I am currently reading The Hobbit to a class of elementary students, and the other day I found myself in the difficult situation of trying to decide what to do with the book’s songs. I have never been a huge fan of songs in fantasy texts, and in the past I simply read them out as though they were prose, or passed them over entirely. The temptation to do this again was mounting as, while reading, I found that many of my students were not enjoying or connecting with the text. So, as my class fidgeted uncomfortably, some passing notes, others whispering distractedly, I decided to jump off the precipice: for the first time, I sang out the dwarfs’ song of lost treasure. Singing, I could feel my cheeks burning as one girl snickered at my singing. But I was not to be so easily thwarted—I sang the song through to the end. Pausing, then, I prepared to continue; however, in that pause I realised that an absolute silence had settled upon the class. Except for that initial snicker, no one had moved or made a sound during my song. In that brief pause, two students chastised the poor girl who had snickered, and the remainder broke into a riotous applause.
I am no great singer. And as I continued reading—now to a much more receptive audience—I realised, not for the first time, the power of song.
Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an excellent version of Tolkien’s book—I have read the book to several classes, as study in university, as personal enjoyment, and I am currently reading it to my three and five year-old children. Jackson’s vision is not a perfect version, but it is excellent. And here I would like to note one standout reason for both these statements.
An Excellent Version
I am delighted that some of Tolkien’s songs made it into the film. The dwarfs’ singing nicely captures the light-hearted and destructive nature of their visit to Bag End, and Thorin’s “Over the Misty Mountain (Cold)” is a show-stopping moment in the film. Besides being a haunting adaptation of Tolkien’s song, “Misty Mountain” is so perfectly placed and shot in the film that it perfectly (yes, perfectly) accentuates and articulates the text’s two great themes: the desire for home (and its relation to the need for adventure), and the enchanting (consuming) power of desire—most specifically, for wealth.
I do not normally like to cheerlead, but I must note that, besides being beautifully shot and placed within the film, “Misty Mountain” is a prime example of what I believe true artistry looks like in music. I vehemently believe that music functions best when instrumentation (including vocals) and lyrics serve one another. To illustrate, I have often noticed this in well-executed church services wherein the band recognised the role of their instrumentation as subservient to the lyrics their music proclaimed—this did not mean a diminishing of the quality or volume of the instrumentation, but rather, that the music was so well executed that it did not draw attention to itself—on the contrary, it simply led me to the lyrics, so that they felt more profound because of the music that served them. In these instances, I often found that I barely noticed the music itself. When the opposite is the case, I come away from a service somewhat frustrated by the fact that, though the music sounded great, it was clearly more interested in drawing attention to itself than in complimenting (let alone, serving) the lyrics. It is also possible for the lyrics to serve the music in a similar fashion by functioning to serve a particularly interesting or moving instrumentation—but it is always a case of one serving the other (not each serving itself).
Returning to “Misty Mountain,” then, I see a situation in which Tolkien’s touching lyrics are supported by the music in a way that the lyrics seem to have more meaning than they ever did without the music. The result is a piece of music that touches the imagination. Without even having to know a single word of the lyrics, the song perfectly communicates what the lyrics say—if I could not speak a word of English, I believe the song would still leave me feeling homesick, and haunted by a desire for something beautiful.
Not Quite Perfect
First, I loved the film.
Second, it is not perfect. At the risk of sounding like a malcontent, I would like to note one (probably my only) frustration with the film. Despite the fact that its opening so perfectly set the tone for the adventure, I can’t help feeling that the film’s climax (though eminently entertaining) sort of lost its way.
Having read the book roughly nine times—and I just finished it with my children last night—I am convinced that the antagonist of the story is greed. Greed is what tempts Bilbo and betrays Thorin, it is what almost brings the armies of the good nations to war, and it is a motivator of goblins and trolls alike. In the end, even Smaug ends up not being the true antagonist of the book so much as the greed that he represents—he boasts that what makes him so impenetrable is his gem-encrusted armour. It is interesting, then, that he is ultimately undone by his faith that his wealth will protect him—he does not see the small area at the hollow of his breast (where his heart should be?) where a piece of jewel-armour is missing.
Now, having noted my one qualm with Jackson’s interpretation, allow me to note that I think Jackson, too, may have been concerned about this very issue. This is why I love the film’s closing. It is here, as we follow the thrush’s journey to the Lonely Mountain and watch Smaug stir, that Jackson reveals his knowledge that, even though he may have given a lot of screen-time to Azog as the antagonist, he knows there is a greater enemy, and that that enemy is not a dragon, but the greed that dragon represents. For, in this closing scene, it is the hoard of gold that we are first shown, and as Smaug moves, he is almost entirely indiscernible from the hoard in which he lies. He may be a great dragon, but from this moment it is clear that he was not as great as the enchantment of the hoard he took from the dwarves. At the end of the first film we have not yet had a full-body glimpse of Smaug, yet we know that he has already been defeated. However, in his defeat, he has been consumed by something much more terrible, and Smaug, as a representation of greed, provides our heroes with something much more fearsome than a mere dragon.