The release of the new Hobbit movie has led to a great deal of angst on the internet about its “serious” deviations from the storyline in Tolkien’s book. Purists seem to be especially unhappy with the appearance of the orc-chieftain Azog, who is supposed to have been killed long before the events described in the book take place. Much of this complaining, however, as I shall demonstrate, is based on a simplistic reading of Tolkien. It is also the result of a failure to think in depth about the nature of Tolkien’s work, and, in particular, about the role of the narrator in it.
There is, of course, the “nuclear option” of pointing out that Tolkien’s work is, after all, a work of fiction, and neither a historical nor a religious text. Poets and playwrights are known to have made serious deviations from their source material from as far back as the Classical period, when the three great tragedians - Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides - presented their own interpretations of older narratives from Homer at the Theatre of Dionysus.
In this post, however, I shall leave aside the “nuclear option”, and work within the texts themselves to demonstrate why the appearance of Azog in Peter Jackson’s new film is not so “serious” an inconsistency after all.
The purist argument that Azog “had already been killed by Dain Ironfoot” is based on the account of the battle of Azanulbizar in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, in which the claim is made that towards the end of the battle, Azog was caught and slain before the gates of Moria by Dain, who “hewed off his head”. As this battle was supposed to have taken place many years before Bilbo was visited by Gandalf in the Shire, it would be impossible for Azog to have played a part in the events of The Hobbit.
This argument is based, of course, on the assumption that the narrator of The Lord of the Rings was omniscient. It is quite natural for readers to make this assumption, as the form in which both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was written, which is similar to that in which the majority of novels are written today, does suggest an omniscient narrator.
Tolkien makes it clear, however, in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, that the narrator of both these works is not omniscient in the classic sense. Tolkien has the narrator state that the account of the end of the Third Age as given in The Lord of the Rings has been drawn from the Red Book of Westmarch, a collection of five volumes first written by Bilbo Baggins, with some additional material added later by Frodo. The narrator also states that the original copies of these volumes are no longer extant, which means that his account has been drawn from a scribal copy.
The narrator of The Lord of the Rings is therefore not omniscient in the classic sense, but a scholar (like Tolkien), who has constructed a narrative based upon “historical” sources. While the narrator does discuss the thoughts and feelings of his characters in the same way that a classic omniscient narrator would do, the account of the composition of his work as given in the Prologue, adds a further level of complexity. This is a narrator who has composed his work based on “historical” sources. It is the narrator’s version of the story to which the reader has access, but of course the thoughts and feelings given to the characters in his tale are those provided by the narrator, and would therefore have been invented by him. The narrator would not, of course, when reading the account given in his copy of the Red Book, have had access to the thoughts of the “historical” personages described in them.
The Lord of the Rings is therefore a tale within a tale. There is the action in the main story itself, in which hobbits and elves and dwarves participate, and then, at a remove, there is the narrator, who is working from historical documents that have been compiled by some of the characters in the main story.
Why Tolkien chose such a complex format, rather than a straightforward story related by an omniscient narrator, is an interesting question. It is possible that, as he was himself an Anglo-Saxon scholar who worked with old documents, the idea simply appealed to him. However, it is also possible that, as an author, he wished to create a work of much greater complexity than a straightforward set of novels, and that, as a scholar, he simply wished to set a challenge to those who would read his work in the future.
Historical documents, of course, are not easily interpreted. Historians are as human (at least in our own world) as the rest of us, and there is often a great deal of exaggeration and embellishment (and sometimes even some downright fabrication) in the work of a historian. For example, even a cursory examination of the writings of Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History” who was also known in antiquity as the “Father of Lies”, would reveal much that cannot possibly be accurate. There is even the possibility that some historical documents may not have had any basis whatsoever in reality, but were pure fabrications.
Nevertheless, if we accept that the Red Book of Westmarch from which the fictional narrator of The Lord of the Rings drew his historical information was not pure invention, but the work of an honest scholar who did his best (like Herodotus) to set down what he had learned by interrogating his sources, there is still of course the question of the reliability of those sources.
There are several different sources from which the information given to the reader by the narrator in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings was derived. Significantly, the narrator is not at all certain about the exact sources for the account on Durin’s Folk (Appendix A III), which contains the information about the battle of Azanulbizar, and postulates that it was “probably derived” from Gimli the Dwarf.
We must therefore ask ourselves two questions about this information. First, to what extent can the tales told by Gimli to his hobbit friends be relied upon as accurate historical information? But more importantly, from where did Gimli himself derive this information, and how reliable would his own (presumably dwarvish) sources have been?
Gimli would not himself have been present at the Battle of Azanulbizar, which took place before he had been born. He would therefore have, when giving an account of the events that occurred during that battle, have relied on the accounts of either bards or scribes, who had composed songs and poems about the battle.
It must be pointed out at this stage that Dain Ironfoot, who is supposed to have slain Azog, became king upon the death of his father Nain. Dain later also inherited the titles of Thorin Oakenshield, who was killed at the Battle of the Five Armies. Gimli, the son of Gloin, is therefore likely to have grown up in a society in which bards and poets would have routinely celebrated the great deeds of Dain in song and story.
In our own history, the information that is contained in royal annals tends to be wildly exaggerated, and often completely fabricated. The royal annals of ancient Egyptian and Assyrian kings, for example, often contain accounts of fantastic heroic deeds. It is generally accepted that most of these accounts are propagandistic in nature, and designed to increase the prestige of the king.
|So just how far would you trust these two fellows?|
Therefore, although Gimli the Dwarf may have heard accounts of the heroic exploits of the great Dain Ironfoot, who was King under the Mountain, and may have sincerely believed that the information that he later transmitted to his hobbit friends was true, it is possible that much of this information was not historically accurate but merely the result of embellishment by poets and bards who wished to glorify their ruler.
It is said that Dain caught Azog as he was fleeing and cut off his head, and that the head was later set up on a stake. But how many dwarves, even if they were able to differentiate one orc from another, would have been able to recognise Azog, given that not many of them would ever have had the pleasure of meeting him in person before the battle? If we do accept that Dain Ironfoot had in fact slain a large orc and beheaded him during the battle, there is always the possibility that he had not killed Azog himself, but another large orc, and that his followers had simply assumed that this was Azog and gone on to glorify their leader for having avenged the death of Thror.
Of course it is also possible that the entire account of Dain’s purported heroism in the battle had simply been invented for the sake of propaganda, and that he had in fact not slain any large orcs but merely cut down a couple of bandy-legged goblins. The deeds of kings and emperors are often exaggerated, and many such examples are known from our own world.
This is not to suggest that the dwarves were dishonest, or any more inclined to embellishment than any of the other peoples of Middle Earth, but merely to underline the fact that there is always a gap between a speaker and his listeners in any exchange of language. Such uncertainties in the process of communication, which have served as a standard dramatic trope since Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia, would have been quite familiar to Tolkien, himself the product of a public school education. It is therefore entirely possible that his own presentation of the account of Durin’s Folk, as contained in the appendix to The Lord of the Rings, was intended to be read, not as a perfectly accurate account of past events, but as a “historical” account, derived from oral sources, that contained all the weaknesses and drawbacks of such accounts.
The purist cry of “we know that Azog was killed in the Battle of Azanulbizar” is therefore superficial and based on a naive reading of the material. We know no such thing. The only information available to the thoughtful reader of Tolkien is that an account of that battle, given by Gimli the Dwarf over a century later, claimed that Azog had been killed there by Dain Ironfoot. Whether or not that account was accurate, and how the sudden and surprising appearance of an orc who had long been presumed to be dead might be reconciled with it, is perhaps one of the little complexities in Tolkien’s work that makes his books some of the most interesting literary products of our time.