When I started this journey of books involving travel a year ago, I did so, in part, because I knew that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey was going to be released in theaters on December 14. Consequently, with The Hobbit as my December book, I worked backward and filled the year with other books of travel.
This was my second go at reading The Hobbit. The last time, I was in college, and thought that I should read the work prior to my reading The Lord of the Rings. A good friend of mine would wax poetic whenever she talked about THE TRILOGY (I believe she had read it 19 times by the time we graduated from college). I took her advice very seriously; so, you see, I had to read TLOTR. As a relative rookie in reading series, I made the mistake of starting at the beginning. I started with The Hobbit, and I found it fell far short of the heights of my friend’s enthusiastic praise. When I told her that Tolkien’s Hobbit wasn’t measuring up, she gave me THE LOOK, which soon changed to a look of pity. She told me that The Hobbit was not a good introduction to the trilogy, as it was a children’s book, and so, without further ado, I shelved The Hobbit and began on The Fellowship of the Ring.
I’m glad now that I have finally read The Hobbit, but I have to admit that it does provide a much less grand vision than we get in TLOTR. It is quite likely that Tolkien had not even the inkling of his great work at the time he wrote The Hobbit, as the episode “Riddles in the Dark” would suggest – Gollum was willing to give Bilbo the ring in the original edition. (Listen to Tolkien reading from the revised version of this incident – “Riddles in the Dark”.) The first edition of the work came out in 1936, at which time Tolkien was a young professor at Oxford. He had already made a name for himself with a lecture on Beowulf entitled “The Monsters and the Critics,” in which he took to task the then-dominant school of Old English scholars who valued Anglo-Saxon works only as a repository of historical information. The monsters were superfluous distractions. For Tolkien, and for most scholars afterwards (his essay was very influential), the monsters have been seen as crucial for understanding the Anglo-Saxon world view. Tolkien brought his knowledge of that world and those works to bear when he wrote The Hobbit. And we have a great dragon in this work every bit as mean and dangerous as that in Beowulf.
Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s book, and, as you read, you get those familiar asides to the reader that you often find in children’s literature. And he intended the work primarily as a boys’ adventure story. Though Bilbo Baggins (the uncle of Frodo in TLOTR) is fully grown (he’s 50 years old and very settled in his ways), hobbits are quite small, and, in that way rather like boys. In addition, Bilbo’s father was a Baggins, very respectable and predictable, but his mother was a Took, and the Tooks were known for being mischievous and unpredictable. To put it another way, the Tooks have a little Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in their makeup. It is the Took side that gets Bilbo to agree to accompany the dwarves on their quest to regain their gold, and it is the Took side that helps Bilbo remain flexible in difficult circumstances and allows him to think quickly on his feet.
The Hobbit IS a children’s book, and it lacks the Catholic gravitas of the trilogy, but that does not mean it lacks seriousness or that it fails to raise some serious questions. Remember that Tolkien wrote the work in 1936, a rather momentous year. That was the year of the Berlin Olympics, and also the year in which the Spanish Civil War broke out. A staunch Catholic, Tolkien was a supporter of Franco, but he found the Nazis reprehensible. He found the problem of totalitarianism the most pressing issue of the day (as for Franco, Tolkien saw him as someone opposing the oppressive Loyalist [Communist] government of Spain). And it may be why he made little Bilbo Baggins his hero, and did not choose to make Bard the Bowman, a man of Lakewood, his hero. It took the heroic king, Beowulf, to slay the dragon in Beowulf, and that action resulted in his own death, and the likely collapse of his society. We do not have such an operatic ending in The Hobbit. Rather, in Bilbo, we have someone who might be described as a “typical Englishman” in Hobbit attire. And such a figure is exactly the sensible, occasionally mischievous, hero Tolkien felt was needed in the 20th c. as the world began its slow march towards war.
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.