You know that book you’ve been meaning to read for YEARS but you never got round to it? J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was that for me.
I remember my teacher reading us segments of it in primary school, and then that was that for a few years. Then the movies came out and I broke my one rule and watched the film prior to reading the book. I had had the moment of ‘Oh, The Hobbit is a movie now – I’ve always wanted to read that, might as well give it a watch!’. Tolkien as a writer is very daunting as he has quite a reputation for his long-winded, convoluted descriptions that leave you more confused at the end than you were at the beginning.
Really, it wasn’t until very recently that I decided it was time to tackle this classic.
And man. Was that a long book.
It’s not even the longest book I’ve read by any definition, but honestly those descriptions really had me doing triple-quadruple takes. The amount of times I nearly nodded off or read half a page before realising I’d already read it the day previous was exasperating. The only thing that helped, really, with envisioning the world was the fact that I had seen the movies. I think that’s really how I knew what was going on half of the time.
BUT don’t get me wrong – I think Tolkien is an excellent writer. It’s just that, for myself, I can’t handle a TOO convoluted book. I’m all here for mystery, and smart little tricks in a novel that leave you like “WHAT?!” or descriptions that are so beautiful you want to get them tattooed on you immediately. I’m all here for that sort of stuff, but when I sit down to read I don’t want to have to be concentrating SO much that it makes me fall asleep. And for myself, the first Lord of the Rings book had that effect.
I had seen the appendices (several times, might I add) on The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings DVDs, and this is where my fascination with Tolkien truly lives. He literally studied linguistics and made up entirely new, fully functional languages for his novels – the EFFORT of a writer!! I hadn’t realised how many ties Tolkien’s stories had to our own British mythology, and this is something Tolkien apparently cared much about. He felt that Britain was severely lacking in mythology compared to other countries and so he wanted to add in his own, and if I’m honest, this is actually the exact same mission that I have with my own novel (the one which I am writing just now – ahhhh exciting!!). He was inspired by things like Beowulf too in his depictions and University taught me to be fascinated by the intertextuality of different novels and how they all interlink with one another and GAH I honestly can’t put into words how fascinating I find it all.
But ANYWAY. I have a lot of respect for Tolkien as a writer, regardless of what I have said about his Lord of the Rings book. I could seriously watch the appendices multiple times, and I am obsessed with the screen writers’ stories of the franchise as I literally want to be them (lolol anyone planning on adapting a novel to a film pls hire me thanks).
And so, it was this that finally encouraged me to return, over a decade later, to The Hobbit. I had heard that it was a slightly easier read than the Lord of the Rings, given the fact that it’s meant to be a kid mythology book, and so I finally cracked open the book cover and began to tackle my Tolkien fear.
AND. IT. WAS. AMAZING.
I am so shocked to even be writing this, but I would put The Hobbit up there with one of my favourite books of all time. Yes, it still had the typical Tolkien rambling descriptions etc but they were a lot less convoluted and the plot more than made up for it. Within the first few pages I had to keep forcing myself to read and understand the world that was trying to pull me in, and then eventually I was submerged! It all suddenly made perfect sense and I could picture everything so clearly. I was flipping through each page, desperate to know what happened next (even though I had seen the movie and already knew!).
Before I move on to my full-on discussion though, a basic summary of plot might be beneficial for those of you still on the fence about tackling Tolkien. The Hobbit, prequel to the Lord of the Rings, follows the adventures of a Mr. Bilbo Baggins who lives in Bagend in a little hobbit-hole. Hobbits don’t like adventures – they’d much rather eat ‘second-breakfast’ – and so when one day a bunch of dwarves show up on Bilbo’s door talking of adventure, he is immediately irate. Gandalf, a wizard who often passes through Bagend, had signed his friend Bilbo up for a job – that of a burglar on an adventure with dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield, and his fellows. The aim of the adventure is to secure the old holdings and gold of Thorin’s forefathers, whom were slain and possessions all stolen by a dragon named Smaug. These holdings are in a place called The Lonely Mountain, and both gold and dragon lay at the very base of the tall, daunting, hostile structure. To get to it, Thorin, company and Bilbo would have to battle through many different antagonists on their way, barely making it there and back again alive (and some don’t).
But Bilbo is not just a Baggins, but also a Took, and it is the Tookish part of him that propels him onto the path of adventure! The Tooks, outcast by their fellows in their own time, passed on to Bilbo the need for adventure that is so against the nature of a Hobbit. This, and the persistence of Gandalf.
Now that that basic summary is out of the way, I can get on to the good stuff. Knowing I was going to be writing this blog post, I even dog-eared a few pages containing my favourite passages so that I could discuss some of the main themes of the novel on this blog. I will number all of these, along with my own discussion points, below:
1. Being Different is Okay
So, the classic theme in literature and film (and the one that I always drawn to most because RELATABLE) is the idea that it’s good to be different. During my degree we were constantly learning about the restrictiveness of Victorian society (see my other blog posts where I talk about this in more depth, namely Oliver Twist and Tess of the D’Urbervilles) but it’s bizarre that it escaped my notice that Tolkien too was a Victorian. Well, up until the age of about 11 he lived in the Victorian era, so I imagine he experienced the ‘talk’ of society and saw first hand how easily people became an ‘outsider’.
I suppose it’s because of the nature of Tolkien’s book – fantasy and mythology – that I failed to notice his writing as products of their time. Yes, Tolkien like Hardy or Dickens does write against the Victorian ideal of the ‘average man’. This is highlighted most prominently at the end of the novel, and I have quoted the passage in question here:
“Indeed Bilbo found he had lost more than spoons – he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’ – except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders. I am sorry to say he did not mind.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Hobbit’, p. 348.
They sure do love that word ‘respectable’ the Victorians. Seriously, I would have hated to have lived in the Victorian era, you barely had room to breathe without being outcast. Nowadays, we are encouraged to be ourselves and be different, and that is why books such as The Hobbit, or movies like The Greatest Showman, do so well! We love an outsider, and we love to consider ourselves as one.
2. A classic underdog: the unlikely hero
Everyone loves an underdog. It’s a cliche, but it’s for a reason, and that reason is that we all love seeing an underdog defying all odds and coming out on top. Like Harry Potter, scrappy lanky kid defeating evil dark wizard Lord Voldemort, Bilbo Baggins is a tiny Hobbit from a peaceful race who wants nothing other than a full belly.
For myself, this is why I really took to The Hobbit. There were several passages in which other races of the story were shocked at the bravery and cunningness of Bilbo the Hobbit, and I just found it so heart-warming to read. I know I’ve been taught to hate a cliche but I just can’t.
“The Elvenking looked at Bilbo with a new wonder. ‘Bilbo Baggins!’ he said. ‘You are more worthy to wear the armour of elf-princes than many that have looked more comely in it.'” – J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Hobbit’, p. 315.
I honestly love this bit so much. The Elves have always fascinated me since the films because they are just so FLAWLESS. If I could join any race in the LOTR/Hobbit world it would be the Elves – they are definitely my favourites.
But the reason I love this bit is that they are so calm and collected, and they carry out everything with precision and ease. They rarely seem awed by another, and they are so used to their own flawlessness, that for them to recognise Bilbo and in fact find a level of respect for him is a moment in the book that warms my heart. So cute.
3. The best bit…when the antagonist and the protagonist finally meet
W-O-W. I love a good protagonist/antagonist showdown. But I don’t mean with fisticuffs – I find that words are a much more powerful tool in a novel’s conflict than any description of violence could possibly achieve. If you have read my blog post on H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man then you will know what I mean. That whole letter with the ‘reign of terror’ still gives me CHILLS. SO GOOD.
And the exact same effect was achieved by Tolkien when Bilbo and Smaug the dragon finally meet. Again, I had CHILLS. It helps that I’ve seen the movie, so I could literally hear Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice coming off the page as I read, but even if I hadn’t the worlds would still have had the effect of raising goosebumps.
‘Smaug certainly looked fast asleep, almost dead and dark, with scarcely a snore more than a whiff of unseen steam, when Bilbo peeped once more from the entrance. He was just about to step out on to the floor when he caught a sudden thin and piercing ray of red from under the drooping lid of Smaug’s left eye. He was only pretending to sleep! He was watching the tunnel entrance! Hurriedly Bilbo stepped back and blessed the luck of his ring. Then Smaug spoke.
‘Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!’
Honestly, wow. You can actually HEAR the dragon hissing the word ‘thief’ – CHILLS!
There’s so much more I could say about the exchange between Bilbo and Smaug, and so much more I could quote, but I’ll just leave it there for now otherwise this post could itself be published as a novel.
4. The Narrator and the Fourth Wall
This was another classic writing technique of the Victorian author – that of an omnipotent narrator. One who sees all and recounts all, and knows everything that is about to happen and why it is going to happen. I can literally envision Tolkien sitting in an armchair reading out this book as though it were one of Britain’s classic mythology bedtime story books.
The effect, of course, is that we as readers trust Tolkien more, as he appears to know what’s going on before we do ourselves. Obviously this is true for every single author in that they are the ones writing the book, but I liked him employing this technique as I feel it best serves his purpose of writing mythology books for kids, as it achieves the image of what I’ve described above. The best word I can think of to summarise the point really is just ‘story time’, and it adds a certain level of reality to the otherwise fantastical world.
“There is no need to tell you much of his adventures that night, for now we are drawing near the end of the eastward journey and coming to the last and greatest adventure, so we must hurry on.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Hobbit’, p. 217.
What would a novel be without a bit of comedy?
Authors love adding in bits of humour to make their readers laugh out loud, and I must admit there were a few times when I found myself scoffing at the passage I was reading. Perhaps my favourite was the barrel scene, and it’s one that you’ll be very familiar with if you’ve seen The Hobbit film. (Also, I would recommend watching how they filmed that on the appendices – honestly, the poor actors! It was so funny though, but they actually got covered in pounds and pounds of dead fish – YUCK!)
Reading the passage, I couldn’t help but envision the dwarves in the barrels, crashing past the rocks on the fast, winding river. Excellent as well was Tolkien’s pace during this passage. He did still maintain his classic long descriptions, but he somehow managed to make them flow rather quickly, mimicking that of the river.
“The dark river opened suddenly wide, and there it was joined to the main water of the Forest River flowing down in haste from the king’s great doors. There was a dim sheet of water no longer overshadowed, and on its sliding surface there were dancing and broken reflections of clouds and of stars. Then the hurrying water of the Forest River swept all the company of casks and tubs away to the north bank, in which it had eaten out a wide bay. This had a shingly shore under hanging banks and was walled at the eastern end by a little jutting cape of hard rock. On the shallow shore most of the barrels ran aground, though a few went on to bump against the stony pier.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Hobbit’, p. 216.
Honestly the film production team must have had a hard time figuring out how to safely carry out that scene in the movie – thank goodness for green screens! Although a lot of it was actually filmed live action too, and they even put their actors in barrels in a river in New Zealand – who were all wearing either fat suits or heavy, heavy dwarf armour! Wouldn’t have been a job for me – I was very impressed with their dedication.
Real Life Commentary
Anyone who knows me knows that dystopian is my favourite genre to read. I love the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which writers come up with to comment on real life issues and society. Now for Tolkien, he is noted as directly saying that his stories are in no way analogies for war. He himself fought on the front line, but he does not want his stories to be thought of as anti-war commentaries. Although this is true, it is hard not to notice parallels with some of his descriptions and the descriptions of what it is like to fight on the front line. Of course, he will have been shaped by his experiences in life as anyone is, and so some of his experiences will have filtered into his work. But all they are is that – experiences moulding his descriptions and opinions. They are not there for the purpose to teach or to chastise.
However there is one moment in the novel in which I would argue this is not strictly true. Describing the Goblins, a horrifying race with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, Tolkien tries to link them into the real world we know today.
“It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since trouble the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help”. – J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Hobbit’, p. 74.
Although I know that Tolkien is trying to add to the limited stock of British mythology, I can’t help but notice how this also appears to preach an anti-war message. I know that was not his intention, and I know that the novel barely touches upon the issue after that point, but it’s hard not to recognise an author’s true opinions spilling out in the words they write. Of course, this isn’t always the case either, but with this one, I can’t help but notice Tolkien’s rather obvious anti-war stance. I know some of you may disagree with me here, as I know he was adamant that he did not want his stories interpreted in any sort of analogy type of way, but this is just my personal opinion on the matter. I certainly also agree that he is clearly just trying to make his story more believable, by putting the blame on goblins for the mass killing machines that we ourselves have seen deployed in wars today.
Unlikely Alliances…a Heart-warming Moment
I loved the Battle of the Five Armies moment in The Hobbit. Thorin & company, tunnelling into the Lonely Mountain after Smaug’s demise, after finally reunited with their grandfathers’ gold. However, dwarves are greedy creatures and once around gold become far more selfish and defensive. So when the Wood Elves and the people of Laketown come to request gold for the rebuilding of the town that Smaug destroyed, Thorin is determined to keep all that is his. He even requests his dwarf cousin Dain and his army to come through and help secure the mountain – preparing and provoking an entirely unnecessary war. Bilbo steals what is known as the Arkenstone, Thorin’s most prized possession, steals it out of the mountain and gives it to the people of Laketown and the Elves so that Thorin will be more willing to compromise. Of course, Thorin sees this as a great act of betrayal but it shows true cunning and bravery on the part of Bilbo once again. It is during this large fight between Thorin & Company versus now Bilbo, Gandalf, the Wood Elves, Dain and army, and the people of Laketown, that they soon learn that they had been followed by an army of Goblins and Wargs (wolves). Personally, I was so taken aback by the sudden appearance of war in the novel, and I loved the description that Tolkien gave. You could literally see the darkness fall over the land as the Goblins and Wargs got nearer.
However, what I and many readers will have loved, was the heartwarming moment that all conflicts were forgotten.
“the Goblins were the foes of all, and at their coming all other quarrels were forgotten.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Hobbit’, p. 325.
I just loved that bit because it meant that Thorin, Dain, Laketown, the Elves, Bilbo & Gandalf were all working together and protecting each other against the Goblins. Thorin even came out of the Lonely Mountain (he could easily have stayed in with his gold whilst everyone else fought) and fought amongst his new found friends, and unfortunately this is where he met his end. Thorin’s death was described quite quickly in the novel, and it happened very differently to the film, and so I was very much surprised when it happened. Even though I had expected it from the beginning it was still upsetting, but I’m at least glad we got to see a bit of character development beforehand. It was nice a moment, them all fighting together, despite the sad conclusion.
And that, you’ll be glad to know, is that! I don’t have much else to say on The Hobbit except that I really enjoyed it and I am respect Tolkien as a writer even more now! If you haven’t read it I would highly recommend, and don’t get put off by Tolkien’s reputation as being convoluted. If you force yourself through the first few pages you will eventually become accustomed to the world and soon you’ll be flying through it.
Thank you for much for reading (if you managed to get to the end of this blog post). I really appreciate all your support in reading what I have to say, and I really value all your own little comments and thoughts on the novel too so please do let me know what you think – if you’ve read it 100 times, never read it, or only read it once, I’d love to know your thoughts!
BUT ANYWAY! I am definitely going now, thank you again for reading, hope you all have a lovely day!