The Hobbit turns 75. September 22, 2012Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
This year, J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Hobbit, turns 75. Admittedly, that’s still pretty young compared to Bilbo Baggins’s 111 or Gandalf’s many centuries (if memory serves, Sir Ian McKellen, the actor who plays Gandalf in the movie series, believes him to be 700 years old). But it’s still a pretty good run. And now we Hobbit fans have not one but two things to look forward to: the release of the first part of “The Hobbit” movie series in December, and a new book, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen.
I discovered Mr. Olsen’s book in an article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “The Grown-Up Pleasures of ‘The Hobbit’.” (Find it at www.wsj.com.) In the article, Mr. Olsen makes the point that The Hobbit is not just a children’s book, that it has a great deal to offer adults. Our friend Ben couldn’t agree more. I’ve loved The Hobbit since I first read it in sixth grade, and it’s still my favorite of Tolkien’s works. It’s complex, driven by Professor Tolkien’s vast knowledge of Nordic, Celtic and Saxon mythology and literature, yet it’s also playful. It never takes itself too seriously, unlike his other and darker works.
But there is one point on which I disagree with Mr. Olsen: He praises Tolkien’s songs and poems in his article as the highlights of The Hobbit, decrying the fact that many readers dismiss them as irrelevant or don’t even bother to read them. Our friend Ben is a lifelong poet and lover of songs, but Tolkien’s just don’t do it for me. I understand why he included them—again, homage to the ancient literature he loved—but while he was a great prose writer, he was no poet. Mr. Olsen quotes the song of the goblins (“Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!”) as an example of why Professor Tolkien’s songs were so great. Uh, excuse me?
Our friend Ben prefers Tolkien’s love of maps, geography, and walking (as expressed by Bilbo and lovingly illustrated by his creator). Professor Tolkien spends as much time on the places he creates for his Middle Earth as on his characters, and I think it’s time well spent: Middle Earth comes alive for us, from the Shire to Rivendell to Mirkwood to the Misty Mountains to Gondor to the fiery heart of Mordor itself.
Professor Tolkien was a great storyteller and a great creator of character. But he also understood the importance of creating a compelling context in which his story can unfold, a world that we as readers can picture and lose ourselves in.
Reading The Hobbit, we can see ourselves in Bilbo’s home, Bag End, with its numerous pantries (and wish we, like the dwarves, could enjoy one of Bilbo’s freshly baked seed-cakes); we can see ourselves creeping like Bilbo into Smaug’s lair; we can see ourselves in Beorn’s home, lying terrified as we hear the roaring outside and praying that we’ll survive the night; we can see ourselves in Laketown when the dragon rises and comes to set us all on fire.
Point being that, even as we can see Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin and the rest in these situations, we can also see ourselves there. This is the secret of great storytelling: to make us not just want to read but to be part of the story.
Silence Dogood, reading over my shoulder, reminds me that this is also the secret of the unlikely success of a writer like Jane Austen, whose modest domestic period pieces should have gone the way of her contemporaries into obscurity when that period was past, but instead not only have endured as literary classics but have spawned a highly successful film industry and an entire category of fiction, the Regency romance. Like Professor Tolkien, Miss Austen was able to make her readers want to be part of the world she created, to be courted by Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley, to live happily ever after.
It is a great gift to be able to imagine a world and bring that world to life. J.R.R. Tolkien drew on his enormous erudition and, taking the best from it, did exactly that. Even 75 years later, The Hobbit is timeless, as enjoyable to read today as when it was first published. Our friend Ben can’t wait to see the movie and read Mr. Olsen’s book. But those songs and poems? Oh, please.