Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Hobbit

I don't know what it is about fall that makes me want to read The Hobbit, but almost without fail the end of September rolls around and I start thinking about Tolkein's woods, and about how I'd rather go on some adventure than think ahead to the term papers I have coming up. Well, I say that. I think I'd be equally happy if I could spend a few afternoons just reading in a sunny chair next to a pot of tea. This, I suppose, makes me rather like Bilbo Baggins, hobbit extraordinaire and central character of the novel.

Tolkein's follow-up novels (and their movie adaptations), The Lord of the Rings trilogy, made the setting of Middle Earth and its reknwoned wizard, Gandalf, quite famous. But Gandalf's first appearance is in The Hobbit, as is the discovery of the ring that causes so much trouble later on. In The Hobbit, though, the ring is more of a parlour trick. Before I go into all that, here are the plot points.

Bilbo Baggins is a fairly typical hobbit, in that he isn't particularly adventurous. He's curious, but not curious enough to actually check anything out, if you see what I mean. He likes his little home and his little life and is rather attached to his undemanding routine. Of course, all of that is taken away from him when Gandalf pays him a visit. Shortly thereafter, Bilbo is roped into an adventure with a crew of dwarves hungry to recover their treasure and their home. 

And so it begins. Bilbo and the dwarves, all twelve of them, set out for the Lonely Mountain – where Smaug the dragon lies on top of their treasure. The journey takes them through all kinds of terrain and in contact with all manner of characters – some friends, mostly foes. They steal weapons from trolls, spend time with some friendly elves and later imprisoned by others, are captured by goblins (in the midst of which, Bilbo acquires the ring that allows him to disappear – making him a much more successful burglar).

The ring becomes a central part of the action in this story. Bilbo's disappearing tricks save the dwarves many times and add a lot of fun to the story of a nervous, but excited, little hobbit getting his first big taste of the outside world. There's lots of literary theory about this novel, and Tolkien's work in general, but when I read it, I'm reading it for fun. 

Usually, I'm not a huge fan of fantasy stories, with made-up worlds and languages and species. But Tolkien's Middle Earth is so nested in the look and feel of Europe (and mostly England) and the creatures (elves, hobbits, dwarves, goblins, men, etc.) so well described, both individually and as they compare to each other, that the story isn't weighed down by them. Instead, it's enjoyable to read, and the pace of the writing and the vivid descriptions catch you up in the action the way Bilbo gets caught up by the expedition. I read it for the first time when I was in elementary school, but I have to say that I enjoy it far more now than I did then. Now when I read it I catch the subtleties of Tolkien's allusions and language play, and understand the larger story he's building. The thought of yelling "attercop" at a spider still makes me laugh and I get just as much joy out of the image of Bilbo at the top of the Mirkwood Forest canopy as I once did, but I also see the danger that lies beneath the surface of that world, which makes the adventure the characters are on that much more exciting.

The Hobbit does what the best fall-weekend novels do: it whisks you away from where you are and gives you something to think about afterwards. It doesn't demand anything from you but a sense of fun and the ability to see how Tolkien's careful parallels to the real world are meant to unburden you, not call you to action. And really, although it may be appropriate for children, content-wise, it's an eminently satisfying adult reread.

The Hobbit
By J. R. R. Tolkien
First published in 1937 (cover image shown from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition)

1 comment:

  1. Angela, thank you for a refreshing and warm midday break. It made me forget about class and think of Bilbo Baggins. Awesome!

    See you in class (unfortunately).



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