Published in 1937 to critical success and several awards, The Hobbit has endured generations as a beloved classic children’s story. One of the first true fantasy novels, it is (with The Lord of The Rings) undoubtedly the most influential piece of literature on the fantasy genre, setting the tropes and cliches that endure within the genre even now.
To accurately review this novel is difficult, as it carries much nostalgia and it becomes too easy to compare it to The Lord of The Rings or to compare it to the film adaptations. It is also important to remember, despite it’s impressive prose and fantastic and often dark and violent elements, that this is a children’s story, and thus it shall be reviewed as such, not as an adult fiction book.
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” These are the opening words of which Tolkien first wrote on a blank page he uncovered when marking School Certificate Papers whilst working at Pembroke College.
The Hobbit is an episodic quest about a quiet and unassuming character – a Hobbit – named Bilbo Baggins. He is recruited by the wizard Gandalf and a band of twelve dwarves to accompany them across the world and retrieve treasure from an ancient dwarven city inside a mountain guarded by a dragon. It is a simple premise, like most children’s stories, and has an uncomplicated plot. Each chapter introduces a character or creature and a new location, and the protagonists must overcome the obstacles and journey onwards to the next chapter.
The story, however simple the synopsis, is actually complex for a children’s book. It deals strongly with themes of heroism and the main characters all have strongly defined complex arcs. These arcs include descents and recoveries which are neither labeled as good or bad, just accepted as part of the human (or dwarf or hobbit) experience.
Bilbo, as the starring protagonist, matures emotionally and intellectually throughout the book. Rather than each episode merely being filler between the first and last pages, they each serve to teach our Hero a lesson and throughout the book his layers of naivety and wholesome innocence are stripped away and replaced with stoic layers of wisdom, leadership and even disenfranchisement. Bilbo’s character experiences a thorough evolution throughout the book, and by the last chapter he is almost unrecognizable from the first.
This kind of full realization of a character learning through his experiences so thoroughly and fully was an unexpected facet when the book was first published. Readers, children and adult alike, were pulled uncontrollably along with the story and critics couldn’t stop raving about it.
The real genius of the book, however, is the true main character. It is not the powerful wizard Gandalf, nor the Hobbit Bilbo, nor the Dwarf King Thorin nor any of his ilk. It is, in fact, the world itself. Tolkien was a master world crafter, and the geographies and cultures and histories of Middle Earth are the true main characters. It is a fantastic milieu where the story itself is a machine to drive the world.
“There was a dim sheet of water no longer overshadowed, and on it’s sliding surface there were dancing and broken reflections of clouds and of stars. Then the hurrying water of the Forest River swept away all the company of casks and tubs away to the north bank, in which it had eaten out a wide bay. This had a shingly shore under hanging banks and was walled at the eastern end by a little jutting cape of hard rock. On the shallow shore most of the barrels ran aground, though a few went on to bump against the stony pier.”
The locations range from his ideal visage of Britain, to the desolate and war-ravaged lands that take inspiration from the war zones he saw in Europe during WWI. And within these lands are the rich cultural heritages of peoples present and gone that Tolkien had been constructing since before the war had ended.
Again, though the story is simple and contains only the barest hints of unrealized sub-plots, the writing is superb. Throughout the book Tolkien’s mastery of prose creeps through and inserts itself, childish encounters described with fiercely accurate details and fairy-tale landscapes that are so fully imagined and well described that it puts many adult fiction books to shame. The prose here is unassuming and does not patronize the reader. Settings and events are described in a fluent and matter-of-fact way, which accepts the reader and invites them into the fictional world, rather than trying to compensate for the burden that they seem to most narrators.
It is an encompassing read, and is an excellent introduction to Middle Earth as it is a pivot point in the universe upon which all of Tolkien’s stories lead to or are based upon and influenced by the events within. The Hobbit is a fine vehicle for which Tolkien was able to market Middle Earth, and one for which enabled him to create The Lord of The Rings and change the face of literature forever.
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