If you've read my fiction, you know how much I like writing about people who are smaller. I love showing how small folks can rise above their physical stature and do giant things. And that's just what our hero, Bilbo Baggins, does in January's fantasy classic of the month.
I've read The Hobbit countless times. I've owned what seems like countless editions of the book, too, because I read it to bits. Yet every time I pick it up, it's like a new experience, which, in my mind, is what a great book should be. I've read the book to myself, and I've read the entire thing out loud, and both bring the story to a new light.
How I read the book this time: I read the book to myself, paper version, with a pencil in hand. I underlined passages that hit me for a particular reason, and made comments in the sidebars. I also read it with the Peter Jackson movies in mind, as well, because I had recently watched those with my son and they were fresh in my mind.
So, initial thoughts? I love the book as much as ever. The voice of the story, like it's someone telling me a tale, really is something that I enjoy when well done. I love when the author talks about a character behind his back a bit, and assures us readers that more will be revealed about something. One point at which this was particularly effective in this book: When the dwarves and Bilbo are in Mirkwood, carrying the sleeping Bombur, and hope seems low, the narrator of the story informs us that if the heroes thought for a moment about the significance of the hunt that was happening in the woods, they would have known they were getting near to the edge of the forest. "But they did not know this..." When reading that, I couldn't help but think, "please have hope! You are so close!" Another spot where I thought this worked well was when the dwarves were captive of the wood elves, and Bilbo was trying to figure out how to free them. "But of course, as you have guessed, he did rescue his friends in the end, and this is how it happened." I think one reason I enjoy this is because it really feels like someone is telling me a story, and who doesn't want to be told a story from time to time?
I also love how Tolkien could capture creepy things about the world, and not overly explain them, but leave them in the scope of the readers imaginations. When Bilbo is lost in the goblin cave, just before he comes to Gollum, he comes across a pool of water. Tolkien talks about the twists and turns of the tunnels, built before the goblins by the caves' original dwellers, and only widened by the goblins for their own use. He says that the "original owners are still there in odd corners, slinking and nosing about." This never fails to give me the shivers, because of course, the goblins and Gollum are not the original inhabitants. What might Bilbo have found otherwise?
Tolkien's use of comparison in this book is wonderful, and I know after reading it myself, and then to my son, it is one thing that draws the younger people in. For example, just when the Great Goblin is coming at Thorin in his cave, and there is a jolt of light and sparks, etc, Tolkien describes the sound that the goblins make as thus: "Several hundred wild cats and wolves being roasted slowly alive together would not have compared with it."
I do have to say, as well, that the scene with the trolls is pure gold, always. The way they talk, and then Tolkien's little aside of "Yes, I am afraid trolls do behave like that, even those with only one head each." William's sympathy toward Bilbo ("Poor little blighter") and the insults ("Booby yourself!"), and the trolls low intelligence just make this a wonderful scene in the middle of some darker moments.
Then we come to the wood elves. These are nothing like Jackson's elves in the movie. The king in the movie is vain and vengeful, greedy, selfish. He's pretty, but he's kind of a dick. In the book, the king doesn't seem so very unreasonable, even when arguing with the dwarves. He wants to be sure of their intentions because the dwarves had disrupted their gatherings in the forest at night, as well as provoked the spiders. After Smaug the dragon is defeated, when the Elven King comes to see what became of the people of Lake-town, Tolkien refers to him as the "lord of a good and kindly people" who takes pity on the people and sends aid.
And then, of course, are the dwarves. I find myself getting more and more impatient with them the more I read. I understand their quest, I understand their need to get their homeland back. But they treat Bilbo pretty shabbily, and even when he helps them out of fixes they never would have gotten out of themselves, they complain. I also felt impatient with the number of times they got help, and then lost entirely the goods and things they received from their helpers--sometimes quite foolishly. They do, however, have their moments. I can't think of many offhand, but...Well, this is an example of something that drives me nuts about them. At the end of the book, Thorin is dying and Bilbo comes to see him:
There indeed lay Thorin Oakenshield, wounded with many wounds, and his rent armour and notched axe were cast upon the floor. He looked up as Bilbo came beside him.
"Fairwell, good thief," he said. "I now go to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed. Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate."
So...let me get this straight. Now that Thorin is dying and gold and silver are no use to him, he's done being a jerk and will rescind his bad words? I admit, when I read this part to my son out loud, I did get teary. But these dwarves are so greedy.
But this is all right, because this leaves my favorite part of the book, Bilbo Baggins himself. Bilbo, so timid and fearful, but who always goes out to save his friends. "...He soon realized that if anything was to be done, it would have to be done by Mr. Baggins, alone and unaided." His fight with the spiders I found to be especially memorable. What I found most enjoyable is that Bilbo always defeats his enemies in his own, quite hobbitish, way. He defeats Gollum in a game of riddles. He riles up the spiders with a song of his own making and by throwing stones, a particular talent of his. Not every hero is a knight in shining armor. "Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody."
One of the treasures of The Hobbit is that is has both a first line and a finishing line that are my favorite in all literature. I can't remember a time when the sentence, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," hasn't given me a thrill. It immediately sets up so many questions, and also, in a book I've read and loved so many times, it's a sentence that suggests an adventure of the comforting sort, the type where you know our hero comes out safely in the end. And at that end, one of Gandalf's finest lines, "You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"
There is so much to potentially discuss about this book that I could write a book about it! What do YOU want to discuss? Comment below or on social media. Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
This is the first book discussion of the year! Stay tuned to hear what I'll be reading in February and see how you can join the discussion.
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy stories where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her fiction has appeared in Circle Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis. She studied astronomy and physics at Northern Arizona University and has published some non-fiction in the field of astronomy and library sciences. She's the co-editor of the anthology MECH: Age of Steel and editor of Hath No Fury, and she is a blogger and general b*tch monkey at The Once and Future Podcast.