen

Those of you paying close attention will notice that I refer to the Hobbit movies as a retelling more than an adaptation or “inspired by” or whatever. There’s a reason.

There are a number of ways you can translate a book to the movie screen.

One of them involves a slavish adherence to the words on the page, cutting only for time considerations but otherwise leaving everything else the same. I’ve yet to encounter a movie produced in this way that was very satisfying. The most obvious example of this, to me, is the Harry Potter series, which are to my mind an absolute mess when watched as a movies in their own right. I can say this with some authority because I’m not a particularly dumb person who specifically didn’t read past the third HP book so that I could ‘test’ the movie series on its own merits, and without the books as reference, the movies are all but impossible to follow – a barely coherent mess of half-finished side plots and incomprehensible ‘dog whistle’ scenes tuned to fans of the books — twenty-four hours of multimedia extras for the avid reader.

Another route is the movie ‘inspired by’ a story – taking what’s there and distilling it in one way or another. You see this a lot with comics, both good (Scott Pilgrim) and bad (Wanted), but it also happens with stuff like The Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is inspired by a stream of consciousness hot mess of a stage play, and vastly improved upon its source material.

Finally, you have retellings. Take the original story, and say “I am going to retell this story, in this other medium,” and you’ve freed yourself from perfect adherence to the text of the book, while staying true to the spirit of the story. Cloud Atlas does this, and tells a story that, if nothing else, delivers a stronger theme and better ending than the book it’s based on (still doesn’t make it good, but it’s better than the book). Jackson did it with The Lord of the Rings, and now he’s doing it with The Hobbit, in this case not so much putting the verbatim text of the book on the screen, but retelling the story of all the events going on within the time frame of the events of the book.

Again, as with LotR, he takes liberties. Pulls in stuff from other sources when needed and outright changes stuff when necessary to serve the medium he’s working with. We notice it more in The Hobbit because he has to do it more – because the source is, in all honesty, not as strong a story in its original form as The Lord of the Rings and needs more of that kind of work.

Is it perfect? Certainly not, but it is good, both as a series of movies in its own right and as a (by my lights) faithful retelling of the story as a part of Middle Earth, with the perspective granted by time, and the ability to make it mesh with what is, in literary terms, the greater of the two pieces of work. I think that is the reason you see so many people talking about how they disapproved of the stuff that was changed or added, but concluding with “I still really liked it, though I don’t know why, and I guess I’ll just have to wait until next Christmas to see if the whole thing pays off.”

My recommendation: Go see it.

Odds are, you’ll like it, even if you don’t know exactly why.

And that’s okay.