Why I Love The Hobbit

I’m a professional woman with a full-time job.

Tonight I’m going to see the midnight showing of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug.

Some people think these two statements don’t go together. For some reason folks have a hard time believing that an adult with a full plate of responsibilities would be interested in taking time off to go to a midnight showing of a movie, not to mention a fantasy film. Aren’t there more important things you could do with your time? Couldn’t you just wait to see it at another time?

These aren’t questions that are always stated, but I can still see them in the curious glances and the odd looks I get. People tend to be shocked when they find out that I’m such a big Lord of the Rings fan, at least until I start talking about it. This seems as good a time as any to explain why I have such an obsession with this franchise, and more specifically, the Desolation of Smaug film.

SmaugHow I met The Hobbit

I have to credit my discovery of The Hobbit from watching the Rankin/Bass version. I absolutely loved the songs, the animation, and all the little character quirks. It was a movie that I grew up with and one that I still rank up there on my favorites list along with How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Last Unicorn, and Flight of Dragons. It was a fun film as a child and as I got older I realized how rare and wonderful it was.

I’m pretty sure I read the book sometime before I got assigned to read it in High School, but I can’t say when that was exactly. I can say that it was one of my favorite reading assignments. It was a topic I could definitely write about.

Riddles in the Dark

My mother was an elementary teacher. Often I found myself in her classroom helping her clean up or wasting time while she finished getting her classroom and paperwork ready for the next day. I’m pretty sure this was common for teacher’s kids. You just get really used to being at school.

I was reading the Hobbit for maybe the second time, and I was going through a phase where I was asking all my sisters the riddles that Gollum asks Bilbo. It was fun to watch them try to figure it out, much as I had when I first picked up the book. It was only natural to follow this fun with writing a riddle on the board for my mother’s class the next day.

They were a group of fourth graders and all of them were curious and confused at the same time. They spent a few minutes at the beginning of class each day while the kids puzzled over what the answer could be. I’m certain my mom helped them out, she did have a class to run after all, but she thought it went over so well that I should put up another the next day. It didn’t take us long to run out of riddles, and we couldn’t find any good ones really online, so we did the next best thing. We started pulling out quotes from the book and put them up instead.

It only lasted a few weeks, but the kids in the classroom loved it. It’s cool that they got to try to unravel some interesting word puzzles. Most of them had likely not read The Hobbit, so they were really at more of a disadvantage than I was as the reader. After all, I could just glance at the next few lines to see the answer. Some of the riddles were tough too. I like to think that a few of those kids looked at words a bit differently after that.

The Tainted Woods of Mirkwood

When I was a kid, I would go exploring through the woods in our subdivision all the time. My sisters and I spent a good chunk of our childhood in the woods exploring, building forts from sticks, and just getting into trouble. The idea that a disease could come across an entire forest, causing a species of enormous, dark creatures to turn it into their new home intrigued me. The fact that they took the form of giant insects was just downright frightening.

That isn’t the only adventure Bilbo has in Mirkwood though. He also has to deal with the wood elves, King Thranduil’s people, who are terribly mischievous. These scenes are reminiscent of fairy lore in how Bilbo is never sure how much of what he’s seeing is real or not. When you do finally meet the people, they aren’t at all how the typical elves are portrayed. Their elven guards don’t always do what they should and the frequent parties cause many to indulge perhaps too much in wine. They are in many ways counter to the typical view of elves. They are more hunters than magic wielders like the otherworldly elves of Rivendell or Lothelorien. They rely on stealth, speed, and guerrilla tactics; which honestly made me like them all the more. After all, those were the same tactics I might use.

King Thranduil is an especially interesting character. There are some in-depth character analyses of him if you’re interested. He is really just as much a villain as Smaug, but he walks that line quite carefully. He has a multitude of reasons for why he does the things he does, definitely moreso than Smaug does, but that certainly doesn’t make his actions less cruel. He’s what I would call a “lovable bad guy”, or any bad guy who doesn’t quite fit the mold. Severus Snape from the Harry Potter is the first character that comes to mind, but there are dozens more.

The Cleverness of Dragons

It’s difficult for me to explain the impact Smaug had on me, being so little when I first watched the Rankin/Bass film. He was unlike most of the villains you saw at the time, and didn’t seem cruel simply for the sake of being so. He was arrogant and greedy, yes, but he was also undeniably clever. If he was allowed to keep what he had stolen, he would have been a rather quiet neighbor. There is a great build-up of Smaug in the novel as this powerful foe, and maybe a few mentions of his keen wit, but it wasn’t revered to the same level as his fire, his ferocity, and his strength. Indeed Smaug shows how dangerous he is not by murdering thousands, not by destroying buildings, and not by burning people alive; he does it through speech. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t done these terrible things, and they are mentioned, but really you don’t see Smaug in his true fury until he speaks to Bilbo.

You realize quickly that it is good that Bilbo is so very familiar with riddles because Smaug is the ultimate riddle. He is described as a one-man army, yet a common thread in the book is that looks and first impressions can be deceiving. He is a foe who has to be cracked with quick words and a sharp mind, not with anything so basic as a sword. He was perhaps the first intelligent, well-spoken, clever enemy that I ever saw, and I absolutely loved him for it.

There Are Flaws

To be fair, The Hobbit itself is not a perfect book. Tolkien wrote it for children, and so it leans more on the comical side compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. When I was younger, I adored it specifically because it was so very accessible. I couldn’t get through the Rings because it required a different level of concentration, and The Hobbit made for an excellent fantasy gateway drug you could say. Tolkien considered several times writing a more adult version of it, but I believe friends like C.S. Lewis talked him out of it. A second book on the same story, even if it was in a different style, would be overdone and simply felt repetitive, though today many wish he had written it.

Battles happen in The Hobbit, but you don’t really get to see them. You get to see the skirmishes that Bilbo takes part in, but since it is geared for children and Tolkien had seen war, it is completely understandable why he didn’t want to include it in the book. However its absence is keenly felt. It almost feels like a let-down that you aren’t inside the battles like you are in Rings. You know the battles happened, you see the damage and the fall-out, but since you aren’t a part of it, you can feel the censoring. Even kids can pick up on a missing part of the story.

Even still, The Hobbit is one of my favorite books, perhaps the favorite. I still love it even for all its flaws and weirdness. Even with it’s strange gaps and multitude of characters. As a writer I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a perfect book. It’s going to have problems. A book is a child of carefully molded love, and since people come with their own flaws, so do their creations.

So when someone asks me why I’m going to a midnight showing of Desolation of Smaug tonight, I’m going to explain how much the book has meant to me. I’m going to tell them how much I love how the creepy forests of Mirkwood, the caustic King Thranduil, and the silver-tongued Smaug. Or maybe I’ll just save myself the trouble and point to this post.

The First in a Series: Not as Easy as it Sounds

Camp-NaNoWriMo-April2013-Winner-Lantern-Circle-BadgeSo sure, Camp NaNoWriMo is over for a few months. Yes, I did win it, but this novel is not nearly done yet. It still has quite a bit to go, and more importantly, I need to figure out how to end it. This must have been how Tolkien felt when he had to split up his epic storyline into three books. Not that I am comparing myself to Tolkien’s incredible writing, but it just isn’t always easy to break a tale into multiple, satisfying parts.

There’s a sweet spot for the first book in a series: it has to be both fulfilling in its own storyline and leave the plot open for expansion. I think Fellowship of the Ring was a good example of that. When the Fellowship itself was broken, the first book was completed, hence the title. Another book that was way more obvious with its sequel setup was Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic where you feel like the next page should show you how the story ends, but it doesn’t. That’s the cliffhanger he leaves you with. Now I haven’t read Pratchett’s second book in the series, but both of these series start in very different ways. How much of a cliffhanger is too much? How contained should the story be in the first book? Questions like these are tough to answer.

Personally I think somewhere in between is best: finish up some theme, some minor story plot, some point you want made and leave the rest of the storyline open. After all a reader wants to have some amount of conclusion with the first book. Otherwise it feels more like an excuse for a reader to pay twice for the price of a single book. Even in The Color of Magic, you get to find out that yes, the world does indeed rest on the back of a tortoise.ColorOfMagic_tortoise

Of course that raises a ton of other questions, but those are for later.

So here are the latest updates on Madam Cloom’s Garden, my other world fantasy novel starring the independent and sharp-tongued Shaleigh Mallett. When she and her father get into a car accident, Shaleigh gets transported to another world where stone lions talk, castles are invisible, and bridges can’t be trusted. The magical land she’s arrived in hides many dark secrets, and Shaleigh may not be as welcome as it seems.

Project: Madam Cloom’s Garden

Current Word Count: 52,816

New Words Written: 2,536

Progress: A little breaking and entering, then bit of recovery time leads to some awkward conversations about life and death.

Commentary: I’ve definitely slowed my pace since NaNo is over. I get about half the amount of words in each day, but I’m not interested in keeping that breakneck pace. That’s kind of a good thing though because I need to slow down more as I explain more features of the world and get into more complicated (and philosophical) conversations with the protagonists.

Total Words for 2013: 55,993

Tolkien’s Words of Wisdom

I know I’ve been a terrible blogger these past couple of months. Between a nice long week at the beach and Dragon*Con a few weeks back, life has been super busy. Oh and Guild Wars 2. That has definitely been a black hole for my free time. Although I went to lots of fan panels at Dragon*Con, I also attended a couple of writer panels. They’re always inspiring, and I want to share what I learned with you all in a later post.

I finished up edits on “The Mysterious Disappearance of Charlene Kerringer” this weekend and will be sending that along to Zharmae for their upcoming compilation. The tough part is figuring out a 300 word biography to go along with it. Is it crazy that I stress over that ten times more than I do anything else I write? Reading over Charlene again made me excited to see it in print. It’s definitely one of my “out there” fantasy tales, and it definitely doesn’t go in the direction you expect.

For now, though, I’ve got writing tips from one of the masters: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Top Tips for Writers. Here are a few points that really inspired me.

He had to balance his day job with his desire to write epic stories set in Middle Earth. He found time. He made time. It took him 7 years to write The Hobbit. (117) The thing that he writes about most in this period is his struggle to get the work finished on his novels and to balance teaching and his many duties at Oxford College. Apparently he found a way.

Even Tolkien had a day job to contend with while he tried to get his writing goals accomplished. To think that it took him seven years to write a relatively short book, The Hobbit, and knowing how dense his Lord of the Rings series is, you really get a feel for how much love and work he poured into his books. If a master of words like Tolkien had to deal with the troubles of everyday work life, then I don’t feel so bad complaining.

Tolkien writes: “I now find The Lord of the Rings ‘good in parts”(349).  This is to say that upon reading his books years after writing them his writing experience informs him that he is a much better writer than when he published The Hobbit.

The sad part is I already feel like this regarding an early rough draft piece I’m still needing to go through the rest of the way. My editing pile is slowly creeping higher and higher unfortunately…

Tolkien also got a lot of inspiration from his dreams. The article talks in more detail about how his drowning dreams led to several motifs in his work, and it’s neat to see how dreams show up differently in stories. He related this helpless drowning feeling to the way Middle Earth was invaded by Mordor and on top of that you see many potential watery graves in the series. As a writer I can definitely agree with this. Many of my stories also get inspired from some detailed scene or bizarre event in a dream, though the more action-packed or terrifying ones tend to stick with me more. The work that spins out from it always feels more personal to me, like I’ve put a piece of myself into the story. Although scientifically I know that dreams are just seemingly random flashes of thoughts in the brain, I wonder how different our creative world would be without them. Sounds a bit terrible, doesn’t it?

Speaking of dreams, I got to brainstorming with my sister about my next book on Friday. One of the scenes I wanted to find a way to slip in was from a dream I had years ago. Think millions of vibrant colors over a vast, open skyline. She thought it sounded incredible and helped me figure out how to mesh together the two worlds I wanted to exist in the storyline. Saturday I felt inspired, so I sat down and mocked up a few character biographies for the main heroine and fleshed out some of her immediate family. I’m hoping to start on it this November for NaNoWriMo, but if I get too antsy to start I may do it early. Right now I’m working on edits for Ghosts of Pikes Peak, which will then be shipped off to my two favorite beta readers. One of them has been wanting to read it since I keep laughing about how amusing it is. I guess it’s good when your own characters make you laugh.

After that, I’m off to find an agent. Here’s hoping I can get the Agent of My Dreams like Tex. 🙂