Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Hobbit: A Review (Part 1)

Disclaimer: The fact that I'm reviewing this right now has nothing to do with the release of the movie.

Note: Those of you who have read my "Of Significance..." page may remember that The Hobbit is listed there, so this is (by far) not my first reading of the book.

As I've mentioned, I'm teaching a creative writing class at my kids' school. When it was discussed, back at the beginning of the school year, about assigning them a book to read to go along with the class, I immediately suggested The Hobbit. It was not on the "short list;" it was the list. I really can't think of a better book from which to teach writing form. Also, there is the part about introducing the kids to great literature.

My choice of The Hobbit as a book I think everyone should read has nothing to do with it being a great book. I do think it's a great book, but, mostly, I think it's a simple book. And, when I say "simple," I mean "straightforward." It is not a book with a complicated and convoluted plot. It doesn't have hidden meanings and subtleties. It is what it says it is, a fantastical adventure story. That's why I wanted to use it for the creative writing class assignment.

If you want to look at plot arc, you can. The story follows only one protagonist, and there aren't any twining branches or confusing twists. It's just "hero gets into trouble"/"hero gets out of trouble." It's easy to look at and map out and, most importantly, it's easy for them to understand.

If you want to look at character development, you can. Bilbo is not the same person at the end of the story as he is going in, and you can see the changes as they happen, and that's good for these young writers to see. Especially, it is good for them to see in a literary world where so few characters do any real changing these days other than becoming awesome fighters through some brief training montage. Actually, as I'm typing this, I think The Hobbit should be required reading for anyone hoping to be an author. These days, it's all about "voice," but I really don't care how good your voice is if your protagonist doesn't grow within the story. If the protagonist doesn't change, your story falls flat. [And, now, I'm thinking of a ton of books that I have been less than pleased with, and I think this is the reason: no character growth.]

If you want to look at how to deliver a message within a story, The Hobbit has that, too. Not hidden or veiled messages but messages told through the repercussions of the actions of the characters. I mean, you can't get more clear than when someone tells you to stay on the trail, you need to do it. And, no, that's not really what I'm talking about, but I don't want to get into the specifics until I actually get into the review. The book does, though, have strong messages about greed and war in particular.

The Hobbit, in many ways, is the perfect introduction to reading. It's a clear story that most of us can actually relate to in some way. It has humor and sorrow. It's fast and it's fun. It's simple enough for a child yet full of things only an adult can understand. It's the story that you would beg your grandfather to tell on a cold night in front of the fireplace, and Tolkien tells it that way. Right down to the hypothetical question, "What is a hobbit?" right in the middle of the narration. In short, the story is delightful. And scary. And exciting. And sad. It is full of life and what life is, and, yes, I think everyone should read it. Earlier is better than later, but, if you missed it when you were 10 or 12, there is always time to go back and make up for it.

Having said that, no, I don't think everyone will love it or, even, like it, but it's one of those things -- like chocolate or cheese -- that you just need to taste. Skipping it entirely is too much of a risk.


  1. It's a good story, well told, and one that I go back to sample every few years.

    What's always amazing to me is how incredibly different--in complexity, depth, and tone--it is from The Lord of the Rings. They are very different books.

  2. I agree it is definitely a great story. I read it in 6 or 7th grade. Wasn't the Witch, The Lion and The Wardrobe like a sequel to The Hobbit also?

  3. I don't remember it, reading was never encouraged when I was growing up... wait, that isn't entirely true, I suppose it was, but something like the Hobbit was never, ever, presented to me in any way I can imagine.

    By the time I was capable of making my own decisions I was getting choose those Ripley's Believe it Or Not Books, or Guinness Book of World Records, or... no joke... the World Almanac.

    Yes, I could tell you the population of the 20 largest U.S. Cities, the largest natural disasters in world history (complete with death counts), the batting average of the league leaders in baseball for the previous century.

    It really was a marvelous book. I read it daily, and eagerly awaited each years new installment, which didn't change much year over year, but I realized that as you move towards the center of the book, starting in any direction, those tidbits of info didn't change as much. So I eventually adopted getting one every few years instead.

    Anyway, I would spend whole afternoons with my nose in that thing, as well as the other books I mentioned. I'm not really sure why, except that knowing 'stuff' was important to me.

    When the internet came around, I was ruined for about a decade. Yeah, I'd say from 1994 or so until about 2004ish, I did my best to learn everything the internet could teach me. Eventually though, I realized my brain couldn't hold all that stuff and I finally just gave up. Seriously, I can go on a research binge on occasion now, but it isn't the same.

    Wow. I didn't realize how that might be weird until I just typed that out, just now. That just sounds odd to me. That I was that way as a kid.

    Anyway, what I didn't have, was any knowledge of The Hobbit until I was an adult. I think I may have seen the cartoon when I was a kid, but didn't realize it was based on the book. So, when I did know about it, I never wanted to read it, because it was a children's story written 60 years prior. So I missed that boat.

    I do intend on reading it now, but I don't expect to enjoy it very much. I don't have those childhood memories that I think might be necessary for it to really be special.

  4. It has been a long while since I read the book. You make me want to read it again. Only, this time as a writer rather than for pure literary enjoyment.

  5. The Hobbit is one of my favorite books. Depending on the day, I actually prefer it over the entire LotR trilogy. It's just like you said, simple and effective. Bilbo is the ultimate reluctant hero turned bad ass.
    I laughed when you mentioned the ultra-cliched training montage that sums up modern characters' growth in the space of a single paragraph or chapter. My story (the one I won't shut up about) has a brief training montage... But in my defense, it does the hero absolutely no good! [late spoiler alert]

  6. JeffO: The Hobbit was written as a bedtime story; The Lord of the Rings was written as a mythology. The amazing thing is that the same person wrote both things.

    G_G: No, Lewis wrote Narnia. Tolkien hated them.

    Rusty: You're not atypical in your interest in fact-based books as a kid. That is the normal route for boys.
    And you may surprise yourself with The Hobbit. I wouldn't have read as many times as I have just for the sake of nostalgia. I mean, I don't re-read Anthony.

    Elsie: You should!

    David: The Hobbit is certainly more accessible to the average reader than LotR. I'm not sure I could call one of them a favorite over the other. It's like apples and oranges. Even if you like apples better and eat them more often, an apple won't do if you want an orange.

  7. Many years ago my kids played the Carmen San Diego games and you had to answer riddles to move on in the game. One of the games in that series had riddles with answers based on The Hobbit which is how I got my kids interested in reading The Hobbit, but there were also riddles in the same game with answers from the Narnia series which may have had me thinking the two were connected. I guess I should have looked it up. Thanks though for the clarification of the two.

  8. Haven't read it in a loooooong time. I actually prefer LOTR, but you make a great case for using it as a teaching tool for showing story arc. Classic hero's journey, and with unique, imaginative characters that none of us had ever seen before. Deserves all the praise it gets.

  9. G_G: Well, Lewis and Tolkien were best buds, so I can understand where the confusion would come in.

    L.G.: LotR is a much deeper and I love it, too, but for different reasons.

  10. The Hobbit is one of those books that I didn't love or hate. It was well-written and I can see why people love it, but it never sparked anything in me. I guess sometimes it's hard for me to get into a book with virtually no female characters.

  11. Agreed! It was my fave book as a kid, and still is. It's just as you say, git everything a good story needs.
    Cool you're teaching at your kids school. I love doing those creative sessions. I need to do more!

  12. I discovered The Hobbit and I, Robot in elementary school, and I was off! They created my love of reading. I haven't read I, Robot since then, yet it still sticks with me. I've read The Hobbit a couple times and intend to start reading it with my son when we finish the Harry Potter series.

  13. Definitely a classic--and I completely agree with you about the character arc thing. If the characters don't learn and grow, you've got a stagnant story. Period.

  14. Jeanne: Virtually no female characters? Wait, are you saying there's a female character in there that I missed?
    One the one hand, I can get that. However... However, I have no way of responding to that in a concise manner.

    Pk: Yeah, most of the time, it's pretty great. Then there are those other times...

    Shannon: I have never been a huge fan of "I, Robot." I love the robot novels and the Foundation stuff, but I could never get into the short stories.

    Crystal: Yeah, it makes me wonder why so many stories where the character(s) doesn't change do so well.

  15. You're actually convincing me to go back and read The Hobbit again. I didn't read it as a child...I picked it up as a summer beach read one year, as a precursor to reading the LOTR trilogy, so I could get them all covered before the movies came out.

    So now I've read and reread the LOTR books, but The Hobbit I just cannot get into. Once was enough. Maybe I just need to stop looking for stuff that isn't there. I can't expect it to be like LOTR when it isn't.

    The Narnia books I did read as a child and still do read today. You're right, Lewis and Tokien were the best of friends, and Tolkien absolutely hated Narnia. He was so irritated that Tolkien incorporated already known myths into the story, like Santa Claus, instead of creating an all-original world.

  16. I read it as an adult and in fact, don't really remember it. other than enjoying it, that is. You have now inspired me to go back and read it again.

  17. RG: Well, Tolkien also hated allegory, so everything about Narnia bothered him. But Lewis took all in stride and didn't let it come between them. It took a woman to do that. heh

    Jo: Good! It's worth a re-read!

  18. Without a doubt, one of the most important books in my life. It changed the way I read for all of the reasons you mentioned. Thorin's final words to Bilbo is one of my favorite passages in all of literature, containing a fair summation of my own world outlook.

  19. TAS: Yeah, that's a great scene and one that you would mostly not see in current books. Death of characters, especially important characters, is so uncommon.

  20. I read the Hobbit first as a kid, and loved it. I've re-read it since, as an adult, and loved it then too. I think one of the major reasons I'm so tied to this book is that I love my specific copy of it - an old, floppy paperback that was a hand-me-down from a cousin he accidentally left behind in a hand-me-down school desk I was bequeathed. ;)

  21. Trisha: Most of the books I've had that I had a specific attachment to the actual, physical book have had to go away because they fell apart. You can only tape them back together so many times.

    Lisa: Yea!
    As long as you're not talking about the movie.