Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

(***Spoiler Alert – The Hobbit is so well known, and with the movie coming out, I can’t see any reason to hold back.  You’ve been warned.  ***)

Okay, so it’s been a while (again) since I posted.  No excuses, just laziness and the need to recover from the last set of excuses.  I decided that to keep easing myself back into the habit of reading to go with a book I’m familiar with and that I wanted to get around to reading because of the movie coming out.  My choice was The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The plot is simple enough.  Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, is comfortable in this hobbit-hole.  One day, an acquaintance of his, a wizard named Gandalf, shows up and tells him to be on the lookout for an adventure that comes to his door.  Bilbo insists he’s not interested, but that doesn’t stop 13 dwarves from showing up the next day looking for a burglar to help them recover their ancestral home and treasure from the dragon Smaug.  What follows is Bilbo’s adventures to reach the Lonely Mountain where Smaug lives, and what happens thereafter.  Replete with shape-shifters, elves, goblins, and other magical creatures, The Hobbit is an introduction to the world that Tolkien has created for his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I’ve always considered The Hobbit the prequel to those books, as it introduces several main characters, and the initiating action for the trilogy occurs in this book.  

I first tried reading The Hobbit when I was 10 at my dad’s insistence – he’s a big fan of the Tolkien universe, and I think he figured that I would be interested in, and be able to handle, the first chapter of the LotR story.  It didn’t go that well.  Regardless of the lovely hard-cover, illustrated version we checked out of the library, I just wasn’t interested.  At the time, I was still reading the Baby Sitter Club books and R.L. Stein (wow, how’s that for a blast from the past?) so wasn’t interested in anything more serious.  I finally finished reading The Hobbit during an undergrad English class on quest-themed literature.  This was after the Ring movies had come out and I’d read those books, so it wasn’t hard to get through.

What did happen, somewhere between that undergrad class and this re-reading was that I apparently forget entirely about the plot.  Weird, I know.  It’s not that I forgot about the plot so much as I forgot about the nuances – I was sitting there reading and thinking to myself “hun, doesn’t that happen latter?” or “wow, I totally forgot about that allusion to the later books.”  It made me feel like I had never read it before… It was both a treat and disconcerting at the same time.

Now, a few comments on the devices that Tolkien uses.  First, a word on Tolkien’s writing style.  At its heart, The Hobbit is a children’s book.  Tolkien often breaks down the fourth wall and interacts directly with his readers, usually with a voice that would appeal to children.  It’s an interesting devise that is used to highlight the fact that the modern reader is pulling away from the natural/spiritual/mystical world.  It’s also used to great effect as a foreshadowing device for events that happen in this book, and within the LotR trilogy.  Tolkien uses this device more in the first half of the book, which is beneficial in advancing the plot that requires his characters to traverse many miles over many weeks.  While it is a children’s book, I find Tolkien too detailed in his description of battles – it’s a real boy’s approach to story telling, that didn’t appeal to me.  

Plot and writing style are one thing, but I’m a firm believer that characters carry a book, and Tolkien’s characters are unbelievable, but in a good way.  Had you every heard of a hobbit before his books came onto your radar?  Of course not, they’re imaginary, but Tolkien has created a creature/character with such believable authenticity that the small fact that it’s fictional can be overlooked.  Bilbo is a kind-hearted, genuine and honest character who provides the moral compass and morale for this story; Gandalf, the magician, can be a bit of a dick, but always with the ends in sight; the goblins are a terrifying compendium of all that we don’t want to meet in a dark corner, both in their physicality and their behaviour; and all the characters are equally well crafted.  While all the characters are based on the imaginary, they are completely believable and unique enough to stand on their own and make you believe that Tolkien may have had some specimens over for tea once or twice to craft his impressions.

For those that don’t know much about Tolkien, one of the first things that you’re taught/read about him is that he was a humanist of the first order.  Tolkien was deeply affected by the World Wars themselves and their after-effects on society, and that shows in his writings.  The Hobbit was first published in 1937, and when armed with that knowledge, some of the battle-scenes and mountain tunnels/passageways remind the reader of trench-warfare.  Tolkien’s main character of Bilbo, a home-body with a heart of gold, is a rejection of the hurly-burly of the world in which evil stalks around every corner.  And Smaug?  That’s a thinly veiled allusion to the increasing industrialization of Tolkien was witness to.  This story does read primarily as an adventure tale, but the deeper meanings that Tolkien embedded in it should not be overlooked.

Of course, no review of The Hobbit at this point in time would be complete without a mention of the upcoming flick by the same name.  Once again, Peter Jackson is returning to Middle Earth to bring Tolkien’s story alive for the movie-going crowd.  Jackson put his name into our homes in a big bad way with the LotR trilogy that came out in the early 2000s.  At that time, there was talks of reviving The Hobbit and giving it the same treatment.  But, after a mega shoot and post-production schedule on the Rings, Jackson passed on directing The Hobbit.  But this is Hollywood, kids – no way was the studio going to NOT do it.  After being passed around between a few directors/producers, The Hobbit ended back with Jackson, which is a good thing for the consistence it will bring.  The downside is that Jackson is apparently convinced that The Hobbit requires the same treatment as the Ring trilogy, and has decided to split The Hobbit into three films.  His rational is that he’ll be going into a lot of the lore that Tolkien published on Middle Earth that won’t get to the silver screen if he doesn’t do it now.  Now, I’ve tried reading some of that extra lore – it’s dry.  I think it can be left on the page without a second though.  I think the real reason behind the decision to split The Hobbit into a trilogy is that Peter Jackson likes money – but I’d caution him on getting into George Lucas territory….

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It’s a massive piece of our literary zeitgeist and will be inescapable for the next couple of years.  This is a great book to introduce readers (both young and old) to Tolkien specifically and the fantasy/quest genre generally.  The plot is quick moving and engaging; the characters are realistic and likable (for the most part); and it’s the set up for the major tale that is covered by the LotR books.  I strongly suggest you read this book, and then get all your friends to do the same – it’ll be worth it!