In The Tragedy of Arthur–Arthur Phillips’ brilliant novel about the finding, or forgery, of a supposedly lost Shakespearean play–Phillips boldly questions the genius of ol’ Billy Shakes. Specifically, he argues that Shakespeare has been attributed too much credit by his critics, who have, in large part, done a great deal of work for him.
Here, Phillips explains it best:
“Look, look: you have a weak spot where Will’s not thinking very clearly, and the character rambles on, and Will sticks in a joke that he likes about flowers that look like wieners. It plainly doesn’t belong there. Any editor would cut it. It breaks the rhythm and the logic of the scene. And your sweet old Gertrude noticed it and rightly points out the weak spot. Anybody else, we’d say, ‘Whoops. Not buying it, Will.’ If I wrote it, they’d send me home to rework it. Instead, what do you all do? You all talk it out until you make it make sense for him. He wrote it, so it must be right. You six very intelligent people form a committee to offer him your help, and when you’ve done the best you can, consulting old books of other would-be helpers, when you actually come up with some very clever solutions, you marvel at him for composing such a subtle moment.”
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One would be hard pressed to argue The Hobbit being anything other than a children’s story, but when Thorin leaves a letter for Bilbo the morning after their unexpected party it becomes clear that Tolkien wasn’t ignoring adults entirely.
“Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all travelling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for. Thinking it unnecessary to disturb your esteemed repose, we have proceeded in advance to make requisite preparations, and shall await your respected person at Green Dragon Inn, Bywater, at 11 a.m. sharp. Trusting that you will be punctual.”
The sarcasm here is razor sharp. While the letter appears nothing more than an unusually formal contract, its purpose is to mock Bilbo for his hesitation and supposed cowardice.
First, Thorin thanks Bilbo for offering his “professional” assistance, when in fact the dwarves forced his hand and have little faith in his ability to burgle anything. Next, he waves in Bilbo’s face the very real possibilities of failure and death, knowing that Bilbo is the last person willing to risk either. Finally, Thorin refers to Bilbo’s slumber as his “esteemed repose,” mocking his overblown civility. Thorin may as well have written, “Get over yourself and get your ass to Bywater.”
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J. R. R. Tolkien spoke at great length, both in his letters and lectures, about what he called “secondary belief.” For Tolkien, reading fantasy wasn’t about a willing suspension of disbelief as much as it was a secondary belief in an imagined world. As long as that world holds to an internal logical consistency, its laws can be entirely different from our own while being every bit as believable. Through this secondary belief (which is only accomplished at the hands of a master storyteller) readers can easily accept things like elves and magic and dragons.
Due to the depth of Tolkien’s Middle Earth–its people, their languages, their cultures, their histories—this internal consistency became Tolkien’s hallmark. Until the wellspring of fantasy that arose in the ’90s (with Williams, Jordan, Martin, and others), Tolkien was basically alone—with a handful of lesser exceptions—in creating entire worlds that seemed to believably exist. Secondary belief is the reason people used to regularly spray paint “Frodo Lives” on buildings in the ’60s and ’70s.
What’s curious, then, is that there is a moment early on in The Hobbit that spits in the face of this internal consistency, this secondary belief: the dwarves’ musical interlude in Chapter 1. When the dwarves break out their instruments shortly after arriving at Bag End we’re experiencing a very unusual moment in a Tolkien narrative. He’s usually so careful not to jolt his readers out of their secondary belief, but he deliberately seems to be doing it here.
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