The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. Of course.

It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.  – Bilbo

I’ve said elsewhere that it was impossible for me to review The Hobbit.  I don’t know if this will count any more as a review than the parody I posted there does, but here, at the least, are some thoughts on a reread.

It’s been a very long time since I read The Hobbit, and having read LotR over and over (and over) in the meantime made it particularly interesting to take note of the seeds for the later story planted liberally throughout this smaller story.  (Funny – I always think of it as a short little book, but the page count is in the same general neighborhood (or at least zip code) as FotR, TTT, and RotK (after you’ve subtracted the appendices and indices).)  There’s the Necromancer, driven out – to recoup and begin a rise later as the Dark Lord.  Elrond ponders the future; he doesn’t expect it all to happen as quickly as it did.  There are the Eagles, as yet unnamed.  Rivendell, and Bilbo’s happiness there; cram, and even some giant spiders; the Ring, of course, and Bilbo’s constant use of it.  I wonder how much of it was retro-fitted.

Another fascinating thing was how very much Tolkien’s writing and the entire setting of Middle-earth matured between The Hobbit and LotR.  Not that The Hobbit isn’t a confident and beautifully written story – it surely is, and I took an absurd amount of pleasure in reading the first several chapters (softly) out loud.  There is a joy to it, an exuberance, that is muted in LotR, which feels like the youth of LotR’s adulthood. 

That being said, in Tolkien’s letters he states that, although its origins were at the bedsides of his sons and daughter, The Hobbit’s publication was not aimed at an audience of children.  This is a little undermined by the tone of the book, the language of the narrator, which is often very much a chatty “don’t worry, it all comes out lovely in the end” “Princess Buttercup doesn’t get eaten by the Eels at this time” sort of thing, very British-children’s-book.  On the other hand, some of the content is very un-children’s-book-like, at least by today’s standards.  While there are the walking-on-hind-legs ponies and other creatures of Beorn’s acquaintance, a strong children’s book element – indeed, all of the talking and almost-talking animals have that feel – still, the intrepid troupe of gold-seekers goes through one hell of a lot of ponies.  The baker’s dozen +1 borrowed from Beorn makes it home safely – but every time you turn around in this book there goes another batch of ponies down something’s gullet.  Good thing they weren’t all named like Sharp-ears, Wise-nose, Swish-tail and Bumpkin, and White-socks my little lad…  Also, strong drink flows copiously, and everyone smokes – so very un-PC – and all the talk of smoke rings almost make me want to take up a pipe.

More, though, an underlying theme of the book is that greed, gold-lust, is one of the most powerful forces there is.  Thorin is never a very nice person, but give him a glimpse of gold, the hint of the presence of the Arkenstone, and he would all but toss his brother’s sons Fili and Kili into Smaug’s mouth to claim it.  Well, maybe not Fili or Kili, but probably Bombur, anyway.  Even Bilbo succumbs a bit to the gold-lust.  In a way it’s a foreshadowing of the power of the Ring.

(I sincerely apologize for the unintentional dwarf-tossing in the previous paragraph.)

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.  – Thorin

There are no real stereotypical heroes in The Hobbit.  The main characters – primarily Bilbo, and then Gandalf, and then the thirteen dwarves – are engaging and entertaining companions, but none of them perform the major heroic acts of the book, at least not “onscreen”.  Yes, Gandalf kills the chief goblin, but it’s not a definitive act: it doesn’t do much to help the cause, throwing the goblins into confusion but not stopping them.  Bilbo is, over and over, an almost accidental hero – and a true one, in that he conquers his deep, deep fears and saves his friends – but what struck me is that the arc of the story is about going to reclaim the hoard from the dragon, and the pivotal action of killing the dragon is not performed by any of the fifteen main characters.  In the ultimate battle, the Battle of the Five Armies, the pivotal moment is not so much the entry of Thorin and Company but that of Beorn.  It surprised me a little; LotR is in so many ways a very different sort of story.

Gandalf’s choice of Bilbo as the Dwarves’ Burglar is, in a way, cruel to the poor hobbit … but as Tolkien points out, the wizard was right.  Bilbo lives up to his billing – perhaps partly because he had that billing to live up to, partly because of the insistent Took strain in him.  In the end, he comes through.  And I wonder if Gandalf knew he would – never doubted it – because he had indeed been watching Bilbo since he was a lad.  I wonder if Gandalf has a nose for luck, because sheer, stupid luck was Bilbo’s greatest asset. Stumbling on the Ring was partly luck and partly the Ring’s doing, of course, and the luck it brought him was the only luck ever to be associated with it, I think; it actually did a lot of good in The Hobbit, which is remarkable when you think about it.

Without Bilbo’s adventures, in so many ways Frodo would never have left home.  Apart from the fact that without the There and Back Again the Ring would not have come to the Shire, Bilbo set his nephew/cousin an example.  Bilbo was not quite an exemplar of intrepidity, but he proved an adage I’ve heard recently that you can’t change until you’ve reached bottom.  That journey scraped away everything, and took him from someone whose greatest concern was having run off without a pocket handkerchief to someone who was willing to risk his life for comrades, who had the wherewithal to do what was needed for the greatest good.  The quest dropped him to the bottom – and only then did he find a way to rise.  I wonder if, without the knowledge that Bilbo did something very similar before him, Frodo would ever have been able to shake off the comforting embrace of the Shire under his own steam.

Then again, he probably would have had the same amount of choice Gandalf gave Bilbo: none.

Aw, what the heck.  Instead of a review, what I posted on Goodreads was:

He Didn’t Mean To Adventure
– The story of The Hobbit, singable to the tune of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

Bilbo is respectable in Bag End Under Hill
Till “Gandalf tea Wednesday”and a rune scratched on his door.
Fili Kili Ori Óin, Dori Nori Bombur Glóin
Bifur, Dwalin, Bofur, Balin – are there any more?!
Yes: Thorin especially; Gandalf makes fourteen
An Unexpected Party, and a burglar with no choice.
Green Dragon, Bywater, Trolls consider slaughter:
Bert, Tom, and William – Gandalf throws his voice.

Bilbo: I didn’t mean to adventure
Minding my own business,
Then all things went amiss
I didn’t mean to adventure
Taken from my doorstep
Now with Gandalf I schlep

Heading on to Rivendell, Elrond’s House where elves yet dwell
Moon runes, Elf tunes, but it’s not long before:
Thunderstorms, giants swarm, misery is uniform
Captured by the Goblins, but Gandalf comes through once more
Goblin King, a missing Ring(!), Bilbo makes good use of Sting
A game of Riddles in the Dark, Gollum’s bite’s worse than his bark
Balin is sharp-sighted, the party’s reunited,
Bilbo appears, Dwarves cheer, Gandalf is delighted.

Bilbo: I didn’t mean to adventure
Wish that singing was my kettle
Not Elves in fine fettle
I didn’t mean to adventure
Almost served like mutton
Then lost all my buttons

From the frying pan of Goblin fray to Wargs and wolves, ya harri hey
An eye-opener and no mistake, racket keeps Eagles awake
A night spent in an eyrie, Beorn’s house is more cheery
Ponies serve up honey-cake, with dogs and rams – no chops or steak
Beorn gives good advice (maybe should’ve told ‘em twice)
Black squirrels and butterflies, cobwebs and insect eyes
White hart frustrates, Bombur is a dead weight
Vanishing feast agonize, all lose their heads (no real surprise)

Bilbo: I didn’t mean to adventure
I don’t think I’m an asset –
Are we nearly there yet?
I didn’t mean to adventure
The Road goes ever on
That’s why I’m woebegone

Bilbo’s nearly caught in webs : courage peaks as daylight ebbs
Attercop, Attercop, monster spiders nearly get the drop
Thorin caught by Woodelves, the rest made prisoners themselves –
Butler and guard drink till they drop; barrels float, Bilbo atop
Bilbo starts to cough and sneeze; Fili says No apples, please!
Desolation of the Dragon, now it’s all up to Burglar Baggins!

Bilbo: I didn’t mean to adventure
Hope I come in useful
Not look too much a fool
I didn’t mean to adventure
Once I blew smokerings
Now I’ve got this joke Ring

Bilbo ‘thags you very buch’ old black snail-cracking thrush
Smaug rises in fire, off to Laketown venting ire
But now the dragon’s Not At Home, I’ll just take that Arkenstone
Goblets they found there for themselves, and harps of gold where once they delved
Mithril vest, did Smaug go west? Lake Town is put to the test
Grim-voiced Bard, black arrow last, a little bird speaks as Smaug flies past
Smaug goes down in clouds of steam – Bard should be king, the Dale folk deem
Dalemen and Elf array marching northward straightaway

Bilbo: I didn’t mean to adventure
I miss my good old arm-chair
Once back I won’t leave there
I didn’t mean to adventure
Don’t care how much gold’s strewn
Can I be going home soon?

Old Roäc, son of Carc, reports Bard’s arrow hit its mark –
That’s the good news; bad remains – Thorin sends him off to Dain
Dueling ballads, Elves and Dwarves – Thorin’ll sit on gold and starve
The Clouds Burst, Bilbo’s cursed, after Dain comes the worst –
Goblins led by Azog’s son – wolves and Wargs behind them run
Disagreements disappear – so does Bilbo, thinking clear
Goblins offer no reprieve, then Thorin turns the tide at eve
And Bilbo sees a welcome sight – Eagles are coming! To join the fight

Bilbo: I didn’t mean to adventure
I’ve a helm and hard skull
Of adventure chock-full
I didn’t mean to adventure
Didn’t expect warfare
Eagles, Dwarves, Wargs, Elves, bear

Bilbo comes to once more – Thorin’s passing grieves him sore
And Fili and Kili, body and shield, defending Thorin died before
Under the Mountain Dain’s now King, Even dragons have their ending
Chest of silver, chest of gold, Yule-tide with Gandalf in Beorn’s hold
Bilbo’s Took blood grows more tired the closer he comes to the Shire
Rivendell – the first of May, and Elves’ lullabyes at break of day
Auction ended, SB’s offended, reputation gone and won’t be mended
Thus ends the tale, how beyond all ken, Bilbo journeyed There and Back Again.

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2 Responses to The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. Of course.

  1. Helen says:

    This is a difficult admission to make, but for all the times I have read and reread LOTR, I have never read The Hobbit! It’s on my ‘to read’ mind, and I really should get to it – probably will, there’s a long, cold winter ahead:) Obviously I cannot comment on the post, but We Didn’t Start the Fire is running through my head.

  2. stewartry says:

    It’s a completely different animal from LotR. I hadn’t read it in years and years – I think I started it a couple of times and never made a dent. This time, though, I had a ball.

    And while I hate to think about it, the movie *is* coming out. *sigh*

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