The Hobbit

“Adventures are not all pony rides in May sunshine.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

Next in the Tolkien Reading Marathon (yes, there is such a thing) is The Hobbit, the first published of the Middle-earth books and most people’s first encounter with it.

Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit from a quiet land in the West (not yet identified as the Shire), lover of food and cheer and song, is visited by a random gang of dwarves and a wizard, who somehow convince him to come with them on a hazardous journey to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarves’ long-forgotten gold from the dragon Smaug.

And…that’s it. The Hobbit is not, as Peter Jackson seems to think, an epic quest filled with feuding orcs and last desperate hopes. It is not about battles and kings and politics. It is a fairy tale about a group of relatively unimportant people looking for treasure, and having all the typical fairy-tale adventures along the way (giant spiders, a journey through the dark, a riddle-game, etc.). The whole point of the novel is that friendship and peace is more important than all the gold and jewels in the world (and, actually, I’m inclined to think that that is true for all of Tolkien’s work), and re-reading it this year has only reinforced my impression that Jackson got The Hobbit all wrong.

OK, I’m going to stop ranting about Peter Jackson’s incompetence now.

The Hobbit is not, of course, all sweetness and light. Even fairy-tales need darkness, or what’s the point? My favourite passage in the novel deals with the misery of Gollum (incidentally my favourite character in The Lord of the Rings):

A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.

There is death, and hardship, and the ending is not entirely happy (Tolkien didn’t really do happy endings), but it never sinks into despair, and I love the messiness of the end, the way that life goes on at home while great deeds are afoot elsewhere. The Hobbit is that rare thing, a fairy-tale that doesn’t put its characters on pedestals and yet does not lose its fairy-tale quality. And everyone loves a fairy-tale, right?

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