The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (1937)

Book review: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (Unwin Paperbacks, 1983? [1937])

thehobbit1937The Hobbit is a tale of high adventure, undertaken by a company of dwarves, in search of dragon-guarded gold. A reluctant partner in this perilous quest is Bilbo Baggins, a comfort-loving, unambitious hobbit. Encounters with trolls, goblins, dwarves, elves and giant spiders, conversations with the dragon, Smaug the Magnificent and a rather unwilling presence at the Battle of the Five Armies are some of the adventures that befall Bilbo. But there are lighter moments as well, good fellowship, laughter and song. Bilbo has taken his place among the immortals of children’s fiction. The Hobbit is a complete and marvellous tale in itself, but it also forms a prelude to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Once upon a time, before the first Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movie had been released, I decided that really, I should read some Tolkien because people kept saying how fantastically awesome the Lord of the Rings trilogy is. As I was trying to read a few different fantasy authors at the time, it had to be time to read the one who essentially Started It All. The Hobbit, or simply Bilbo as it’s called in Swedish, was the one I decided to start with, and it worked okay. Seemed okay, even if it was a bit slow and oh golly, the never-ending singing.

Roll on ten or so years, and here I am again – re-reading the tale of how Bilbo Baggins came in possession of a ring which would turn out to be super-evil and needing immediate destruction … some fifty years later. Why the re-read? Okay, the film’s coming out in December next year, and that would be a good incentive … but then, if it wasn’t because I’m following the filming (slightly), which in turn is only because Richard Armitage will be in it, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. After all, I still haven’t got around to reading The Return of the King … Basically, I re-read it to find out about Thorin, and how big that part is likely to be in the film(s).

On that score, it’ll be brilliant. The rest of it … err, yeah.

The story is about Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of Bag End in the Shire – a lush, green place with butterflies and second breakfasts and where everything is ruddy nice. Then he gets visited by a wizard – Gandalf – who invites some friends of his. Without really asking Bilbo about it first. So, one by one, a whole football (soccer to you Americans) team – including a couple of spares – worth of dwarves show up uninvited on his doorstep and eat all his food. And recruit Bilbo to an adventure he doesn’t want to go on. An adventure to go see an old dragon called Smaug, kill it, and loot its big cave – because that cave, and indeed the whole mountain, used to belong to the dwarf leader’s father back in the pre-dragon days.

And the rest of the story is about the party and their journey to said dragon-infested mountain, during which we’re introduced to dwarves, elves, trolls, goblins and a creepy creature calling itself Gollum, who has a trinket it’s quite attached to.

Oh yes, and there is plenty of song lyrics as well. (If we don’t hear Richard Armitage sing in the film(s), they’d better have no singing at all!) I tend to skip those, because they bore me to tears. I could say the same about Tolkien’s prose, but then I’d be lying. It doesn’t bore me.

It annoys me.

My first impression when reading this book again is that the tone of it feels incredibly condescending. I’m half-expecting to feel Tolkien pat me on the head at times. Just because you’re writing to kids doesn’t mean you have to talk down to them. “Oh come on, give the guy a break; it was written in the 1930s!” – No! That’s not an excuse! The Secret Garden was published in 1911, and while it was set in Yorkshire instead of Middle Earth, I never felt the author’s tone patronised the reader. Here, it’s a constant stream of “oh never you trouble your precious little mind about these things, little child”. Bleargh.

We could also argue about the overt racism: “you’re a goblin, therefore you must be killed, for you are evil”; not to mention the wolves. The wolf is a beautiful animal that always gets bad rep. Yes, they’re a predator and yes, they’ll kill livestock if they have to. That doesn’t mean they’re evil incarnate.

“Ahh, you must be Satan! Please don’t eat me!”
[Ta, National Geographic, you rock!]

Or there’s the sausagefest. Where are the women in this? Thirteen bloody dwarves for no reason and not one of them is a girl. Pretty poor, and sure, “those were the days” and all, but still. Could’ve had at least someone in there, even for a little bit.

Thirteen dwarves, yes. No reason. Except to bulk out the word count, and because it’s funny how they’re all rhyming and stuff: Ori, Nori, Dori; Oin, Gloin; Balin, Dwalin; Bifur, Bofur, Bombur; Fili, Kili … and Thorin. Who they are? Balin (?) shows some concern for Bilbo at one point or two, Fili and Kili are young, and Bombur is fat. Really. That’s about the extent of personalities of the team. They didn’t need to be thirteen, they could’ve been four, plus Thorin.

Thorin gets lots of space (yay!) and is the one you hear most about and who has the most input in the story and so on. He should be there. The rest could really do with being fewer. To have thirteen just because their names are quaint and funny to say is entirely unnecessary. Even in the 1930s.

Also, Gandalf is a prick. First, he invites his friends – all thirteen of them, remember – to Bilbo’s house without asking. They all help themselves to Bilbo’s food, eating him out of house and home, basically. And later, when they could really do with a wizard friend, Gandalf buggers off for a bit. Does he do any magic? Yeah, he conjures up some fireworks at one point, and makes a hidden rune, that’s about it. Bask in the glory of his awesome wizarding skills which equal that of a first-year Hogwarts student. Or maybe this is really why low-level D&D wizards suck? They can’t really do much, so they have to rely on having a party full of melee and range combatants to fight so that they can stay out of the way and not get killed by a foe sneezing on them or something. Not impressed.

This is meant to be made into two movies. Where would they finish part one, I wonder? You can fit everything into one film, not an issue. They arrive, they leave the Shire, they travel, yadda yadda yadda, dragon. And to think that the ending is an epic anticlimax too. Dragon? You’d think that would be the spectacular finale. Not so. Other Stuff Happens Instead. Peculiar, to say the least.

So no, this certainly isn’t a favourite, and Tolkien remains a firm non-favourite with me. The Hobbit promises much but is just a lot of dwarves and a hobbit faffing about, roadmovie style. Except they’re on foot and not in a car. Perhaps revolutionary at the time and helped spark a great genre, but honestly? There are better fantasy authors than JRR Tolkien. So there.

(What was with those barrels anyway? Couldn’t they have just jumped in the water and swam off as soon as the portcullis opened or was the opening under surveillance? They could’ve just swam out and headed straight for the shore.)

2.5 out of 5 riddles.

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