Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: The Hobbit


File:TheHobbit FirstEdition.jpg

The Hobbit (1937), J. R. R. Tolkien. Paperback, 320 pages.

Summary: An unassuming hobbit finds himself swept up in a fantastic adventure that tests his loyalty, courage, and ingenuity. This is the one that kick-started the fantasy genre, and that presented a lot of the characters and archetypes that would be copied in later literature. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
     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 eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.
Excerpt:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays kings, ruins town,
And beats high mountains down.
     Poor Bilbo sat in the dark thinking of all the horrible names of all the giants and ogres he had ever heard told of in tales, but not one of them had done all these things. He had a feeling that the answer was quite different and that he ought to know it, but he could not think of it. He began to get frightened, and that is bad for thinking. Gollum began to get out of his boat. He flapped into the water and paddled to the bank; Bilbo could see his eyes coming towards him. His tongue seemed to stick in his mouth; he wanted to shout out: "Give me more time! Give me more time!" But all that came out with a sudden squeal was:
Time! Time!
Bilbo was saved by pure luck. For that of course was the answer. Gollum was disappointed once more; and now he was getting angry, and also tired of the game. It had made him very hungry indeed. This time he did not go back to the boat. He sat down in the dark by Bilbo. That made the hobbit most dreadfully uncomfortable and scattered his wits.
     "It's got to ask uss a question, my preciouss, yes, yess, yesss. Jusst one more question to guess, yes, yess," said Gollum.

STATS

Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 6/10

Rounded Characters: 5/10

Well-Developed World: 8/10

Page Turner: 9/10

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10
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Overall Recommendation: 7/10


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 6/10. I've had a little more time to think about Tolkien's writing skill, and I'm tempted to bump this up to a 7 (I scored The Fellowship of the Ring a 6, too, and I'm thinking about that for the same reasons). This is a category where I typically award points for a certain stylistic "flair," an ability to craft a sentence cleverly and subtly such that, at its greatest, "beautiful" or "revelatory" would be appropriate descriptions. I wouldn't generally use these kinds of phrases for Tolkien's writing, which is why I'm leaving him at a respectable 6. But there's something he's got that so many other popular writers don't have these days. He's got a well-developed and distinctive "voice," one that implies long experience as a writer and as a storyteller. It's not overly ornate, though it does feel reminiscent (in a good way) of the great tales he worked on academically, stuff like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. With frequent asides from the narrator to the reader, you get a sense that this is a story that could have been told a thousand years ago by a professional storyteller. As much as anything, I'm impressed by the consistency of his narrative voice; it's entirely appropriate to his tale, and it never feels like it's trying too hard. It feels authentic, at the same time that it harks back to more ancient times. That's no mean feat, especially in comparison to what you find on the bestseller lists these days.

Depth of Concept: 6/10. I was looking at my stats comparison page while scoring this category. The Hobbit sometimes seems to lack the richness and complicated themes found in The Fellowship of the Ring, opting for being more of a fun romp in a magical world than a sober reflection on loyalty, sacrifice, and redemption. That's not a bad thing . . . it just means that you'd be less likely to read this one with multiple competing interpretations in mind. As I score this a 6, it makes me wonder if I should also bump Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (I scored it a 4 in this category) up to a 5. Really, I think the two are probably analogous in a lot of ways, mostly good ways. The Hobbit probably edges out Harry Potter by gently infusing its story with scholarly elements of mythopoesis and playing with classical archetypes quite originally. But when it comes down to it, you probably aren't going to read The Hobbit to be intellectually stimulated; you're going to read it to have a good time.

Rounded Characters: 5/10. This, I felt, was the novel's weakest category. It's not bad, exactly; a 5 is simply a score that suggests it doesn't stand out particularly from the pack. While one could argue for heartbreaking nuance in the LOTR development of Gollum's character, or of Samwise Gamgee's friendship, or Frodo's grueling endure-to-the-end gauntlet of hardships, you'd be hardpressed to find ways that the characters in The Hobbit change or grow in meaningful ways. Though Bilbo is made out to be a humble character at the start, he has little difficulty extracting his companions from one precarious situation after another. This makes for fun reading, but not for particularly realistic characters. Still, I never felt that any of the characters were stilted, silly, or amateurish, as is easy to find from Tolkien's imitators (The Sword of Shannara, The Eye of the WorldWizard's First Rule, Eragon). Some of the characters feel a little bit like place-fillers, but the richly described world they inhabit mostly makes up for it.

Well-Developed World: 8/10. Tolkien is the quintissential world-builder. The Hobbit is lighter in this category than what Tolkien ultimately does in The Fellowship of the Ring and its sequels (which deserve a full 10), but it's still an impressive achievement. Without bogging the story down in esoteric details or pace-killing asides, Tolkien manages to describe a world that feels steeped in myth and legend, with magic and mystery extending far beyond the smaller part of the world that Bilbo and his companions travel through. You'll find the elvish and dwarven languages that Tolkien is famous for creating, but the device is used sparingly and fits smoothly into little places in the story here and there, offering subtle little glimpses into a world that is much more than just the words on the page. Of particular note is the way that Tolkien avoids the clumsy info-dumps that so many of his imitators can't help including. Even in this story that offers dwarven genealogies and creatures never encountered in any text before, the descriptions of the world and its characters feel organic and fitting. It feels like a well-loved fairy-tale, passed down from generation to generation.

Page Turner: 9/10. Ultimately, the world-building and pacing of this story are what really make it a winner. At the same time that Tolkien manages to convince us of a world rich with mythology and customs that echo convincingly of the Old English tales that he studied academically, he also manages an exceptionally lively, engaging pace. It's actually a little amazing to note the differences between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. When I was a kid and reading LOTR, I'm pretty sure there were long portions that I skipped in order to get to the "good parts." Now that I've gone back and revisited The Hobbit, I'm pretty sure that there was nothing in it that I skipped. It's all "good parts." It moves from episode to episode almost as quickly as does Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. By contrast, something like Eragon feels like a huge dead weight. 

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10. This isn't a book that you read to think. I recall saying much the same about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I mean, with Tolkien's prominence and with his intellectual background, there's stuff here you could dissect. But really, this is a book you read to go on a rollicking ride through a rich fantasy world, with plenty of spell-casting, battles, and humor to spare. You might get some mileage out of drawing parallels between the episodes in the story and moments in something like Beowulf; but you don't get the sense that Tolkien is intending for you to see those things. Rather, he seems to want to entertain. And if you just sit back and enjoy the ride, entertain you it will.
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Overall Recommendation: 7/10. This is a fun read, from cover to cover. It's light, so don't expect it to cause you to re-evaluate your life or anything. But at the same time that it's light-hearted, it also bears the marks of an intelligent author, one who appreciates the literature of his cultural heritage, and who weaves his expertise into a story perfectly suited for kids and adults. His masterwork is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you could get by without reading The Hobbit. But if you're going to bother reading LOTR, you may as well read this one first. It would make a fun introduction, it would be interesting to note the tonal shift between the two stories set in the same world, and it's a pretty short read. Great holiday reading, in my opinion.

Books To Compare: Most modern fantasy stories use something by Tolkien as a foundational comparison point. In this instance, we have to go back further. I mean, sure, someone like Robert E. Howard was probably writing some of his Conan the Barbarian stuff even before Tolkien published The Hobbit. But that was the stuff of pulps, not really Tolkien's bag, if you know what I mean. Given Tolkien's academic background, it's a lot easier to see where he draws from Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. C.S. Lewis suggested that The Hobbit would compare favorably with Flatland and the Wind in the Willows. And in terms of its fairy-tale qualities, you could probably look at what the brothers Grimm did,  both of whom were philologists and respected scholars as well. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out The Hobbit on Amazon.

*Update* Check out the Tor blog which presents a bunch of artwork for the Hobbit. Cool stuff.

20 comments:

  1. I wish I had time to counter point you on this, because I think you are completely undervaluing this book. The Hobbit is one of only 3 books I would say that pretty much everyone needs to read.
    Writing quality: at least a 9
    Depth of concept: at least an 8, probably a 9 (if you have it at 6, you haven't looked very deep)
    Rounded characters: at least an 8 (again, you haven't looked deep enough)
    World: a 10 period -- no one has ever developed a world like Middle Earth unless they were copying Middle Earth.
    And if you only have a 5 on kept you thinking, again, you just haven't read deeply enough.
    Okay, so I king of counterpointed you, but I could be more in depth on those things if I had time to do so.

    I get not seeing past the surface of The Hobbit. It's written in a light style (it was a bedtime story for his kids, after all) and it's a quick read, so that makes it easy to skim over the depths of the book without realizing they're there.

    Go back and look again at the character development of Bilbo and Thorin. Look at where they start and where they end, and I think you will see a depth of character not much seen in literature, especially literature meant primarily for kids. Look at the statements on war and greed in the book, and you'll see Tolkien dealing with major themes. And those are just the tips.
    Gah! I could just go on, but I don't have time! Just, you should look at it again. More slowly and more deeply.

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    1. Yes! I love to get this kind of debate.

      To go point by point:

      Writing quality: Tolkien is solid. And a 6 is above average, and I admitted it might be a 7. But if I were to take a single sentence or couple of sentences out of his novel and compare them with, say, something from Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I don't think you'd be oohing and ahing over Tolkien describing something better than anyone's ever described it. Here's the thing: I don't think he was particularly trying to wow anyone with his prose. He seems to have deliberately chosen a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense style that definitely works for his purposes. But I don't think his purpose is to craft beautiful prose; it's to tell an engaging story.

      On depth of concept: I know that Tolkien is a thoughtful guy...but I'd argue that he reserved most of his more detailed, complicated explorations for the LOTR. Again, a 6 is still respectable. I've got a lot of books I respect at a 6 in this category. Ultimately, this category is about offering room for multiple meaningful interpretations, which a 6 suggests is above average, but I just don't think it trumps, say, The Once and Future King, or Perdido Street Station, for instance. And since I think LOTR is a 9, and much more nuanced and developed, I really have to put the Hobbit a few rungs lower.

      Rounded Characters: There's plenty of fudge room in other categories, but this is probably the one I feel least able to budge on. I think Tolkien made FUN characters, but there's no way I'd put Bilbo or Thorin anywhere close to Ishmael of Ahab (Moby Dick), at the top, or even Ender (Ender's Game) or Lancelot (The Once and Future King) a few rungs down. Would you argue that Bilbo or Thorin has the same sort of "roundedness" that Frodo, Sam, or Gollum has in the LOTR? Because I wouldn't.

      World: I put LOTR at a 10. Considering just the Hobbit on its own? Not a 10, though still pretty impressive.

      Keeping me thinking: This is one of the more subjective categories. Even a book that has a really impressive depth of concept (allows for multiple conflicting but meaningful interpretations), may be written with such a light and break-neck pace that it's hard to spend a lot of time musing about what's going on. That's what The Hobbit does for me...and it's because Tolkien really opts for telling a rousing good tale over lingering over concepts or dilemmas. Because the Fellowship was slower, more drawn out, spent more time with dire situations and their consequences, it allowed/forced me to spend more time thinking about what I was reading.

      I think you've got a point when thinking about ideas of war and greed in the novel...there's substantial stuff there. But does that stuff compare with what Cormac McCarthy does with the same concepts in The Road, for instance? Or what Kim Stanley Robinson does in Red Mars? I'd argue not, not in terms of detail or nuance.

      Really, though, we may be splitting hairs to some extent. We both love the book. It's just that I think it's a great supplement to other stuff I identify more strongly with, and you think it should be the first required reading for every kid in college. I'd probably be more inclined to give that honor to Moby-Dick, The Road, or Never Let Me Go. Or, even The Fellowship of the Ring.

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    2. Again, not having time, and not really having time to come and type this, I have to say that there's something you're probably not seeing in all of this, and I don't really know how to get into that right now.
      BUT!
      Back when I was in college, I had a friend that would go on and on about how Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time was superior to Tolkien. Part of the issue with that was that WoT would not have even been possible without Tolkien. There is a certain amount of... integratedness... you get from setting the foundation of something. When other things can't exist without what you've done. Some of the things you've mentioned rely on Tolkien to be able to achieve what they've done.

      A couple of points:
      1. I enjoyed Once and Future but it never struck me deeply.
      2. I would argue that Bilbo and Thorin are more developed as characters than Ishmael or Ender because they are not the same at the other end of the journey. They learn and grow. As much as I love Moby Dick, the characters are rather static. Same for Ender, essentially.
      3. I would not put Moby Dick or even LotR on required reading for most people simply because they are just too dense and complex for most people to "get," which is precisely what makes Hobbit so incredible. -Anyone- can read it. Anyone. It's fast paced, a quick read, and delivers it's more obvious points in a way that anyone can understand without having to think too hard about it. But you can go back to it and look under that surface level and find other things that you don't see from the quick read. That's the genius of the book, and that's why I say everyone should read it. I mean, if you -can't- get through The Hobbit, there's no way you'll be able to read LotR, Moby, or Once and Future; therefore, it serves as an excellent starting point, and there's something to be said for that. A lot, actually.
      I've not read any book more than I've read Hobbit.

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    3. On your "couple of points":

      1. Better read T.H. White again. How else will you ever understand Magneto?
      2. I think Ishmael can legitimately be an interesting sort of enigma...but I'll argue to the death that what he discovers about others and the world around him is about as transcendent as it is possible for literature to be. Just the process of his discovery, to me, makes his character incredibly complex, though I agree that there's room to argue how much he is changed at the end. Part of this has to do with the "depth of concept" of Moby-Dick; there's so incredibly much stuff packed into it that you can argue it from about a million different angles.

      As far as Ender...this I'm willing to concede MIGHT be more of a preference thing. And I'm not saying he's the most nuanced character ever...but I do think there's interesting stuff to be found in the way he applies things learned in school-yard conflicts to species-wide ones, and all along he wonders about it, trying to figure it out, trying to decide at each escalation whether he is justified. I'd argue that he encounters terrible trials and DOES come out on the other side a different person.

      3. The name of this blog IS "English major versus the world," after all! Ha. The purpose of it is to point out genre stuff to people who usually dismiss it as inferior or unsophisticated, so I'm not necessarily making recommendations for the kinds of people who made Terry Goodkind (or even Robert Jordan or David Eddings) a best-selling novelist.

      I think you make a good argument for The Hobbit being particularly accessible, and I think my "page-turner" category specifically addresses that. But I totally agree that it IS a special book that has a lot to offer both kids and adults, and it's worth considering whether a book that has that quality is worth extra because of that.

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    4. That's kind of what I'm saying about it: Tolkien wrote the quintessential book in that it is imminently accessible yet deal with real struggles and issues and imparts deep and important lessons. "Don't stay stuck in tradition." "Learn to share." "War is bad." "Stand up for your friends." I could go on and on. In this fairly simple story, Tolkien packs so much wisdom and depth, and it can be hard to see because, mostly, it's lighthearted and fun, but the character of Bilbo and how he grows from just this stay-at-home hobbit to someone that is mature and wise is important. Possibly the most important. In fact, the only static (main) character in the book is Gandalf (for obvious reasons), so there is a lot of growth in the characters and depth.

      I probably do need to read White again, but I don't need White to understand Magneto. At all.
      And I want to read more of the Ender stuff, because I've only read the first one, but I haven't gotten around to buying them.

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    5. Also, you may already have seen this, Andrew, but the Tor blog has a really interesting post about the way Middle Earth illustrators perceive The Hobbit vs. LOTR. They're not all scholars, but their perspectives made me think.

      http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/05/the-hobbit-or-lord-of-the-rings-an-artists-perspective

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  2. Every once in a while, Neal's reviews make me want to read the book (even though I am almost exclusively a nonfiction reader). In this case, the Neal-Andrew smackdown makes me want to read it -- I can't wait to see what other people have to say! And maybe if I have a free minute during the holidays, I will give The Hobbit a try.

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    1. You can usually count on an Andrew-Neal smackdown. The winner is determined by votes which go in a box which is then tossed into the ocean, never to be seen again.

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    2. Haha! This is how I'm going to start settling my own disputes :D

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  3. LOL
    Hey, we don't always go at it. I mean, even though you have an inexplicable liking of Hunger Games, we both do agree that Goodkind has written some of the worst excrement ever.

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    1. I only gave the Hunger Games a "5" ! Though I'd read it in a heartbeat over Goodkind.

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  4. So, now that you've read this, do you think there's enough in it to fill a trilogy? :-)

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    1. You know, it's hard to say. I usually feel like adaptations rush things, going for the fireworks and skipping through everything else. The way most movies are made, I'd say this is a one-movie book. But maybe there's something to be said for taking a little more time and not having to make a sloppy job of tying everything together. We'll just have to see if it comes out feeling bloated or not.

      There was an article on theonion.com about how there's a 53-minute scene in which Bilbo just sort of fusses about trying to decide what he's going to pack for the journey. Funny stuff.

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    2. http://www.theonion.com/articles/the-hobbit-to-feature-53minutelong-scene-of-bilbo,30727/

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  5. In my humble opinion...the best developed character and most intriguing was Gollum. Smaug was runner-up (If he hadn't been so easily killed). The subtle, sinister undertones of Bilbo's encounters with them were what I think this book needed more of. I thought the big battle at the end was...I don't know the word--too concise? Then the eagles swooping in to save them--too simple? I don't know. I think you know how I feel about things working out way too easily.

    Overall, I agree with your scoring. If I used your system, I probably would've bumped writing style up a notch. And I would need someone to provide an explication to convince me this book had greater depth (it's not THAT deep) The layers just aren't there. But it's still a good, solid story. A lot better than many many others.

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    1. Yeah, I think Gollum is one of my favorite but also most tragic characters in the series. They do a really good job bringing him to life in the films, too.

      And I agree, the battle at the end was a bit of an afterthought. Of course, Tolkien makes up for that in LOTR.

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  6. Nice review, it reminds me of so many of the things I like about this one.

    I'd tend to disagree with the writing quality score, but given that the overall score is still pretty high, I think it all comes out in the wash. I always thought his style in The Hobbit was something of a quiet, poetic, almost austere, beauty. Your first sentences quote stands out to me as a great example of what I liked about the style.

    I kind of wonder if when you say "flair" you maybe mean something more like "boldness" or "audacious"? I can certainly think of many other authors who display a style that is easier to immediately appreciate, but I'd say "flair" is exactly what Tolkien exhibits in using simple, direct, and clever phrasing to tell a story that you describe yourself as something that sounds like it "could have been told a thousand years ago by a professional storyteller". I don't know, maybe that's not enough to bring it up much past a 6 or 7 but for what it's worth, I really appreciate his style.

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    1. Really a delightful story; not sure I'd say it changed my life, but really enjoyable, and well crafted. On the writing quality...I might bump it up to a 7. I'd have to think about an 8. I just think that Tolkien's great ability is not as a prose artist, but as a creator of worlds. His storytelling voice is supremely CONSISTENT, which often seems a hard note to hit these days when you've got a bunch of poorly trained or not very experienced authors hitting best-selling lists. It doesn't call attention to itself (sometimes a good thing), but by the same token I don't feel that there's a lot of subtlety to it. It might end up being a preference thing.

      Still, at some point in the future I'm probably going to have to revisit all my scores and decide whether and how much to revise them.

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  7. I mean, sure, someone like Robert E. Howard was probably writing some of his Conan the Barbarian stuff even before Tolkien published The Hobbit. But that was the stuff of pulps, not really Tolkien's bag, if you know what I mean.

    Howard's first Conan story was published in 1932, a whole five years before The Hobbit.

    Incidentally, there are anecdotes that Tolkien did read and enjoy Howard - Christopher Tolkien and L. Sprague de Camp have both mentioned it - however, he probably didn't actually get a chance to read his stuff until it was already out in book form in the '50s and '60s. There's also this:

    http://www.tolkienlibrary.com/tolkien-book-store/000333.htm

    Nonetheless, Tolkien was almost certainly not influenced by Howard in writing TH or LOTR, which was the main thrust of your point.

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    1. Interesting to hear of Tolkien's (later) interest in Howard, and I'll enjoy checking out that other old dude when I can. I keep meaning to pick up some of his stuff from the library. Thanks for the intriguing link!

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