Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: A Review (Part 2)

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.

Part 1 of this review is here.

It is of great interest to me that Tolkien is considered the "father of modern fantasy" when so much of modern fantasy has nothing to do with what or the way Tolkien wrote. While it's true that The Hobbit is a classic fantasy story, it is not classic in the sense that it uses all the normal conventions of fantasy. In fact, despite that many (most?) people would say that modern fantasy is largely based on Tolkien, you will find few to none of what we consider basic fantasy tropes in The Hobbit (or The Lord of the Rings).

One of the most common bits of fantasy literature is the young, male protagonist. Young often means teenager. Most often, probably. The last couple of decades have finally brought us a bevy of female protagonists, but, still, youth is the most common theme. Bilbo, however, is not young. He's not even what we would consider middle-aged. He's not quite "old," but he's definitely on his way. Definitely "established" and definitely set in his ways. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other piece of fantasy literature that's like that except The Lord of the Rings, because Frodo (and the other hobbits), also, is not young (something Peter Jackson conveniently forgot). [And it's not one of these things where hobbits are old but still young like elves can be, because hobbits are Tolkien's stand-ins for humans and age about the same way (when Bilbo is turning 111 in LotR, he is old, as in really old, as in ancient).] The closest other thing I can think of is Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, who is not old but is definitely not young.

The next piece is that this young protagonist is frequently (almost always) an orphan of some kind. Maybe, s/he has one of his/her parents, but the protagonist generally has lost at least one of them and almost always to some kind of violent circumstance. Maybe this is why the orphan princess is so common in Disney? Bilbo is definitely not an orphan. Which is not to say that his parents are alive, because they're  not, but, then, he's 50, and there is no indication that they died of anything other than old age. Or, maybe, boredom.

Then there is the requisite prophecy about the protagonist. The list of fantasy literature which feature a prophecy would probably exceed my usual word count, so I'll just remind everyone of Harry Potter and how he fits all three of these so far. Even The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has a prophecy. The Hobbit contains no prophecy (neither does LotR). There is nothing "special" about Bilbo in that sense. He has not been chosen by fate to do what he does. This is a story about a hobbit that rises to the occasion. It's more like your boss at work needing a job done, choosing the person the boss thinks is most qualified, and that person choosing to do it.

And there is no "party" of adventurers. No, the dwarves don't count, because they're all interchangeable on the whole. And Gandalf abandons them half way through. So there's no wizard, no fighter, no ranger, no healer, none of that stuff we expect to find among the heroes band of followers. Just the burglar, and that's Bilbo.

Possibly the biggest break from convention is that Bilbo is not the valiant warrior that "saves the day" in the end. He does not slay the dragon, and he does not defeat the goblin army. He's not even conscious for most of that. Bilbo is a hero of another type, let's say a moral hero, which is so much more important and believable. Bilbo's bravest moment is when he walks down the tunnel to see the dragon. Not to fight the dragon, just to see him. I love that bit:
Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
And his most significant contribution to the end of the story is standing up against his friends when they are set on a wrong path. Neville Longbottom's stand against his friends and Dumbledore's rewarding of it very much reminded me of Bilbo handing the Arkenstone over to Bard.

Basically, despite what everyone says about "all fantasy" being based on Tolkien, almost no fantasy is based on Tolkien. What Tolkien did was original and, amazingly, remains original to this day. No one else has written a story like The Hobbit (and, although people have attempted stories like The Lord of the Rings, no one has succeeded), and I have to wonder if that's because the story becomes so much bigger in our minds after we read it. Bilbo becomes this larger than life hero that he's really not in the book, and that's, frankly, amazing. We remember him fighting the spiders and riddling with Gollum and the dragon, but we forget that it's Bard that kills the dragon and the Eagles that save the day in the Battle of Five Armies. It really is like what Gandalf tells him in the end:
You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.
We don't tend to have characters like that in our fantasy. Our protagonists are huge, essential characters who have the fate of the world hanging on their shoulders, and Bilbo is not that kind of hero.

He's just a guy that learns that he's capable of more than he believes he is, and I think that's an important lesson to learn. And I love that we see that change through the pages of The Hobbit. He goes from being a guy that runs away from just the idea of an adventure, of anything different, to the guy that gets them all caught by trolls, to the guy that everyone depends upon. There's no unlocking of the secret, magical talent that only he possesses; there is only Bilbo learning to use the "gifts" that everyone is given. There is only Bilbo deciding to go instead of stay and to do instead of not. It is Tolkien telling us that there is a bit of the Tookish inside of all of us... if only we can wake it up.


  1. Although I can't speak to anything regarding the Hobbit, I'll mention that while LOTR is probably the father of modern fantasy in the way that there is a quest and a band of travelers that have to complete it or the world is doomed.

    I love the LOTR books, but in order for me to really appreciate them, I have to remember that they, more or less, appeared from the vacuum as these fully formed books that really managed to influence so many of the writers of the stories I know now.

    But your right that they aren't the sole influence, probably just the most identifiable (well, I could probably make an argument that the Jesus story has become bit of a trope with the orphan/wanderer/warrior/martyr character arc that many stories follow for their lead nowadays.

    But I'm glad you've pointed out the differences. It is still on my tbr list, I'll get to The Hobbit before I die... unless I die before I complete my list, which is likely, but hopefully it's not so far down.

  2. I simply have to re-read it.

  3. I haven't read it since 4th grade so thanks for spoiling the ending. I started some fantasy book last year and it involved that whole Chosen One thing, so eventually I got bored and stopped reading because I already knew how the story was going to play out.

  4. Your post makes me want to go back and read the book again. I definitely like how you summed it up in this review. Great post!

  5. Rusty: Well, LotR actually has the anti-quest, so the only real way it fits into what has become the modern mold is with the companions, but Tolkien doesn't even keep them together for long. Overall, almost no time at all. And Frodo, also, is 50 when the whole thing with the Ring starts.

    But I have a different theory about where this whole mold comes from that I'm going to try to get to soon.

    Jo: You simply must.

    GP: Oh, come on, I'm sure you've seen the animated version.

    G_G: Well, you should go back and read it again, then!

  6. It's been so long since I've read The Hobbit. I certainly didn't remember it being such a non-trope filled book. It's funny how set in their ways fantasy books have become since it was written.

  7. Jeanne: It is funny, but I also think I know where that comes from, but that's for a different post.

  8. I actually read this yesterday but then didn't get a chance to comment until today, so it's been fermenting in my brain.

    First, like everyone else here, I didn't recall the book all that well. I remember the party at Bilbo's house, the trolls and Gollum, riding the barrels, and that was about it. I didn't recall Bard at all or the Battle of Five Armies, nothing.

    I think you're right in that people give Tolkien a lot of credit, maybe more than he deserves, but he did some things that I don't think had been done much before him, if at all. His world was fully formed; I don't know if he drew those maps or not but he obviously put a lot of thought into the different regions and even the various parts of The Shire, let alone the interactions in the characters. He invented myths for the characters, and languages, too. I daresay his elves and dwarves were probably drawn from historical ideas of those things, but maybe they were different? (I recall reading Frank Baum's Santa story a year or two ago and being bewildered by how different Santa was in it, and that there were trolls and stuff), so I think Tolkien standardized those beings and made them more or less into the tropes they are now.

    But overall, your analysis seems spot-on. How could I argue with it? I don't remember the book half as well as you.

  9. Briane: I don't think Tolkien is given too much credit; I think he's given the wrong credit. There is no question that fantasy literature did not come into its own until The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Prior to Tolkien it was either aimed specifically at kids (like the Oz books) or was kind of airy and dreamy (as with George MacDonald). Tolkien made fantasy real. So to speak. And I don't think you can under value that. However, he did not write the stories we think he wrote as you can see in The Hobbit.

  10. I re-read The Hobbit quite recently - last year, I think? I enjoyed it thoroughly. Like many books of its vintage, it feels like it was aimed at an any-aged audience. I know the history there wrt Tolkien's intended audience, but as an adult there was a lot to enjoy and connect with that I think would be over kids' heads.

    I know more about the history of horror than I do about fantasy, so I feel a little underqualified to address your claims about fantasy literature. I would contend that it has much deeper roots than Tolkien, specifically, in medieval and renaissance literature. Spenser's Fairie Queene (1590/96) has quests, knights, monsters, etc., etc. That work was a revival of medieval Romances, containing much of the same content. Don Quixote (1605) is about a guy so addicted to these stories that he tries to reproduce them in real life. Everything old is new again.

    I guess Tolkien's contribution was the invention of a complete second world with a self-coherent system of politics, sentient races, good and evil. That is definitely something that was emulated from that point forward.

    Agreed totally that the older protagonist is not something that has been carried forward enough. Not sure what that's all about, but the older and more crotchety I become, the more I wish there were more older protagonists out there.

  11. Elizabeth: Tolkien, for lack of a better way of putting it, pulled a lot of disparate threads together. George MacDonald was a huge influence (and on Lewis) which may have prompted the creation of a new world... except that Tolkien didn't really see Middle Earth exactly as a place separate from our world. It was more like... an older version of it. The Silmarillion was his attempt at creating a mythology.

    Anyway... I'll be talking more about this stuff soon and give my own take on it.

  12. I have to wrest this book from my daughter's hands so I can reread it. She's had it long enough. YOU are too good at writing reviews and making me want to read, or reread certain books. :)

  13. RG: There's a "too good"? I think I'll take that. :)

  14. I think Arthur Dent has a bit of Bilbo in him. Interesting that Martin Freeman has played both!

  15. TAS: You know, I never thought about that.