In another read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, I reread The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. This is one I read so long ago (twelve years? Fifteen?) that it mostly felt like a new read by now. I kept meaning to read it before the movie (review here)…and then wanted to read it after…and mostly read it now because I plan to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy this spring, and it seemed like a good place to start!
The story, as most of you probably know, follows Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit who only wants a tidy life and regular meals. He is enticed into an adventure by Gandalf the Grey Wizard, who recruits him to join thirteen dwarves on their quest to reclaim their lost home and treasure from Smaug the dragon. Adventures along the way involve elves, trolls, goblins, a truly creepy forest and, now and then, even a few humans.
I love Bilbo’s growth as a character throughout the book. He begins by feeling that adventures are unpleasant things which make one late for dinner (one of my favorite lines!), and comes to find his own strength and ability–and a taste for adventure. He learns how to use a sword, devise a daring plan, and make a hard decision about loyalties and sacrifice. There’s a thread that runs through the novel about the state of Bilbo’s pocket handkerchiefs, and it’s just a delightful illustration of how he progresses.
I also love (spoiler?) that Bilbo ultimately does return home. So often stories like this end up with the character in a new place, or deciding that they don’t really want to go home after all, or realizing that “you can never go home again” as the cliche goes. (Or there’s Dorothy, who does go home, apparently only learning that home is really wonderful.) The Hobbit takes a different and more complex path by sending Bilbo back home in the end, meaning that the real exploration is not ultimately how Bilbo’s life changes, but how he himself changes.
The world of Middle Earth is also great fun to explore–and I suspect that was a major part of Tolkien’s inspiration to write the story at all! It’s a story about a character, but it’s just as much about the wild places he’s wandering through, with so many interesting creatures along the way. Humans come across as a small minority, present in a few communities but no more dominant than any other species (at least in this installment).
My two favorite scenes are the very funny opening sequence of the dwarves descending unexpectedly on Bilbo, and the quite creepy Riddle contest with Gollum. I very much look forward to more Gollum in the trilogy to come.
There are aspects to the book that didn’t work as well for me–and at times it’s abundantly obvious this was written in a different time, because a modern writer would make a different choice (or editors would insist on it). The most obvious, perhaps, is when a character we’ve never seen before ends up killing Smaug. It’s a rather disappointing way to finish off the dragon…though at least it leads into further excitement. I’m very curious to see how Peter Jackson, as a modern filmmaker, is going to handle that part.
I also wish the dwarves had been better developed. Rather like the discussion we’ve been having around the Twelve Dancing Princesses, it’s tough going when you have so many characters to juggle. There were thirteen dwarves and most were completely undeveloped. Even the five or so that had some personality were pretty slight.
Last critique–I don’t think there was a single female character with a name or a line of dialogue in the entire book. For all I know, hobbits, goblins and elves are only men! The dwarves reference a female relative or two in explaining family connections between men (Fili and Kili are the sons of Thorin’s sister, for instance), and some human women get into boats when Smaug attacks the town…but otherwise, Middle Earth seems to be entirely male. Frustrating…though, if I can go by the movies, there are at least a few actual female characters in the LOTR trilogy!
Whatever its flaws, this is a still a very fun, very interesting adventure. And, as I hoped, it’s great gateway-Tolkien, because it has me looking forward to exploring the world more and delving into new characters for the LOTR trilogy. I’ll let you know how that goes. 😉
Buy it here: The Hobbit