Some thoughts on re-reading The Hobbit

>> Saturday, October 30, 2010

I realized maybe a week, two weeks ago that it had been too damn long since I'd last read The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. (If you need links to those, you're reading the wrong damn blog.) Used to be, I read the whole cycle every couple of years; I mean, literally, like I made it a point to re-read the whole set every two years up through law school, I think.

I first discovered The Hobbit when I was still in elementary school. I can't remember if I saw the half-hour Rankin-Bass adaptation first; probably. It first aired in 1977 when I was five, so it was a touchstone of my childhood, and I imagine I didn't actually read The Hobbit until maybe 1979 or 1980, maybe. When I pulled out my copy, the Ballatine silver-anniversary paperback first published in 1981, I checked the publication page and noted that my copy is the sixth edition of that version, published in 1983 as part of a boxed set that I remember purchasing and hoarding like a dragon's treasure; if I first read The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings a year or two before obtaining my own copy with Christmas or birthday or saved-allowance money, I might have first read the series in 1981, maybe.

I seem to remember that I read them in elementary school, for sure, because I remember this oddity: that my school library, from which I first borrowed the books, had copies of The Hobbit and The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Return Of The King--but somehow didn't have The Two Towers, which I don't believe I read until I obtained the boxed-set collection for myself in the early 1980s. I read Fellowship and I read King, but there was this oddity that the introduction of King featured a summary of things I hadn't read, and I only realized I was missing a book after I'd already started the third volume in the series.

Also, this: that I was playing Dungeons And Dragons by fifth grade, which I know because my first copy of the Basic rules was a photocopied bootleg given to me by a junior high school kid who rode the same bus I did. I think I might have already read those two volumes of Lord Of The Rings by then, at any rate I know I'd read The Hobbit because part of the lure of D&D was of course the fact it was a chance to live Tolkien, to make your own Hobbit burglar or Dwarven fighter or (best of all) Human wizard (though we all know now that Gandalf was not a man, but one of the Istari sent to Middle-Earth as a sort of guardian angel or reduced demigod to save the mortal races from the fallen Maia, Sauron).

I'm sorry, was my geek showing?

Anyway, you can track back my reading of Tolkien every two years give-or-take to junior high or even elementary school, all the way through college. Is it any wonder I hated Peter Jackson's movies? I mean, I thought they were pretty shoddy as pieces of film in general, great special effects but dwarf-tossing jokes? Really? But JRRT might as well be a part of my skeleton; at this point I wouldn't doubt that there are brain cells locking in Tolkienana that are older than most other parts of my body.

But there was a long space of time I let Tolkien slip away mostly unrefreshed--not wholly absent, I read more-recently published stuff like The Children Of Hurin in the interim. I guess I was busy or had other things to read, and I'd re-read Tolkien so many times since childhood. But it was time. And last night I figured, hey, time to go back: filled a tub and poured a generous dollop of sixteen-year-old Glenlivet and spent a pair of hours with The Hobbit.

I'd forgotten how good, how really good The Hobbit is. There's a bit of "conventional wisdom" bouncing around, I think, that Tolkien was full of good ideas but wasn't much of a writer; it ain't true. I mean, I found myself sort of amazed at how cleverly JRRT spends almost two full pages talking about Hobbits as if the reader knows what he's talking about before he "catches himself" and, almost conspiratorially, finally offers up a description of Hobbits in general and The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, in particular. It's a wonderful bit of storytelling, and the whole book goes along with that. There's a tendency in modern fantasy, I think, to offer up infodumps, something Tolkien manages to do without doing, offering up various nuggets almost as an afterthought or aside. And for a man who spent decades of his life worldbuilding, Tolkien shows a remarkable and lovable indifference to it in The Hobbit; I mean this as a really good thing: there are all sorts of little bits and pieces that hypothetically break continuity or ought to--clocks and tobacco and handkerchiefs and want ads in an ostensibly mediæval/pastoral society--and Tolkien just breezes through them without a glance backwards. There's a golf joke in there that still amuses me after almost thirty years, even though I suspect most young fantasy writers and editors would pull their hair out over its inclusion.

I wish I could write with that sort of studied indifference. The son-of-a-bitch makes it look so casual, I know it isn't.

I also found myself wishing vaguely for children. I started reading much of the business with the trolls aloud to myself, just to hear how it sounded, and if you have young children you might consider doing that when they're old enough to enjoy it but before they're too old to appreciate it. You might try to do a better job than I did of keeping Bert and Tom's voices distinctive. Anyway, it's a chapter meant for reading aloud, regardless, as I believe Tolkien did with his own children as he was writing it.

Which brings up one more point I hesitate to mention, though it won't surprise you after my confession to loathing the two Peter Jackson movies I managed to survive (I could never bring myself to watch his third adaptation): there's been a bit of fuss over whether Jackson would be able to make his film version(s) of The Hobbit (he means to make two movies of one book, it seems) and whether it would be done in New Zealand or not. I don't care. I won't see them. You can't make me. I have little doubt that Jackson will hit most of the notes--his version of The Lord Of The Rings was very much like a mediocre cover version of a song that hits all the notes but carries none of the heart and soul of a tune--but I doubt he'll get the spirit right. And I can be more specific after starting The Hobbit again: it's a literary tale, a story, meant to be read and told but not really meant to be seen. I have a soft, nostalgic spot for that Rankin-Bass TV version from 1977, but it's a failure, too. Not because it's badly done in any particular way, but because The Hobbit is a collection of words, not images, words that are put together in a way that's really meant to be taken in through the ear, though the eye is an acceptable second-best if you're shy. The Hobbit is something that's really meant for a bedside or fireside, and I expect Jackson's movie will have lots of spectacle and a truly impressive dragon, but it won't be a story read aloud, will it? Of course not, it couldn't be. And if that's apples and oranges, well, I'm afraid to say it's an inferior variety of orange, at that.


Janiece Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 10:16:00 AM EDT  

I have a confession that may get me voted off the island: I loathe these books.

And before you light the torches and wield the pitchforks, let me be clear - I adore the story. It's the writing, the book, that I loathe. I mean, seriously - this guy thought he could WRITE? SNORE.

Which is why I loved the movies - most of the story without the horror of JRRT's writing.

Eric Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 11:28:00 AM EDT  

It's okay. I forgive you, Janiece. Nobody's perfect. ;)

neurondoc Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 12:27:00 PM EDT  

Janiece beat me to confession. I've seriously wondered if I will irreparably damage my SF Girl Geek cred by saying that I seriously disliked and never finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I vaguely remember reading the last 50 pages of the last book (Return of the King?) to see how the trilogy ended. I own the Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD and intend someday to watch them.

But you might have convinced me to try reading The Hobbit to ThePinkThing. I'm ever looking for some book that strikes her interest. Damn kid doesn't seem to care about books or get joy out of reading anything. Makes me nuts. We've just started A Wrinkle in Time, and she is marginally interested. Marginally. Sigh.

Nathan Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 3:05:00 PM EDT  

The Hobbit was written in a Beatrix Potter phase, while the Lord of the Rings was written after the author had morphed into Jane Austen.

Totally different genres.

Kathy Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 7:14:00 PM EDT  

Well, Eric, I'm with you on this. I had read the trilogy and The Hobbit every year or two since sixth grade too, and only after I a saw those blasted movies did I stop rereading it. It was like the movies shoved out the pictures in my head for awhile and I couldn't bear to read the books and see what's-his-face as Frodo, etc. I finally picked the trilogy up some time in the last year or so and loved it--again. I think Tolkien beats any modern fantasy I've read (I confess to liking E. R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany more than any fantasy that was published in my lifetime anyway, though). Who are these people who don't like JRRT? Why do you let them post on your blog? JK guys! I think you're totally cool and smart about OTHER things....

In a related note, my mom read those books to us several times. We would make her read until she fell asleep over them. One of my fondest memories....

Random Michelle K Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 9:22:00 PM EDT  


Now I can't wait to read the Hobbit to my niece...

David Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 9:42:00 PM EDT  

I loved the story in all of Tolkien's books (nobody does backstory like Tolkien - it's probably one of the reasons I ended up a historian). One of the things I noticed about the writing was how much it was for different audiences as you moved through the stories. In The Hobbit, things "went pop!" In The Lord of the Rings, things "made noise." In the Silmarillion (long my favorite book), things "rendered a doleful sound unto the gods").

I read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings aloud to my oldest daughter, and you're right - they do work better out loud.

Anonymous,  Monday, November 1, 2010 at 11:13:00 PM EDT  

Okay I have to confess that I too have read the Hobbit and the LOTR every year for the past forty years...and loved them! But here is where we disagree, I also loved the movies. More so after I watched the twenty or so hours of the 'making of' DVDs. In fact had I known then what I know now, I would have spent a lot of time and resources traveling to NewZealand just so I could help work on the movies.

But (isn't there always a but) I truly hope that Jackson doesn't make the Hobbit in the image of his LOTRs. The Hobbit is a children's book and I am hoping beyond hope that Jackson understands that.


Iron Bess

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