‘Bilbo Baggins and his boldly bumbling buddies’ would have been an accurate title too

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My book

Who says I can’t be nice? The Hobbit is something that I bought at a charity shop. The fantastical cover really caught my eye, and I’d heard tell that it might be released as a film (which is definitely happening). It is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings series, yet I’ve watched those movies and I never liked them – too slow; thin plot. Therefore, you may ask why I had anything to do with this book. Nostalgia is the reason. I had a friend who loved the world of Middle Earth and who couldn’t recommend Tolkien enough to me. Years ago, I promised to read it. Now I have.

Oh, and plus the minor fact that when I was ten, I got confused between Tolstoy and Tolkien. But that’s a story for another time.

If you get the edition of the book pictured here, there are some very interesting extras. There’s a few pages on runic language, which is used in a very pretty map of Middle Earth provided, and you get a feel that the crafting of this book was taken very seriously. The runes though – I still don’t understand those.

The story

First, I should warn you that this is ultimately a children’s book. It’s far removed from the style of books for children that we come across these days, being published in 1937 and 272 pages long, and I realise that it probably has more adult fans than youngsters. However, it was written for a young audience and that is apparent in content as well as writing style.

My book doesn’t come with a blurb, and Amazon.com only has this to say:

“Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life. But his contentment is disturbed when the wizard, Gandalf, and a company of dwarves arrive on his doorstep to take him on an adventure.”

As short as that is, it’s extremely accurate. They go after a dragon’s treasure hoard. You don’t get much more classic than that.

I know a few people who have gone into what The Hobbit says about the human condition, about the foundations of the fantasy genre or about the balance of nature and civilisation and all that philosophical-literary debate. Despite this, my opinion on the book is that it’s an adventure story, with mythical creatures and a few morals to tell. It’s a good read, but I don’t believe that it was made for social comment. However, The Hobbit appears on my list of classics as this is truly a classic of entertainment.

Best bits

The characters are not the idealistic heroes that dominate the fantasy genre. Bilbo, our protagonist, isn’t particularly humble, young, brave or naive. If he were not a hobbit, he could be the average salary man. The troupe of dwarves are selfish, illogical, arrogant and individual. Gandalf, the wizard, isn’t all-powerful. In fact, the heroes that we follow are just one small part of the bigger picture. They aren’t expected to save the day. I love that. Reading through, I felt constantly surprised by how honest the author was about everyone’s true motivations – they’re invested in adventure for money, mostly. Best of all, it isn’t an easy adventure. You feel that each character could die from hunger just as easily as they could perish at the hands of trolls. While the whole book carries the feel of being a bit tongue-in-cheek, the adventure itself feels more realistic than most children’s tales that take themselves more seriously.

I was cheering on Bilbo all the way through. He suffers more misfortune than luck, but all his empowering moments, when he does become a semi-hero, made me grin. If I had one word to describe Middle Earth, I would say, “Eccentric.” It isn’t merely the incredible landscape (with place names such as Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains) and it isn’t just the creatures (I’m sure you know Gollum). The eccentricity lies in each culture, like the voyage through Gulliver’s Travels. Hobbits are cordial homemakers. Dwarves are greedy workers. Wizards are manipulative adventurers. Frankly, it’s a bit like school – geeks sit together, drama kids hang out in the corner, rebels are outside smoking… The Hobbit has a bit of the spice of life after all.

I have only this to say about the plot: it isn’t predictable. I didn’t expect the ending.

To digress, it was a nice little touch that Tolkien decided to include some short songs (which read like poetry). I found that every song can be sung to the tune of Greensleeves. However, I also discovered that it is generally frowned upon to sing dwarf songs aloud in libraries.

Worst bits

Now, I suppose you could say that it’s better than having some mindless token character, but this really is a book that poses the question, “Where do babies come from?” Well, that’s what popped up in my head anyway. It didn’t bother me, except to the extent that I noticed it, but all females are conspicuously absent in the novel. Forgive me if I didn’t read closely enough and missed a character, but I believe that girls are only mentioned when explaining who is descended from whom.

Unfortunately, if all fantasy books were like The Hobbit, I believe that life would be very unsatisfying. Depending on how you look at it, Bilbo isn’t the hero after all. The hero seems almost a random choice, which was refreshing, but only because it isn’t common. At times, I began wishing that The Hobbit would try to be a bit serious. Descriptions remain short and to the point and some things are, frankly, ridiculous, such as our main characters being able to survive being sent down a river in barrels. On the other hand, what can you really expect from a story with a talking dragon and an invisibility ring?

Although I could have taken the stance that it was endearing, the style of writing seems a little patronizing. Of course, being written for children, what else could you expect? However, it is sometimes the small things that get to you – the phrase “Up jumped Bilbo”, for example, proves to be one of the most irritating in the book. Tolkien also enjoys describing what the dwarves wear, just be warned, and there are a lot of dwarves whose clothing becomes frequently altered.

All in all though, the one most absolutely annoying thing about The Hobbit, without doubt, is that, no matter how much I regard it as a classic piece of literature, my English teacher won’t let me use it as an exam text.

Overall

I will call this a really fun novel. The original title of The Hobbit was There and Back Again, which I think to be more fitting – you really are taken there and back again on a very traditional adventure. Reading, I found that Tolkien creates the world of the classic fantasy, and I believe that almost anyone can find this entertaining. However, unless you’re the type who analyses everything to within an inch of its life (which is not actually a bad thing if, like me, you’re studying English), there isn’t much intellectual stimulation to be had. Still, I won’t put that down as a bad point, because, really, it’s a very original tale.

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