Scandalous! Five Ways in Which The Hobbit is Superior to The Lord of the Rings
This weekend saw the long-anticipated release of Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (which made a butt-load of money). And while I love The Lord of the Rings and grew up in the shadow of its huge, looming presence, it was only after The Hobbit film was announced that I realized how I often prefer the story of Bilbo Baggins. Thankfully we don’t have to choose; we can appreciate the strengths and weakness of both works. But in honor of The Hobbit’s release, here are five ways in which I think The Hobbit is superior to The Lord of the Rings.
The Hobbit has better monsters and villains
Don’t get me wrong--I LOVE the Nazgul, and they are some of the most impressive bad guys to ever grace fantasy, but for all their menace, the Ringwraiths are minions, largely silent and without personality. They follow Sauron’s will and that is all. Most of the villains and creatures of The Lord of the Rings (hereafter abbreviated LOTR) appear as minions of Sauron (or Saruman in some cases).
The creatures of The Hobbit are far more colorful and varied in their appearances and their motivations. Tolkien may have reused the species in LOTR, but the trolls in The Hobbit have names and give us a sense of what trolls do in the wild, how they eat. I love Shelob, but she is just an older, larger version of the spiders that Bilbo attacks in Mirkwood.
The Hobbit’s goblins (Tolkien’s previous version of orcs) have their own civilization, their own land, and they ride on wargs. Beorn may not be a monster, per se, and he ends up helping the heroes, but the skinchanger is an excellent addition to the story, adding a further element of the supernatural to the book.
And need I mention, the dragon?
The only character/creature that is improved upon in LOTR is Gollum. While I love his appearance in The Hobbit in the chapter "Riddles in the Dark," Gollum becomes a more complex and sympathetic character in LOTR. I'll give you that.
The Hobbit has less wasted space
So much of The Lord of the Rings is taken up by walking and camping. Even though I love the trilogy, I’ve always felt that the pacing is off. There are inevitably parts where I am forced to slog through the books to get to the more exciting action. I understand that Tolkien uses much of those slower moments to help build the world of Middle Earth--from the history of the land to its geography, but while I have come to appreciate these moments after many years of rereads, I ultimately feel that they detract from the thrust of the story.
The Hobbit, on the other hand, moves along at a much faster clip. By the second chapter, Bilbo and the dwarves are on their way, and from the Trolls to the Battle of Five Armies, they are constantly facing a new danger. No sooner have the dwarves escaped the spiders than they are misled and captured by the Wood Elves. They escape the Wood Elves (in barrels no less) to arrive at Esgaroth.
And though we’re given plenty of action, it’s not just action. Mirroring the external journey is Bilbo’s internal journey, as he begins to understand himself better and learns what he’s capable of. Bilbo starts out as someone adapting to circumstance, and later becomes someone who changes the situation by making choices.
The Hobbit has a dragon
Just saying. Dragons are cool.
And in all seriousness, one of the things I appreciate about Smaug is that he has a personality. He has a point of view. His motivation may simply be that he wants the dwarves’ gold and their mountain for his lair, but he has swagger. He threatens Bilbo. They talk. In LOTR, Sauron is largely faceless and voiceless (though there is the guy who is the Mouth of Sauron). Most of his minions do his bidding and are little more than slaves. Smaug seems more an individual than part of the army of Evil.
Bilbo is less tortured than Frodo
Bilbo’s story is one of discovery, both external and internal. And while he deals with some serious danger, he comes to realize his strength, and he grows as a result of his experiences. The stresses of Bilbo’s adventure bring out his capabilities and he is a far stronger and more confident person by the end of the book than he is at the beginning.
Conversely, Frodo’s journey is all about survival. The stresses of Frodo’s journey wear him down and a large part of his quest is just to carry on. Granted, he’s dealing with the burden of the ring, and its insidious, invasive power. But I find Bilbo’s journey to be more interesting and the more attractive of the inner journeys.
Bilbo also seems wiser and more mature, despite The Hobbit’s appeal to a much younger audience. And he’s just so damned enthusiastic about things, whether it be maps or meeting new friends or helping his old ones.
Frodo makes a heroic choice in deciding to take the ring to Mordor, but from then on, most of what he does is about endurance, and while it is understandably a difficult struggle, I find Bilbo’s far more interesting.
And Bilbo makes his own heroic choice, choosing to stand against his friends, to betray the dwarves, in order to try to create peace. Bilbo makes the hard decision for what he knows is right.
The Hobbit has a better message
My other points may be a little tongue in cheek, but this is the point at which I draw the line. For me, the basic underlying theme of The Hobbit is so much better than that of The Lord of the Rings.
One of the things that always bothered me about Tolkien’s POV in LOTR is that it seems nostalgic and wistful, mourning a rural England on the way out. Tolkien seems resentful of industrialization, saddened by the loss of something he loves. Frodo never wants to leave the Shire in the first place, and finds himself longing to return, but can’t. The Elves realize that their time is passing, their world diminishing. There’s a sense of sadness in it all. A sense of loss. The underlying message seems to be all about the importance of home and the threat and tragedy of change affecting that.
The Hobbit, on the other hand, revels in change. It revels in adventure. Bilbo may be reluctant to leave Bag End at the beginning of the story, but it’s clear that there’s something in him, waiting to be expressed, something great. Something that might never come to be if were to remain in Hobbiton. Gandalf recognizes this even if Bilbo doesn’t. When the dwarves sing in his house, part of him stirs to the call of adventure, and while he spends a lot of the early parts of the adventure thinking about the comforts of home, he soon steps away from this and becomes as intrepid as the rest of his party. He even surpasses them in personal bravery.
In the end, we learn that though Bilbo returns home, he never stops traveling and going on adventures until, in the opening of The Lord of the Rings, he leaves Hobbiton for good, eventually making his way to Rivendell. At the end of LOTR, Frodo has been changed by his journey and can’t go home. There’s the sense that something is lost. He sacrificed something of himself to do the right thing, but you can tell that there’s a part of Frodo that wants to go back.
Put more simply, so much of LOTR seems to be looking backwards, not only at the history that led to the War of the Ring, but at the things that were lost. Those that move forward at the end do so in a world that has lost some of its magic.
The Hobbit on the other hand seems to look forward. Bilbo ends the story a changed hobbit, in a far better place than where he starts, and the whole world is open to him. He returns to the Shire a rich man, with a magic sword and a magic ring. The world is a wider, more wonderful place and he’s just taken his first steps into it. I find this resonates to me more, it’s the kind of fantasy I enjoy most.
Those are just a few thoughts about the differences between the two books. What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Agree but for different reasons? Let me know in the comments and let’s continue the conversation.
To leave a comment