Bilbo Baggins is the main character in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, but contrary to what you’d think, the movie isn’t really about him. Nor is it about Gollum—neither because of his true delightfulness nor his long stewardship of the One Ring. (Gandalf, the consummate geopolitician, puller of strings—the guy Henry Kissinger thought he was—would likely agree.) This story is about dwarves—their tragic past, their tumultuous present and their hopes for the future against seemingly insurmountable challenges.
I am aware of post-colonialist interpretations of Tolkien where whiteness equates to goodness in an ivory racial hierarchy: elves at the top, then Numenorean-descended humans, then other white humans, then people of colour (Haradrim, “Easterlings”), then the orcs in the basement, representing the most visceral white fears and stereotypes. The Hobbits, finally—a humble race of wee, comfort-loving folks, though courageous when necessity calls—must be the English.
The dwarves complicate this easy picture. Tolkien’s dwarves were severe and remote, not unlike elemental incarnations of stone. Jackson dispenses with such alienating notions, replacing them with caricatures of good-natured masculinity: hairyness, gluttony, readiness for action. As well, however, the dwarves are human—more human, one could say, than Tolkien’s humans: proud and noble, on the one hand, yet thoroughly venal and greedy—even self-destructively so, as in the case of Thrór, Thorin Oakenshield’s grandfather, who came to “love gold too much.” They are shorter and usually uglier than humans, which, moving beyond masculine caricature, allows them to stand in for our darker psychological selves, racked by doubts and self-deprecations, ever feeling unequal to the challenges before us. They love feasting, drinking and music, to which we can readily relate—but probably most important, dwarves love industry. They are builders, miners, smiths, makers of tools, designers of engines. Though ruled by kings, they could easily become capitalists—or, indeed, socialists.
The dwarves are after gold and jewels—but what they want goes beyond economic growth and job opportunities. Bilbo, elucidating his reasons for sticking with the quest, puts it eloquently: Your home was taken from you. I want to help you get it back, if I can. The dwarves are exiles, refugees, driven from their homes by a superior military force (the dragon Smaug), which now occupies their homeland contrary to all law and justice—a war crime. Abandoned in their hour of need by the elf king Thranduil, their interests incongruent with the aims of bigger geopolitical players (Saruman, Elrond), they have few friends willing to help them. Bilbo is an activist.
Early on, Gandalf draws the key to Erebor from his robes and hands it to Thorin. A little later, the dwarves learn about a secret “dwarven door” into the Lonely Mountain, visible only on certain days when the moon is right. My thoughts ran to those elder Palestinians who, still resident in refugee camps sixty-five years on, continue to remember how they were pushed out in 1948 and still keep the keys to the houses they locked prior to their departure in an elder age. Let us hope that a secret dwarven door will also soon open for them—and, indeed, for all the world’s refugees and dispossessed.