In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This sentence alone is one of the most memorable and cherished pieces of childhood. There are very few stories that do not begin with stereotypical phrases such as, "Once upon a time" or "A long time ago", that can manage to embed themselves in a child’s mind. For, as many people undoubtedly know, most children are possessed of notoriously short attention spans. While my mind definitely wandered then—and, I daresay, still wanders now—something about The Hobbit by J.R.R.Tolkien has stayed with me well into adulthood. This book has been a constant companion and comfort to me. It has been a commandant in my darkest hours as well as a pleasant diversion from some of the more mundane aspects of ordinary life. Therefore, it gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity to review this classic with the unique perspective that comes with early adult life. I should preface this review by admitting that I am biased, and surely blinded by childhood nostalgia. Therefore, I shall not even attempt to rate this book, but rather I shall highlight its triumphs and its flaws to the best of my abilities and let you—my wonderful readers—decide its worth for yourselves.
As I said earlier, in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This hobbit was named Bilbo Baggins, and he was considered very respectable. However, his life and respectable reputation were put on the line when the infamous wizard Gandalf the Grey came calling and ferried poor Baggins off on a glorious, and dangerous, adventure. The premise of The Hobbit is very simple. For the rare few who have read Tolkien’s infamous Lord of the Rings trilogy and not its prequel, the simplicity of this tale may come as shock. It is important to remember when reading this story that it was written for a considerably younger audience. Whereas the Lord of the Rings trilogy is filled with enough history and details to make even the most well read of adults dizzy, The Hobbit was always intended as a story for young children. Because of this fact, I know of many Ringers who find The Hobbit dreadfully dull by comparison. I, on the other hand, am glad for its simple plot and straightforward narrative. I was first introduced to this wonderful story when I was seven years old through the 1977 animated feature, and I first read the book when I was nine. If I had not already had the love of Tolkien given to me from The Hobbit, I may never have thought to give the detail-laden Lord of the Rings books a chance. But I digress.
Chiefly, The Hobbit is about two things: the awakening of something Tookish inside Bilbo Baggins and the quest of Thorin and Company to reclaim their stolen treasure. To be frank, I wasn’t that emotionally involved with the dwarves' plight when I was child. The fact of the matter is, we don’t get to know too much about the dwarves as individuals throughout the story, save for Thorin and Balin. Naturally, I can understand why this is. In a story aimed at children it would be tedious to attempt to individualize and explore all thirteen dwarves of the company. However, I was really struck by just how little attention is given to the rest of the party during this thirteenth re-read of the story. Aside from making a point of assigning them specific colours of cloaks, Tolkien hardly spends any time at all on the personalities of the dwarves. Additionally, I feel as though the dwarves' plight wasn’t as sympathetic as it could have been. The entire focus of the dwarves seems to be the treasure they’ve lost and not the home that was stolen from them. In fact, Tolkien himself writes, "Dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money." While he does go onto write that Thorin and company are more decent in this regard than your average dwarf, I feel that it’s unfortunate that the entire dwarf race was reduced to a love for money. It’s especially unfortunate when you think of epic characters like Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the many deeds and heroic tasks of dwarves cited in the appendices. Though, to be fair Tolkien had not created such a rich dwarvish history yet. So, while the very one dimensional depiction of dwarves(and all of the races, including hobbits and elves) does not change my love of this story, it is noticeable none the less.
Shifting gears to the tale of Bilbo Baggins, I always appreciate how well Tolkien develops his character. For a children’s story, Bilbo’s personal journey has many dimensions. In the beginning, he complains often and his thoughts are almost always turned towards home. As the story progresses and he faces increasingly difficult tasks such as meeting ravenous trolls and battling sinister spiders, Bilbo’s outlook gradually begins to change. He complains less frequently and seems to become much more invested in the adventure. I specifically love one of the final lines from the famous chapter, "Riddles in the Dark", in which Bilbo has a deciding moment that comes to effect all of Middle Earth many years later:
"He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried it yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo's heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All of these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped."What’s so effective about this scene is not only the character development on Bilbo’s part—not to mention how well it sets up the Lord of the Rings trilogy—it's how effective Tolkien is at making readers feel for Gollum’s plight. Before this moment, we had known Gollum only as a menacing figure in the dark who sought to eat the story’s protagonist without care or any sort of difficulty of conscious. The fact that Tolkien makes us pity Gollum just as Bilbo comes to pity him is an example of very fine writing. It is important to note that there are two very different version of this chapter, one of which was published in the first edition of The Hobbit and the other, more common version which was revised to fit the events in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There’s a lovely side-by-side comparison of the two versions can be found here. Essentially, Gollum was not originally as menacing and did make good on his promise to help Biblo out of the cave. One can easily see how greatly the earlier accounting would alter the depictions of Gollum in the trilogy, and why Tolkien thought it best to revise this chapter.
While Thorin and company encounter many difficulties on their journey, the story culminates in the slaying of Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies. While I do not want to give away the ending for anyone reading this review who has yet to read the book, I will say that It’s both sad and quaint. I’ve always found the particular note that the story ends on to be a bit sudden, but at the same time it’s almost suiting of the brisk pace of the narrative. Ultimately, I can find things to nitpick in almost everything and childhood favorites like The Hobbit are no exceptions. In the end, all I can really say about The Hobbit is this: if you haven’t read it, do so. It’s a wonderful way to ease into the world of Tolkien, especially for those who are intimidated by The Lord of the Rings trilogy.