As many of you know, Eva, Maree, Clare, and I are co-hosting a readalong of The Lord of the Rings this year. January was Hobbit month. I’ve been reading a chapter or two each day during lunch and finally finished this week. Although my most ardent Tolkien-y passions are reserved for the main trilogy, The Hobbit has its own special charms.
The Hobbit opens with a well-to-do, comfortable hobbit named Bilbo Baggins receiving an unexpected visit from Gandalf the wizard. Before long, he finds himself hosting a dozen dwarves for tea and fretting over whether there’ll be enough cakes for him to be able to both serve his guests and have some left for himself. Soon, this homebody of a hobbit is roped into coming along on an adventure in which he will meet elves, trolls, giant spiders, a shapeshifter, and a dragon. He’ll wander through mountain caves, float down a river on a barrel, and become embroiled in a battle of five armies. And all the while he’ll be fretting over when he can get his next good meal.
The Hobbit, unlike the later trilogy, is a good old-fashioned adventure story for children. The narrative voice is like that of a kindly old grandpa. He makes jokes, injects little lessons, and talks directly to the reader. Because I’ve read Lord of the Rings a couple more times than The Hobbit, the charming voice had mostly escaped my memory, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The story also doesn’t have the weight of Lord of the Rings. It’s not a story of a world-changing adventure; what happens to Bilbo and the dwarves does affect others, but the whole of Middle-earth is never in jeopardy. For most of the side characters in the book, things will go on much as they did before, regardless of what happens to Bilbo and his friends.
Despite the light touch Tolkien takes in this book, there is a sense of greater things going on beyond the events of this tale. There’s talk of the Necromancer in the south and long-held resentments between goblins and dwarves, and the songs give a sense of the history of the complex world Tolkien has built. And of course, readers who know the basic plot of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are well aware that the events of this book, one event in particular, did end up having great, world-changing consequences.
I can’t really write objectively about The Hobbit because I love Tolkien’s Middle-earth so much, and this book is such a lovely introduction to this wonderful country. It does have an episodic sort of structure, with each chapter or two recounting a different adventure, all of which lead up to the climactic showdown. For me, the little adventures along the way are the real pleasures of The Hobbit. The epic battle at the end feels like something out of a different kind of book altogether. In fact, it feels a bit too Lord of the Rings-ish to really belong to The Hobbit. Every time I’ve read this book, I’ve told myself to pay attention to the battle so that I can appreciate its significance, but honestly, that part of the story just doesn’t work for me. But the rest—the trolls, Gollum, Beorn, the spiders, the woodland elves, even Smaug—bring a smile to my face every time.
And now for the true confession: I’m terribly worried about the film adaptation, scheduled to be released in two parts starting in 2011. Guillermo del Toro is directing with Peter Jackson and his team from the Lord of the Rings films writing the screenplay. Jackson’s team did a reasonably good job on the previous films (I have my issues with them, but I was generally impressed), and del Toro is a fantastic director, so it should be a dream come true, right?
Well, my worry is that they’ll try to make this the same kind of movie as the LOTR trilogy when the book is an altogether different sort of book. It requires a lighter touch. The books take place in the same world and have some of the same characters, but the similarities end there. I hope that’s true of the films as well.
Note: The images in this post are all photos of the beautiful edition of The Hobbit that I got as a gift from one of my sisters years ago. The art is by Tolkien himself. It’s almost too pretty to read, but it makes me happy to read this great story in such a gorgeous book.