Culling The Classics: The Hobbit
And what is a hobbit? Hobbits are little people, smaller than dwarfs. They love peace and quiet and good tilled earth. They dislike machines, but they are handy with tools. They are nimble but don't like to hurry. They have sharp ears and eyes. They are inclined to be fat. They wear bright colors but seldom wear shoes. They like to laugh and eat (six meals a day) and drink. They like parties and they like to give and receive presents. They inhabit a land they call The Shire, a place between the River Brandywine and the Far Downs.
THE HOBBIT is a story of these delightful creatures—a story complete in itself yet full of portent. For this is the book that tells of Bilbo Baggins, the far-wandering hobbit who discovered (some say stole) the One Ring of Power and brought it back to The Shire.
And so this is the absolutely necessary beginning to the great story of the War of the Rings which J.R.R. Tolkien completes in his epic fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings.
I couldn't have put it better myself (which is why I didn't). Unless you've been living under a mountain hoarding treasure for the past year, you're probably aware that the next installment of Peter Jackson's second live-action Middle-Earth trilogy is out in theaters this month. But what does that mean for the uninitiated? Adaptations often fall short for anyone who hasn't read the source material. And anyway, isn't The Hobbit a kids' fantasy book about tiny people? Why is everyone freaking out about Tyrion Lannister Lite?
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, 1937)
One of the most popular children's books of the 20th century and one of the most important works of fantasy literature ever written; Goodreads rating of 4.19; several prominent radio, screen, and video game adaptations, including the award-winning 1977 Rankin/Bass animated television version and the three-part live-action film version directed by Peter Jackson, the first installment of which grossed over $1B at the box office.
The Spoiler-Free Skinny
Bilbo Baggins is a happy little hobbit living in his tidy hobbit hole until the great wizard Gandalf shows up and ruins everything. He tricks poor Bilbo into hosting a party for a baker's dozen homeless dwarfs dead set on fighting a dragon and winning back their mountain. Gandalf convinces everyone that Bilbo's some kind of expert burglar, and off they all go on an epic high fantasy quest. Bilbo is very nearly eaten by trolls, gored by goblins, and riddled to death by a creepy cave dweller, and he's pretty much useless for most of the journey, but every now and then he saves the company from giant spiders or ornery elves and everyone is best friends. There is much song singing and sword wielding, some magic and mayhem, and a guy who can turn into a bear. Oh, and there's that dragon the dwarfs are always complaining about, of course. Can Bilbo help his new friends take back their ancestral home, or will he be turned into a hobbit kabab?
You'll Love It
The Hobbit is considered one of the greatest works of children's literature ever written for so many reasons. The characters are vivid and unforgettable, from the reluctant mini-adventurer Bilbo to the hunched and deranged ring bearer Gollum to the massive armored dragon Smaug. The story is fast paced, with our heroes constantly running into or away from trolls, goblins, wolves, spiders, elves, dragons, and other fantasy baddies. It isn't all action, though; it's also light and funny, with a playful narration that's easy to read aloud at bedtime. There are also maps to help readers follow along on the quest, and there are drinking and marching songs thrown in to keep things upbeat even at the most dire of times. When goblins kidnap Bilbo and his friends and take them underground, for instance, the ugly creatures sing an absurd song the whole way down:
Clap! Snap! the black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down down to Goblin-town
You go, my lad!
Clash, crash! Crush, smash!
Hammer and tongs! Knocker and gongs!
Pound, pound, far underground!
Ho, ho! my lad!
Etc., etc. Goblins really enjoy their oh-hey-we're-about-to-kill-you songs, apparently.
You'll Loathe It
If you're a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings...good for you, but that doesn't necessarily mean much here. While the whole LOTR trilogy is essentially a sequel to The Hobbit, they're very different tonally and thematically. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers weren't published until 1954, 17 years after The Hobbit, and The Return of the King didn't come out until a year after that; Tolkien knew that any of his original fans would be much older by the time they got their sequel, and he wrote the later books accordingly. The Hobbit has a lot of action and adventure, but it's all toned down for the younger crowd. There's always the threat of death hanging over the protagonists, but for the most part only "bad" characters die. And as evidenced above, the singing can get a bit ridiculous.
Read It Or Leave It
But who cares?!? It's The Hobbit! The fantasy genre wouldn't be half what it is today without this book. George R.R. owes his literary life to J.R.R., Game of Thrones fans, as do plenty of other 20th-century authors. But you don't have to like fantasy literature to enjoy The Hobbit. This is one of those books that transcends its genre because it so well defines it, a perfect example of fantasy that everyone should take a crack at to experience the genre at its best. To put it another way, it's difficult to know if you like donuts if the only one you've ever had was three days old and purchased at a gas station. No, it's better to march into a Krispy Kreme first thing in the morning when the donuts are fresh and hot. Start with the best and go from there. If you don't like The Hobbit, then high fantasy probably isn't for you, but at least you'll have given it your best shot.
The Final Verdict
Every child should have The Hobbit read to him or her, or should read it for him- or herself. Every parent should read it to his or her children, or have their children read it aloud at storytime. I didn't read The Hobbit for the first time until high school, and I was massively disappointed that I had missed so many clutch Bilbo-loving years. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an entirely different beast, a series that can be difficult to get through for those who aren't committed to Middle-Earth, but The Hobbit has universal appeal. What are you waiting for? Go pick it up now! Start your adventure! Off to the Lonely Mountain with you! Or, as the dwarfs are wont to sing:
Far over the Misty Mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To find our long-forgotten gold.
Okay, the singing is a little much, but you get used to it.
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