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Mapping "The Hobbit"

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Where is "there" (and back again)?

As many of you know, the eagerly anticipated film version of The Hobbit premiered early this morning. I have yet to see it; this is not a movie review, but a reflection on a book as confusing as it is loved.

Part of the joy and frustration of reading The Hobbit comes from sharing in our hero's bewilderment as he's yanked from his comfortable hobbithole and sent off on a harebrained quest for ... well, we don't quite know what. We're on the ground with Bilbo Baggins, unable to see what's coming next, face to face with giants and other strange creatures with little to no knowledge of where they came from or what they're doing here. This may be why many of us remember the plot as follows: Bilbo gets lost in a lot of different places and takes "a very long trip in a rowboat." (Hat tip to Cathy Cardno for that sound bite.)

The hectic and often confusing pace of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel cries out to be mapped, exactly the task undertaken by Emil Johansson and Daniel Helen of the Lord of the Rings Project. The Hobbit Map is an interactive timeline identifying major events in the novel and where they occur on Tolkien's original map of Middle Earth. Here's Johansson discussing the project at a TEDx event in Göteborg, Sweden.

Bilbo's path crosses and is briefly subsumed by the larger march of (invented) history. He has a pivotal role to play, certainly, but lacks the perspective to understand it—as do we! Imagine the hobbit as a cartographer with no surveyor's tools. He senses that a vast subcontinent lies just beyond the next ridge, but can barely see where he is, much less stop to measure his own progress.

Growing up, I read three separate editions of The Hobbit multiple times: the rune-emblazoned, multiple-reissue Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition (from the elementary school library); Ballantine's mass-market paperback (public library); and a glossy hardcover featuring garishly colored stills from the 1977 animated film (birthday present). A few years ago, I was also introduced to the Michael Hague-illustrated edition, a beauty. It's been an enduring challenge attempting to reconcile each edition's maps and illustrations with the peculiar geography I invented for The Hobbit.

Reading, like mapping, is a way to make sense of the riddles upon puzzles upon questions with which Tolkien leaves us. My internal map of the tales compresses some distances while expanding others, confusing east and west and ascribing far more detail to some places and parts of the narrative than Tolkien's descriptions actually provide.

Much of this has to do with the visual vocabulary available to a 6- or 7-year-old, of course—that's about the age at which I first read it. But in sharp contrast to the intricately back-storied and plotted Lord of the Rings trilogy (Have you read the complete historical and genealogical indexes? I have.), The Hobbit leaves nearly as many questions unanswered as it introduces. It's an adventure story as much about knowing and not knowing as it is about fantastical creatures, history, and heroics, a quest for knowledge as well as for treasure. I look forward to seeing how the new film handles these questions.

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