How do you feel about the use of narrative voice in The Hobbit (novel)?...is The Hobbit a fundamentally 'male' story?

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How do you feel about the use of narrative voice in The Hobbit (novel)?...is The Hobbit a fundamentally 'male' story? Empty How do you feel about the use of narrative voice in The Hobbit (novel)?...is The Hobbit a fundamentally 'male' story?

Post by malickfan on Fri May 20, 2016 9:03 pm

One of the things that struck me when I re-read the first chapter of TH last night was the 'narrative voice' of the story, and how it affected the tone of the story, it's one of The Hobbit's little quirks I've always appreciated but looking at it from a more critical perspective I can see why it remains divisive, so I have a few thoughts and questions:

Many children’s stories contain a narrative voice of some kind, often used to convey information and/or act as a viewpoint for young readers, but in The Hobbit (unlike the sparse, impersonal ‘narration’ in LOTR) it strikes me that the narrator seems to be from looking at things from ‘our’ world and perspective, using real world analogies, subtly commenting on the events of the story from his/her own perspective, and seemingly having a limited amount of knowledge about the wider storyline, the narrator in The Hobbit does more than simply narrate or convey the storyline, they actively change how we see things, by dropping in their own opinions and viewpoint on the storyline and characters, given the Hobbit's genesis a bedtime story for Tolkien's children I think it's an appropriate, understandable style of writing, but is a little...intrusive?

Do you think Tolkien was subtly (or deliberately) making fun of some of the events/characters of the story with this technique? Thorin, the narrator notes a good three or four times in the first chapter was a 'very important' Dwarve, but judging from his rather stand offish persona and tendency to waffle on when talking, we are given at least some indication that he wasn't quite as important as he liked to believe, from memory, much later in the story dosen't the narrator also point out the flimsiness of the Dwarves plan to deal with Smaug (which pretty much seems to be, ' we are hoping he's dead, if not Bilbo can deal with it')

I've got the impression that to many readers (arguably more so for adults), the ‘narrator’ character  is one of the more unusual or annoying aspects of The Hobbit, setting it apart from Tolkien’s other middle earth writings or disrupting the flow of the story, Tolkien himself stated years later, that he regretted the using it, viewing it as talking down to children (see his essay ‘On Fairy Stories for further comments on this stylistic approach in fairy stories), yet when he attempted to re-write The Hobbit and dropped this ‘narrative voice’ to bring it more in line with  the writing style of LOTR, he stopped after other adult readers told him he was altering the book too much, was Tolkien right to have these concerns? Does The Hobbit talk down to children?

A few related questions:

Firstly, and obviously...how do feel about the use of ‘narrator’s voice’ in The Hobbit? a likable quirk, or diverting mistake?

If the narrator’s personal opinions were eliminated from the text, keeping ‘him’ as a impersonal observer would it be a better book?

Is the absence of a comparable narrative voice in LOTR a good or bad thing? (there are instances of it in the later back, and at least one viewpoint character-the Fox who watches the Hobbits sleeping in the shire)

Is it fair to consider this ‘narrator’ male? Tolkien was male, writing for a primarily male audience and from an academic background, so I’ve always considered the narrator as male, but reading the first chapter again, it struck me that nothing really marked 'him' as such, so... it got me thinking about how 'male' the story was.

If the narrator was clearly written as female would that effect the story in any way? Given the absence of any major female characters (other than the occasionally mentioned Belladonna Took) some have criticized the book as being too much of a 'male' story, is this a fair argument?

(I don't think it is, yes Tolkien was writing for a predominately male audience but moaning that the book dosen't do enough to appeal to female readers is in of itself kinda sexist i.m.o, and it's hardly fair to transfer modern literary conventions to a novel written by an academic scholar nearly 80 years ago)

( I know it's a pair of slighty random and seemingly unconnected topics for a thread, but it's been too long since I really thought about the books in any detail).

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Post by Eldorion on Fri May 20, 2016 9:49 pm

I have always interpreted the narrator as being a fictionalized version of Tolkien, both because of my awareness of The Hobbit originally being a bedtime story and because of Tolkien's conceit that he translated and adapted TH from the Red Book. (Though what some people miss is that he specifically notes that it wasn't a literal translation, which should be obvious really since the narrator is obviously not Bilbo.) I agree that the narrator pokes fun at the characters sometimes and definitely lampshades a number of other story elements. I think he's fundamentally sympathetic to Bilbo and Thorin though, even if he doesn't always approve of them.

On the gender front, there aren't simply no major female characters, there are no named female characters that appear in the present at all, much less that have a speaking role. (Other than Belladonna, Gollum's grandmother comes to mind, but her "appearance" is as ephemeral as it gets.) I'm certainly not going to argue that this is a good thing, but it hasn't stopped millions of women and girls from reading and enjoying The Hobbit. Generally speaking though, I think it's good to have a more equitable gender balance in fiction, and I did not object to the addition of Tauriel to the films on principle, merely in execution (especially since they went back on their intention of not having a love triangle).
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Post by halfwise on Fri May 20, 2016 10:31 pm

The narrative voice definitely makes it a children's story, which also makes it feel 'safe'. Even in the midst of goblin snatching and full-scale battles you never really fear for the characters, and this softens the blow when in fact several of the dwarves are killed in the battle of 5 armies. I can't say for sure whether removing the comfort of the narrator would improve the book by making it feel more immediate, but it would change it beyond recognition.

As for all the character being male, they don't dwell on particularly male topics. Unlike the movies which tried hard to play up their warrior qualities and rather male lack of etiquette, in the books they are neither clearly male or female in their actions. Not by modern standards at least, by which it's just as likely for a group of women to set out on a long traipse across the country as it is for men. So in a rather contradictory way, the sort of sexism of the day that drove the book to be all male when written has faded away so that it's no longer so visible to us.

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Post by Forest Shepherd on Fri May 20, 2016 11:19 pm

The narrative voice is a comforting aspect of the book. Similar to the narrative voice present in C. S. Lewis' children's books, it makes the story feel more like a bedtime story told by a parent, which is excellent. I'm particularly fond of this style of writing in some books.

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Post by malickfan on Sat May 21, 2016 8:20 pm

Eldorion wrote:I have always interpreted the narrator as being a fictionalized version of Tolkien, both because of my awareness of The Hobbit originally being a bedtime story and because of Tolkien's conceit that he translated and adapted TH from the Red Book.

Tolkien being the narrator would definitely make sense, it's easy to picture him, pipe in hand reading the story to his kids, it's also easy to interepret echoes of Tolkien's character and lifestyle in Bilbo.

I'm certainly not going to argue that this is a good thing, but it hasn't stopped millions of women and girls from reading and enjoying The Hobbit.

I certainly don't think it's a good thing, even looking at the story from a 1930's perspective you do have to wonder why there aren't even any ancillary female characters, but on the other hand I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, TH works very well as it is and there probably wasn't room for any more characters.


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I think what comes out of a pig's rear end is more akin to what Peejers has given us-Azriel 20/9/2014
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Post by malickfan on Sat May 21, 2016 8:22 pm

halfwise wrote:The narrative voice definitely makes it a children's story, which also makes it feel 'safe'.  Even in the midst of goblin snatching and full-scale battles you never really fear for the characters, and this softens the blow when in fact several of the dwarves are killed in the battle of 5 armies.  I can't say for sure whether removing the comfort of the narrator would improve the book by making it feel more immediate, but it would change it beyond recognition.

As for all the character being male, they don't dwell on particularly male topics.  Unlike the movies which tried hard to play up their warrior qualities and rather male lack of etiquette, in the books they are neither clearly male or female in their actions.  Not by modern standards at least, by which it's just as likely for a group of women to set out on a long traipse across the country as it is for men.  So in a rather contradictory way, the sort of sexism of the day that drove the book to be all male when written has faded away so that it's no longer so visible to us.

Agreed with you Halfy, personally I was open to PJ making some of Thorin's company female they have very little character in the book anyway, and I would have found it less annoying than some of the other cr*p he came up with...

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I think what comes out of a pig's rear end is more akin to what Peejers has given us-Azriel 20/9/2014
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Post by azriel on Sat May 21, 2016 8:55 pm

What !? I dont think I would trust Peejers ? Being a girlie girl myself I loved reading the Hobbit. I didnt think about if it was more for guys than gals, I just enjoyed it for what it was, an adventure Smile Actually, looking back, I was always a bit of a tom-boy & I enjoyed ( & still do ) adventure stories. The Narnia books I liked, because it was exciting adventure. The Hobbit took me out of the mundane run of the mill daily boredom to " I wonder whats gonna happen now " Smile I like the narrative. As my dad fooked orf before I was born I think these books read as tho I did have a father & it was He who was reading to me. I think it drew me in all the more & I felt a part of the story. I felt for Bilbo, whether he was scared or tired or hungry etc Smile I also felt my own opinion as if I was Bilbo, I could argue, agree or not agree. Smile

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Post by Pettytyrant101 on Sat May 21, 2016 9:35 pm

{{For me I think the narrator's voice is because Tolkien hadn't found his own as a writer- something in my view he doesn't do until LotR's- and even there he starts it without a writers voice and some of that makes it into the finished product- the opening paragraph of LotR's could easily be a sequel of a children book, the fox who wonders what Hobbits are doing camping and never finds out is also very in line with TH voice.
But as Tolkien discovered when he tries to rewrite TH in his new voice, not having a writers voice for it actually works- its one of those happy errors if you like. It lends both a reassurance to the reader and asides on the world and characters being explored as well as helping to lead he narrative.}}}

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Post by Mrs Figg on Sun May 22, 2016 6:07 pm

I think it is a fundamentally male story in the old fashioned sense, a tale of a all male fraternity, derring do, Baden Powell type. But the themes are applicable to both genders, themes of greed, loyalty and bravery in the face of danger are universal.

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Post by Pettytyrant101 on Sun May 22, 2016 6:56 pm

{{{I think youve it the nail on the head there Figg, and not just in the Hobbit but on the whole gender sticking women in male roles thingy that's so popular- its missing the point- if what a tale is about that counts and if what its about applies to everyone then it doesn't matter the gender of the characters conveying it.
You could make half the dwarves, or all the dwarves,or Bilbo female if you really wanted to, so long as you kept to the book narrative and basic structure, but there would not actually be a good narrative, thematic reason to do so as nothing would change regards the themes and messages which are universal already- so why bother altering what was originally written, and everyone knows and loves? There isn't actually reason beyond the smug sanctification a certain group of people get out of seeing male roles taken by females. When the should be championing for better roles for female actors.
Like with Tauriel- its not her inclusion that's the problem, its her complete lack of a meaningful narrative whose message is universal. Other maybe than the message we really should be writing female roles better than this by now, especially when women are writing them.
which leads me to a side thought- Shakespeare, and plays of his time, are chock full of female roles, and all sorts of varieties, character types and ages, from youth to old age and everything in-between, from brother keepers to Queens. So why are we still struggling now to have good female roles across the ages when they were doing it so well back in the day?
And then the sad thought occurred to me that it was maybe because back in the day all the women were men. }}}}

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Post by Eldorion on Sun May 22, 2016 7:06 pm

Actually now that you mention it technically my first exposure to Tolkien was a stage play of The Hobbit where Bilbo was played by a woman, though I don't think the character was supposed to be female. I don't remember much of anything from it since I was like four or five. I vaguely recall it taking place in a large theatre, but I was really small so it might've been a local school for all I know. Probably unofficial/unlicensed but my dad seemed to enjoy it. I was still several years away from having any real conception of Tolkien stuff and didn't think twice about the play until after I read the books when I was nine.
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Post by halfwise on Sun May 22, 2016 7:57 pm

That's a very good point that Shakespeare had strong female roles, though I don't think that's because men were playing them. There may have been some subliminal encouragement by having Elisabeth on the throne, but I think the main thing is he was more of a universalist writer than you normally get. His villians are multi-dimensional and his heroes are flawed.

There's actually plenty of strong interesting female roles in popular culture now (from Cersei Lannister to Bones to Ridley in Aliens), but they are drowned under the more stereotypical writing of weaker writers. We don't have the filter of history in place, and we have exposure to everything that's out there.

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Post by Mrs Figg on Sun May 22, 2016 11:04 pm

I agree Halfy. I think Martin has written some excellent female characters and they have been brought to life onscreen without them having to be the stereotypical Hollywood hottie kick ass babe we have had ad nauseum over recent years. Tauriel was just one of a long line of boring meaningless female warrior types. Xena, Buffy and Ridley started the trend and lots of lesser tv and film producers clung onto their coat tails with varying degrees of success.

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Post by Orwell on Tue May 24, 2016 12:27 pm

I love the Narrative voice in The Hobbit. It's Tolkien's own reading aloud to his boys. Male, yes - Dad's voice, to be precise. cheers

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Post by azriel on Tue May 24, 2016 1:41 pm

Hi Orwell Smile Wave

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