The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien

Sometimes there’s a tricky issue in reviewing classics, even more so when it’s children’s literature. By even thinking of doing this I am literally treading all over some people’s childhood happiness, but it needs to be done. 

I am sure many of you reading this read The Hobbit when you were younger. My childhood was largely comprised of fantasy pony stories, which then switched to mythology and illustrated horror books fairly rapidly. Long story short, I’ve just finished reading The Hobbit for the first time, at the age of twenty-two.

The book begins with homely philosophical chap Martin Freeman Bilbo Baggins, titular hobbit, pottering about in his nicely-kept home. Domestic bliss is interrupted by Gandalf, who is an excellent character because he is great at arriving unannounced, saying all the worst things to Bilbo, and being completely blasé about doing so. He’s charmingly infuriating.

Shortly after this, a pack (Herd? Beard?) of dwarves  arrives, and Bilbo is whisked away to reclaim the kingdom and treasure of head dwarf Thorin, from the great dragon Smaug. Along the way, the group run headlong into giant spiders, goblins, giant spiders, mischievous elves, Gollum the… whatever he is, and most importantly, giant spiders, because guys, they all seriously nearly wind up being sucked dry by giant spiders.

Mostly, the book is quite entertaining. Tolkien writes with an old schoolmaster tone which would lend itself well to being read aloud. Those of you with an issue to episodic structure should be warned that Tolkien pretty much works chapter by chapter, a la Lewis Carroll, but this format means evening reading sessions can be divided up neatly. The adventure itself is mainly exciting, due to the fact that the supporting cast of villains is genuinely repulsive.

A highlight is when Bilbo & Co. are captured by goblins: before ambushing the adventurers, the goblins take their ponies, and the animals are deemed unrescuable goblin cuisine. It’s a mark of how good Tolkien can be with emotional manipulation when he makes you care about non-talking animals. In the claustrophobic tunnels of the goblin abode, you start to feel your heart race and when Bilbo breaks out into the open air, it’s a shared feeling of relief between you and him.

Unfortunately, some of Tolkien’s mistakes (in my view) also lie with his characterisation. Why does he need to pile on the dwarves? Leader Thorin and fat elderly Bombur are fleshed-out and provide, respectively, a driving force behind the quest and understated comic relief. But the rest of them – Oin, Gloin, Fili, Kili, Snap, Crackle, Pop, Simon and Schuster – what purpose do they serve? Yes, they form the illusion of an army; but why else? It’s like Tolkien was trying to hit his NaNo count the cheap way.

Stylistically, the age shows (the songs, for example), but they’re charming enough. They do read like filler material, though on the other hand they are testament to how much detail Tolkien layered on Middle Earth.

But the biggest flaw is with the structure. Smaug is by far one of the most interesting characters in the whole book. His exchanges with Bilbo do genuinely raise a few laughs. Tolkien’s error was to build up to Smaug’s entrance through three-quarters of the text, and then to kill off the dragon with nary a fanfare. Bilbo expresses dismay that the adventure could not be over with Smaug’s death: I felt the same way.

In conclusion, the book is a good fast read, ideal for engaging classrooms or children at home with reading aloud. It’s not a through and through masterpiece as it’s claimed, however, and you might end up feeling like the book concludes with more of a grunt than a roar.

★★★☆☆

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About fictavia

Fictavia (noun): writer, critiquer of the publishing world and witty reviewer.

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