16 January 2013

Review: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J. R. R. Tolkien

Mass market paperback, 287 pages
Published 1971 (originally 1937)
Borrowed from Hayley
Read December 2012
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (Revised Edition)
by J. R. R. Tolkien

I first read The Hobbit in fifth grade, when my mother bought me the box set of it and The Lord of the Rings. I liked it. I had a good friend we used to call "Bilbo" because he looked like Bilbo as rendered on the cover of my edition. I then tried to get into The Fellowship of the Ring. I don't think I even made it out of the Shire. The dense prose was something I didn't even know how to deal with.

So, one year later, I decided to try again. I reread The Hobbit first. I liked it. I then started into The Fellowship of the Rings. I think I made it about a third of the way through before I gave up. When I was a kid, I never gave up on books once I started them. (I still don't.)

Two years later, I gave The Lord of the Rings one last shot. I reread The Hobbit first. I liked it. And then, miracle of miracles, I made it through all of The Fellowship of the Ring. Once you've done that, you've committed: I crawled my way through The Two Towers and The Return of the King. I think it took me weeks to read the whole thing, in an era where I never spent more than a couple days on one book. Having finally conquered them, I resolved never to read them again.

When the Peter Jackson movies came out when I was in high school, I enjoyed them a lot (especially The Two Towers), but I advised all my friends whose interest was piqued by the films to give the books a wide berth. I'll stick with the achievable versions, thank you very much.

Ten years later, though, and I started to reconsider. In the interim, I'd read The Silmarillion and thought it okay. More importantly, I now read Victorian novels on what you might call a professional basis. Surely anyone who could read and love George Eliot couldn't be taken down by J. R. R. Tolkien? My decision solidified when I acquired the "Millennium Edition" box set of The Lord of the Rings for merely the price of shipping. Six chunks instead of three? It was beginning to sound achievable. I decided to reread it, pacing the books out, and slotted it onto my reading list, and waited-- and of course, The Hobbit floated to the top at the time the first film adaptation was in theaters, so now everything will think I'm just cashing in.

But anyway. What about The Hobbit? Having just seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was most struck by the difference between Bilbo's character arc in the two versions. The novel Bilbo very much wants to just sit at home and not be bothered: unlike in the film, where he decides to rush after the departed dwarves, he is practically pushed out the door by Gandalf! He does get a big moment of heroism, as in the film, but it comes a bit later-- instead of foolishly rushing out to save Thorin, he calculatedly uses his ring and Sting against the spiders of Mirkwood. My favorite part for Bilbo (aside from "Riddles in the Dark," of course) was when Bilbo orchestrated the escape from the Mirkwood elves. Smart thinking! I also really liked the way Bilbo handled himself once they got to the Lonely Mountain, both with Smaug and with Thorin. He's a canny chap, our Bilbo, and it's good development without being overwrought. I did quite sympathize with poor Bilbo the whole way through. Guy just wants to stay at home and eat lots of breakfast, and who can take exception with that?

I was surprised at the way that Thorin turns out; it's been over ten years, after all, and I forgot what happened to him in the end. It's a rather sad fate for the old chap, and I wonder how Peter Jackson will adapt it for the third film, as it doesn't really seem to play into the character arc that he's setting up for Thorin. I was also surprised at how little there is for most of the dwarf characters; I'm not sure why Tolkien would write in so many, if he barely uses any of them or gives them notable (or even unnotable) characteristics.

The world of The Hobbit is a bit more whimsical than I remember the world of The Lord of the Rings turning out: there are ton of talking animals (Beorn is awesome), for example, and more references to the modern world. (One of my favorite jokes is the one about the invention of golf, and I was completely surprised but quite happy that that made it into the film.) Overall, it's quite a fun book, and I can see why (beyond completism, of course) every time I read The Lord of the Rings as a child, I always reread The Hobbit first. I've rarely met a fantasy travel narrative that I didn't like, and this is no expection.

It certainly has the most musical numbers of any book I've ever read.


  1. It is rather odd that so many, myself included with the number of times that I have read both, always treat The Hobbit as a prequel to Lord of the Rings and read it first when tackling Lord of the Rings.

    That is also where I think Peter Jackson is in difficulty and I will be interested also to see how he resolves some of those issues in the 2nd and 3rd films. The fact that the book is not a prequel to Lord of the Rings, and is in fact written with a much different, and much younger, audience, in mind rather clashes with Jackson, and the studios', desire to have these films be a prequel to their highly successful LOTR trilogy.

    I greatly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey, but I found several scenes rather off putting as the considerably darker tones of Lord of the Rings, and the prequel they want these movies to be, clashed with the considerably more whimsical Hobbit, which they are also trying to be as faithful to as possible.

    I suppose they shouldn't feel too bad about it of course, Tolkien himself never originally intended to have The Hobbit be part of his wider Legendarium, save for a few references, mostly to amuse himself, and when he published Lord of the Rings which ended up transforming into the last chapter of the 'Elder Days' of his mythology, he struggled and wrote a number of unpublished blurbs to try to reconcile the two, but never found something he was wholly satisfied with.

  2. It's a fair point that The Hobbit is much more than a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, and it's perhaps unfair to the book that it's always sold that way. I did think a couple of the Lord of the Rings-esque scenes in An Unexpected Journey really didn't fit-- the Cool Old People Council scene was out of a completely different film, as was the super-pompous opening. The Hobbit should begin with "In a hole in the ground..." and so on!

    But having decided to reread The Lord of the Rings, I wasn't going to pass up the one part of the "series" I actually remember liking!

  3. I find myself enjoying novels that others consider a slog. I enjoyed the LOTR series more than the Hobbit. Though, The Hobbit was an excellent entry point to the world of Middle Earth as a child. LotR provides a rich view for anyone who wants to linger in Middle Earth. If you want to know what happens and tick the book off a list, watch the movies.

    As far as the new Hobbit film, I wasn't disappointed that Peter Jackson staged his story to be in the realm of Middle Earth that we experience in his earlier LOTR films. It doesn't agree with the books, per se, but it is consistent with his interpretation of the LOTR films.