The Riddles of The Hobbit by Adam Roberts asks many questions including What are the riddles in The Hobbit? Why are there riddles in The Hobbit? What’s so interesting about riddles? And, What exactly is a hobbit?
I had the opportunity to interview Professor Roberts via email because I was, alas, unable to interview him at Royal Holloway University, London where he is Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature.
GB: What inspired you to write this book? What do you hope readers take away from their reading experience?
Prof Roberts: I have been a reader and lover of Tolkien from a very early age. He’s one of the reasons why I wanted to become a writer myself. As an academic I have also written literary-critical or scholarly stuff on his books, although most of the criticism I read is geared to the Lord of the Rings. My starting point for this book was a desire just to look in more detail at The Hobbit, and more specifically to challenge the idea that it is somehow a ‘simple’ or even a ‘trivial’ book compared to the much larger, more involved Lord of the Rings. I don’t think that’s right. Of course The Hobbit *is* a shorter and more linear book than Lord of the Rings, but that doesn’t mean it is in any sense simpler. The riddle struck me as one of the ways I could approach the text to start to explore its complexities.
GB: What do you find most appealing about Tolkien’s writing and the world he created?
Prof Roberts: This is a hard question for me to answer — Tolkien goes so far back with me, personally, and is so intimately entwined about my own developing imagination. There’s a bad aspect to that fact: loving this writing as deeply as I do, it’s hard for me to get a critical distance upon it. Still, it ought to be possible for me to answer your question without evasion, of the ‘love is blind’ kind! So: I’d say that when I was a kid what I loved about these books was simply the transport of the imagined world, the escapism of it. Now that I am no longer a child, do not see as a child and have put away childish things, I find myself drawn (to speak very broadly) to other aspects of the work: and in particular to Tolkien’s twin concerns, which are surely absolutely central to his vision with language on the one hand, and with importance of ethical choice on the other. These things, combined with something else Tolkien understands — that even the most seemingly mundane or trivial lives have, as it were, epic underpinnings — are also core to Joyce’s Ulysses. For example.
GB: In your book, you discuss the attraction people find for riddles and mysteries and how this attraction is reflected in Tolkien’s work. How do you believe this has impacted the both the international and lasting appeal of a book originally marketed to British children?
Prof Roberts: Kids love riddles; but then, most adults do too. Writing the book, though, has helped me see something clearer about the way the book is structured. It is, of course, a story of good versus evil, like a Grimm’s tale or a parable; but it understands something of the appeal of wickedness as well as its delinquency. The two most memorable characters in the book (after Bilbo maybe; or perhaps to a greater extent even than him) are Gollum and Smaug. The tale really comes alive when those two are on the page. What differentiates them from the other threats the travellers face, like the goblins, wolves or spiders, is that they are riddling, they have an extra layer of complexity to them. They both invite us not only to dismiss them as bad, but to understand them as conflicted, or glamorous, or other. In other words, the moral universe for Tolkien includes both the patently good and the patently bad, but also a riddling middle ground.
GB: You touch on the idea that riddles are everywhere in life, politics, religion, relationships. What do riddles teach us as human beings, as a culture? What purpose do riddles fulfill?
Prof Roberts: The line I argue in the book is that riddles construct a way of seeing the universe in ironic, rather than simply mimetic, terms. For myself, irony is a better approach than mimesis. SF and Fantasy are, fundamentally, ironic textual strategies; just as ‘Realism’ is a fundamentally mimetic one. Now, irony is a deep philosophical matter, and a genuinely complex one; and lots of people — especially, I have discovered, people in the worlds of Fantasy and SF fandom — rather mistrust it. But I stand by the argument I make in the book that the Anglo-Saxon world from which Tolkien took so much inspiration saw the universe as a riddle, and prized an ironic stance with respect to it. Not that courage and loyalty and strength were unimportant; of course they were vitally important; but that a warrior hold his strength lightly, that he face death with a smile, that he fight more fiercely in the teeth of certain defeat. I am not talking about flippancy, or a more clumsy disrespectful. I am talking about accepting that there is a mismatch between our human abilities to understand and the brute fact of the cosmos. All we have to decide, to quote somebody, is what to do with the time that has been given us. Riddles teach us what Keats, in a different context, called negative capability. That’s more important now, in some ways, than it has ever been.
GB: You draw a connection between riddles and scifi/fantasy/escapism. Do you reflect on the theme of riddles in any of your own works of fiction?
Prof Roberts: My own fiction is certainly ironic in this larger sense — informed not only by all the Pulp SF and heroic Fantasy I have read but by the intellectual environment that has shaped my life as an academic: deconstruction, postmodernism and so on. It’s one of the things (I can be honest) that lots of SF fans don’t like about it! But this is my truth, as the phrase goes, and I can’t abandon it. That’s not to say that my novels are full of actual riddles, of the kind I quote in the Riddles of the Hobbit book; rather than my novels are riddling SF in the way that Bolano’s 2666 is a ‘riddling’ crime novel. The one exception to that is: puns. I love puns, the riddling and unriddling of linguistic meaning, language in play. Anyone who follows me on twitter will be drenched in puns.
GB: Do you plan to further explore the world of Tolkien in future projects?
Prof Roberts: I have a chapter in the forthcoming Oxford Companion to J.R.R.Tolkien, edited by Stuart Kelly, on ‘Tolkien and Women’.
I sincerely thank Professor Roberts for taking the time for the interview.
If you are curious to know a bit more about The Hobbit films you’ve just discovered in the cinema, this isn’t the best beginning. The endearing, easy-to-read world of The Hobbit doesn’t prepare the average reader for the scope of the scholarly investigations into Nordic epic and Anglo-Saxon gnomic poetic traditions and their post-modern literary interpretations. If you’re a more advanced literary or linguistic scholar or armchair philosopher and are looking for some interesting ideas to discuss around the gaming table, this book will spark much dynamic conversation.
Adam Roberts is an active author of fiction, literary criticism, and non-fiction. Recently his novel Jack Glass: The Story of Murderer, a whodunit with the murderer as the main character, won the 2013 BSFA Best Novel award. You can follow Professor Roberts on Twitter @arroberts or follow his blog http://www.adamroberts.com/.