Maybe I felt left out. Maybe I decided a second look was in order. Maybe I just decided that, having spent some pleasurable time with an author, I’d see if a return visit with his best friend proved likewise.
There was, though, a potential hiccup: broadly speaking, I don’t do dragons.
Nor do I really read fantasy. For me it’s always been an inexplicable genre. Before you protest, I’m not completely clueless. It’s not as if I haven’t seen and read The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. It’s just that I’d already read the myths and legends most fantasy seems based on.
There was no way on earth, though, I was going to re-read LOTR. I just don’t have that sort of time. As the itch grew, however, a copy of The Hobbit fell into my lap. Problem solved. It is, after all, the famously short precursor to the trilogy.
Which both is and isn’t true.
Let’s start with what’s true: it’s a relatively short book, clocking in at a mere 300 pages, and the action takes place before The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of the trilogy, gets going. We are introduced to hobbits and also to wizards, dwarves, elves, goblins, gollums and other types who populate the trilogy. Plus, there’s this ring that shows up about a third of the way through.
I’m hard-pressed to call that a prequel to anything.
So why do I say the trilogy isn’t truly the sequel to this story? Well, you might think I’m being too literal but none of the action in this book impacts the action in the others. Fans will argue that it’s the ring that matters but the ring serves a different purpose in this book. Nor are its nature and effect, as disclosed in the trilogy, apparent.
There are better reasons for not reading it as such, though, primarily form and tone.
The Hobbit, in fact, takes a form rooted in antiquity. It is a quest in the same way that Jason and the Argonauts sought the golden fleece or Arthur the Holy Grail or, for that matter, Marlin and Dory sought Nemo.
What exactly is this quest about? Why treasure, of course! The remnants of the dwarves who used to live under the Lonely Mountain wish to reclaim their birthright. Gandalf, the wizard, has proposed Bilbo Baggins be added to the group as their burglar. It’s quite a baker’s dozen of diggers (dwarves dwell underground) with a series of rhyming names right out of Make Way for Ducklings.
The band has many adventures on the way to their goal just like the examples cited above. And just like Mort/Arthur, our hero discovers many things about himself and grows into a new, er, man.
Don’t take my word for it. Tolkien says so on page 221: “Already they [the dwarves] had come to respect little Bilbo. Now he had become the real leader in their adventure. He had begun to have ideas and plans of his own.”
I sense you’re not sold so let’s move on to tone. In my memory, LOTR is dark. It’s an all-out battle against pure evil and the stakes couldn’t be higher. In many ways, it’s a call to arms.
The first chapter of TFOTR is not like the others primarily because when it was written Tolkien was thinking of a sequel. In tone, it’s much more like The Hobbit. The earlier book is almost light-hearted, even in the ‘scary’ parts when Smaug, the dragon, or the goblins are on the attack.
Bilbo turns out to be an innovative thief and comrade. In one escapade he frees his companions, who have been imprisoned by the Elf king, and helps them escape by water in ’empty’ barrels. It’s actually high comedy and reminded me of the hi-jinks with the whale’s penis in Moby Dick.
There’s also no getting around this being a book for children. Tolkien regularly avails himself of a technique not often seen in adult literature. The otherwise-in-the-background omniscient narrator interrupts the flow with a comment directed at the reader, such as, “Most likely you saw it some time ago and have been laughing at him; but I don’t suppose you would have done half as well yourselves in his place.” (p. 183) It’s the equivalent of breaking the fourth wall and it happens in children’s books all the time.
It also reminded me of another English writer, a successful, celebrated playwright and poet ten years older than Tolkien, who had had a raging success with a children’s book a decade before The Hobbit was published in 1937.
I’m speaking, of course, of A.A. Milne whose success with the Pooh stories could not have gone unnoticed. I was immediately struck by the similarity between Tolkien’s and Milne’s narrative voices and I don’t think it’s coincidental. There is nothing wrong or inconsequential about writing a great children’s story; I reread Pooh at regular intervals to keep myself grounded.
By now the stalwart Tolkien fans may be seething. I’d ask them to bear with me a bit longer. Tolkien was not a fantasist. He was, to use a favorite phrase, the real deal. A world-renowned scholar of Old English whose true life’s work was to render the perfect translation of Beowulf. (He never published it in his lifetime but it was published recently and I have promised myself I will read it.)
The story is told that Tolkien’s academic publisher, on a visit, was nosing through piles of papers looking for the next book when he stumbled upon The Hobbit. The rest is history, including the trilogy which was completed and published in its entirety by the middle of the 1950s.
It’s never really possible to separate the writer and the writing, at least that’s what I think. So while I don’t steep myself in literary biography I tend to get the important bits down. With Tolkien it’s that he was a devout Roman Catholic, which may be common knowledge and certainly influenced his writing.
Anyone reared in that faith, reading LOTR, would understand immediately what they are immersed in. It’s nothing less than the story of Armageddon and there’s only one way out.
By now the works have passed on and are owned by the fans and current readers. Tolkien’s writing may not even be recognizable as ‘Catholic’ among the current faithful. Yet at the end of the day, The Hobbit and the stories that followed could only have been written by a man worried about his brethren and deeply absorbed in his faith.