This is a difficult review for me to write, and not only because my two-year-old is refusing to take a nap and yowling at me in rebellious anger from upstairs. The difficulty stems mostly from the fact that I keep trying really hard to love The Hobbit like I love The Lord of the Rings... and it just doesn't happen.
I'm happy to say, though, that thanks to Peter Jackson's movies, I actually liked the book this time through, which I didn't the first two times I read it. It's probably a testament to either Tolkien's writing or my love of The Lord of the Rings that I've actually read it three times when I didn't like it much the first two times I read it.
In case you don't know the basic story, I'll recap quickly: Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit, leaves his quiet, comfortable life to journey with thirteen dwarves to a distant mountain, slay a dragon, and reclaim the dwarves' lost treasure. You'd think I'd love it right off, since it has some rousing adventure going on, I do have a small fascination with dragons, and part of this story involves the finding of the One Ring that is so very important in The Lord of the Rings. And it is a fun story, don't get me wrong. It's well-crafted, Bilbo is a nicely developed character, and Middle Earth is a lovely place to spend 250 pages tramping around in.
As I've mentioned once in a while (and you can read a lot more about this here), I have come to realize that the difference between me liking or loving a book and not liking it at all comes down to one question: do I want to be friends with the characters? And I have also realized that I am particularly drawn to characters who are helpful and innately nice. And the trouble for me with The Hobbit is that there aren't a lot of characters I want to be friends with. Gandalf and Bilbo, yes. Bard and Beorn and Balin, probably. But Bard and Beorn are minor characters, Balin is in the book less than the movie, and that leaves me with Bilbo and Gandalf. Granted, Gandalf ties with Eomer as my third-favorite character in The Lord of the Rings, but he's only in like half of this book. And one character plus one that's in half the book tends not to be enough to find a book (or movie or TV show or play) a place in my heart. Especially when one of the other major characters is neither helpful nor nice.
I'm talking about you, Thorin. You are obsessive, greedy, rude, and spoiled. And snooty. And kind of racist. You love your dwarf buddies, you like Gandalf because he's powerful, and you merely tolerate Bilbo because he's useful to you. You won't even speak to elves most of the time. I am not your fan.
So that's the main reason I don't love this book. The other reason is because I don't particularly like the writing style. It's way different from The Lord of the Rings, which reads kind of like a history. This is like a kindly but slightly condescending uncle telling a story to his nieces and nephews because they're all stuck at a family reunion and he feels he should be nice to them. It has a hundred little foreshadowings where the narrator basically lays his finger beside his nose, winks, and says, "Well, well, I know," or "I could, if I would..." And I'm not a fan of foreshadowing most of the time as it is, but when it's used over and over, it gets tiresome to me.
But, like I said, I did like the book this time through because I'm really enjoying Peter Jackson's movie versions, and if nothing else, they've helped me put faces to names of several of the dwarves. The only one other than Thorin I could ever keep track of before was Bombur. Now I can keep Fili, Kili, and Balin straight too. And I do quite like Balin in the book -- he's very kind to Bilbo all the time. Helpful and nice, so I like him, of course. The rest all kind of muddle together in both book and movies (there is one in the movies that I think of as "the one who looks like George Harrison," and I can't ever remember his name either). Also, Bilbo is even sweeter in the movies than the book, and by now I really like him better than Frodo.
The main reason I read this, to be honest, is that I really liked Bard in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and I wanted to find out what happens to him. I'm quite pleased by his role in the book and hope he has a nice chunk of screentime in the final movie. I'm especially pleased because some blog I read hinted that Bard played a less-than-good role in the middle of the story, which I'm happy to say is total rubbish.
So. Will I be reading this again? Not until my kids are ready for it, I expect. But I no longer feel grumbly about it taking up space on my bookshelves either.
Particularly Good Bits:
Poor Bilbo couldn't bear it any longer. At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like a whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel. All the dwarves sprang up knocking over the table. Gandalf struck a blue light on the end of his magic staff, and in its firework glare the poor hobbit could be seen kneeling on the hearth-rug, shaking like a jelly that was melting. Then he fell flat on the floor, and kept calling out "struck by lightning, struck by lightning!" over and over again; and that was all they could get out of him for a long time (p. 23).
"Good gracious heavens, no, no, NO, NO!" said Gandalf. Don't be a fool Mr. Baggins if you can help it" (p. 103).
There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much (p. 183).
Bilbo of course ought to have been on his guard; but Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality (p. 192).
"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world" (p. 243).
"Farewell! O Gandalf!" said the king. "May you ever appear where you are most needed and least expected!" (p. 247).
"There is a long road yet," said Gandalf.
"But it is the last road," said Bilbo (pp. 251-52).
If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-13 for a lot of suspense and action and too many spiders.
This is my third book read and reviewed for The Classics Club.