The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
There and back again (and again and again and again ...)
Re-visiting The Hobbit
Cover to the Deluxe Unwin edition of The Hobbit I've been carting about since I was 14. The link is to another edition.
In keeping with its younger, deeper and more famous brother, The Hobbit is still a damned peculiar story. Tolkien never took a creative writing course, and it shows.
Though he was in large part inspired by northern European mythologies and ancient epic poetry, he had no interest in duplicating those simplistic narratives. (And one shudders to imagine his reaction to the never-ending sprawl of dreary slums built on the foundations of The Lord of the Rings and of The Hobbit, the masterpiece's ancestral village.)
Superficially, both novels resemble a bildungsroman, with a reluctant hero accepting the burden of a long and difficult quest. Both turn the familiar upside-down, but each does so in a different way. The Lord of the Rings is most striking in the fact that its ostensible hero ultimately fails in his Quest, falling victim to temptation at the last minute.
Though its hero succeeds, in a way The Hobbit is even more unusual in its dénouement. The novel has not one but several climaxes, the most stereotypically dramatic of which (the battle with the maguffin, the great dragon Smaug) occurs essentially off-stage.
And more, this children's story has as its emotional climax and as its hero's most heroic actions, the avoidance of violence along with a decision to betray the wishes of his friend (of sorts) and leader, the Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield.
To be clear clear, it is not Bilbo who kills the dragon, nor is it Gandalf or indeed any of the the book's major characters. And the dragon's demise is not the story's end-point, but the beginning of a complex moral climax that questions the entire basis of the story and of the reader's sympathies — namely, that the Quest had as its objective only gold — greed, in other words.
A very thoughtful Christian of the Roman Catholic variety, J.R.R. Tolkien seems to have had a pretty low opinion of avarice, as he had of the desire for "power over" anything, as shown in The Lord of the Rings by Sam's happy fate — to have a garden of his own, to work with his own hands.
Thoughts on the movie
Yes, I'm going to see it — and sooner rather than later. And yes, I'm going to talk about it here.
And I rather expect to like it, in contrast to my final opinions about Peter Jackson's adaptation of the The Lord of the Rings, which failed in comparison largely because he made of it primarily a war story, shedding the emotional weight and the spiritual depth of the original.
The Hobbit is a slender story which lacks the gravitas of its descendant. If Jackson has added to that skeleton, I don't expect I will be one of those complaining that An Unexpected Journey has spoiled it.
In The Hobbit, the treasure is regained from the dragon and the Dwarves regain their lost home. But that treasure very nearly destroys its finders and in the end, is divided up far beyond what had originally been intended. Reparations must be made and unexpected rewards granted: to the Men whose town the dragon destroyed, and who had earlier helped the adventurers; and to an army of Elves, despite the latter having made prisoners of the Dwarves earlier in the story.
There are plenty of adventures and wonders along the way to The Hobbit's complex end — trolls and giant spiders, the finding/stealing of the Ring of Power from Gollum, giants and shape-changers, Elves and an enchanted forest, just off the top of my head — but it is cleverness, not violence, which resolves most (though by no means all) of the troubles through which our heroes' journey leads them. Tolkien's adventure story for children manages to excite despite the fact it includes more talking than fighting and that its heroes are far from paragons of virtue.
For an adult, despite instances of that cloying, jolly tone that mars too many children's stories, The Hobbit remains a surprisingly engaging read. If reading The Lord of the Rings is like being swept away to a new country by a raging, rain-engorged flood, returning to The Hobbit is like being carried down a familiar but meandering stream; safe enough for young folk, but with surprises a'plenty among the reeds and cat-tails for the old.
If you've never made the journey to Middle Earth, this is a charming place to start. If you've been before, you'll be happy to make a return trip.