More audiobook time. Now that the first part of The Hobbit movie is out – I wanted to re-read the book before seeing it to see how true it is to the book. As usual, I went the audiobook route.
I first read The Hobbit when I was in 5th grade. I remembered it as a HUUUGGEEEE book. When I picked it up – I remember running my hands over the book cover and being awestruck at it’s size. All those pages with so few pictures! As an adult, I picked up the book and marveled at how small it is compared to other things I read now. I guess that as with most childhood memories, fears, school teachers, and bullies – things just seemed so much more big when you’re physically little.
I won’t re-tell the story as it’s been done hundreds of times elsewhere, and much better than I could do. So, how about a recap?
Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who lives in a quiet, rural hobbit village that largely symbolizes the English idealism of calm, country living. He’s comfortable, and likes it that way. No adventures, no tom-foolery; 5 square meals a day and lots of relaxed pipe smoking while looking over the countryside. Gandalf the wizard appears and invites himself, and a number of Dwarves to supper. Bilbo’s calm, sedate home is quickly overrun with Dwarves on a mission to recover their cave home that was taken by Smaug the dragon years before. They enlist, or rather, abscond with Bilbo as their ‘burglar’ at Gandalf’s suggestion. They set off and have numerous adventures along the way. They are captured by goblins and Bilbo encounters Gollum. He finds the one ring, and escapes using it’s powers. The party travels through a deep haunted forest and are imprisoned by the elves that live there. They escape in barrels floating down the river and arrive at the human town of Laketown. After getting the help of the citizens for provisions and ponies, they arrive at Smaug’s mountain to find a hidden magical dwarven door which allowed secret entrance to the mountain. Bilbo enters and engages the dragon in verbal swordplay. Smaug attacks the mountainside to kill the visiting party and then attacks the nearby Laketown for helping the Dwarves. Smaug is ultimately killed by one of the city’s men after receiving a tip from a bird. In the final scenes, the Dwarves barricade themselves into the mountain to defend their treasure while armies of men/elves and Dwarves from the north arrive outside to get their share. Instead of fighting each other, Bilbo sneaks away a prized gem to break the stalemate and they all end up fighting the goblins that were stirred up after the Dwarves killed the goblin king during their escape. Bilbo returns home to find he was declared dead and has to rescue his property from auction.
What can one say? It is one of the original great fantasy novels of all time. It introduced a number of the great themes that carry through the genre even today. Yet, you can tell this is one of Tolkien’s early works of fantasy. Tolkien uses a number of ‘cheats’/easy outs of coincidence to solve some of his plot problems; but all of these are forgivable. Yet all the great writing, imagery, and important themes that will get fuller treatment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy are there. It’s great to see his first foray.
As a side, it’s always good to note that Tolkien was a devote Catholic – and many themes of Christianity are present in his novels. As a Catholic, one picks up on myriads of themes such as self-sacrifice, flawed heroes with realistic failings, confronting fears, the journey that takes you places you do not expect nor desire at times and changes you forever, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, and his military roots show in his concepts of nobility, duty, and honor. For example, in this reading, I particularly was struck by the line of Bilbo as he first crept down to Smaug’s layer (ch 12):
It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the
bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward
were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel
alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
It’s ideas like this that speak so well to the life of faith; and why even those who are not believers find these same themes speak to experiences in their own lives. Whole books have been written examining the themes of Tolkien – and I think any that miss this key to many of his themes have really missed a lot.
I give this book a B+ taken on it’s own outside the hype. It’s certainly not the best writing in the world at times (certainly not as good as Lord of the Rings or things today) – but it’s always good. As a keystone of the genre, however, it’s definite an essential read.