Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Someone once said that he who does not read only lives once, but he who reads lives a thousand ways before he dies. Perhaps the fondness that we as humans have for stories inspires us to implant a little bit of our hearts into whatever story we read or, more markedly, write. Everyone has a tale that they smile upon remembering, from the story of Brer Rabbit to Harry Potter, and each one carves deep notches into the soft places of our souls. Some have more power than others, but all share the writer's earnestness. Can it not be that the stories we read and treasure change our lives forever?
One of the rites of passage of my family is to read the entire The Lord of the Rings series, usually before high school. As a young and voracious reader, I read The Hobbit when I was about ten years old. As I mentioned before, I had already read the sequels before I read this novel, so having the future of the Ring and Bilbo Baggins made a difference in the outcome of the tale, but this book is decidedly different in tone than the three which follow it. J.R.R. Tolkien's usual writing style, so full of foreshadowing and serious, heavy language, morphs into a quick-paced, humorous story of thirteen dwarves and a hobbit and their long adventure together. The whole novel feels compressed, like he could have expanded it into at least two books, but altogether works well enough to keep the pace high and lively.
The Hobbit takes place some eighty years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, following the tale of Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. His mid-morning smoke is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of one Gandalf the Grey, who invites him on an adventure and invites himself (and thirteen dwarves) into Bag End the next day. Bilbo is quickly pushed out the door (without a handkerchief) and into an adventure which will change his fate, and the fate of Middle-Earth, forever. The dwarves are on a quest to recover the treasure of their people under the Lonely Mountain, which was stolen by a rather foul-tempered dragon called Smaug. Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves, puts Bilbo to the test all along the way, barely trusting him but still entrusting difficult tasks to him.Bilbo has been inducted as "the burglar," a job for which he has no qualifications, but must quickly learn if he is to make it to the end of his adventure.
Everything about this novel is action-based and quick, making skimming not an option (if you do, you're likely to miss a character's disappearance or a name-drop). From beginning to end, there is hardly a chapter where the company does not outwit an enemy or move from place to place. Fortunately, in true Tolkien character, everything is meticulously planned out and thought-through, making the plot points as strong as rock, believable, and interesting.
In the adventure with the dwarves, we see a part of Middle-Earth that was largely ignored in the sequels-- the north and northeast. Although they venture through the Misty Mountains, it is a different portion than that which the Fellowship of the Ring narrowly escapes: Thorin and Company face the tunnels of the goblins and, most notably, the lair of Gollum.
On the note of Gollum, the chapter "Riddles in the Dark" is one of the slower portions but still highly interesting to any fan of Middle-Earth: this is the discovery and burglary of the Ring. Tolkien displays his full writing talent here in maintaining the tension despite the fact that readers already know that Bilbo will get away with the Ring. The ability to draw readers into the danger when they already know the overall outcome is a rare one, and Tolkien's vast amounts of it shine throughout The Hobbit.
The thirteen dwarves are endearing, hilarious, diverse, and enchanting. Despite the fact that we are bombarded with thirteen strange names at the beginning of the book and are immediately launched into a very active novel, we come to know each individual dwarf very well by the end of the book. Fili, Kili, and Thorin in particular are dear to us very quickly, and by the end, we can conjure exactly how they might react to each situation. Again, Tolkien flexes his writer's muscle-- only a master among authors can develop fifteen characters (the dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf) to heartwarming quality in three hundred and five pages interspersed with epic battles, dragons, captivity, dwarf-eating spiders, and goblins.
One interesting trick that the author uses to make the dwarves names easy to remember is rhyming. For example, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur come in a threesome, and the rest of the dwarves (other than Thorin) have at least one that they rhyme with in the company. When they are introduced, they come in sets of two or three, and are usually paired together for awhile, so the reader knows all of the names by the third or fourth chapter.
The overall feeling of the novel is much more lighthearted than its sequels. Tolkien often breaks the fourth wall and steps in to inform us almost casually of future events or things that might be important, and his word choice is overall much more humorous than in his masterwork. Not that the characters are any less dark and deep-- to the contrary, they seem almost more guarded and mysterious in the midst of the laughter and antics, drawing us in to speculate what their deeper conflicts and thoughts might be beneath the dwarven armor and personality flaws. Gandalf is the only character who remains the same between the two works, still his somewhat bipolar self, rife with convenient timing and capricious appearances and disappearances.
The novel ends abruptly, but not inappropriately so. After the Battle of Five Armies, the Bilbo's return journey happens in the space of a few paragraphs. The humor returns with the air of the Shire, which is refreshing after the gravity of the great Battle on the slopes of the Lonely Mountain, and we see that subtle thing that Tolkien evoked in such vividness at the end of The Return of the King: bittersweet parting. All journeys must end, but unfortunately for Shakespeare, these do not end with lovers meeting. We see Bilbo go back to pick up the threads of his old life, but know immediately that he will never be the same.
The Hobbit is available on the Kindle for $7.26, but you can get a good paperback for as low as $7.00 from Del Rey Publishers. I would advise buying a copy, as this is such a wonderful book for both children and adults. Plus, on the part of all of bibliovores, I must urge you to read this before the first part of the movie comes out in December. Peter Jackson did a spectacular job with The Lord of the Rings, and because he is taking so much time on this one, I expect it to be equally wonderful-- plus, you can't go wrong with Martin Freeman as Bilbo. But to get the full impact of the story and fall as much in love with it as generations of readers have, pick up a copy of The Hobbit first.
Gandalf looked at him. "My dear Bilbo!" he said. "Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were."