Devin Faraci has written a great post over at Badass Digest today about Tolkien’s retconning of his own work by changing a chapter of The Hobbit to better fit the fiction laid out in The Lord of the Rings regarding the power and use (or misuse) of the titular ring. It’s a great article, as Devin uses the example to tie Tolkien’s behavior to the widespread practice of altering one’s own text, at least in regard to popular “nerd properties.”
What really struck me, though, was Devin’s brief discussion on Gandalf’s changing role in the wider fiction. Gandalf does indeed become more of an ancient power type figure rather than a wandering wizard type. That never sat well with me. My memories of Gandalf (and they’re from the revised text of both novels; I’m not that old) are vaguely intimidating in The Hobbit. His sense of humour and his ambivalent attitude towards Bilbo Baggins were tough for me to parse as a child really. Now, I’m remembering my own reactions to the novel more than the novel itself here, but that’s more or less on point, seeing as it was a children’s book. Gandalf was just more interesting this way, for me. As the larger novel proceeded he graduated to this figure of immense power, one of the great characters in literature, fantasy or otherwise. However, my deepest connection with the character came in the first novel. Gandalf the Grey was more fun, and just a little scary. Was he even a “good guy”, I wondered as a child, desperately hoping that he would turn out to be so.
Maybe it says more about my attitudes to adults when I was a child, as the relationship between Bilbo and Gandalf does reflect a certain element of parental trappings, not least from the discrepancies in their physical statures. That Gandalf, the vaguely threatening Gandalf, the Gandalf laughing to jokes that Bilbo (and by extension, the young reader) were not necessarily going to get, or were perhaps not invited to share in any case, was a more interesting Gandalf, a less immediately knowable and thus potentially more threatening Gandalf. Mind you, had he turned out to be a villain it would have been a considerably different book; a weirder one, too, if it’s even possible to imagine what the genre fiction landscape would look like in such a scenario.
This might be part of the reason I still prefer The Hobbit to this day, although I haven’t read either book in quite a while. This isn’t some kind of attempt to be cool by liking the supposedly less popular book (I don’t know much about the relative popularity of each book but I can’t think there’s much in it in any case), rather a simple statement of preference. In fact, I would probably agree that The Lord of the Rings is a better book, despite all that rubbish with Tom Bombadil, but I still like the first novel more. It’s a personal choice driven completely by irrational factors that are in no small part influenced by who I was when I first read it, who introduced it to me, and so on. There’s a big difference between an opinion and a personal preference. Pablo Honey is still my favourite Radiohead album incidentally.
As it bloody should be. Get a load of this!