I finally had a chance to see “The Hobbit” over the weekend and was amazed that I hadn’t heard from anyone about the Zionist undertones to the film, ones which certainly didn’t come across to me when I read the book so many years ago.
In fact, a quick search turns up only one blog post on the subject, written by Rabbi Jeffrey Saks (amid a bunch of posts arguing about whether or not the race of dwarves are supposed to represent the Jews and whether anything in Tolkien is supposed to represent anything else).
Of course, whether or not Tolkien intended for “The Hobbit” to have Zionist undertones when he wrote it in the mid-1930s, I’m surprised that no one has talked about some of the changes and additions made by the screenwriters for the new film.
Just a few quick items for readers to consider, some of which are original to the novel and some of which are new to the film:
1. The Misty Mountain song of the dwarves, which you can watch above, recalls the many, many songs of mourning and longing for Zion, sung for centuries by Jews in the diaspora;
2. The dwarf diaspora itself recalled the Jewish experience after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, complete with the way that the elves rebuffed the dwarves’ call for assistance and the way that the dwarves remained an alien presence wherever they went;
3. Many people have pointed to a Tolkien interview from the 1970s in which he explicitly compared the Jews and dwarves, with some simply pointing to the similarites and others looking for (and still others, hoping for) possible anti-Semitic undertones:
Tolkien suggested that the race of dwarves who populate his mythology “of course are quite obviously – wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?” Tolkien was by trade a linguist and philologist, and created languages for each of his fictional races. “Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic,” he said of the Dwarvish tongue. Of course, the dwarves have a great love of gold, and some have drawn attention to a possible anti-Semitic sentiment here. “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews,” he writes (Letters, p. 229), “at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.”
4. Bibo’s speech to the dwarves, near the very end of the film, might have been written by Theodor Herzl for some hoped-for non-Jewish ally:
"I often think of Bag End. That’s where I belong. That’s home. You don’t have one. It was taken from you, but I will help you take it back if I can."
Of course, one of the most interesting things about all of this is how much it turns on the perspective of the film’s viewer. With my own background, I was immediately reminded of the songs about the loss of Jerusalem and about the history of the Jewish people, as was my wife; it was the first thing we talked about when we left the theatre. I suspect that someone with a different background might watch the same movie and think of the Palestinian struggle for a national homeland of their own … or might not see at all these themes that seemed so obvious to me.