The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
|Book Name:||The Hobbit|
|Publisher(s):||George Allen & Unwin (UK)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook|
|Release Date:||September 21, 1937|
The Hobbit is a book that needs little introduction. It’s assumed that all fantasy fans have read it – sometime before our teenage years – before moving on to The Lord of the Rings during adolescence or possibly the earlier years of college or university. Meanwhile, the success of the film trilogy has made the general public very much aware of Tolkien, no doubt getting those who wouldn’t have normally have read his works to give them a go.
As for myself, I struggled with The Fellowship of the Ring shortly after leaving school; I had eight weeks of summer holidays following my exams and it took me almost all of them to plough through it (I have to confess to reading other books in between chapters); nothing gripped me, and I felt I was reading from a sense of obligation rather than enjoyment – as a lover of fantasy, wasn’t I supposed to like the Grand Master, along with Eddings and Feist, those he’d inspired?
The Hobbit, though, was different. I’d read that years before – I think it was just as my age hit double figures – and still have fond memories of it. I can’t recall if I ever read it again (I know many who have) but it always had a place on my shelf, the cover of the red dragon asleep on a pile of golden treasure firmly etched in my memory. Now, thirty years later, I’ve read it again: welcome back, Mr Baggins, it’s been a while.
The book starts exactly as I’d remembered. Of course, the story hasn’t changed – but neither has my imagining of it; I still picture the characters as I did all those years ago, rather than as the actors who have portrayed them on screen. As more dwarves arrive at the home of Bilbo Baggins, I find myself growing more comfortable in my seat, warmed by this wave of nostalgia, settling down into this charming story that feels like it’s being told by an old relative rather than an author I’ve never met. There’s even a lump in my throat as I recall my grandfather telling me about the scene where golf is invented. So far, so very good.
Yet, there’s more to this book than the drawing out of fond memories. Here is the story of how Bilbo Baggins travelled with a group of dwarves to help reclaim their treasure from a dragon, picking up a ring on the way that renders its wearer invisible. They’re assisted by the wizard Gandalf, helped and hindered by others they meet on their way. It’s a very traditional fantasy, with goblins and elves and giant spiders, villains to hiss and heroes to cheer. Yet, there’s a moral to this children’s tale, and not all of the characters are purely good or evil; men squabble amongst themselves for power and wealth, the stubbornness of dwarves can start a war – all of this seen through the eyes of Mr Baggins.
The Hobbit is, naturally, Bilbo’s tale. He’s in almost every scene, and has the greatest development of all the characters in the book. He’s responsible for much – not all of it particularly fortunate – and the unassuming fellow who’d like nothing more than his second breakfast eventually becomes a hero in every traditional sense of the word.
There’s much to like about the story, and I found myself surprised by moments I’d forgotten, such as Beorn’s hall and the dwarves being imprisoned by the elven king (although, thanks to the computer game released in the 1980s, I’ll never forget their method of escape). My favourite scenes held up very well; our heroes passing through Mirkwood remained as sinister as I’d first imagined it, while riddles in the dark with Gollum is still one of the creepiest, most atmospheric scenes I’ve ever read.
It’s odd, then, that a book I’ve enjoyed so much has become such a difficult review (believe me, it’s taken much longer than normal to find the words for this one) as I’ve found myself torn in two.
On one side, reading The Hobbit again has reminded me why I first became a fan of fantasy so many years ago; this tale of a character who finds himself completely out of his depth and surrounded by many fantastical creatures, yet rises to the occasion when called for. For me, this is what makes Bilbo a real hero, never more so in the moment when he’s about to enter Smaug’s cavern for the first time, even though he doesn’t know what to expect. It’s a true act of heroism, a truly touching moment that Tolkien chooses to spell out for his young audience.
Sadly, some doubt has crept in. Without fond memories of reading this a child, would I still feel the same about The Hobbit? I’d like to think so – although there are moments when it feels very old-fashioned, with some scenes reading like a non-fiction description of families and battles, there’s very little to dislike about the book. There are many of the standard fantasy tropes within the story – dwarves are grumpy and love gold, elves are snobs, all goblins are evil – yet it would be fair to argue that Tolkien was the author who started them. Or, am I making excuses because this is such an important book within our genre? What’s frustrating is that I don’t know.
Whatever my feelings, it can’t be denied that The Hobbit has become hugely influential over the years, whether it’s in being imitated or rebelled against; if this was the only basis for a score, it would have to be a ten. On a more personal level, here’s a story that appealed to me as an adult, as well as the inner child that still exists; I didn’t find it perfect, but maybe – just maybe – it’ll prove to be the stepping stone for me to finally take on The Lord of the Rings.