The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

Many years ago I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and loved the story, so much so that over the years I’ve re-read the books several times. Somehow I’ve ignored The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, maybe thinking that because it’s a children’s book it was too late for me to appreciate it. So even though I’ve had a copy for years it’s only now that I’ve got round to reading it, spurred on by seeing the film this year. (I read the enhanced version on Kindle.) How wrong I was not to have read it before – The Hobbit is a book that all ages can enjoy.

It’s an adventure story of a quest set in a fantasy world, so beautifully written that it seems completely believable. Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, is recruited through Gandalf, the wizard, to accompany a party of thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin, on their quest to recover the dwarves’ treasure stolen by Smaug the dragon and regain possession of the Lonely Mountain. Along the way Bilbo grows in confidence and becomes a hero, meeting elves, outwitting trolls, fighting goblins, and above all gaining possession of the ring from Gollum.

The enhanced version has a foreword by Christopher Tolkien, complete with illustrations including manuscript pages and unused drawings, in which he describes how and why his father came to write The Hobbit: he would stand in front of the fire in his study and tell stories to Christopher (then aged between four and five years old) and his brothers. One story, this story, he said, was a long story about a small being with furry feet, which he thought he would call a “Hobbit”. This was in about 1929. The book was eventually published in 1937, written whilst Tolkien was engrossed in writing the myths and legends told in The Silmarillion. He hadn’t intended The Hobbit to be connected to the mythology, but his tale gradually became larger and more heroic as he wrote it.

The Hobbit sold very quickly and people asked for a sequel. At first Tolkien thought that writing more details about Gandalf and the Necromancer (Sauron) would be too dark and that many parents “may be afraid that certain parts of it would be terrifying for bedtime reading.” He also wrote:

Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it – so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge. And what more can hobbits do? They can be comic, but their comedy is suburban unless it is set against things more elemental. (location 339)

Three days after writing those words he wrote:

I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits – “A long expected party.”

That was the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings. (location 339)

It also includes recently discovered audio recordings of J.R.R. Tolkien reading excerpts from The Hobbit, including the dwarves’ party song, the account of their capture by the three trolls, and Bilbo Baggins’s creepy encounter with Gollum.

The Hobbit is an excellent first book for Carl’s Once Upon a Time VII.

Tolkien, The Hobbit and Middle-Earth

The Hobbit
Last Wednesday we went to see The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey. Whereas I’ve read The Lord of the Rings several times, I’ve never read The Hobbit, so the story was new to me. It meant that I could watch the film, totally unbothered by any changes from the book. And no doubt there are differences, as the book has been transformed into three films.

I enjoyed the film immensely, although, as I expected, there was too much fighting for my liking, which made my eyes glaze over. (This is my normal reaction to fighting scenes.) The hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and a party of dwarves, led by their king, Thorin Oakenshield go on a quest to recover the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor and its long-lost treasure, guarded by Smaug, the dragon. Their journey takes them into great danger through lands occupied by orcs, goblins, wargs and sorcerers and sees the first meeting of Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) in which Bilbo gains possession of the precious Ring.

Martin Freeman was perfect as Bilbo Baggins, as was Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. It was Ken Stott’s voice (and his mouth) that made me realise he was taking the part of Balin the dwarf, but I completely failed to see that the Goblin King was played by Barry Humphries. The rest of the cast was also excellent and the scenery was magical.

There are many books now about Tolkien and his writings – I have just two books of reference on Tolkien’s works, both from pre-movie days:The Tolkien and Middle Earth Handbook by Colin Duriez, which is a mine of information about Tolkien’s life, thoughts and writings. It’s an A-Z of people, places and things of importance in Tolkien’s books as well as containing details of Tolkien’s friends, colleagues, writers and thinkers who influenced his work.

Tolkien is now so well known, not only through his books, but also through Peter Jackson’s films, that it’s hard to believe that at one time his publishers thought the The Lord of the Rings could make a financial loss for them. Duriez writes:

In those unenlightened days, the learned Professor could mutter the word ‘Orc’ at uncouth behaviour, or exclaim ‘Mordor in our midst’ at an ugly example of modern life, without its meaning being known to the general public.

I think this book is a good source to discover information not only about the characters, but also the back-stories of Tolkien’s invented mythology. It is, of course, selective and certainly doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, because of the sheer volume and breadth of Tolkien’s works, but it’s certainly a good starting place.

The other book I have is A Tolkien Bestiary by David Day. A bestiary is an illustrated book about beasts, popular in the Middle Ages and this one includes Tolkien’s fantastical beasts and monsters, together with the races, flora and fauna that inhabit Middle-Earth and the Undying Lands. There are colour and black and white illustrations, maps, time charts and genealogical tables, plus a useful index. A mine of information from before Peter Jackson’s movies were made. Here, for example is the illustration of Gandalf (very similar to Ian McKellan’s portrayal, I think!) and of Gandalf and some of the dwarves making their way to Bilbo’s house in the Shire:
Tolkien Bestiary Gandalf

Since seeing the film I’ve downloaded an Enhanced Edition of The Hobbit. This has illustrations and audio/video content available for iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touch devices, including J R R Tolkien singing and reading from his book.

It also includes illustrations by Tolkien and one of the manuscript pages of his original draft of the first chapter. In the Foreword, Christopher Tolkien, Tolkien’s son reveals that his father had a clear recollection of writing the opening sentence of The Hobbit. It was whilst he was sitting correcting School Certificate papers and on a blank piece of paper he scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ He did not know then and later why that came into his head, but years later it became The Hobbit. And he couldn’t remember when. But his sons think it must have been around 1929. During the years that followed Tolkien wrote more of the book and became engrossed in The Silmarillion, the myths and legends of his invented world.

Now I just need to read the book itself! And then I may have to re-read The Lord of the Rings, and find a biography of Tolkien too. There are so many books about Tolkien – can anyone recommend any of them?