Well if you’ve been around here a while, you will probably know that the Hobbit is one of my favourite books (if not- welcome! I’m the Orangutan Librarian and I’m a fan of the Hobbit). Hold tight everyone, because I’m about to do some serious *gushing* over this book… But first, I have a little bit more background to share before I get into the nitty gritty of why this book is so awesome.
You see, I used to reread this book every spring, but spent a good few years apart from this here unassuming copy and was only reacquainted with it recently… so naturally I cracked it open the first chance I got. And man, it was just as good as I remembered.
Straight off the bat, I could see why it didn’t make a good film. It’s not just that it’s masterfully told (and hence the old adage “good books make bad movies”) but it’s also tonally lighter and funnier than most fantasies– including its successor Lord of the Rings. At times, it even seems to be sending itself up in a way I could only describe as being Pratchetesque (you can see the lineage right here, at the source of all modern fantasy). It’s composed in a way that’s meant to be read aloud and all the deep, dark themes are done in a light-hearted way. It is the Epicurean sweet pill that is easier to swallow than the bitter one of its interpretation.
The heart of this story is an adventure. Being part of Tolkein’s universe, it is stuffed with fantastical creatures and tropes– but every single one of them is authentic and done so well. Yes, there’s a reluctant hero, some world building woven into the plot, elves, orcs and a mothereffing dragon- yet unlike so many of the copycats that came after, there’s no chance you’ll be rolling your eyes at it.
For, while the spine of this story may be the “hero goes to face the dragon and is rewarded” narrative, it’s no simple feat to achieve this because of how complex the characters are. Even if one allows for Prof J B Peterson’s explanation that one has to grow teeth in order to defeat the monster, hence Bilbo becoming a thief, the ending of the story, where chaos breaks in despite the hero’s best efforts, left me with many unanswered questions. Who was right? Were any of them heroes in the end? One thing is for certain, even as we stumble around in this morally grey area, this book teaches that there is more than one way to be a hero and sometimes the right choices are not always clear.
There are so many other lessons wrapped up in this tale. Part of the story’s complexity comes from it being rooted in the mythological and fairy tale structure. In fact, reading it through again, I was struck by how often the individual adventures contain a multiplicity of messages. For instance, when the party fails to see the end of the forest, despite being so near the edge, one is delivered a message to keep faith– even when there is no sign of hope- for when they leave the path they therefore undergo unnecessary suffering. Consequently, needless suffering is the question being asked of the individual’s inner strength, while the eagles, as a symbol of divine intervention, is often the answer.
Still one message in particular comes up again and again: go out into the world and find yourself. This is a book about growing up, learning, becoming someone new. True enough, it is a tradition in many classic fairy tales or in folklore for there to be an element of going into nature to explore the psyche and Bilbo does this more than once- leaving his hobbit hole, entering Mirkwood and even riddling with Gollum.
This literal quest for answers taught me another fundamental truth. It struck me this time round how quickly Bilbo answered the riddle about darkness and how telling that was. It tells us that even a creature of light and comfort, like a hobbit, can know hardship. Outside our peripheral vision, beyond the safe havens we construct for ourselves, there’s always a bit of danger. Difficulties will come knocking whether you want them to or not– so it is far better to leave the comfort of your hobbit hole and confront them sooner rather than later.
So yes, there are endless and vital lessons to be learnt here. But the real moral of the story is that some books are just meant to be read over and over again.
(Incidentally this wasn’t the first copy I ever picked up- that one was a relic of an aunt and had the last two pages missing… needless to say part of my reading experience was a very frantic trip to the bookshop!)
As you might have guessed, my rating is easily…
So I’m not even gonna ask if you like or loathe this book- cos what I really want to know today is what book from your childhood has left a profound impression? Let me know in the comments!