Book Review: Reviving the Oldest Tales: The Hobbit

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In preparation for the first installment of Peter Jackson’s latest epics, I returned to The Hobbit, a book beloved in my childhood, reviled in high school (such that I wrote it a song to the tune a verse of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown’s “The Book Report”), and now…

The Hobbit is so clearly more suited to a younger audience than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It is not just the subject matter and length that define it as such, but the tone which Tolkien uses—one that seems to me to talk down to its readers, much as I do not think that that is Tolkien’s intention.  Tolkien intends, I think, for the tone of The Hobbit to resemble that of a fireside tale—but that is not a style to which modern readers—and especially modern teens and young adults—are accustomed.

It’s almost as if Tolkien is the grandfather of Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, cutting and inserting himself as he deems necessary: “She does not die at this time.  I’m telling you because you looked scared.”  “This is boring.  Skip to the good stuff.”  “You’re sick.  I’ll humor you.”  “But as that comes in at the end of this tale we will say no more about it just now.”  “I wish I had time to tell you even a few of the tales or one or two of the songs that they heard in that house.”  Where The Lord of the Rings is at times too poetic, the tone of The Hobbit is at times too conversational for my taste and gives too much away and keeps things too light which should be dark and ominous—because it reminds the reader that it is only a fireside tale, and if it is a fireside tale, then deemed appropriate by the elder Tolkien for younger ears.

And yet, The Hobbit is not a classic by chance.  Tolkien introduced the world to the sort of high fantasy epic that is today so common.  The story of The Hobbit itself is well-conceived, exciting, and there is no one I’ve yet found who quite rivals Tolkien’s appreciation for the time that a journey ought to take.  Tolkien introduces readers to well-conceived characters and races of which few in the modern world had dreamed and reawakened in modern men the ideas of goblins and trolls and creatures of mythology, giving them a new life that I imagine the Vikings never imagined for them.

Bilbo Baggins seems an interesting choice for a hero—even the novel’s characters agree.  He is hardly the typical hero of the old epics, burly warlords wielding magic swords and leading hoards of men or facing beasts alone armed with steel and courage.  Bilbo, a peace-loving hobbit of the green Shire, is hired for burglary, not for his strength but for his smallness, not to fight openly with steel but to sneak without engaging, a trickster of old—though he turns out to be much more than that, engage frequently, and like the tricksters, battle with words as often as steel.  Though even his steel involves a measure of sneak.  He does not cleave, hammer, or bite as his friends’ elf-blades; he merely stings.

So much of Tolkien is reviving of mythology; we forget that.

***

Tolkien, J. R. R.  The Hobbit.  New York: Del Rey-Ballantine-Random, 1996.

This review is not endorsed by J. R. R. Tolkien, any of his descendants, or Del Rey Book, Ballantine Publishing Group, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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