Saturday, September 22, 2018

Concerning Hobbits — and Bachelors

Happy Hobbit Day, everyone ! I hope you've been able to celebrate the shared birthday of Bilbo and and Frodo Baggins with seven or eight stomach-explodingly large and delicious meals today.

Meals are, of course, the closest thing to a hobbit's heart — even dearer than genealogy, gardening, or xenophobic grumbling. And meals often form the heart of some of the most entertaining — and sometimes meaningful — moments in JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings novels, as well as Peter Jackson's cinematic adaptations of them. Who can forget the raucous feast of the dwarves as they barge into Bag End in TH, or the extravagant double birthday party that opens LOTR (interesting how both stories, regardless of their soft openings, get their real start with a meal)? Or Frodo & co dining with the elves under the stars as the flee the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring? Or Sam and Frodo's meagre rations of lembas on their trek towards Mount Doom?

But the meal that's come to mean the most to me in recent years is Bilbo's sit-down just before the arrival of the first of Thorin's companions in The Hobbit. Not much is made of it in Tolkien's novel; just a mention that Bilbo was about to sit down to tea. Peter Jackson spends more time crafting this moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey though: in his version, Bilbo's sitting down to a quiet supper.

And craft is the right word for it. This is an exquisitely crafted little scene where we experience the quiet of the evening in a relaxed little community in an uneventful corner of the world, with Bilbo, the solitary bachelor, cooking his fish and a few side dishes, sitting down in a silence broken only by the murmuring snap of the fire and soft scrap of dishes, and preparing to eat, alone. The first time I watched that scene, it took my breath away. It only lasts a second or two before the dwarven assault on the pantry begins, but in those few seconds it captures entirely and perfectly the essence of bachelorhood. Here, in the comfortable silence and dim light of the hearth and candles, we see a man who is content, perhaps even happy with his life, but at the same time, probably unconsciously, feeling lonely and unfulfilled. Living life well enough, but somehow feeling that he wants more, even if he isn't aware that he's feeling it. Not an angst, but a calmly accepted and possibly forgotten absence. It is a state of being I've felt before as a bachelor, and these days, now that my marriage has collapsed, it's a feeling that's enveloping me again. It's a moment that's a universal statement about the bachelor experience (and probably that of bachelorettes, and, to some degree, possibly of widows and widowers, although those would be freighted with loss and more overt sadness).

Sure, there may be some of you out there reading this who say "I'm single and I couldn't be happier! That scene isn't relevant to me at all!" Okay. So be it. You can go back to writing your erotic sequel to The Mysterious Two then.

The rest of us, meanwhile, will take a little time to appreciate a cinematic moment that's beautifully filmed by Peter Jackson, and played confidently and subtly by Martin Freeman. No other film I've seen has ever captured the true feeling of bachelorhood as well as THAUJ — others are always moving too quickly when they set up a character's bachelor lifestyle; there's always a musical score or theme song that's trying to shoulder its way in front of the real, potentially meaningful content of the scene; the pace and cuts are frequently too quick to let the viewer experience the person's state of being; the tone is frequently engineered to mock the character (as in The 40-Year-Old Virgin), or, if the actor is playing it cool, to blatantly tell us that something is lacking in their deliberate detachment  (like in Up in the Air). But as short as this moment is in THAUJ, within itself, it gives itself time to really let us experience a life and how that life feels in an honest and meaningful way. Say what you will about Jackson's Hobbit trilogy (and there are plenty of flaws), this is, as J Michael Straczynski's Vorlon Ambassador Kosh might say in Babylon 5, "One moment of perfect beauty."

One that's served up in a simple hobbit meal. Happy birthday, Bilbo.

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