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The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

If it had not been for the publication of this book, JRR Tolkien would probably be an obscure Oxford philologist rather than one of the founding fathers of the modern fantasy genre. Although he had been working for years on the series of interconnected stories that would become The Silmarillion, he could see no real prospects for ever getting it published in any of the various formats he'd tried to use. Although some readers had found his long narrative poems about Turin and about Beren and Luthien interesting, they could not recommend either for acquisition by their publishing companies. Subsequent efforts to create a prose narrative accompanied by various ancillary materials met with similar bewilderment at how to market something so unlike anything familiar.

And then he brought them a story of a little creature who's pulled from his comfortable bourgoiuse burrow to have a series of adventures. Now here was something they could work with. It fit pretty clearly into the niche of the children's story of wonder, with its narrative voice like a Victorian paterfamilais telling his children bedtime stories, so they felt confident they could market it.

The basic story of The Hobbit is pretty well known, as is the story of how it came to be written, almost by accident when its author found a blank page in an examination booklet and began to write on it "In a hole there lived a hobbit." However, like so many good stories, the notion that Professor Tolkien wrote the entire story in an uninterrupted outpouring of creativity turns out to have been something of an oversimplification of a creative process that in fact involved several false starts and reverses before it found its final form.

That said, the structure of the narrative is such that it lends believability to the idea that it was jotted down from beginning to end without hesitation or consideration. The plot is episodic, one fantastical event following another like beads on a string with minimal interconnection between them: this happened, then this happened, then this happened. At several points new characters pop up with little or no prior foreshadowing, even fairly late in the story, after the point at which writers are generally enjoined to "close the door" and introduce no further new elements. Furthermore, Gandalf's sudden and mysterious departure to deal with the mysterious Necromancer seems to appear entirely so our protagonists can be deprived of his assistance during a critical part of the tale, and the Necromancer and his sinister activities play no further role in the story.

Furthermore, the use of anachronistic modern language by the narrative voice, for instance the notorious comparison of the rushing wind of Smaug's wings to the roar of a freight train, is jarring to many modern readers accustomed to careful worldbuilding in which the narrative voice is carefully restrained to the vocabulary and imagery the point of view characters could actually have been expected to use. However, this may be as much a problem of presentism, of treating every work of fiction as if it were published yesterday, rather than taking a historicist perspective and placing a work in the context of the time in which it was originally written and published. In the 1920's and 1930's children's stories of wonder would often have a jumble of elements put together with little thought given to internal consistency, and were told in a thoroughly modern narrative voice, as we see in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, written by Tolkien's close personal friend C. S. Lewis. One of the greatest ironies of the situation may well be that the idea of the self-consistent Secondary World presented on its own terms, which Tolkien pioneered in The Lord of the Rings should have ended up diminishing the stature of the very story that made it possible.

And quite honestly, it's really more of a concern for adults than for its actual intended audience. Children generally don't have the life experience and literary experience to be a demanding audience, and are often far more concerned that a story not be boring. And thus they will listen happily as Bilbo is propelled along through his various adventures on the way to Lonely Mountain, and won't worry overmuch about how Beorn or the tricksy woodland elves or any of the other friends and foes he encounter fit into a logical world.

in his later years, Tolkien himself grew increasingly dissatisfied with The Hobbit and sought to rework it. Most well known was his rewrite of "Riddles in the Dark" to give Gollum's ring a more sinister touch that would fit with its new role in The Lord of the Rings. However, he also became displeased with the ad hoc nature of numerous elements in the story and in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings he sought to knit them firmly into the broader social and historical fabric he'd created for Middle-Earth, and that they only appeared to be random elements because Bilbo's having lived all his life in the cozy and inward-looking Shire meant he didn't know their long and complex stories.

Review posted December 14, 2012.

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