Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Hobbit Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Genre: Middle Grade, Epic Fantasy
Series: Lord of the Rings Prequel
Pages: 310

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Why even bother writing a review for a book like the Hobbit?  Its reputation as a classic is set in stone, and its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, is now considered to be the father of modern fantasy, which is due in large part to this book.  The only answer that came to my mind was, why not?

Before there was The Lord of the Rings, readers were introduced to The Hobbit, a story about an unseemly and simple creature that becomes a great hero.  In a lot of regards The Hobbit is a children’s story with adult values.  But it’s so much more; it’s the introduction to a beautifully real world called Middle Earth which is brought to life through Tolkien’s descriptive prose, and his detailed histories of the land’s different cultures and people.

Published over a decade before The Lord of the Rings, this is truly the book that started it all.  Although not everything about The Hobbit is perfect, overall the story has aged well.  Due to its immeasurable contributions to the genre this is a book that cannot be scored anything less than perfect.

If you don’t know the summary to the plot of the Hobbit, then shame on you.  Assuming you might be a little fuzzy on the details, here is the basic gist of the story.

A hobbit (a half sized humanoid creature) named Bilbo Baggins is whisked away on an adventure with an old Wizard named Gandalf and a company of 13 dwarves that are led by the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield.  The goal of this adventure is to help the dwarves reclaim their home that was destroyed by, and is currently being occupied by, Smaug – a monstrously huge flying dragon.

I first read The Hobbit over a decade ago while I was in high school.  I reread the book recently largely to re-familiarize myself with story in anticipation for the new Peter Jackson movies.  I wasn’t expecting my thoughts about the book to change much, and in terms of my belief in the quality of the book they certainly didn’t. Needless to say it was a much different reading experience than what it was reading the book more than ten years ago.

My recent reading of the book found the story to move at a fast an exciting pace.  Each chapter is like a mini-adventure that has to be resolved by its conclusion, with the exception of the final chapter and first chapter, which are used to introduce all of the characters and to wrap up all of the plot threads.  Over-arching the mini-adventures is the larger plot, which is the quest to reclaim the dwarves’ homeland from the evil dragon, Smaug. When the main plot converges with the various other sub-plots; it dramatically picks up the pace and emotional intensity of Tolkien’s story.  The point being this is simple but powerfully structured book.

Bilbo Baggins is one of the first in a long line of characters that focuses on the transformation of an ordinary person, or in this case hobbit, into an extraordinary hero.  Bilbo manages to do this while remaining likeable to the reader.  His refined lifestyle clashes with the more rugged lifestyle of the dwarves. A lot of those instances provide a lot of comic relief to the story, but they also symbolize the differences between two different cultural groups.  As the story progresses Bilbo learns a lot more about the long and ancient history of the dwarves of Middle Earth. Histories, such as the dwarves history, gives The Hobbit and Middle Earth a true feeling of historical importance.

As great of a character as Bilbo is, I ended up spending most of my re-read being engaged by Thorin Oakenshield.  This is one of Tolkien’s most complex and morally skewed characters.  In many ways Thorin’s plot arc is like an inversion of Bilbo’s.  His quest to find the Arkenstone, a priceless jewel that was the symbol of his family’s power and wealth is mired in greed.  He is always acknowledged by dwarves as their rightful ruler despite the fact that he continuously proves to be ineffective.  This relationship between Thorin and his companions lacks logic and is highly critical of command structures, which is why it is so interesting to read about in a children’s fantasy book.

The other dwarves are unfortunately not as memorable as Thorin.  Each one is given a distinct trait or two, like Bombur’s fat, or Fili and Kili like to play pranks, but otherwise there is very little character development attributed to them.  This lack of character development would be one of the weaker points of Tolkien’s story as it basically allocates the other dwarves to being characters that need to be saved from danger by Bilbo, Gandalf, or Thorin.  They have a tendency to function as damsels in distress, when they could have been developed into meaningful companions or removed from the story instead.

Smaug turns out to be a great villain not just because of his humongous size and powerful abilities, but because of his keen sense of intelligence.  Tolkien did away with a common stereotype during his time that all giant monsters are dumb when he created Smaug.  This is a dragon that is well spoken and very manipulative, which makes him an iconic monster for his time.

Another stereotype Tolkien worked against was the idea that glory should be associated with heroism and battle.  Tolkien includes descriptions of the horrors of war into his writing and at many times he acknowledges just how inglorious war and being a hero can really be.  Tolkien’s writing of war is by no means incredibly violent, say like a George R.R. Martin novel, but he does acknowledge that the price paid for victory is an ugly thing to behold – which was a progressive idea for his time.

The Lord of the Rings gets a number of mentions and references in this book.  I appreciate these references whether it’s mentioning minor characters like Balin and Gloin, or more significant characters like Gandalf and Gollum.  Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring and the game of riddles he plays with Gollum is an iconic scene that becomes more important after conclusion of this prequel.  These subplots in The Hobbit go a long way in helping to flush out the great trilogy that followed it.

The Hobbit is still an excellent prequel, even after all of these years.  It has stood the test of time, and it has been worthy of the praise heaped on it. The Hobbit comes highly recommended to everyone whether or not you like fantasy. Its quite simply, a must read.

Score: 10

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