The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
I first read The Hobbit in fifth grade, shortly before the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring was released. As my memory is awfully spotty prior to my freshman year of high school, all I remembered were the vocabulary sheets we were given every week for the book, and that the cover was atrocious. I had forgotten everything about the content. Even my preteen infatuation with The Lord of the Rings didn’t leave me with a copy of The Hobbit, so I picked up a 25th anniversary Ballantine edition at a local thrift store. (I love old books!)
I’m so glad I went back and revisited it, because The Hobbit is truly a classic. I loved every minute of it.
The Hobbit, as you may know, is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a middle-aged hobbit who enjoys eating and other domestic and sedentary joys. One day, however, the wizard Gandalf stops by Bilbo’s home and, with thirteen dwarves, drafts Bilbo into a quest to recover dwarven treasure from a truly horrific dragon, Smaug, clear across the Misty Mountains and far, far away from anywhere Bilbo has ever been before. Despite his misgivings, Bilbo joins them, and learns that the world is much, much bigger than he ever considered.
For some reason, I’m delighted when fiction aimed towards children or young adults have adult protagonists. (I suppose this is a leftover from reading and rereading my mother’s collection of Miss Marple stories as a wee lass.) Children can, of course, identify with Bilbo, as he’s small and, during the quest, at the beck and call of the dwarves and Gandalf. But Bilbo’s best trait is not his similarity to a child, but his own glorious mundaneness.
Hobbits are very earthy and domestic creatures that remind me of nothing so much as comfortably middle-class English folk. Bilbo is a creature of habit that adores domesticity, down to the silverware and hosting duties. Part of the humor of The Hobbit comes from Bilbo being out of his depth. He constantly thinks about and complains about food during the quest, and is often too terrified to continue. However, Bilbo isn’t completely out of his depth–he’s very clever, and becomes invaluable over the course of the quest. The Hobbit is equally about the quest as much as Bilbo coming into his own and growing as a character, and it’s a delight to join him and watch.
Everything is much, much lighter than what I remember of The Lord of the Rings, including the overlapping cast. The elves are merry and, in Mirkwood, a bit selfish, and Gandalf comes off as an eccentric, if powerful, old man. Due to the large cast of dwarves, only a few of them stand out as characters other than the average dwarf. Thorin Oakenshield, as their leader, certainly stands out, as do Fili and Kili, his young twin nephews, and Bombur, the fattest dwarf who commiserates with Bilbo over food. The Hobbit is also just plain witty in parts. In the beginning, the narrator relates an incident where the last adventurous hobbit decapitated a goblin and invented golf at the same time, which made me laugh out loud. Wordplay is common among Bilbo and the dwarves, and the riddles Bilbo must use against Gollum are very creative.
Tolkien, of course, is the father of all modern fantasy, and his world building is second to none. But what really sets The Hobbit apart is how Tolkien presents the marvelous world he’s created, with all the earthiness and patience of an indulgent parent talking to a child. The narrator occasionally makes asides, to both explain what’s going to the audience, like why the elves of Mirkwood aren’t fond of dwarves, and to keep himself from getting ahead of the story. It’s this tone that, in my opinion, makes The Hobbit so wonderful. It’s a book that yearns to be read aloud, just to enjoy the quality of the writing.
I’m not really sure what else to say. It’s perfect. I can’t think of anything that could be improved or anything that could be cut. I certainly hope Guillermo del Toro’s film version of The Hobbit lives up to this wonderful novel, especially with all the screen time he’s carved out for himself.
Bottom line: Witty, magnificently constructed, and thoroughly down-to-earth, The Hobbit is simply perfect.
I bought this book from a local thrift store.