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!
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.
stole the Precious, yess, and we
hates them forever!
Revised version of review first published June 2012