Nov 07

Thoughts On The Hobbit

FT + The Brown Wedge3 comments • 1,034 views

For the past few months I’ve been reading The Hobbit aloud to my wife – it’s relaxing for both of us and good practise for future readings to a probably more restless audience. I think it’s the first time I’ve read the book since I was seven or eight – I’d remembered the outline but not the details. Here’s some stuff I thought about it:

1. It’s a terrific book for reading aloud – much better, I guess, than Lord of the Rings. It has a lot of nice “author-to-audience” asides, which older kid-lit often does (“O best beloved”) – but Tolkien has a particularly deft way with them, using his little asides to poke gentle fun at the characters but never at the expense of the story, and making the child reader feel quite grown up and taken into confidence.

2. Reading it aloud the one part I couldn’t get a grip on were the songs – it’s all downhill from “Far Over The Misty Mountains Old”, which was anthologised in I Like This Poem. The elvish songs in particular don’t translate to spoken word, or at least not to my spoken word.

3. I’d forgotten how well-plotted the book is – this is where having your kids’ book fit into some enormous fake-mythological world-history is a big asset: Tolk knows exactly how far apart everything is, and how long everything’s taking, and what characters are up to when even when far offstage. This makes his pacing much more effective (and helps the book earn its two-chapter wind-down).

4. It also adds to the sense of Bilbo – and indeed all the characters bar Gandalf – as somewhat tide-tossed by the forces they’ve set in motion. One of the hallmarks of good modern fantasy, it seems to me, is that it pays attention to the consequences of character deeds as much as the deeds themselves, and The Hobbit is excellent on this.

5. The structure of the book amplifies this theme. Bilbo is the hero, but only really an active one in the middle section of the book, bookended by two conversations – with Gollum and with Smaug. The first encounter is the first time he’s had to fend for himself, and brings him the means to control his destiny with increasing confidence until the second conversation, with Smaug, that sets the story’s endgame in motion. This conversation ends with a lesson from Tolkien on the folly of overconfidence, which Bilbo goes on to demonstrate with his one remaining significant action in the book nearly being personally and politically disasterous.

6. In fact it’s very difficult to think of any other book with a hero so ineffectual at the story’s climax – certainly in fantasy lit the Frodo model (insignificant character carries world’s destiny in hands) became the norm more than the Bilbo one (insignificant character sinks back into happy insignificance): possibly this is the difference between desired teen outcome and desired kid outcome.



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    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 28 Nov 2007 #

    re 2: the rivendell elves are TOTALLY GAY in the hobbit: “bilbo baggins on a horse — isn’t it delicious?” oo get her ect ect, and as a result all their songs = camp piffle AT BEST
    re 3: tolk is UTTER KING of the unexplored backstory — stuff that he knows but doesn’t say much about which has incredible resonant power as a result (most obvious bit is the role of the NECROMANCER, whern gandalf first mentions him and thorin sez YES! let’s have a pop at him, or some such — ie we totally feel they both know lots but are saying little in front of the easily spooked hobbit; there’s a sense of a much bigger world than we’re let in on, which is incredibly exciting) (this is actually a weakness of eg his dark materials, where the backstories of the various worlds remain a bit sketchy and utilitarian)
    re 6: the “tolkienian moral” of LotR is something like the HUGE IMPORTANCE OF TINY THINGS (and folk); the only GOOD KING is a king who knows to bend his knee to the halfling; whereas i think the “tolkienian moral” in Hob is a very different one viz: “big people they ain’t so big” (gandalf gets a certain amount of minor snark for his vanity, for example)

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    Ned R. on 2 Dec 2007 #

    Grebt piece on a grebt book indeed. And Mark’s comments well taken on board — if (IF) it’s ever filmed, I am presuming they’re going to dial the tone re: the Elves upwards to the other movies rather than keeping it back down, thought who knows. (I would love to finally see Smaug fully realized.) All that unexplained backstory made me so happy the first time through, kept me wondering what the hell else was going on.

    The point about its plotting in #3 — when I first tried out NaNoWriMo in 2001, so unsure was I about how to best tell it that I very intentionally mapped my story onto a deeply buried structure, that of The Hobbit. It’s hardly a one to one transfer but it gave me something to work with in telling a day-in-the-life story around Orange County — which also kinda makes it my version of Joyce, Homer and Ulysses. If you squint. A lot.

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    […] 2007 — Ned Raggett Over at Freaky Trigger the ineffable Tom Ewing’s recently put up a really lovely post about J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which along with a typically funny and observant […]

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