Review: The Hobbit

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read The Hobbit when I was in third grade (it took me the entire school year to get through The Lord of the Rings), but I haven’t reread it since. It was good to look at it fresh, with almost-new perspective (I admit, my view was slightly tainted by the Peter Jackson movies).
What I found was delightful storytelling, a really long hike, memorable characters…and sloppy or abbreviated action and a lot of out-of-nowhere problems and solutions. The deus ex machina really went wild for this book!

In case you’ve been living in a hole (hobbit or otherwise), The Hobbit is the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It features hobbit Bilbo Baggins, a comfortable chap who gets roped into a burglary quest for dwarven treasure guarded by the fierce dragon Smaug. He and his 13 dwarven companions (and occasional wizard friend Gandalf) undergo many trials just to get to the Lonely Mountain, and many more trying to get the gold and secure their victory. It’s particularly important in that it describes how the One Ring comes to Bilbo Baggins’ ownership, setting his nephew Frodo Baggins on his path in the subsequent books.

I know that pointing out some weaknesses in the story seems like blasphemy for a lot of people in the fantasy realm, or even loosely on the fantasy realm, but I’m just not sure The Hobbit held up compared to my idea of what The Hobbit was. I hadn’t remembered most of the end of the book, and I think there’s a good reason: the Battle of the Five Armies is just a handful of pages with little description, there are super-magical creatures coming out of nowhere to save the heroes, and then an overly detailed recap of a walk back that doesn’t really amount to anything. I thought I remembered a story with a lot more Smaug dragon awesomeness, but was disappointed to see that much of the action with Smaug is fairly minimal: it’s a lot of the dwarves or Bilbo guessing at what the dragon is doing while they cower in a dark tunnel.

In short, I can see why Peter Jackson felt the need to diverge from the source: it would have made a terrible movie (here are the dwarves, hiding in a cave. Meanwhile at Laketown, some guy you’ve never seen before is trying to be brave. Also, did you know there are talking crows?!)

It often seems like Tolkien didn’t know what he wanted to do with the story, or had written himself into a corner, so he just tossed in some other element and hoped it worked out. And it does, sort of, but when it happens again and again and again… it seems less convincing. Comparing the troll scene in the beginning of the book with the Battle of the Five Armies at the end–which ought to be much more epic and thus detailed–they are about the same descriptively. While the foundation is there, much of the major things are left entirely to the reader. (It’s odd, actually, what is described in detail and what is brushed over. War buffs need to look elsewhere for their reenactments, but if you want to know the full contents of a hobbit’s larder, you’re in the right place.) And, of course, if you’re in a tight spot, the Eagles will probably be along shortly.

Another flaw the movies tried to amend is the complete and utter lack of female characters. I think the only time women were even mentioned were in crowd scenes, mostly involving the desolation of Laketown. Oh good, they’re cowering in boats…. do women have nothing at all to contribute? I remember this bothered me even as a kid. Obviously The Hobbit was written in a different era, but it does make it a smidgeon harder to swallow as a modern reader.

I still very much enjoy this story. I miss this kind of narration style, where the author frequently interjects, speaking directly to the reader about things that have happened or will. It’s charming. Let’s bring that back. It makes it seem most like a story that needs to be read aloud over many dark nights next to a fire. Perhaps in the flickering flames, the listeners can better imagine the gold reflecting off a dragon’s hoard, or relate to the anxiety caused by a long trip far from home. Maybe those listeners will be able to feel more fond of this fantasy classic, unclouded with concerns about the structural issues.

Still, I don’t regret heading there and back again.

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