Joanna Russ’s Version of “The Hobbit”
by Douglas A. Anderson
My title for this article may seem like a jest, an incongruent pairing of one author’s name with the uniquely titled work by another—a combination unlikely to exist save in an alternate reality as might be imagined by Paul Di Filippo—but I’m actually entirely serious here. Joanna Russ did write such a work— she wrote a play based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s well-known children’s book, and Russ titled her version (using Tolkien’s own subtitle to The Hobbit) “There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Holiday”
For some years I’ve known of one copy in private hands, with (as described to me) Tolkien’s “waspish” comments handwritten in the margins, but I’ve never seen that. With the passing of Joanna Russ in 2011, I learned that a collection of her papers are now held in the Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. So on a recent research trip, I finally got to read Joanna Russ’s version.
The typescript is undated (but more about that later), and on the title page there is a note in Russ’s hand, initialed by her, noting that “Tolkien didn’t like it, wouldn’t let it be publicly performed.” The typescript is forty-nine pages, with three additional pages of front matter (a title page, a cast of characters, and a synopsis of scenes). Russ divided the Tolkien’s storyline up into three main scenes, adding a narrator to fill in some gaps of the story that are not portrayed on the stage. The company of dwarves is reduced to five in number (Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, and Thorin). Many characters and events are omitted without any reference to them at all (e.g., the eagles, Beorn, the Elvenking, Laketown, Bard, the Arkenstone), but some missing scenes are mentioned in the narration (the encounter with the Trolls, and, later, with the spiders).
Scene one (the first twelve pages) tells of Gandalf visiting Bilbo, and the coming of the dwarves, and their enlisting Bilbo to join in their adventure. There is no mention of the Map of the Lonely Mountain, but two of Tolkien’s poems are used in the text, “Chip the glasses and crack the plates”, and “Far over the Misty Mountains cold”. Strangely, Russ, for no apparent reason, has altered the wording of the poems in several instances.
Scene two (pp. 13-30) gives a bit of the journey, leading up to the taking of refuge from a storm in the cave, on the shoulder of what the narrator calls Mount Gundabad. Bilbo is wary of the supposed shelter, but the goblins spring upon the group and take away the dwarves. Bilbo is missed in the shuffle, and wanders down the tunnel to meet Gollum. Bilbo finds the ring, and the riddle match ensues, with the usual result. Gollum goes to get his ring and realizes that Bilbo already has it. Bilbo escapes into the sunlight where he finds Gandalf and the dwarves. Gandalf tells the party that he is leaving (he refers to having business in the North), and suggests that the dwarves choose Bilbo as their leader.
Scene three (pp. 31-49) begins at the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo doesn’t go down the tunnel alone to meet the dragon but is accompanied by the dwarves. At this time he tells the dwarves about his ring of invisibility. They still admire him for his pluck (leaping over Gollum in the dark, dodging goblin-guards, fighting spiders). The party observes Smaug from a discreet distance. Thorin requests that Bilbo pick up a memento, like a cup, from Smaug’s treasure. Bilbo does so, and returns it to the dwarves, realizing that Smaug will notice its absence and trap them in the mountain without food. Bilbo returns to Smaug and has the usual conversation, discovering Smaug’s weak spot. The ring accidentally slips off Bilbo’s finger and is lost. Smaug laughs at him, but Bilbo runs toward the dragon with his sword drawn. The dwarves join in, attacking Smaug. Kili twists his foot and falls down, remaining in view of the audience to tell what he sees of the battle. Bilbo and the dwarves kill Smaug. The dwarves return to Kili, carrying Bilbo, who is told by Thorin that while they worried Smaug, it was Bilbo who killed him with one blow. Bilbo just wants to go home. The dwarves hoist him on their shoulders and sing of Smaug’s death. Bilbo joins in with Tolkien’s verse “The dragon is withered” (again substantially altered). A closing vignette shows Bilbo in his hobbit hole, telling Gandalf about coming home to find his possessions being auctioned. He thinks his aunt Lobelia may have taken his silver spoons. They are interrupted by a young hobbit Bill Fernytoes who wants to hear stories of Bilbo one-handedly killing the dragon. The young hobbit is scolded by his mother, Lobelia, who has followed him. Bilbo seizes her umbrella, and turns it upside down, causing several spoons to fall out. Bilbo recites a poem he has written, “The Road goes ever on” (again with strange alterations by Russ). Curtain.
There is no indication of date of composition, save for the fact that Russ references tomatoes in Bilbo’s larder, indicating that she used a pre-1966 text (“tomatoes” were changed to pickles in the 1966 revision—see annotation number 26 to chapter one in the 2002 revised edition of my Annotated Hobbit). I have long suspected that Russ’s adaptation might have dated from her time at the Yale School of Drama (c.1958-60); she received an M.F.A. in Playwriting and Dramatic Literature from Yale in 1960. So it is nice to find corroborating evidence that this is true. There are published references in Tolkien scholarship about a dramatization of The Hobbit that originated from a female student at the Yale Drama School, though the name of the adaptor is nowhere given, and all evidence points to it being Russ.
On 23 April 1959, Charles Lewis of George Allen & Unwin (Tolkien’s London publisher) sent Tolkien a letter saying that the Yale Drama School would like to perform an adaptation of The Hobbit, with the adaptor paying a royalty, subject to Tolkien’s approval of the adaptation.
On 30 April 1959, Tolkien replied to Charles Lewis, noting that the adaptor had sent him a copy of the play some time ago, but said nothing about any performance and didn’t even ask for his opinion of it. Tolkien told Lewis that the adaptation seemed to him “a mistaken attempt to turn certain episodes of The Hobbit into a sub-Disney farce for rather silly children. . . . At the same time, it is entirely derivative.” Though he would prefer not to be associated with such stuff, Tolkien said he would waive his objections on the understanding that the performance is “part of the normal processes of Drama School (sc. in the teaching and practice of drama-writing); and that the permission for performance does not imply approval of the play for publication, sale, or performance outside of the Yale School.”
On 6 May 1959, Lewis wrote to Tolkien, saying that he had outlined Tolkien’s arguments concerning the adaptation in a letter to the adaptor, also stating that Tolkien would not object to a performance of the play by the Yale Drama School. On 28 May 1959, Lewis wrote to Tolkien that the adaptor of The Hobbit had requested the return of her manuscript.
Tolkien presumably sent back the copy he had annotated, which Russ later gave away, preserving with her own papers only her own un-annotated version. Looking at the details of her adaptation, one can see why Tolkien didn’t like it. There are a number of things in the first two scenes that would have bothered Tolkien (not least the rewriting of his poetry, or the unnecessary misapplication of the name Mount Gundabad to the wrong mountain), even though much of what is presented stays fairly close to the source material. But the third scene diverges widely from what Tolkien wrote (a feature which especially irked him with every proposed adaptation of his work), and he would certainly not have approved of Russ’s alteration that has Bilbo heroically killing the dragon. On its own as a play Russ’s version doesn’t work very well, even with the way that she has altered the plot. But overall, Russ’s version isn’t really any worse than other adaptations that have been done over the years. Whereas those were done without Tolkien’s input or approval, Russ did the honorable thing and asked Tolkien, and thereby was shot down. I suspect that Peter Jackson’s forthcoming films of The Hobbit, now expanded from two to three films, may make Joanna Russ’s version appear as the more faithful to the original text. Time will tell.