Thursday, 10 January 2002

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937)

Hobbit coverSubtitle: There and Back Again
Edition: Unwin, 1966
Review number: 1032

From the years of obsessive work defining the geography, peoples and history of Middle Earth, Tolkien created a story for his children. It has become one of the most popular and best loved novels of the twentieth century, alongside the sequel, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Far more accessible than the trilogy (and massively more than The Silmarillion, his other major completed Middle Earth novel), The Hobbit is an excellent introduction to Tolkien even for an adult, and is the one book of his where those things which irritate his detractors are almost entirely absent.

The story is quite well described by Tolkien's rather dismissive subtitle. A hobbit is a creature invented by Tolkien (almost everything else in Middle Earth is derived from sources in folklore), who is basically a type of Englishman the author particularly admired. (I say "man" advisedly; women play small part in Tolkien's writing, and The Hobbit does not have a single female character, except possibly some of the spiders.) While revelling in the comforts of his home, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins proves brave and resourceful when chosen by the wizard Gandalf to accompany thirteen dwarves on a quest to recover the treasure hoarded by the dragon Smaug in the caves under the Lonely Mountain far to the east, a one-time dwarvish stronghold.

Without The Hobbit, it would be easy to accuse Tolkien of lacking a sense of humour. While I do feel that he took his creation of Middle Earth too seriously, this novel is amusing. Even the interpolated poetry, usually rather poor and one of Tolkien's direst legacies to the genre, is not just humourous but self-deprecating - Tolkien was far better at writing verse which seems to be doggerel made up on the spot than at imitating oral tradition epics.

The enormous, obsessively documented background of Middle Earth makes the The Hobbit read like an episode in a larger history. Of course, with the discovery of the ring it is this, and much of the history is made explicit in The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit gains atmosphere from having it, but also by leaving it unexplained. Although a children's book at heart, it is to me Tolkien's most successful novel.

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