SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for February: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
I’ve decided to take advantage of the flexibility of the TBR Challenge and read books that aren’t necessarily romances. I’m still sticking to the prompts, though, and this month’s theme is “friends.” As I said in my last Weeknotes post, I’ve somehow never read any Tolkien and this seemed like the perfect time to rectify that gaping hole in my reading, especially since we have the print copy on our bookshelf and every library I belong to has an ebook version. And if there’s one message in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that carries through the film adaptations, it’s that friendship is necessary to human flourishing.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
How can you not love a story that begins with these sentences? I don’t know what I was expecting: probably something with lots of almost-too-precious depictions of Greene Olde England and elves everywhere. But what I got was so much more and better than that. This is very much a book that children can read and love, but it’s also a book that adults can appreciate and enjoy (and even love). I’m not a Young Adult reader at all in terms of contemporary literature, but this is classic for-all-ages literature and that is something I do like. The voice is charming and doesn’t talk down to the reader at all.
On to the story. Bilbo Baggins is a young hobbit of fifty or thereabouts, who lives in a very nice home at Bag End. Thanks to the machinations of family friend Gandalf the Wizard, he finds himself hosting a party of 14 dwarves for an impromptu and unconventional tea party. He is persuaded to join them on their journey to defeat the terrifying dragon, Smaug, who destroyed their home and dwarf community and took all their treasures. Smaug lives far away, past the Lonely Mountain, and to get there the dwarves and Bilbo will have to overcome many dangers. Bilbo is reluctant, but the non-Baggins part of him (which comes from the Took side of the family) decides to take the chance and accompany Thorin, Balin, Kili, Fili, and the rest of the rhyming crew.
As you have undoubtedly realized, this is a quest/coming-of-age story. Bilbo learns a great deal about himself and the world beyond Hobbiton and The Shire. They encounter elves, trolls, goblins, more elves, eagles, and other non-human beings on their way to confront Smaug, and Bilbo discovers unknown reserves of courage and resourcefulness that help his friends on their journey. He also finds a ring, courtesy of a goblin battle and the carelessness of Gollum, which renders him invisible and able to get everyone out of some very tight spots.
Unlike the LOTR trilogy, The Hobbit is relatively short, at 300 pages. It doesn’t read particularly short, though, I think because of its episodic structure. Essentially, Bilbo, the dwarves, and sometimes Gandalf proceed through a series of places and events, all of which are interesting but which are not tied together in an overarching storyline. Rather, the plot is determined by their travels. They need to rest, and they wind up in Rivendell with Elrond and the other elves. They need to cross mountains, and they counter goblins. They go through a dark wood and run into more elves. And so on. It’s a simple structure and one that to me locates the book in children’s fiction, even though I don’t believe it was written specifically for children. This isn’t a knock on the novel at all, just an observation. I tended to look at the page numbers to see where I was in the story, rather than knowing from the arc.
The one other aspect of my reading experience that struck me was that seeing the LOTR film adaptations before reading any of the books meant that I had faces already in place for the characters. Gandalf was Ian McKellen and Gollum was Andy Serkis (and Elrond was Hugo Weaving) whether I wanted the characters to be that way or not. It was fine for Gandalf and Elrond, but it made Gollum much scarier to me than I think he would have been without Serkis’s portrayal. Book Gollum is less menacing. This may be a function of his role in LOTR, I don’t know since I haven’t read those yet, but it was a more appropriate depiction for this story, I think. And the ring isn’t nearly as consequential here. Bilbo gets it, wears it all over the place, and winds up telling the dwarves and others about it. It’s not the One Ring To Rule Them All here.
It’s always interesting to come to a major cultural touchstone so late. Sometimes the experience can be anti-climactic, but here it was very satisfying. I’m so glad I finally read The Hobbit, and I’m very much looking forward to the LOTR books.