A merrier world: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

The Hobbit isn’t as good a book as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a children’s book, for one thing, and it talks down to the reader. It’s not quite set in Middle Earth—or if it is, then it isn’t quite set in the Third Age. It isn’t pegged down to history and geography the way The Lord of the Rings is. Most of all, it’s a first work by an immature writer; journeyman work and not the masterpiece he would later produce. But it’s still an excellent book. After all, it’s not much of a complaint to say that something isn’t as good as the best book in the world.

If you are fortunate enough to share a house with a bright six year old, or a seven or eight year old who still likes bedtime stories, I strongly recommend reading them a chapter of The Hobbit aloud every night before bed. It reads aloud brilliantly, and when you do this it’s quite clear that Tolkien intended it that way. I’ve read not only The Hobbit but The Lord of the Rings aloud twice, and had it read to me once. The sentences form the rhythms of speech, the pauses are in the right place, they fall well on the ear. This isn’t the case with a lot of books, even books I like. Many books were made to be read silently and fast. The other advantage of reading it aloud is that it allows you to read it even after you have it memorised and normal reading is difficult. It will also have the advantage that the child will encounter this early, so they won’t get the pap first and think that’s normal.

I first read The Hobbit when I was eight. I went on to read The Lord of the Rings immediately afterwards, with the words “Isn’t there another one of those around here?” What I liked about The Hobbit that first time through was the roster of adventures. It seemed to me a very good example of a kind of children’s book with which I was familiar—Narnia, of course, but also the whole set of children’s books in which children have magical adventures and come home safely. It didn’t occur to me that it had been written before a lot of them—I had no concept as a child that things were written in order and could influence each other. The Hobbit fit into a category with At the Back of the North Wind and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and half of E. Nesbit.

The unusual thing about The Hobbit for me was that Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit and a grown up. He had his own charming and unusual house and he indulged in grown up pleasures like smoking and drinking. He didn’t have to evade his parents to go off on an adventure. He lived in a world where there were not only dwarves and elves and wizards but signs that said “Expert treasure hunter wants a good job, plenty of excitement and reasonable reward.” He lived a life a child could see as independent, with people coming to tea unexpectedly and with dishes to be done afterwards (this happened in our house all the time), but without any of the complicated adult disadvantages of jobs and romance. Bilbo didn’t want an adventure, but an adventure came and took him anyway. And it is “There and Back Again,” at the end he returns home with treasure and the gift of poetry.

Of course, The Lord of the Rings isn’t “another one of those.” Reading The Lord of the Rings immediately afterwards was like being thrown into deep magical water which I fortunately learned to breathe, but from which I have never truly emerged.

Reading The Hobbit now is odd. I can see all the patronizing asides, which were the sort of thing I found so familiar in children’s books that I’m sure they were quite invisible to me. I’ve read it many times between now and then, of course, including twice aloud, but while I know it extremely well I’ve never read it quite so obsessively that the words are carved in my DNA. I can find a paragraph I’d forgotten was there and think new thoughts when I’m reading it. That’s why I picked it up, though it wasn’t what I really wanted—but what I really wanted, I can’t read any more.

I notice all the differences between this world and the LOTR version of Middle Earth. I noticed how reluctant Tolkien is to name anything here—the Hill, the Water, the Great River, the Forest River, Lake Town, Dale—and this from the master namer. His names creep in around the edges—Gondolin, Moria, Esgaroth—but it’s as if he’s making a real effort to keep it linguistically simple. I find his using Anglo-Saxon runes instead of his own runes on the map unutterably sweet—he thought they’d be easier for children to read. (At eight, I couldn’t read either. At forty-five, I can read both.)

Now, my favourite part is the end, when things become morally complex. Then I don’t think I understood that properly. I understood Thorin’s greed for dragon gold—I’d read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and I knew how that worked. What puzzled me was Bilbo’s use of the Arkenstone, which seemed treacherous, especially as it didn’t even work. Bilbo didn’t kill the dragon, and the introduction of Bard at that point in the story seemed unprecedentedly abrupt—I wonder why Tolkien didn’t introduce him earlier, in the Long Lake chapter? But it’’s Bilbo’s information that allows the dragon to be killed, and that’s good enough for me, then or now.

Tolkien is wonderful at writing that hardest of all things to write well, the journey. It really feels as if he understands time and distance and landscape. Adventures come at just the right moments. Mirkwood remains atmospheric and marvellous. The geography comes in order that’s useful for the story, but it feels like real geography.

Noticing world differences, I’m appalled at how casually Bilbo uses the Ring, and surprised how little notice everyone else pays to it—as if such things are normal. Then it was just a magic ring, like the one in The Enchanted Castle. The stone giants—were they ents? They don’t seem quite ent-ish to me. What’s up with that? And Beorn doesn’t quite seem to fit anywhere either, with his performing animals and were-bearness.

The oddest thing about reading The Hobbit now is how (much more than The Lord of the Rings) it seems to be set in the fantasyland of roleplaying games. It’s a little quest, and the dwarves would have taken a hero if they could have found one, they make do with a burglar. There’s that sign. The encounters come just as they’re needed. Weapons and armour and magic items get picked up along the way. Kill the trolls, find a sword. Kill the dragon, find armour. Finish the adventure, get chests of gold and silver.

One more odd thing I noticed this time for the first time. Bilbo does his own washing up. He doesn’t have servants. Frodo has Sam, and Gaffer Gamgee, too. But while Bilbo is clearly comfortably off, he does his own cooking and baking and cleaning. This would have been unprededentedly eccentric for someone of his class in 1938. It’s also against gender stereotypes—Bilbo had made his own seedcakes, as why shouldn’t he, but in 1938 it was very unusual indeed for a man to bake. Bilbo isn’t a man, of course, he isn’t a middle class Englishman who would have had a housekeeper, he is a respectable hobbit. But I think because the world has changed to make not having servants and men cooking seem relatively normal we don’t notice that these choices must have been deliberate.

People often talk about how few women there are in LOTR. The Hobbit has none, absolutely none. I think the only mentions of women are Belladonna Took, Bilbo’s mother (dead before the story starts) Thorin’s sister, mother of Fili and Kili, and then Bilbo’s eventual nieces. We see no women on the page, elf, dwarf, human, or hobbit. But I didn’t miss them when I was eight and I don’t miss them now. I had no trouble identifying with Bilbo. This is a world without sex, except for misty reproductive purposes, and entirely without romance. Bilbo is such a bachelor that it doesn’t even need mentioning that he is—because Bilbo is in many ways a nominally adult child.

I think Bilbo is ambiguously gendered. He’s always referred to as “he,” but he keeps house and cooks, he isn’t brave except at a pinch—he’s brave without being at all macho, nor is his lack of machismo deprecated by the text, even when contrasted with the martial dwarves. Bilbo’s allowed to be afraid. He has whole rooms full of clothes. There’s a lot of the conventionally feminine in Bilbo, and there’s a reading here in which Bilbo is a timid houseproud cooking hostess who discovers more facets on an adventure. (I’m sure I could do something with the buttons popping off too if I tried hard enough.) Unlike most heroes, it really wouldn’t change Bilbo at all if you changed his pronoun. Now isn’t that an interesting thought to go rushing off behind without even a pocket handkerchief?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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