Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Review - The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Short review: Bilbo goes there and back again, and assists in killing a dragon and restoring a dwarven kingdom along the way.
A little hobbit,
Thirteen dwarves, and a wizard,
Go kill a dragon
Full review: The Hobbit is a book that is difficult for me to review, as it is wrapped up in hazy and happy childhood memories. I remember my father reading me part of the book over a summer when I was about seven or so, covering a page or two a day before petering out and leaving the book unfinished when school started again. I remember watching the Rankin-Bass animated version of the story when it was televised shortly thereafter. I remember listening to the album version of the tale narrated by John Huston, playing it almost every day for months while living in Tanzania. And finally, I remember one night during the summer in between my fourth and fifth grade year, starting the book, and reading straight through until I reached the end of the book in the early hours of the next morning. In many ways, this book is what made me into a fantasy fan.
Against this background, it is not an easy task to write a review for The Hobbit that is not clouded by nostalgia. This task is further complicated by the fact that I have read many of Tolkien's subsequent works - the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Silmarillion, and various other sundry and related works including J.E.A. Tyler's Tolkien Companion, David Day's Tolkien Bestiary, and Humphrey Carter's biography of Tolkien. The end result of this lifetime of reading material by and about Tolkien and Tolkien's work is that it is difficult to separate the book from the mythology that surrounds the book, and consequently difficult to review this book solely on its own merits. The end result is that any review of the Hobbit is bound to be influenced by a mixture of fond memories and extratextual knowledge that is bound to produce a review that is not so much a review, as a melange of information both about the book, but also about the personal history and Tolkienian mythology within which it resides.
All that said, The Hobbit is a fantastic book, both as a piece of Tolkienian myth and on its own merits. The story of Bilbo and his thirteen dwarven companions has a somewhat idyllic tone, almost like a Victorian travelogue, even though it involves nearly getting roasted by trolls, an escape from the clutches of goblins, an encounter with massive spiders intent on eating everyone in the company, a sojourn in the elven king's prison cells, a suspicious and malevolent dragon, and finally a bloody and terrible battle between five armies. And of course, the focal element of the story is Bilbo's encounter with Gollum resulting in the famous riddle-game and the acquisition of the ultimate MacGuffin in the form of the One Ring - which seems to transform Bilbo from being a bumbling misplaced grocery store clerk into a competent and capable burglar, mostly be allowing him to become invisible at will. But the story feels like a vacation at times, with Gandalf talking about looking to replace lost luggage, or the entire party stopping off to take extended hiatuses in the homes of those they come across in their travels. On the whole, much of the book has something of a quaint feel, with the author interspersing asides in the narrative to tell the reader that some particular event that just happened will become important later on, or to make some sort of ominous declaration, and so on.
And this almost precious tone that crops up throughout the book makes clear that the book wasn't really intended to be the start of a series. It, of course, did end up being the opening act that led to The Lord of the Rings, but the transition from The Hobbit to the following series is a bit ragged at times, both in terms of story and style. Those who read this book after reading (or viewing) the Lord of the Rings will find Bilbo's use of the One Ring to be incredibly cavalier. He pops it on whenever whimsy strikes him, keeping it on for days and weeks at a time. The tenor of the writing and the way that Tolkien treats plot elements like the Ring shows quite clearly that this book was not written as the prologue for the larger story that followed it, and was only loosely connected to the mythology that he had been writing since his time in Britain's armed services during World War One. This distance gives The Hobbit a charm and character that is substantially different from any of Tolkien's other works, but is still recognizable as his. The book is also laced with an often gentle humor that is simply lacking in many of Tolkien's other books: To fool the reclusive Beorn into accepting a large company of somewhat less than welcome house guests, Gandalf misleads him with a meandering story to comic effect. Biblo huffs about, forgetting handkerchiefs, breaking the buttons on his coat, and creating silly rhymes to taunt spiders. But the humor is also dark as well, such as when Gandalf keeps a trio of trolls arguing among each other in a blackly humorous sequence. Even the goblins get into the spirit, making macabre jokes about the dwarves they and their wolf allies have trapped in a group of fir trees.
The level of violence in the book is also quite muted for the most part. The party appears to carry no weapons at the outset of their journey, and only acquire a couple of armaments after Gandalf tricks some trolls to death. The rest of the journey they spend their time running away from every threat they come across, at least until they are captured by giant spiders at which point they engage in an epic battle for their freedom armed with rocks, sticks, and pocket knives. It isn't until the Battle of Five Armies that Thorin and his company engage in armed combat arrayed for war, and when they do so it costs Thorin and two of his companions their lives. Despite being an adventure tale, the story isn't about brawn, but rather wits mixed with a whole lot of serendipity. Despite Gandalf's involvement, the entire expedition seems haphazardly organized: The dwarves seem to have only the vaguest idea of how to get from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain, relying upon those they meet along the way to give them directions as to which road to take, and what hazards they might face while traveling. They need to be resupplied twice by the kindness of strangers. They need Elrond to tell them how their map and key to the mountain works, and once they reach the mountain, they have no real plan for how to deal with Smaug other than "send Bilbo in to purloin a bauble or two". On the whole, the entire affair seems more like a lark than a serious attempt to reclaim the dwarven kingdom, and the only reason they protagonists seem to succeed is blind luck.
At its core, the subtitle of this book, There and Back Again, is what this book is about. It is Bilbo's journey that the entire story hinges upon. The doings of dwarves and goblins, of kings and heroes, and of wizards and dragons, are all entirely secondary to the story of a hobbit who ran out of his house without a handkerchief and wound up returning home more than a year later a changed man (er, hobbit). Events move along at a steady pace after the background has been presented in the opening chapter, with the band of fourteen travelers and one wizard moving from adventure to adventure at a rapid clip, with a new situation coming up in each chapter, and usually being resolved by the next. The story never leaves Bilbo's viewpoint, filling the reader in on events that take place out of his sight only when he becomes aware of them. Because the reader's window into Middle-Earth is filtered through Bilbo, the workings of this fictional world can be explained without feeling forced or artificial. And because Bilbo is something of an everyman, albeit a version who is an English country gentleman, the reader is both encouraged to root for him, and identify with him.
Unless, of course, the reader happens to be female. The one serious criticism that can be leveled at this book, and a large portion of Tolkien's oeuvre is the lack of female characters. And in The Hobbit, the absence of women is almost complete. Other than some elvish maidens frolicking in woodland feasts and anonymous Laketown women hustled onto boats to row away with the children while their menfolk fought Smaug, women simply don't appear in the book at all. Tolkien's fantasy world as presented here is an exclusively male affair - men doing manly things while other men gaze in wonder at their accomplishments.
But this quirk of Tolkien's aside, The Hobbit remains a classic foundational work of fantasy literature. With an action-filled linear narrative detailing the travels of a likable and more or less ordinary protagonist and his mostly interchangeable dwarven companions through a fantastical landscape, the book is an entertaining and engaging read. This is the book that made me a fantasy fan in general, and a Tolkien fan specifically. It is hard for me to conceive of a fantasy fan who has not read this book, but if there is, they should read this. If one chose to read only one of Tolkien's works of fiction, this would be the one I would recommend. In short, The Hobbit is a must-read for any fantasy fan.
Subsequent book in the series: The Fellowship of the Ring
J.R.R. Tolkien Book Reviews A-Z Home