From whimsy to saga


J R R Tolkien The Hobbit George Allen & Unwin (3rd edition 1972)

Wizard at the door?
Twelve dwarves too? You’ll be telling
me a dragon’s next!
I must have spent my childhood and adolescence skim-reading most of the literature I was introduced to, gaining impressionist pictures of those works but missing much of the subtlety of language, characterisation and narrative. Having taken it on myself in recent years to begin re-reading those books with more attentiveness The Hobbit seemed a natural choice. Rather than merely summarising what must be one of the most familiar tales in modern fantasy I’ve opted to discuss the personal insights that this re-reading suggested to me.

The first insight I got is that Tolkien’s prose changes from whimsical to saga-like over the course Bilbo’s journey there and back again. Despite the revisions he made to two subsequent editions (I read the most common 1966 third edition), the avuncular approach he takes at the opening, very reminiscent of the tone of the posthumously published The Father Christmas Letters, sits ill at ease with descriptions of casualities in battle and the more serious and earnest language at the end; revisions clearly haven’t reconciled the two approaches.

The next insight was a reminder from studies I’d previously read of how The Hobbit could be viewed retrospectively as a practice run for The Lord of the Rings. The plot and narrative elements are similar, among them being the hobbit on a quest, fellowship, troll glade, Rivendell, mountain tunnels, Gollum, Gandalf’s disappearance, wood elves, spiders, beseiged habitations, climactic battle near a desolate mountain, intervention by eagles, and the giving up of a precious object. There are numerous differences, of course, but by the time Tolkien came to the trilogy he was clearly determined to make the secondary world he’d created more coherent and more fleshed out without simply retelling The Hobbit. But he clearly didn’t want to jettison the arc of the storyline that had pleased him in the earlier tale, which means that the inherent conflicts in storytelling style of The Hobbit are made even more obvious. The rather perfunctory ending contrasts with the solemn and more satisfying conclusion of The Lord of the Rings describing the Scouring of the Shire and the Ringbearers’ final journey.

This edition features Tolkien’s own rather quaint illustrations. While no-one would claim that there was huge artistry involved (the line drawings in particular are not well finished) their stylisation and frequent symmetry add to the otherworldly character of the tale and help inform us of Tolkien’s creative intentions in structuring the narrative.

We come now to the songs with which Tolkien peppers the text. There is much to admire in his cunning alliterations, rhymes and use of metre, modelled on Middle and Old English examplars, and I don’t want to deny the artistry involved. But, like his drawings, their formality is, for me at least, a barrier to really liking them, and I am a little perplexed by his suggestions that elves, dwarves and goblins were able to improvise such crafted songs on the spur of the moment. However, these songs would benefit from being set to modal melodies in a folk or medieval style (and I’m glad the films have opted for this); I am not a fan of the Donald Swann settings but, as Tolkien likes to appeal to the senses, including sympathetically composed melodic counterparts to the verses could add immeasurably to this reader’s enjoyment.

The Hobbit is certainly not a masterpiece. A pioneering work, yes, that broke the mould for children’s literature and created a template for much post-war fantasy writing; and though flawed definitely a thrilling adventure story that flies once it gets off the ground.

Nasty Bagginses
stole the Precious, yess, and we
hates them forever!

Revised version of review first published June 2012


6 thoughts on “From whimsy to saga

  1. I’m always amazed by how different the tone is in the Hobbit compared to the series. I read the Hobbit when I was eight and loved it and then I tried reading The Lord of the Rings and couldn’t get into it until I was an adult.

    1. The story of Tolkien’s development of Middle Earth from ‘The Hobbit’ in the 30s to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in the 50s is fascinating, and the change in tone and audience matches his realisation that his secondary world should be given more gravitas. Wonder how the children’s book would have appeared if he’d written it after LOTR.

  2. I’ve always thought that Tolkien’s register switches in LOTR — in Hobbiton, he’s light and whimsical, as you write. However, once Frodo enters Lothlorien and things get really serious, Tolkien shifts into high fantasy mode, with more complex sentence structures and a style that’s almost KJV Biblical — magisterial, if nothing else. He doesn’t switch back until the four hobbits return to the Shire. Readers caught up in the tale might miss this, but reading it aloud to my daughter made it oh so obvious. You have to time your breaths very carefully.

  3. Really enjoyed this. Like TBM above, I too read The Hobbit at 8 and wasn’t really able to get into The Lord of the Rings until I was an adult and read the trilogy to my son (who had an easier time with the many–and to me interminable–battle scenes in it). I didn’t know about the three different editions of The Hobbit; now I’m curious to read the third, 1966, edition, since I now realize I must have read one of the earlier ones.
    I’m also interested in your theory about how Tolkien used The Hobbit as he wrote LOTR. I like the idea of going back and re-reading these books more closely as an adult. I have a soft spot for The Hobbit because of its more personal tone and the way it addresses the reader. Its opening chapter is just about perfect to me. And yes, my Precioussss, the scene where we first meet Gollum retains its power through the years, and still haunts.

    1. I’ve only read the third edition of The Hobbit, but I’ve got a book of essays which includes discussion of the changes Tolkien made to the first edition to make it closer in tone to LOTR.

      I like second readings, and though some say the magic can be lost with later analysis I feel it can be replaced by a different kind of magic — the enjoyment of subtleties that the juvenile eye can miss.

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