Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Hobbit (Top 100 #42)

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Four Things I Liked About The Hobbit:
1. The storytelling.
2. Bilbo*
3. Gandalf
4. Middle-Earth's vividness.

I should probably try to stop being surprised each time I end up liking something Lord of the Rings related. It first happened when my dad forced me to watch the trilogy before our trip to New Zealand**, and in spite of my petulant pre-teen reluctance, I enjoyed them enough to later embark on a Lord of the Rings marathon with my friends (we made it through the first two before our eyes glazed over from prolonged screen exposure). I likewise resisted reading The Hobbit, though my uncle gave me a lovely copy several years ago, and with the same result: I liked it, in spite of myself. The only reason I didn't give it 5 stars is because though it was enjoyable, it wasn't quite a compulsive, withdrawal inducing read, nor did I put it down and think, "WOW," which are my two main criteria for 5-star ratings. It's a precise science, I know.

Bilbo Baggins is a content hobbit. He has a snug little hobbit-hole home, several square meals a day - whenever the urge strikes - and the closest he's gotten to an adventure is listening to old tales. Until Gandalf shows up for tea with a gang of 13 unruly dwarves, a fantastic*** proposition, and high expectations for poor Bilbo, whom he intends to extract from the quiet hobbit life and recruit as the dwarves' hired burglar. The quest is to recover the dwarf king's stolen gold from the dragon Smaug, who hoards it in a mountain fortress months' travel and innumerable dangers away from Bilbo's cozy Shire. Bilbo, who has hardly set foot outside the Shire, encounters trolls, goblins, elves, a shape-shifting bear, giant spiders (think Acromantula, -shudders-) the infamous cave-dwelling creature Gollum, and a magical ring of invisibility in his trek through the forbidding wildernesses of Middle-Earth, each terrain riddled with its own particular dangers. Gandalf has placed a great responsibility on Bilbo's shoulders, and though Bilbo frets and fears and even faints, he rises admirably to the occasion, and goes home a hobbit hero (I'm not spoiling anything for you here, it's pretty clear from the get-go that our little hero comes out on top).

Bilbo is so endearing. I know he's like a 50-year-old, chubby fantasy creature who battles trolls and goblins and giant spiders and can totally take care of himself, but I thought of him kind of like a child the whole time. I think part of it was a) his perpetual complaints about inconstant food-supply, and b) his perpetual longing to be back home in his hobbit-hole. It just made him seem so cuddly and vulnerable; I wanted to give him a hug, a mug of hot tea, and a warm cookie to make it all better. And yet he is every bit the hero, saving his friends time and time again with a little ingenuity, a lot of luck, and, of course, his trusty invisible ring.

The Hobbit is a classic fantasy adventure story (go figure, Tolkien probably invented this genre), but with a level of almost unparalleled detail and creativity in the composition of the world. I was seamlessly absorbed into both the story and Middle-Earth by Tolkien's modest and subtle, yet vivid descriptions. Which is saying a lot, considering how prejudiced I was going in.

Surprises: How considerably lighter a tale it is than the Lord of the Rings trilogy; how little foreshadowing there was for the trilogy; how little time was spent dwelling on Gollum (he's never mentioned again after the initial encounter); and how readable it was (I don't know why I expected it to be a slow read, other than that I expected not to like it, which is the biggest speed impediment there is).

No more will I wrinkle my nose (mentally) when people tell me their favorite book is by Tolkien. It's not my favorite book, but I definitely know where they're coming from, and I'm actually looking forward to reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is also on the Top 100 list. I'd recommend The Hobbit to people who were childhood fans of Tamora Pierce, Harry Potter, Dianna Wynne Jones, Ella Enchanted, or The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

* Incidentally, in the forthcoming film adaptation, Bilbo is going to be played by Watson, from the ubiquitous (on this blog, anyway) Sherlock. Also, it goes to show how influential (and dare I say, ubiquitous?) Tolkien's work is that there's no squiggly line under the name 'Bilbo.' Testing... how about 'Voldemort'? Shucks. There goes the squiggly line (though you can't see it). Well, it's just a matter of time.
** Blogger also refutes 'Zealand' with its squiggly red line of ignorance, so it's obviously no kind of authority on what words should be recognized as real and not. Why Bilbo (endearing as he is) makes that list over a country, I do not know.
*** As in, "conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre," or "highly unrealistic or impractical," or "incredibly great or extreme," or all of the above.

Books Read This Year: 27
Top 100 Progress: 42/100

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