It’s hard to explain adequately how I feel about “The Hobbit.” Simply put, it’s one of my favorite books, I’ve read it more times than any other novel (though I’m not sure what that tells you about me).
I remember devouring the book, over and over, reading it a good five or six times before I picked up “The Lord of the Rings,” which is weighty in comparison, and then another four or five times again through my teen years.I discovered Tolkien’s masterpiece (I do prefer it to The Lord of the Rings) for the first time when I was probably 9 or 10 when I found a copy in a cabinet in my grandfather’s dusty basement. My previous exposure to the fantasy genre had been limited to C.S.Lewis’ “Tales of Narnia,” and I don’t know that they really qualify quite the same way. Despite a loose cover with all the color of 1950s publishing (the bright, beautiful artistry that seemed to grace the covers of fantasy novels in the 1970s was yet to come when the copy I held in my hands had been printed), Mom recommended it, and so I started in on Bilbo’s tale, on “There and Back Again” as he called it, and was soon in as much love with a book as a ten year-old boy could be.
In comparison with the heavy world building that modern fantasy genre readers seems to demand and expect–think the fourteen volumes of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” or George R.R. Martin’s complex “Song of Fire and Ice” or the fathomless world of Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s “Malazan Book of the Fallen”–Tolkien’s introduction of Middle Earth is light, almost playful, even when the adventure becomes dark and dangerous. I’ve heard it said that Tolkien invented hobbits because his home country England lacked, or had lost, a native mythology (I guess elves and dwarves are more Nordic or Germanic?), and he set out to restore it. With that effort, we are introduced to hobbits, and particularly Bilbo, who becomes the exception to the rule while still typifying his race, who are homebodies that in time will carry the fate of the world in their hands, but really, at essence, want little more than to sit at home in peace. Add in Gandalf, who becomes the quintessential image of a wizard forever after, complete with beard, peaked hat, vague magical powers that seem a cross between smoke and mirrors and real supernatural ability, but who is benevolent, wise, and always a friend to the good. Rounding out the simple cast of main characters are the thirteen dwarves and a host of other minor characters that appear, briefly, cameo-like, in Bilbo’s story: men, goblins, skin-shifters, eagles, elves, wolves, and one clever, mean, nasty dragon.
In as much as the world building has nothing to shout about compared to other more robust works, Tolkien’s simplicity is in many ways why “The Hobbit” has resonated for so many years and will continue to resonate. It is a clear eyed adventure where there good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. Escape from the mundane of daily life, and run away on an adventure. Leave the heavy issues to the real world.
Through it all, few of Tolkien’s characters ever receive enough attention for significant character development. Bilbo is the focus, and it is his story, even if it is not his quest; that belongs to the dwarves and their leaders, Thorin, “King under the Mountain.” Yet, but for him, his clever problem solving, spunk, and courage, time and again the expedition to the Lonely Mountain would have been ended, whether at the hands of goblins beneath the Misty Mountains, in the cocoons of giant spiders in the darkness of Mirkwood, or in deep prison cells as captives of woodland elves.
So, yes, the story is plot heavy and character development light. When rumors, proved to be true, emerged that Peter Jackson would turn the short novel into a three-part trilogy on the big screen, I found myself questioning how he would fill the time. After all, “The Lord of the Rings” is far longer and more detailed, but still only produced three movies. Much lighter and quicker a read, “The Hobbit” seemed to merit only one…until I finished the rereading. Light as it is, the story is plot heavy, with “one thing after another” happening as Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves follow their quest to regain the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug. Three movies may not be as difficult to produce as I had thought, and I think that others who have enjoyed the book might feel the same. “The Hobbit” is a novel as beloved by its fans as any this generation, and by extending the treatment to three movies instead of one, Jackson will mitigate the danger of complaints that this part or that were cut out to fit in the time frame available in a big screen production.
But back to the book itself. Each time I have read it felt like a fresh adventure, and as I read this time I felt young again. As I turned over the last page in the early hours of the morning after tending to a fussy one-year old, I smiled with the ever buoyant Gandalf telling Bilbo that he is only a small piece in the world. Later, I believe in “The Lord of the Rings,” Gandalf will note that it is on small things that the world hinges, but I don’t have to imagine what foreshadowing this is: I have seen what happens next.
As the book closes where it began, in the quiet little hobbit-hole (“and that means comfort”) I found myself looking forward to introducing Bilbo and Gandalf to my children. They are still too young, but the years are coming when they will perhaps still still enough for me to read to them the tale of Bilbo and the trolls Bert, Tom, and Bill, or the riddles in the dark with Gollum, or in the mountain with Smaug.
That perhaps is the lesson from Tolkien, if there is one, that I take away from “The Hobbit.” Nothing has brought me happiness like what I have found in my home–in my wife, my children, and, occasionally my books. As much as anyone can seek adventure, in the end the peace and contentment we seek is in the (mostly and occasionally) quiet of home, where we can curl up with a good book, a warm drink, and the adventures of our imagination. I look forward to the day when I can share that adventure with my own little “hobbits,” reading the tale of Bilbo the Hobbit to a new generation of adventurers.
[Previously posted at Publius Online]