Middle-Earth Midrash: A Jewish View of The Hobbit (part 1)
December 11, 2013 at 9:03 am, by noamsienna
Note: the printed book The Hobbit (1994 edition) is indicated by an italicized title, while Peter Jackson’s 2012 film “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is referred to with quotation marks.
“According to the Nature of the Dwarves”: An Introduction to Dwarves and Jews
On my way home from seeing “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (the first of a trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit) with my brothers, I remarked to them that I thought the Dwarves seemed rather… Jewish. “Because they’re short and hairy? Nice try,” they responded. Attempting to convince them, I marshaled my evidence: “Doesn’t the quest to reclaim the ancestral Dwarvish homeland remind you of something? A once-proud people wandering as exiles across a hostile diaspora? And how about their Hebrew-sounding language?” The clincher of my argument was the “Blunt the Knives” scene: a group of close friends singing and banging on tables as they clean up after a hearty meal? Only too familiar to anyone who has attended a Jewish summer camp, Jewish day school, or a campus Hillel dinner.
With the release of “The Hobbit”, long-time Tolkien fans and newcomers alike can once again enjoy the suspense and epic thrill of Middle Earth (unless, of course, they are too outraged at the numerous changes from book to film — a topic for another time). This time, as the dwarves take centre stage, others are noticing the pseudo-Semitic aspects of Dwarvish culture (see, for example, Matt Lebovic’s recent article in the The Times of Israel; Seth Rogovoy’s article in The Forward, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks’ post on the Hirhurim blog, or Edmon Rodman’s piece in The Times of Israel). These range from the trivial: Durin’s Day, the Dwarvish new year, celebrated around the autumn equinox (The Hobbit, pg. 51), to the significant: Thorin’s quest to unite the scattered Dwarvish people and reclaim their ancestral homeland, and even to what some might see as tropes disturbingly close to medieval European anti-Semitism: the Dwarves’ deep love (lust?) of gold and gems and their bitter mistrust of outsiders.
While I do not believe Tolkien intended The Hobbit to reinforce these anti-Semitic canards, it is fairly clear that the dwarves are modeled after the Jews. Tolkien himself said in an interview with the BBC in 1964 (broadcast in 1971), “The dwarves of course are quite obviously — wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?” Their wandering ways, working as tinkers and jewelers, moneylenders and mercenaries, are indeed reminiscent of the Jewish experience. And the dwarves’ love of gold is meant, I believe, as part of his general musings on the dangerous power of our desires rather than a targeted piece of anti-Semitism (but Brackmann 2010 argues that Tolkien unconsciously drew on anti-Semitic beliefs in his portrayal of dwarves, and over time returned to the issue and attempted to revise his thinking). In this essay I will first lay out a few of the Jewish parallels in The Hobbit, and then suggest some Jewish lessons that The Hobbit reinforces.
It is also worth noting that Tolkien himself was vehemently opposed to the anti-Semitism spreading in Nazi Europe. When a German translation was being prepared in 1938, his publishers forwarded a request from Germany inquiring into his genealogy. He wrote to his publishers, saying:
I must say that the enclosed letter from Rütten & Loening is a bit stiff. Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of arisch [Aryan] origin from all persons of all countries?… Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestatigung [confirmation of Aryan ancestry] (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine… I submit two drafts of possible answers.
One unsent draft has survived, which begins: “Thank you for your letter… I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware noone [sic] of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But 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” (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 1995, pp. 37-38; emphasis in original).
In his BBC interview, Tolkien expanded on his association between Dwarves and Jews, saying that “[the dwarves’] words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” Like Hebrew, the Dwarvish language, Khuzdul, has words based on consonant roots and with grammatical structures (like noun construct phrases and verb conjugations; for more, see the analysis of Khuzdul by Magnus Åberg in Arda Philology, 2007). And moreover, like Hebrew, Khuzdul had become a liturgical language, replaced in common speech by the local vernaculars but zealously preserved as sacred Dwarvish heritage. In an appendix to The Return of the King, Tolkien writes (note even the two sets of names!):
“It was according to the nature of the Dwarves that, travelling and labouring and trading about the lands, as they did after the destruction of their ancient mansions, they should use the languages of Men among whom they dwelt. Yet in secret (a secret which unlike the Elves, they did not willingly unlock, even to their friends) they used their own strange tongue, changed little by the years; for it has become a tongue of lore rather than a cradle-speech, and they tended it and guarded it as a treasure of the past. Few of other race have succeeding in learning it… Gimli’s own name, however, and the names of all his kin, are of Northern (Mannish) origin. Their own secret and ‘inner’ names, their true names, the Dwarves have never revealed to anyone of alien race.” (The Return of the King, Appendix F)
Tolkien wrote in a letter to his friend Naomi Mitchison that the dwarves were “at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue” (1995, pg. 229) — a description that could perfectly fit the diasporic Jewish experience. Wandering everywhere, the Dwarves, like Jews, become the quintessential outsiders. In “An Unexpected Journey”, when Bilbo defends his decision to leave the company and go home, he tells Bofur: “You’re dwarves! You’re used to this life, to living on the road, never settling in one place, not belonging anywhere!” After a pause he adds “I’m sorry…” but Bofur sadly agrees, “No, you’re right. We don’t belong anywhere.”
But unlike historical anti-Semitism (no doubt familiar to Tolkien as a medieval scholar), such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where the Jewish race is inherently and ineluctably condemned to be homeless and rootless, the Dwarves’ history of wandering leads to their quest to return to their homeland (Rateliff makes this point in The History of The Hobbit, 2007, pp. 79-80). After escaping the goblins and returning to the party, Bilbo in “An Unexpected Journey” tells Thorin: “[Bag-End] is where I belong; that’s home. And that’s why I came back: because… you don’t have one — a home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can.” Bilbo’s belief that the Dwarves have a moral right to reclaim their homes and live as a independent and free people once more is reminiscent of the British philo-Semitism of the mid 19th- and early 20th-centuries, championed by figures like George Eliot, Lord Ashley Earl of Shaftesbury, and of course, Arthur James Balfour (see Himmelfarb, 2011, esp. chapters 4 and 5).
“The Freedom of the Reader”: Applicability, Allegory, and Midrash-Making
All in all, the Jewish-Dwarvish connection seems clear, both regarding general symbolism and Tolkien’s own intentions. Owen Dudley Edwards summarizes nicely, writing that:
[Tolkien] seems to have had Jews in mind when first developing the dwarves in The Hobbit, and gave them Jewish sense of adventure, Jewish love of music, Jewish delight in parties, Jewish sanctity of traditional quest, Jewish financial acumen, Jewish nomadic traditions, Jewish warmth in comradeship, [and] Jewish suspicion of betrayal by gentiles. (Edwards, 2007, pp. 458-459)
But in this essay I would like to go beyond exploring the parallels between Judaism and Middle-Earth — there is Tolkien scholarship for that (see, e.g., Cramer 2006 and 2011) — and ask: what might The Hobbit (or “The Hobbit”) mean to us as Jews? I will preface this by noting that Tolkien was famously adamant that his work was not meant as allegory, and I do not take it as such. I am not suggesting that The Hobbit is meant to convey this or that Jewish idea; rather, in reading The Hobbit I am reminded of such and such an idea and thus apply the lessons to my understanding of the world. As Tolkien writes: “I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author” (The Lord of The Rings, Foreword). That is, I’m applying my observations from Tolkien in an attempt to give meaning to my Jewish life, just as a Christian, reading about good and simple hobbits, could be inspired in answering Jesus’ call to be like ‘the salt of the earth’, or a Muslim could be reminded of their struggle against the worldly desires of their nafs by Gollum’s attachment to the Ring, or a Buddhist could see in the stately wisdom of Galadriel and Elrond their admiration for the bodhisattvas of their tradition. The text itself does not intend to deliver any of these messages, but it is our freedom as readers to take what meanings we can from it.
This is both a technique of literary analysis and also a profoundly Jewish exercise. Judaism has long taught that the study of our sacred texts is meant to provide meaning to our lives, even in ways that the text may not have foreseen. As Jewish educator Barry Holtz writes, “[the Bible] provides a set of images and words by which our own language and metaphoric substructures are shaped. We lose our own Gardens of Eden; we wander years in our wildernesses; we cast our bread upon the water and hear the still, small voice. It pushes us… toward moral development. It helps elicit our own spiritual growth. And it links us back across the generations to all those people who have lived and died for this enduring text” (2005, pg. 153). Is the story of the Garden of Eden an allegory for the loss of my childhood innocence? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But what is relevant is that in reading it, I find comfort and guidance towards my own moral development and spiritual growth. This is a personalized form of the homiletic expansion that the rabbis called midrash, literally ‘inquiry’. So, let us inquire: what would a Jewish midrash on The Hobbit be? (Note: The Hobbit will be our focus here; while referencing The Lord of the Rings and other works by Tolkien, we will leave a fuller analysis for another time). I want to focus on three Jewish themes which I see in The Hobbit. First, that while it is in our nature to desire wealth, we can (and must) learn to be content with our lot. Second, that true heroism comes from our battles with ourselves. And third, that there is significance in every moment and every choice, no matter how small we perceive ourselves or our lives to be.
Stay tuned for parts 2-4!
Åberg, Magnus. “An Analysis of Dwarvish.” In Arda Philology: proceedings of the first international conference on J. R. R. Tolkien’s invented languages. Arda Society, 2007, pp. 42-65.
Brackmann, Rebecca. “‘Dwarves are Not Heroes’: Antisemitism and the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Writing.” Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature, 109/110, Vol. 28, No. 3/4 (2010), pp. 85-106.
Cramer, Zak. “Jewish Influences in Middle-earth.” Mallorn 44 (2006): 9-16.
—-. “Hebrew and Elvish Languages: Why Do So Many Elves Have Jewish Names?” Mythprint: the monthly bulletin of the Mythopoeic Society, Vol. 48 (2011), pp. 1-4.
Edwards, Owen Dudley. British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The People of the Book: philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill. Encounter Books, 2011.
Holtz, Barry. “Teaching Torah as Truth: an exploration of pedagogic goals.” In Educational Deliberations: Studies in Education Dedicated to Shlomo (Seymour) Fox. Keter Press, 2005, pp. 143-156.
Lebovic, Matt. “Are Tolkien’s dwarves an allegory for the Jews?” The Times of Israel, December 11, 2013. http://www.timesofisrael.com/are-tolkiens-dwarves-an-allegory-for-the-jews/
Rateliff, John D. The History of The Hobbit: Mr. Baggins, Vol. 1. Harper Collins, 2007.
Rodmon, Edmon. “Some Tu Bish thoughts, inspired by ‘The Hobbit’.” The Times of Israel, January 25, 2013.
Rogovoy, Seth. “Of Hobbits and the Golem”. The Forward, December 24, 2012.
Saks, Jeffrey. “Tolkien and the Jews.” Hirhurim: Torah Musings, January 8, 2013.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Hobbit. Ballantine, 1996 (original ed. 1937).
–. Interview with Denys Geroult. “Tolkien Interview.” BBC Radio 4: Now Read On. 1971. (available here: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-G_v6-u3hg>).
–. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Harper Collins, 1995.
–. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (3 vols., original ed. 1954).
–. The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Allen and Unwin, 1983.
–. The Silmarillion. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Random House, 2002 (original ed. 1977).
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