It’s no secret that Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Hobbit was not as successful, critically speaking, as his Oscar-winning treatment of The Lord of the Rings. Whether this was due to script problems, directorial changes, or the fundamental issue of trying to turn one book into three films I do not propose to argue, as there are already plenty of people on the internet arguing about it. I prefer to argue about something else, and in the case of the first Hobbit movie, An Unexpected Journey, the something else is a bird. Basically, when it comes to arguments about a) birds, and b) Tolkien, I am always ready for another adventure.
What, you might ask, is this avian dispute? It stems from a songbird’s brief appearance in a scene with the forest-dwelling wizard Radagast. As the bird hovers near him, it displays its plumage just long enough to announce itself as an American Robin.
Yes. That troublemaker.
The American Robin has long been known for stirring up controversy in the world of cinema. The most famous case is in Disney’s Mary Poppins, when the supernaturally powerful nanny sings A Spoonful of Sugar to her young charges. Since she and the children live in Europe, her analogy about the robin who sings while “feathering his nest” can reasonably be assumed to refer to the European Robin, but the animatronic bird that appears to accompany her song is unquestionably the larger, darker American species, which does not nest in England.
This kind of bird-related error is far from unique. Nearly every Bald Eagle on film or television has its voice overdubbed with the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk, and the call of Australia’s Kookaburra is audible in nearly every jungle scene, even in the Congo or the Amazon. Birders are frequently forced to roll their eyes and sigh about an industry that doesn’t care about getting simple facts right, which is particularly frustrating when it works so hard to provide realistic depictions of law enforcement, interpersonal relationships, and physics.
Why then does the Poppins robin feel so wrong? I’d argue that the setting is the root cause. Disney’s film is explicitly set in London, 1910—a real place and time. They are of course fictionalized, but we are asked, even ordered, to compare the film’s elements with what we know of that real place and time. The costumes, set design, songs, and accents (well, maybe not Dick Van Dyke’s . . .) are all carefully crafted to put the audience in Edwardian London. Even the fantasy elements—the chimney sweeps, the animated band, the umbrella-borne governess—are grounded on the realistic ones. Thus, when a bird from a different but equally real setting appears, we can reasonably consider it an error by the filmmakers.
This is not the case with the robin in An Unexpected Journey. Certainly Tolkien was an Englishman (though one born in South Africa), but as the country’s distinct lack of towering crags, impenetrable forests, and erupting volcanos should make clear, England is not Middle-Earth. Whatever Tolkien borrowed from the English landscape when creating the Shire, or from rural English society when peopling it with hobbits, or from English history when he dressed his warriors in chainmail and armed them with swords, he was creating his own milieu, not simply copying one from a textbook. While the author’s imagination was unquestionably influenced by the British Isles, there was no good reason for the flora and fauna of his make-believe world to duplicate those of the real world.
Besides, even before Peter Jackson got ahold of it, the world Tolkien created was filled with Americanisms. Sam Gamgee’s favorite tuber, the potato, was not introduced to England until long after swords and shields had been traded for muskets and cannons. Another New World crop even rates its own section in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings because it turns up so frequently in the trilogy: tobacco, which Tolkien himself can be seen smoking in a pipe on the back cover of numerous editions of his books. It is hard to argue that Middle-Earth’s avifauna must remain purely European when its creator has gone to such lengths to plant American seeds in it.
In other words, if we’re jarred by Radagast’s robin, it’s not because Tolkien specified a setting where such robins don’t appear, but because we’ve made our own assumptions about his setting—invalid assumptions.
Ultimately, though, we’ve got remember that these are fantasies; trees talk, winds blow nannies about like leaves, people jump in and out of chalk drawings, and we’ve got to accept it all. If the mere sight of a New World bird is enough to wreck your suspension of disbelief, how are you going to maintain it when faced with a dragon that talks like Benedict Cumberbatch?
(Peter Cashwell is an English teacher, a birder, and the author of The Verb 'to Bird' and Along Those Lines.)