BOSTON — In just a few days, Tolkienites around the world will flock to movie theaters for the second installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy, called “The Desolation of Smaug.”
As with its predecessor, last year’s “An Unexpected Journey,” the latest 161-minute romp through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth will inspire some fans to see parallels with Jewish history – mostly through the epic tale of twelve displaced dwarves, hell-bent on reclaiming their homeland from the dragon Smaug.
When Tolkien published “The Hobbit” in 1937, the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland – not to mention the Holocaust – was still on the horizon. Educated at Oxford, devout Roman Catholic Tolkien served as a signals officer during World War I, and saw action at the notorious Battle of the Somme, one of humanity’s bloodiest.
Written as a children’s book, “The Hobbit” has long been probed by scholars for allegory, including the influence of Tolkien’s war years on the plot.
Another fascinating parallel for some Tolkienites – the official word for Tolkien fans – is between the fictional dwarves of Middle Earth and real Earth’s Jews, in both their history and culture.
More than three decades after publishing “The Hobbit,” Tolkien spoke about the Jewish-dwarvish connection during a BBC interview.
“I didn’t intend it, but when you’ve got these people on your hands, you’ve got to make them different, haven’t you?” said Tolkien during the 1971 interview. “The dwarves of course are quite obviously, wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic. The hobbits are just rustic English people,” he said.
According to Tolkien scholar John Rateliff, author of a two-volume “Hobbit” history published in 2007, Tolkien drew inspiration from Hebrew texts and Jewish history when developing the dwarves. As craftsmen exiled from a bountiful homeland, the dwarves spoke both the language of their adopted nations and – among themselves – a Hebrew-influenced tongue developed by Tolkien.
Though Tolkien’s dwarves remember their traumatic past with mournful songs, most are assimilated and ambivalent about reclaiming Erebor, their lost country. Back at the Lonely Mountain, hidden somewhere beneath the dragon Smaug’s treasure mound, there’s a self-glowing “Arkenstone” gem, called “the heart of the mountain.”
The divinely inspired Arkenstone — say some observers — represents the Ark of the Covenant, with the Lonely Mountain standing in for Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
As with the Old Testament’s later Jewish kings, the dwarf kings of Erebor prove to be highly corruptible, not to mention gold-obsessed. Their ceaseless accumulation of wealth – Tolkien makes clear – stoked the resentment of neighbors, and eventually brought on the marauding dragon.
For decades, scholars have called Tolkien’s dwarf narrative – including its continuation in his “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy – a sort of “corrective rewrite” of German composer Richard Wagner’s famed “Ring cycle.” In that four-part opera, anti-Semites – including Adolf Hitler – found allegorical confirmation for their hatred of Jews, represented by the villainous dwarf Alberich. A lifelong anti-Semite, Wagner publicly called for a Jew-free Germany on many occasions.
According to some Tolkien scholars, the author’s heroic dwarves are a conscious inversion of Wagner’s negatively “Jewish” dwarves, meant to flip the switch on damaging stereotypes. As a lover of Norse mythology, Tolkien despised the Nazis’ distortion of ancient tales to incite hatred.
“Anyway, I have in this war a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler,” wrote Tolkien in a 1941 letter to his son. “[Hitler is] ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”
Several years after writing “The Hobbit,” Tolkien had an exchange with publishers who wanted to translate his book into German. In responding to their request that Tolkien confirm his Aryan ancestry, the South African-born author took issue with Nazi policy.
“If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people,” wrote Tolkien in an oft-quoted draft. He went on to call Nazi race doctrine “wholly pernicious and unscientific.”
Although Tolkien claimed to “cordially dislike” allegory, “The Hobbit” – say many Tolkien scholars – is unmistakably permeated by the events of World War I.
“Tolkien’s war experiences are sublimated in his fiction,” wrote Nancy Marie Ott in a study of the author’s literary influences.
“World War I represented everything Tolkien hated: the destruction of nature, the deadly application of technology, the abuse and corruption of authority, and the triumph of industrialization,” wrote Ott. “Yet at the same time it gave him an appreciation for the virtues of ordinary people, for friendships, and for what beauty he could find amidst ugliness.”
In this month’s new “Hobbit” flick, audiences will witness the dwarves’ hard-earned return to Erebor and its Lonely Mountain. Getting there will require them to fend off sundry groups of elves, men and enlarged spiders, each attempting to torpedo the dwarvish quest.
Not everything is rosy about the dwarves’ homecoming, including when their leader refuses to share recaptured gold with neighboring elves and men – not to mention the goblins of Moria. The trilogy will end with next year’s “There and Back Again,” climaxing as the dwarves solidify their independence in a great battle of five armies.
For fans as interested in Middle Earth’s creator as in the realm itself, Fox Searchlight will soon begin production on a biopic of Tolkien, highlighting the intersection between his personal life and Middle Earth. Leading Tolkienite David Gleeson’s script will be produced by Peter Chernin, who is currently filming the Biblical “Exodus,” starring Christian Bale as Moses.