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.