OK, I’m going to do a Cookie Monster. Fans of the children’s TV series Sesame Street will no doubt be familiar with the comical Cookie Monster character who impersonated the august if avuncular Alistair Cooke introducing a spoof of his Masterpiece Theater program. Since comedy is rather in vogue at the moment in the Hobbit section of Hollywood Jesus (See Peter Jackson Gets Wake-Up Call For Hobbit.), I am attempting a little light relief before we get down to some serious subjects by imitating the late Alistair Cooke’s rambling introductions to his Letter from America radio shows. Before I do, perhaps I should explain that part of Alistair Cooke’s appeal towards the end of his career and after the attacks of 9/11 was that he could call on memories of two world wars. So, being mindful of what Chapter 14 has in store, namely an air raid and mass destruction, I want to start by referring to a book which came to light when my brother was moving some belongings. Interestingly, my copy of The Hobbit surfaced in similar circumstances (See Discovering Middle-earth.), prompting me to read it to my boys, resulting indirectly in this blog.
The book in question was The War in The Air 1939-45 (1). I was already thinking how Tolkien’s experience of the First World War might have influenced Chapter 14 when I started looking at this book. Now, I read a few biographies of famous fighter pilots in my youth. Many boys of my generation were more interested in those kind of heroes than Tolkien’s mythical sort. So, I was surprised by the different angle in Lyall’s book. Having been put together much later from interviews, it gave more emphasis to the fears of those involved and the horrors they saw.
Although Tolkien’s experience of action against the enemy was limited to trench warfare on the Western Front, his heart must have gone out to the civilians in England who suffered aerial bombardment in Zeppelin raids, which continued from 1915 to 18. As we shall see in Chapter 14, Tolkien gives us a harrowing account of women and children fleeing a burning town under attack from the air, which is not what one would expect from a fairy story.
With the Zeppelin raids in mind, I looked for images online and was startled to come across one of the Belgian city of Liege under attack from the air. I was amazed by the similarity with John Howe’s painting entitled “Smaug Destroys Lake Town”, which many Tolkien fans will think of immediately when they recall this part of The Hobbit. And, who knows? Howe’s image may find its way into the forthcoming films. For Tolkien’s own visualisation, see the photo at the end of this article.
So with a number of ideas coming together, perhaps it’s time to pick up the story line (or should I say one thread of the story?), because just as I am trying to imitate Alistair Cooke’s ability to weave ideas together for a radio talk, Tolkien is doing the same thing here with the plot - also in a rather avuncular style. At the end of chapter 13, we left Bilbo and the Dwarves sheltering on one of the spurs of the Lonely Mountain. As we move to the next chapter, Tolkien tells us that we “must go back … to the evening … two days before”, and we find ourselves on lookout duty with the watchmen of the Lake-town, Esgaroth, on the boardwalks depicted by John Howe.
I mentioned earlier Tolkien’s liking for keeping two story lines going in The Hobbit as well as in The Lord of Rings. This allows me to bring another source into this blog, namely an article entitled “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf” by John Leyerle. This is a “bonus track” in my copy of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf translation (2). Leyerle argues that there is a connection between the all pervasive interlaced designs on Anglo Saxon ornaments, stone crosses, and illuminated pages, and the non linear narratives of Old English poetry like Beowulf. Tolkien of course immersed himself in such literature for his academic work and for pleasure. So, it should be no surprise that this approach to story-telling is evident in Tolkien’s own tales. I’m not sure how helpful that observation will be to the film makers at this stage, but my next comment may have some relevance to post production, if anyone in the cutting room is looking for inspiration.