The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher: Grafton (HarperCollins)
Pages: 285 (Paperback)
Smaug certainly looked fast asleep, when Bilbo peeped once more from the entrance. He was just about to step put onto the floor when he caught a sudden thin ray of red under the drooping lid of Smaug’s left eye. He was only pretending to sleep! He was watching the tunnel entrance!
Whisked from his comfortable hobbit-hole by Gandalf the wizard and a band of dwarves, Bilbo Baggins finds himself caught up in a plot to raid the treasure hoard of Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon…
Mwaha! After 24 years I finally managed to finish The Hobbit! And I enjoyed it a lot more than I though I would.
To explain my apprehensions a bit more: I tried to read The Hobbit many, many times in my childhood and each time hated it and failed miserably. I think several of the very numerous creases and damage to the cover of my family’s copy may even have come from me hurling it away in disgust. What annoyed me most though, what really, annoyed me was always that it was a story I should have absolutely loved – all the plot ingredients were there; quests, dragons, dwarves, goblins, treasure, all that fantasy stuff I used to practically live and breathe – but I just simply couldn’t get over the fucking tone of the book. I felt patronised by the narrator, annoyed by the constant outbursts of song, and generally talked down to. In fact, when I was about five, I very stroppily insisted that my parents never tried to play the audiobook in the car ever again (it was a staple for long journeys at the time) because, although the bits with the trolls and the goblins and the dragon were great, I was fed up of hearing how ‘Bilbo Baggins wished he was back in his hobbit hole. Not for the last time!’ repeated every few minutes.
So, despite loving the basic plot and absolutely adoring Lord of the Rings, I was very, very apprehensive about giving The Hobbit another go – but all the same I really wanted to at least try before I went to see the film. And actually I’m really fucking glad that I did, cause read with adult eyes I actually really liked it (though I confess to still being annoyed by the songs).
As I’m sure everyone will know, The Hobbit tells the story of the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and his many wonderful aventures after becoming reluctantly roped into helping the least-prepared band of dwarves ever reclaim their treasure from the dragon who ruined their homeland. It also (again as everyone knows) serves as a prequel of sorts to the Lord of the Rings, though is very different in tone. Written for a younger audience it’s more episodic in structure and fun in nature than its sprawling sequel. The quest to recover the dwarvish treasure serves as an overarching plot but, for the first half of the book at least, the journey to the Lonely Mountain where the dragon lives is made up of a series of random encounters and seemingly unrelated adventures. More than being a fun adventure story, however, there’s also a strong character arc (for Bilbo anyway) and a surprisingly mature finale. For a rather slim book there’s a hell of a lot happens and, save for the stupid songs, there’s almost never a dull moment. So although I hated it as a child I have to admit that it’s not at all hard to see why it is such a very beloved children’s classic.
The first part, where the dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf have to overcome obstacle after obstacle to reach the dragon’s lair is still probably my favourite – I’ve always been a sucker for ‘journey stories’ and all the really memorable incidents happen here, the trolls, the goblins, Gollum. But it’s also where the tone is at it’s most irritating – the ‘not for the last time!‘s are frequent (though thankfully not as frequent as I seemed to recall) and the Rivendell elves who sing the ‘O! tra-la-la-lally/here down in the valley!/ha ha!’ song deserve thirteen dwarven axes to the fucking head, but the Gollum episode alone makes up for that. Gollum is, quite simply, the absolute best thing about Middle Earth – full stop. I loves him, I loves him, I loves him.
The rest of the story never quite reaches the brilliance that is Riddles in the Dark with Gollum, but it’s still pretty damn good and, as the journey portion concludes and the company realise they actually have to face the dragon, Smaug, you begin to really see the influence that sagas and epic poetry had on Tolkien’s writing. At least one episode with Smaug is lifted almost directly from Beowulf (maybe more, I’m only partway through Beowulf at the moment) and the characters prove to be far more flawed and selfish than you normally find in the heroes of children’s books. It turns the fun romp through the forests and mountains of the first half into something more poignant and mature. I’m not entirely sure I would have got on with this section so well when I was younger – I was normally asleep by this point when we played the audiobook in the car and I probably wasn’t used to protagonists turning out to be dickish and random people who had only just been introduced doing important deeds that would normally be reserved for the heroes – but I liked it and it is, I think, one of the things that sets The Hobbit apart from similar children’s adventure stories.
And onto the downsides. Again, I found the songs and poems (with the exception of Gollum’s riddles) annoying, far too frequent, and mostly unneccessary. The last chapter alone had three songs in it – none of them needed. I guess there must be people out there who like them but I’m really not one. They were shorter than I remembered though, which was something at least. The amount of stuff per page ratio also meant that very few of the characters apart from Bilbo ever got that much focus or does much for themselves. The thirteen dwarves are, for the most part, completely interchangeable and there seems no reason for half of them to be there except to bulk up the numbers so that Bilbo can make the group a ‘lucky fourteen’. Thorin is the leader and a bit of a pompous dickwad, Kili and Fili are the youngest and therefore get all the shitty jobs, Balin is friendlier with Bilbo than most of the others and Bombur is constantly refered to and berated for being fat enough for two. And that’s literally all the character traits I can remember. I think Oin and Gloin light a candle at one point but I can’t remember them doing anything else even remotely useful. It’s the nature of this type of epic storytelling of course to focus almost solely the main character (few of Odysseus’s sailors or Beowulf’s companions are even given names forexample) but it does make them feel rather like dead weight a lot of the time. Combine that with the fact they’re also the most incompetent bunch of adventurers ever, constantly in need of rescuing and never managing even a single thing for themselves, and I feel rather sorry for the Dwarves. They clearly didn’t know (or stop to consider) just what their quest actually entailed. They’re so clueless about their planned adventure that they pack musical instruments but no proper weapons! I can’t help but feel that Gandalf really should have given the poor things a better briefing.
Overall though a very enjoyable little book. The bits that annoyed me as a child still annoyed me as an adult though not to anything near the same extent. I do wish there had been a bit less singing and a bit more of certain characters in it, but I liked it all a hell of a lot more than I was expecting to.