Wednesday 10 July 2013

Tolkien's most dreadful production - the 1960 revision of The Hobbit


I have been reading the begun but (thankfully) nowhere near finished 1960 revision of The Hobbit which was done by JRR Tolkien, and is published in Part Two of The History of the Hobbit edited by John D Ratliff.

The draft consists of replacement passages amounting to some 30 pages and taking Bilbo and the Dwarves as far as arriving in Rivendell.


The idea of the revision was to bring the Hobbit into line with Lord of the Rings in both a factual and tonal sense. This was a deeply flawed motivation, especially when applied to a first rank classic of children's literature, and could hardly fail to damage the book.

What resulted is rather horrible to read, at least it is horrible for anyone who loves Tolkien and who recognizes The Hobbit's special quality.

The very life has been drained from the Hobbit - its spark, verve, spontaneity are extinguished, smothered - its humour (in the old sense of humour - when a 'humorous' man was one of vivid and distinctive character).

The much derided avuncular asides are gone, but so is the vitality.


The failure of the 1960 Hobbit betrays its misguided purpose, just as the vampiric bureaucratic prose of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (the one recommended by the modern Church of England) betrays Christianity - the hobbit, for all its flaws, is essentially a perfect book ^ (just as the Authorized Version is a perfect translation of the Bible) - and if you revise perfection there can be only one outcome.

^perfect - A perfect work of art is one at the highest level in that art, one which cannot in actuality be improved (any change making it overall worse), one which cannot be surpassed (only something different being done) - in this sense the following are perfect: Shakespeare's Hamlet, Mozart's Magic Flute, Rembrandt's sequence of self-portraits...


[Note: An error of similarly tin-eared and destructive magnitude, but an error which has been enacted and imposed is currently poisoning the literary experience of tens of thousands of children - I mean the reordering of the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis; which retrospective juggling attempts to make kids read the books in pseudo-chronological order rather than by order of publication - that is with the Magician's Nephew first (instead of the correct first book, which is obviously The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). I have read all the arguments over this matter - but frankly find it embarrassing that anyone - especially the wonderful Walter Hooper - could seriously argue against the fact that the books should be read in order of publication. I say fact because, insofar as there is objectivity to literary criticism, this is about as obvious a fact as can be supposed. The re-ordering of the Narnia books was an act of literary vandalism of major proportions. The only consolation is that most kids seem to be ignoring it, in practice.]


Wurmbrand said...

People who would like a longer defense of reading the Narnian books in publication order, starting with The Lion, will find it in Peter J. Schakel's Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis: Journeying to Narnia and Other Worlds, pp. 40-52.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W Alister McGrath attacks the revised chronological ordering in the new biography of Lewis -

Matthew C. said...

How hideously stupid to change the order around.

"What do they teach them at these schools? "