So you're new to Middle-earth. You've never seen The Lord of the Rings
, nor read The Hobbit
, nor read any J.R.R. Tolkien book at all. You can't tell Gollum from Gandalf, and you couldn't find a horde of orcs in an orchid orchard with the help of an orchestra.
We're here to help.
If you're finally succumbing to Hobbit pressure, and are being dragged to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey because, well, half the planet has already seen the film, here's your primer to plot points, characters and places.
In The Hobbit, Tolkien describes the journey of Bilbo, Gandalf and 13 dwarves who travel to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarvish homeland and treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug. Using The Hobbit and other writings by J.R.R. Tolkien, director Peter Jackson stretched the story into three films; in film one, An Unexpected Journey, the Company's quest takes them as far as the eastern side of the Misty Mountains in Tolkien's made-up world of Middle-earth.
THE HOBBIT CHEAT SHEET:
Is The Hobbit a prequel to The Lord of the Rings?
In a way. Rather, The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954-55, was intended as the sequel to The Hobbit, which appeared in 1937. Tolkien only teased his imaginary world of Middle-earth in The Hobbit, and the dwarves and Bilbo’s quest was a modest tale. With “Rings,” Tolkien expanded his vision into serious epic.
The Hobbit is just a kids’ story, right?
The tone is more jovial and less dark than the “high fantasy” mode of The Lord of the Rings, because The Hobbit began as a bedtime tale that Tolkien told his children. That doesn’t mean the themes of bravery, sacrifice, greed, fellowship, and the nature of honor, leadership, and power, don’t come into play.
Wait, The Hobbit will be a trilogy?
Whereas the length of The Lord of the Rings (about 1,200 pages) justified its three-part movie treatment for many, at 300 pages The Hobbit hardly seems worthy of one film, let alone more. When Peter Jackson and Warner Bros. announced in July that their original two-part film would be a trilogy, industry watchers reacted strongly and the Tolkienverse shuddered. The final two installments will be subtitled The Desolation of Smaug (expected Dec. 13, 2013) and There and Back Again (July 18, 2014).
Where did the filmmakers get the extra material to stretch The Hobbit into a trilogy?
When Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he also wrote extensive notes about his world, and the events surrounding The Hobbit. He published these bonus plot developments in appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Jackson and his screenwriters have also taken additional liberties with the material.
What’s with this 48 frames-per-second thing?
We’re used to viewing films shot at 24 frames-per-second (fps), and increasingly in 3-D. Jackson shot the entire Hobbit trilogy in 3-D at 48 fps, the first major release filmed in this format. A double frame rate is supposed to create a sharper image, but some find the visual quality too hyper-realistic and even nausea-inducing.
What, no Viggo? But there is “Figwit”
Sorry, Viggo Mortensen will not be returning as Aragorn (sniff, sniff). Neither will Arwen (Liv Tyler). But Frodo does appear, and another Rings hottie, Orlando Bloom (Legolas) will return in a later Hobbit episode. Better yet, Bret “Figwit” McKenzie is back. In Rings, the Flight of the Conchord” singer played an elf dubbed by fans “Figwit” (an acronym for “Frodo is great — who is that?!?”). Here, McKenzie plays the elvish-speaking Lindir, and speaks elvish with Elrond.
Is Gollum’s ring THE ring?
Yes, the ring that Bilbo finds in Gollum’s cave is the same “One Ring” that all of Middle-earth fusses about later. But get this bonus tidbit: When Tolkien first wrote The Hobbit, he didn’t know Gollum’s “birthday present” would take on such significance in his sequel. He had to fix future editions of The Hobbit to better match that story arc.
Gandalf the Grey (IAN MCKELLEN)
The irascible wizard is back with his reassuring gravitas, a little less world-weary and god-like this time than in The Lord of the Rings since, in The Hobbit, he's not yet learned of the world-dooming Ring of Power.
Bilbo Baggins (IAN HOLM | MARTIN FREEMAN)
The reluctant and eponymous hobbit-cum-burglar is handpicked by Gandalf as the "lucky" 14th member of the Company. Bilbo is played by two different actors: Ian Holm makes an appearance as the "old" Bilbo at the film's beginning; Martin Freeman plays a Bilbo 60 years younger than Holm's and is our central plucky hero.
Thorin Oakenshield (RICHARD ARMITAGE)
The dwarves' proud and stalwart leader, and heir to the dwarvish throne, Thorin drives the quest for homeland and fortune. He also has a score to settle with the orcs and despises elves. Burdened by the past, Thorin is to The Hobbit as Aragorn/Strider (Viggo Mortensen) was to Rings.
The 12 Dwarves (VARIOUS ACTORS)
White-bearded Balin is the group's elder statesman. Fierce fighter Dwalin, Balin's younger brother, sports head tattoos and is Thorin's greatest supporter. Brothers Kili and Fili are the Company's spirited youngsters. Dori is the group's sophisticate; he's the brother of crafty Nori. Wide-eyed and meek Ori is the most junior dwarf. Half-deaf Oin is the brother to money-grubber Gloin, the father of Gimli from Rings. The final three are cousins: the mumbling Bifur, with an orc-axe lodged in his skull; the jovial Bofur; and bumbling, obese gourmand Bombur.
Saruman (CHRISTOPHER LEE)
In The Hobbit, this head of the White Council and wizard-in-chief is noble and decent, not yet turned into the dangerous character he becomes later, in Rings, when he allies himself with Sauron. Still, we don't trust him.
Radagast (SYLVESTER MCCOY)
Another wizard, Radagast the Brown prefers the company of birds and beasts to men, elves or hobbits. Jackson interprets him as a woodsy, batty Dr. Doolittle, who talks to the animals.
Frodo (ELIJAH WOOD)
The hero of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo's nephew has a cameo in the "flash-forward" scene that frames the adventures of Bilbo.
Galadriel (CATE BLANCHETT)
Galadriel doesn't actually appear in Tolkien's Hobbit. Nonetheless, in Jackson's version, she's back as the ethereal and somewhat creepy elf queen. We find her in Rivendell to discuss what to do about the rise of the Necromancer.
Elrond (HUGO WEAVING)
Wielding a dangerously arched eyebrow, Elrond is lord of the elves and guardian of Middle-earth, residing in Rivendell, an oasis of elves and high culture amidst a wild world of orcs, trolls and other nasties.
Gollum (ANDY SERKIS)
Part phlegmy actor, part CGI magic, Gollum appears for the first time deep in his cave in the Misty Mountains, having lost his birthday present: the ring. Expect his trademark split-personality weirdness.
This is the place where Hobbits live, a peaceful bucolic land, with green valleys and small houses, or "hobbit holes," built in the hills. Bilbo lives in the village of Hobbiton, where his journey begins when Gandalf knocks his door and Thorin and his dwarves arrive to take him on their quest.
Just before arriving in Rivendell, Bilbo and the dwarves enter The Trollshaws, a patch of woods west of the Misty Mountains. Here they encounter a trio of stone trolls named Tom, Bert and William.
An Elvish outpost in Middle-earth, Rivendell is the House of Elrond, king of elves. Located at the edge of gorge in a hidden valley, and therefore hard to find. One of the most beautiful places in Middle-earth, this is the center of Elvish culture.
The Misty Mountains and Goblin Town
A goblin hide-out deep in the Misty Mountains, Goblin Town is ruled by the Great Goblin. In these tunnels and caverns, Bilbo becomes lost, then finds the One Ring and Gollum, an encounter that becomes the key of The Lord of the Rings story.
This enormous rock in the upper reaches of the River Anduin is where the eagles deposit the Company after their escape through the "back door" of the Misty Mountains.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and geek, and the author of the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.