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Friday, March 25, 2011

The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Nearly six years ago, I posted a series on several aspects of three of my favorite fantasy books, or series, namely the Earthsea books, by Ursula K. Le Guin, the Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkien, and Watership Down, by Richard Adams. The last of those posts is here. They are not reviews of the books, but thoughts about various things that they have in common, such as a love for nature.

I recently realized that I have never posted on Tolkien's The Hobbit, a book written for a younger audience than that author's subsequently published works. (See here for the Wikipedia article on Tolkien, and here for the article on the book.) I first purchased a copy of The Hobbit while I was in graduate school, perhaps 50 years ago, and have cherished it, and read it several times. The plot of the book is, I suppose, well known, or can be readily obtained from the Wikipedia article on it. I shall confine myself to a few impressions from my most recent reading.

My first impression, this time I read the book, was that there are no important females in it. There are a few females in the background, and a number of unnamed spiders in one part of the book, which may or may not have been meant to be female, but it's a book with no significant female characters at all. Tolkien was capable of using females, such as Galadriel (arguably his most complex character), Arwen and Eowyn, in strong supporting roles, in his longer and more adult works, but he did not do so in The Hobbit. As a matter of fact, there are whole species that don't seem to have any females in his subsequent works. No female ents at all, perhaps a very few female dwarves, and maybe no female orcs. Well, it's fantastic literature. That aspect is surely not realistic. It says something about Tolkien. I'm not sure what.

One aspect of the book that I also hadn't really tuned in to is the amount of walking that the characters do. Lots of it. It's my understanding that Tolkien belonged to a generation of English men who went for walks lasting several days, as one form of vacation, so walking for days and days, and miles and miles, would have been natural to him, but it isn't to most of us.

Tolkien's dragon, Smaug, is a fine creation, living on a hoard of captured treasure, able to speak, fly, spit fire, and be dangerous. (Were there female dragons in his Middle-Earth books? I'm not sure that there were.)

Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves, had a lust for treasure. An over-riding lust, so strong that it drove out feelings of friendship and gratitude. But, in the end, he realized that treasure was only of value in this life, and not of nearly as much value as he had temporarily made it. A good lesson.

In this work, as in others, Tolkien expresses deep misgivings about modern inventions. What he would have said about cell phones and GPS devices, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that he would have been against them, and seen them as damaging to quality of life, and to the environment.

Tolkien did have a good grasp of human nature. I offer two quotations:
Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: or There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2nd ed, 1951, pp. 61-2.

. . . he was kind-hearted, in a way. You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything; and even when he did anything, it did not prevent him from grumbling, losing his temper, and swearing (mostly to himself). (p. 93 )

Finally, Bilbo is a well-drawn character. He has good points, and plenty of flaws, which he mostly rises above. A good man? Well, not exactly. He is a hobbit, a creature said to be man-like, but only from two to four feet tall, with tough, hairy, feet, and easily able to hide from creatures that want to find them.

I enjoyed re-reading The Hobbit, and I recommend it to you. A two-part film adaptation was supposed to begin filming on March 21st, 2011.

Thanks for reading.

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