Sunday, October 28, 2012
The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien
Poor Bilbo Baggins, a respectable Hobbit very much enjoying his comfortable life at Bag End. It is rudely interrupted when the wizard Gandalf shows up. Before Bilbo knows what is happening, his home is being invaded by a party of thirteen Dwarves. The plan a journey to the far off Lonely Mountain, where the dragon Smaugh has been hoarding a Dwarven treasure. They mean to take it and re-establish the Lonely Mountain as the Dwarven stronghold it once was. Thirteen is an unlucky number however and besides, the Dwaves expect to need a burglar to gain entry into the halls Smaugh now occupies. According to Gandalf, Blilbo is just the man for the job.
Tolkien has been something of a blessing and a curse for the Fantasy genre. Almost forty years after his death Fantasy that can be considered Tolkien clones is being published. Although the popularity of Epic Fantasy in the vein of The Lord of the Rings seems to be receding at the moment in the English Language word, it is still going strong over here in the Netherlands. In Germany as well, stories about Dwarves, Elves and epic struggles between good and evil continue to sell well. Whether we like it or not, Tolkien has made a lasting impression of Fantasy and literature as a whole. And it started with this little novel, which against Tolkien's expectations, became a huge success.
Unlike The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is a children's book. The language is probably a bit dated but it is not nearly as flowery and verbose a text as The Lord of the Rings. I would say it is still very readable for today's children. The Hobbit has a kind of light-heartedness about it that makes it much less dense and much more plain fun that Tolkien's work for adults. I've often wondered what could have driven Tolkien to write two such completely different works, but still part of the same history. Tolkien was always tinkering with his work, even long after it had been published. There have been countless revisions of the texts of The Lord of the Rings over the years. The Hobbit didn't entirely escape this. Some revision was done, especially to Gollum's part of the tale. Apparently he tried to bring The Hobbit more in line the The Lord of the Rings stylistically as well but fortunately his beta readers (or whatever it was they called these folks back then) told him it wouldn't work.
I guess the book shows it age in other ways too. The total absence of female characters is one. I think Bilbo's mother is mentioned once but that is just about the best I can come up with. At least Tolkien improved on that marginally in The Lord of the Rings. That being said, Tolkien does present a pretty fast paced story. Once Bilbo leaves his comfortable home, he rolls from one adventure into another. Each more distressing than the next. Bilbo is at the same time the humorous note in the novel and the voice of reason. Tolkien's Dwarves are stubborn and not entirely free of greed. It also contains less that flattering accounts of human and Elvish actions. Most of the text might be lighthearted, it hides some pretty ugly scenes. Tolkien more or less does the same thing in situations where Bilbo is in mortal ganger. For instance by Gandalf tricking the Trolls and having the Goblins sing silly songs.
My favourite part of the book is the invisible Bilbo facing Smaugh. He is a traditional western dragon. Evil, clever, dangerous, hoarding a treasure and to be killed by a hero. I guess the outcome is a little predictable but I enjoyed Bilbo having fun with the dragon and getting his tail feathers singed when he is being too clever. What always struck me as a little odd about the book was that Smaugh's demise is not actually the climax of the tale. Along the way, the Dwarves seem to have stirred up a hornets' nest and a big battle with Goblins ensues. The Lord of the Rings and its appendices shed some light on the background of these evens but in The Hobbit they aren't very well explained. It is one of those battles that Tolkien would go on to write more of, full of unlikely heroics and tragic deaths. It is what one expects from a man who has such an influence on modern Fantasy I suppose.
While there are many hints of the dark days to come for Middle-Earth I still mostly see The Hobbit as a fun adventure. Tolkien is not yet dragged down by the weight of all the mythology he created or the countless unpronounceable names that complicate his later works. Perhaps it is not a very surprising story for the the more experienced Fantasy reader but I can still see why I enjoyed this book when I first read it in my early teens and why it encouraged me to read more Fantasy. Genre readers may be a bit tired of Tolkien's influence on the genre but that simply isn't an excuse to skip this book. It really is a must read for fans of Fantasy and literature in general.
Title: The Hobbit
Author: J.J.R. Tolkien
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 1937