Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"The Hobbit" by J. R. R. Tolkien

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.

However.

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.

18 comments:

  1. I burst out laughing at your comments on Thorin! Oh, he is such a terrible little jerk most of the time, and I know completely why you don't like him. I think, honestly, that my fondness for The Hobbit stems from having read it when I was only 14. That was my first time, my first real introduction to Tolkien, long before I ever thought of reading The Lord of the Rings. I was delighted with the adventure as a girl just barely into her teens.

    But one of the things I'm aware of now, that I didn't comprehend then, is that Tolkien did almost no character development for The Hobbit. Oh, you get to know Gandalf a bit, but that's almost it. You could never give a personality type to Bilbo, not like we can with the movie where he's an undeniable ESFJ. The dwarves all blend together, Thorin is horrible, Gandalf pops in and out without any reason, and Bilbo isn't always that likeable or courageous. It's almost impossible to connect to the characters, and I blame that on Tolkien initially writing this for children.

    I've developed biases against parts of the films now, particularly the 2nd, but one thing I will always love is what PJ has done with Bilbo. He's breathed life into that hobbit through Martin Freeman, and I will forever thank him for it.

    Huzzah for enjoying your latest reading, more than your prior ones! :)

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    1. Maybe I was a little too old when I first encountered it? I was probably sixteen or so, and I just didn't care much for it. In fact, I refused to read LOTR for years because why would I spend a thousand pages reading more like The Hobbit?

      And you're so right -- there is very little character development. Bilbo has really the only character arc, with becoming a much bolder and more stalwart fellow, etc.

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  2. The Hobbit is one of my favourite books ever but I understand where you're coming from. I'm loving Peter Jackson's The Hobbit films too especially the last one :D I don't know how I'm going to cope waiting for the last one. It's good that there's a Tolkien biopic in the works otherwise there won't be any more Middle-earth goodness for me to look forward to!

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    1. There's a biopic in the works! Shiny!

      What we really need is for Peter Jackson to make travel videos about various places in Middle Earth. Hosted by Michael Palin, of course. They could release one every December for the next twenty years and I would pay to see every one of them in the theater.

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    2. Michael Palin + Middle-earth/New Zealand! I like the way you think! :D

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    3. You know who Michael Palin is! High-five! Have you watched any of his documentaries? I LOVE them.

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    4. *high five* Michael Palin is actually very famous in Britain. Probably the most famous Python after John Cleese. I've seen a few of his documentaries but not for years. I need to revisit them!

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    5. Sometimes I forget you're British. Oops! I'm sure he IS much more famous there, lol. Have you read his Diaries 1969-1979: The Monty Python Years? Hilarious, poignant, reads exactly the way he talks in his travel docs.

      I'm just excited to "meet" someone else who's seen them! My husband introduced me to them, but other than him and his family, I've never yet met someone who had.

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    6. No I haven't read any of his books but I hear they're really good. And I can imagine how exciting it must be to meet another fan :)

      I was chatting to a friend the other day who's spent quite a lot of time in the US (his fiancée is from Texas). He was telling me that Americans who watch Doctor Who - and British TV in general - are viewed as hipsters. Since everyone in Britain watches British TV I have to admit that I find this really funny :D

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    7. Hipsters, eh? Too funny! I don't think I've ever been considered remotely a candidate for that term before! Though maybe I gravitate more toward the BBC shows that would more label you a geek/nerd? Hmm. We actually watched a few of the original Dr. Who episodes a while back, but now we're enmeshed in Sherlock and Agents of SHIELD, and my hubby and I only have one evening a week where we watch something together, so... Dr. Who will have to wait.

      So are British people who watch American TV considered anything in particular?

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    8. No, we all watch American TV shows in addition to our own. The Simpsons & Friends are especially popular here. The re-runs are on TV all the time. House is also really popular (very probably because of Hugh Laurie).

      This is going to seem like a really bizarre question but... are twinkie bars really that nice?! Because Die Hard & Ghostbusters have taught me that they're the most delicious things ever but my friends who've been to the US didn't think very much of them. I feel like I've been lied to! :D

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    9. Twinkies are gross, IMHO. Imagine a crumbly yellow sponge filled with the sugariest, gooey frosting ever. That's kind of the joke -- they're so terrible, why would people be addicted to them?

      Also, they don't exist anymore cuz the company that made them went bankrupt.

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    10. I agree with Hamlette - twinkies are horribly sweet and gross! Unedible, really. But they are still being made. They made a comeback last year after the bankrupt company was bought out.

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    11. So it's true, then: even a nuclear holocaust can't destroy Twinkies.

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  3. Oooo - the spiders. Tolkien does seem to have a thing with spiders! And that's hilarious commentary about Thorin! He definitely could be a punk! :)

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    1. Yeah, I totally couldn't watch the spider part of the movie. I sat with my eyes clamped shut, chomping on popcorn to drown out some of the noises, and waited for my hubby to tell me it was safe. Shelob I can deal with better cuz she's so huge she's barely spiderific anymore, but my hubby assured me these ones were very horrible. When reading the book, my imagination kindly provided me with these sort of four-legged blob things that aren't too horrific.

      And hee, glad my Thorin thoughts amused you :-)

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  4. The movies have definitely given me a much greater appreciation for this book. I had only read it once before, twenty years ago, and enjoyed it, but didn't have any true love for it. Re-reading it now, it's such a quick easy read, and I pictured movie actors, etc., that it was much more fun than I remembered. Re-reading it also gave me a much greater appreciation for the Hobbit movies as well, as I highly approve of Jackson's additions and changes.

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    1. I think my initial problem with it is still one I haven't resolved: what's the point? That getting outside your comfort zone can make you a better/stronger/happier person?

      And yes, picturing and hearing movie characters made it a LOT more fun this time. Especially for Gandalf and Bilbo and Bard -- I could really see and hear them well.

      But I definitely agree even more now that Jackson's addition of a clear antagonist is sorely needed.

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