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A Soviet view of hobbits

29 May 2010

Frontispiece of Soviet edition of "The Hobbit"

A Russian edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The hobbit has this illustration showing Bilbo Baggins and the dragon Smaug. You can see more illustrations from this edition at this web site.

It’s interesting, because the illustration is compatible with Tolkien’s description of hobbits, yet it isn’t quite how I pictured them when reading Tolkien’s books. That’s one of the reasons that I never saw, nor had any desire to see, the Lord of the Rings films. I felt that they would interfere with the pictures in my head when I read the books. My wife and son felt the same way. I did not feel the same about the Harry Potter films — I’ve seen the first four, and enjoyed them, and they fitted fairly well with the pictures in my mind when I read the book. But hobbits, no. I think one’s picture of hobbits is too personal.

But the Soviet edition’s illustrations are interesting from a cultural point of view. Has there been a new Russian edition of The hobbit since the early 1990s? Does it use the same, or different illustrations? Do these illustrations reflect a Russian or a Soviet view of hobbits?

How would a Bolshevik view Bilbo Baggins?

Does he represent the heroic worker liberating the wealth of the evil capitalist accumulator Smaug? Or does the grin on his face represent the thoughts of a self-satisfied capitalist who has successfully taken over a rival?

It would be interesting to know how the story is viewed in different cultures.

There is a child in our church in Mamelodi who is reaching the age where she can begin to read stories for herself. I was thinking of giving her one of the Inklings books to read, perhaps The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. But then I thought that the main characters are essentially middle-class English schoolchildren, and they might be too culturally alien to an African child in a working-class township like Mamelodi. It might be better to start with The hobbit, precisely because it makes few cultural assumptions. It is set in an alien culture, though hobbits do seem to share a lot of values with middle-class Englishmen. But it depends entirely on the pictures in one’s head, and those pictures can be anything you like, except that hobbits have hairy feet. So a child in Mamelodi might form an entirely different picture of hobbits from the Saviet ones, or from the Western capitalist ones, for that matter.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Graham Downs permalink
    29 May 2010 11:57 am

    I played Dungeons & Dragons before I read The Hobbit, so I already had a nice picture (from the TSR and WotC illustrations) in my mind about what hairy-feet halflings look like–which were based directly off Tolkein’s hobbits. That image fitted very nicely in my head when I read Tolkein, and I found the movies to be quite true to that image as well.

    The illustration you posted actually reminds me of the D&D Gnome. The D&D Gnome stereotype is one who loves to tinker, often is a practical joker, and likes shiny things (unlike Garden Gnomes, they seldom have beards, and don’t generally wear hats). ;) So my immediate thought on seeing this illustration is a mischevious gnome who has just stolen the gem from the dragon. Nothing AT ALL like a halfling! :)

  2. 3 February 2012 7:00 am

    You know, I was born too late to see the Soviet Union myself, but I think that Soviet readers liked Bilbo. His looks on these illustrations are really similar to Yevgeny Leonov, a famous and well-loved Soviet actor, known for portraying sympathetic and lovable people.

  3. 31 December 2012 5:03 am

    why are his legs hairy ? that is not from tolkiens description of hobbits , and the films did a great job of depicting them as described !

    • 31 December 2012 5:39 am

      Perhaps because in colloquial Russian there is not a clear distinction between “legs” and “feet”, as there is in English. Yes, if you are describing symproms to a doctor, you might say “my thigh hurts” or “I have a pain in my ankle”, but the ordinary everyday word that was probably used to translate “foot” is noga, which also means “leg”.

      I’m no Russian fundi, but if anyone does know Russian well, perhaps they can correct me, or confirm that this is the most likely explanation.

  4. Troelsfo permalink
    1 January 2013 3:11 am

    The explanation that you outline is also the one that I have heard elsewhere. I have asked a fellow Tolkienist who knows some Russian to share e his opinion, and hopefully he can throw some more light on the question.

  5. Troelsfo permalink
    1 January 2013 1:19 pm

    I’ve spoken with David Doughan of the Tolkien Society, who also speaks Russian. He says that “The Russian word “рука” means both arm and hand, “нога ” both leg and foot, without distinction in either case. Crazy, these Russians!”

    He adds that he “can confirm that there have been several Russian translations since Rakhmanova’s, some illustrated, some not. At least one illustrator (Denis Gordeyev) has been informed enough to restrict the hair to the feet.

    As for ideology, it didn’t seem to impinge on this sort of children’s story, certainly not by the 1970s, when translations of English children’s classics were pretty popular. I have somewhere a copy of “Vinni Pukh i vse-vse-vse” (i.e. Winnie the Pooh) …”

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