I’ve been trying to keep my paper library to a manageable size, but I’m afraid of the quality of the kindle versions for old books. So I’ve been buying even more physical books. At least the books back then, like the people, were a lot thinner.
I need to be careful about my library management though. I briefly panicked that I had tossed my original copy of The Hobbit. It has a horrid, horrid cover, probably the worst The Hobbit cover ever, and I bought a nice, leatherbound copy several months ago (both are pictured below). But it was that ugly old paperback copy that my mom originally pressed on me that ignited my love of reading permanently, a love that has played no small part in all of this, as I alluded to in my announcement post.
This is my first time rereading The Hobbit in a long time. I am also reading it out loud for the first time (as a bonding experience with our newborn daughter).
Reading aloud, what struck me most was how Tolkien uses subtle changes in language to change the tone of the story. Tolkien can take the tone from comic to very, very tense very quickly and very effectively. This is particularly important early in the book. Later, we get wonderful passages like Smaug’s boasting:
“Revenge!” he snorted, and the light of his eyes lit the hall from floor to ceiling like scarlet lightning. “Revenge! The King under the Mountain is dead and where are his kin that dare seek revenge? Girion Lord of Dale is dead, and I have eaten his people like a wolf among sheep, and where are his sons’ sons that dare approach me? I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong, Thief in the Shadows!” he gloated. “My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
To be honest, no-angel doesn’t pay a lot of attention of attention while I read to her. But, by God, she got bug-eyed when I read that passage. Chesterton was right. (On another note, Smaug shouldn’t have been so dismissive of the descendants of Thror and Girion.)
Tolkien was a talented painter (that’s his artwork on the cover below). Is it any surprise he used such vivid imagery? Another thing I noticed about The Hobbit, and it stands in contrast with The Lord of the Rings, is how economical Tolkien is with his description. Almost everything gets some description, but it is usually a quick, one-word brushstroke. The Hobbit is very tightly drafted.
I’ve seen The Hobbit criticized as episodic and, one, I’m not sure why that is supposed to be a bad thing. But it also isn’t accurate. Tolkien does three things in almost every single chapter: there is some sort of action, another layer of worldbuilding is added, and Bilbo takes another step in his character arc. It is enormously efficient and effective storytelling. It also means there are no wasted chapters. Tolkien is always moving the ball, and he gets a lot done in a few pages. The Hobbit is less than two-thirds the length of The Fellowship of the Ring, but Tolkien makes every page count.
Another common knock on The Hobbit is that it is a “children’s book.” Again, that isn’t a bad thing—it’s refreshing in a day and age when live-action movies simply must be directed at adults (contrast the movies from this century with the original Dukes of Hazzard and Star Wars). But The Hobbit is so much more than that. It is both pulpier and better grist for tabletop gaming than The Lord of the Rings.
I was worried it wouldn’t hold up rereading it for over a decade after having read so much other great fiction. It absolutely does. I continue to hold to my position that The Hobbit is better than The Lord of the Rings (though I am not quite done with my reread of The Lord of the Rings). Queer Lodgings and Flies and Spiders may be the two best contiguous chapters in English literature. I’m finishing up my second reread this year (reading out loud was taking too long), and I won’t wait another 15 years to return to it.
5 of 5 Stars.
You can find all of my Tolkien 101 posts here.