Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Anyone who knows me as a reader knows that I love the fantasy genre. My ardor for it has cooled a bit since I was a kid, but I still love to pick up a book full of magic and adventure now and then. I have a special place in my heart for classics in this genre, which is why most people are surprised to learn that I have never read any of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. It's shocking, I know. I've spent hours with Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Neverending Story, and A Wrinkle in Time, but I've never cracked the binding on a Lord of the Rings book. I've decided to remedy this big hole in my literary landscape starting this year.

I decided to start off with The Hobbit, which is actually set before the Lord of the Rings series. From what I gather, it is not necessary to read this one first, but it is chronologically first in the Tolkien universe, and it was published before the Lord of the Rings books, so it made sense to me to begin there. It also takes care of one of the categories in my Back to the Classics challenge - a classic set in a place you'd like to visit. Literally speaking, I'd love to visit the high fantasy landscapes of Middle-Earth, the world where these books are set. I can imagine lazy days lounging around Bag End with Bilbo, enjoying a second breakfast, or more adventurous days traversing forests filled with impossible creatures. Figuratively speaking, I'd love to visit Middle-Earth so I can up my fantasy literature IQ. So essentially, The Hobbit was a great fit for me on many levels.

The plot of the novel follows Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit living a very quiet, respectable life in his hobbit hole under The Hill. His comfortable little world gets turned upside down with the arrival of Gandalf, a great wizard who turns up one day and gives Bilbo a quest. He places him into a party of thirteen dwarfs, who are on a mission to reclaim the treasure of their forefathers from a fearsome dragon named Smaug. Bilbo seems a very unlikely choice for this mission. He's had no adventuring experience in his life, doesn't approve of such things on the whole, and is generally more concerned with what his next meal will be than with anything that requires physical exertion. Gandalf, however, sees something in Bilbo that others do not, and promises the dwarfs that he will become invaluable to them before long.

Wanting to maintain his pride and impress Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarfs, Bilbo agrees to go on the journey. After reviewing their plan and route with Gandalf, the group sets out immediately. From the start, nothing goes according to plan. Bilbo and his new friends run afoul of everything from trolls, to goblins, to giant spiders. At first, Bilbo is more of a liability than a help. He is rather clumsy and unsure of what to do in the many dangerous situations the group runs up against. However, his luck starts to turn around when he comes across a mysterious ring that allows him to become invisible. After successfully stealing this ring from a creature named Gollum, Bilbo starts to come into his own. He takes on a leadership role in the group, assists in several daring escapes, and masterminds many clever plans to aid them on their journey. Soon, he has become an important and respected member of the party, just as Gandalf had predicted.

After facing many trials, the group finally reaches the Lonely Mountain where Smaug lives. He is guarding the stolen treasure they seek. Smaug is a huge and fearsome dragon and Bilbo and his friends must figure out how to breach his domain, steal back their treasure, and escape unscathed. Dealing with Smaug, and the aftermath of their plan, forms the final conflict in the novel. Bilbo and his friends are put to the ultimate test of not only bravery, but diplomacy and sacrifice as well, as their friends and foes from earlier in the novel return for one final battle.

I thought this was a fantastic old-school adventure novel. It had everything - monsters, magic, friendship, and, of course, lots of danger. The plot was very well-paced, with each chapter bringing a new adventure to fall into. It was very cool seeing the origin of the the famous ring, as well as meeting Gollum for the first time. The writing style felt like an old storybook, very reminiscent of the Narnia series. This is one of those snuggle-up-with-a-cup-of-tea kind of books, and I enjoyed the experience of reading it very much. I found myself wishing that I had discovered this story as a kid, so I could have formed that special childhood-favorite bond with it. As it was, I still got pretty attached to this story.

The theme of the novel centers around the personal growth of Bilbo. Although he is technically an adult throughout the duration of the story, this is really a coming of age tale for him. He starts off as a quiet and unassuming character and by the end of the story he is almost completely different. He never gives up his affinity for creature comforts, but he is a braver and more confident hobbit in the end. His story serves as a lesson to readers that we all have qualities that make us special inside, if only we are brave enough to seek them out and put them into practice. Just as Gandalf sees talents buried inside Bilbo, we all have greatness hiding somewhere inside of us. We are all simply waiting for the right adventure to come along and bring it out. I really liked that idea of maybe being stronger than you think you are, under the right circumstances.

While I greatly enjoyed seeing Bilbo grow and change throughout the story, it was a bit disappointing to see no other characters undergo any development. The dwarfs in Bilbo's group (aside from Thorin) are interchangeable, Gandalf is already the perfect mentor figure, and no other characters stick around long enough to have an arc of their own. This isn't entirely unexpected in an older children's fantasy novel, but I wish there had been a bit more depth to some of the secondary figures. It was also a shame that no female characters at all were present in the story - also not unusual in an older work, but it was still a bit tiresome. I would have loved to see a female dwarf get in on the adventure. I think Tolkien should have done better in this regard.

Despite those drawbacks, however, The Hobbit was still a wonderful story. It deserves its reputation as one of the most classic works of the fantasy genre. Adult and child readers alike have loved this novel for generations, and I find that I am no exception. I'm excited to move onto the Lord of the Rings trilogy next and finally patch up this gap in my reading knowledge.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#43 on my list): 12/100
Back to the Classics (a classic set in a place you'd like to visit): 10/12
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 32/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 41

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