Sunday, 10 August 2014

Review: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937)

As you may have noticed, film and television has over the past decade or so has had a massive influx of big budget fantasy ranging from the very good to the very bad. What most of them happen to have in common however is that they're all adapted from fantasy literature, with Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and of course The Chronicles of Narnia being amongst the most famous.

But there can be no doubt as to what the biggest possible titles are; The Lord of the Rings and its prequel trilogy The Hobbit. They are of course based on the stories of the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien, which told of a fantastical world inhabited by elves, goblins, wizards, dwarves, dragons, and of course the eponymous creatures of the novel I'll be reviewing today. Collectively they tell the story of an ancient conflict rekindled, where the fate of the world hangs in the balance and can be swung either way by the actions of the smallest and most seemingly insignificant of us, and yet also the most courageous. Regardless of your opinion on the films, the novels remain a mainstay of literature in the English speaking world, and The Hobbit in particular is the book that I'll be focusing on today.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was first published in 1937 to severe amounts of critical acclaim and a strong amount of subsequent influence upon the fantasy genre. While it would be unfair to say that Tolkien created the genre outright, since I can point to a slew of predecessors, it is almost impossible to overstate the amount of influence that he has had upon the fantasy genre. The Hobbit in particular helped to shape a lot of the earlier ideas about how a fantasy story might conduct itself, being a fun adventure story in which a band of misfits set out to steal treasure from a dragon. It would be very easy to see the influence that this story has had upon the likes of Dungeons & Dragons. 

As should be expected for such a famous classic of the fantasy genre, it has received countless awards and accolades to the point that it would be impossible to list them all. It was in fact so popular upon its release that people demanded that Tolkien create a sequel; eventually in 1954 and 1955, that sequel was released across three volumes as The Lord of the Rings, arguably even more famous and influential. 

The Story
At the beginning of the novel we are treated to one of the most iconic opening lines in all of literature, which has a curious way of setting the stage. The novel's initial opening is quite whimsical for the most part, and almost sets us up for a rather different kind of story, which would be relatively peaceful and uneventful but perhaps an interesting look into the life of our protagonist
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. 
But within a couple of paragraphs it's pointed out that this is the story of a hobbit going on something of an adventure, which the novel reminds us is of course quite unhobbitlike of him. The opening for the most part sets our scene, describing the hobbit-hole as a place that wouldn't be unpleasant to live in - if only I were shorter, I suppose - and of course introduces us to our protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. The actual plot itself turns up pretty quickly after that with the arrival of Gandalf the Grey, whose dwarvish friends sweep Bilbo up on an adventure to steal treasure from a dragon. 

The story from that point is very easy to spoil as this is the kind of story that really is just as much about the journey as the destination. There is of course a pretty epic climax, but I'm loath to reveal anything and would instead recommend that you simply read the book yourself as it is a worthwhile and fun adventure journey with lots of fun locations and events. The semi-comedic tone of the writing really does help things along, and this book works really well as a story to be told to children as it works to keep them interested. However, as the story continues it becomes ever-so-slightly darker and more twisted as it goes on, leading to a somewhat darker finale than you might have originally expected.

If there's one flaw of the storytelling, it's that it perhaps takes a little while to get going and the songs can occasionally be annoying to some readers. 

Still, as stories go it's one of the greatest in fantasy, and the fact that it's relatively short compared to the reputation given to its successor means that it should only take a few days to read through. 

The Characters
True to its title, the book is strongly focused upon its protagonist, Bilbo Baggins and the story arguably serves to chart his growth from coward to outright hero who is shaped to become a better person by the events that he gets involved in. It reaches a pretty epic conclusion, and explores what it truly means to be courageous, and that sometimes the truly right and loyal path isn't always the easiest path. By the end of the story, his growth as a character is more or less what makes the story work. 

He is helped along in his personal journey by Gandalf the Grey, the wise magician who is perhaps quite a bit more than he first appears to be, and of course the dwarves such as Thorin and Balin. Avoiding too much detail for fear of spoilers, they serve a very large role in the story and are characterised well, having various memorable and entertaining moments.

There are other characters encountered at various points, and most memorable are the villains such as the twisted pseudo-hobbit Gollum, and of course the dragon Smaug. Their scenes interacting with Bilbo are some of the best and most entertaining in the book, but I won't spoil much about that except to say that the book would be well worth reading for those scenes alone. Fortunately they're only a small part of what makes it good.

That said, there is a big glaring flaw in that the novel itself is somewhat skewed on the subject of gender equality. While I doubt it was exactly deliberate, the novel does not actually feature a single female character, and I'm aware that this can be something of an understandable deal-breaker for some readers.

Bottom Line
This novel deserves its reputation as being one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written. While it isn't exactly perfect and suffers from a few problems that I've already pointed out, it's a greatly enjoyable story and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys stories about dragons and wizards. Maybe it'll appeal to you even if you don't enjoy stories about dragons and wizards, since it's one of those famously accessible children's stories that gets a lot of adult readership.  

I give The Hobbit, or There and Back Again the label of a Must Read story. It is such a great story that I would recommend it to just about anyone.


  1. The Hobbit is just a really charming book; for a genre where great big heroes like Conan or Lancelot were the norm, the humble little cast of hobbits and dwarves is extraordinary. The unlikely hero is a tad cliche now, but Bilbo's constant fish-out-of-water-ness and shock at his surroundings holds up even today. Shame about the lack of female characters in LOTR though; I mean for the dozens of colorful dwarves that Tolkein wrote up, dwarf women may as well not exist! I swear, there's less about women in the series than the Medieval stories he's drawing from.

    1. It's slightly improved in Lord of the Rings, with Arwen and Eowyn and Galadriel, but it's something that does still bug me personally.