I haven’t read this since middle school, I think, and I’m running The One Ring, so I gave this a fresh go over the weekend.
My biggest takeaway is that I can’t shake thinking about what this must’ve been like, in 1937 or whenever folks first got their hands on it, to read this without the uh rather extensive fantasy cliche baggage you can’t help but have today. Of course the baggage came from The Hobbit; it’s the same feeling I get from watching Halloween and remembering that the immortal bad guy and “what, I thought the movie was over!” was invented right then and there.
It’s also fun to think about the movie decisions Jackson made. I can appreciate why he did a trilogy more now that I’ve read it. My middle-school memory of the book made me think “jfc how did they even fill 2 hours?” but there’s a lot that happens. It just happens in a very high-altitude authorial way. The Battle of Five Armies is like 5 pages but it describes a huge sweep of events. Scuttling around Smaug’s lair and parlaying with the dragon is like 3 pages, but it’s filled with tension. Sometimes the padding is more obvious: the dwarves’ escape from the wood-elves via barrel, yeah, that could have just happened. No need for a 10 minute CGI sequence.
That thing where the stupid movie ends like six times, though? That totally happens in the book, too. I was getting so antsy with the final 5-8% of the book, after Bilbo has been sent off with his share of the dwarven treasure and he, Gandalf and Beorn head back home. Just like in the movie, the damned thing doesn’t just end where it’s supposed to. Stop in at the elven king’s home, and Beorn’s home, and Rivendell, and blah blah blah oh my god now there’s a little adventure back in the Shire?
It’s also interesting to me, as a parent and a semi-avid reader of YA fiction, of just how sophisticated the writing and situations really are in The Hobbit. I was imagining how old my kid will need to be before we read this together. Maybe she’d be into it now? Probably more she’d be into the snuggle time. But there’s more difficult and intense content here than I remember, more in line with modern YA fiction. So maybe it’s the ’80s and onward where YA feels the most juvenile. Or maybe it’s the CS Lewis effect. I don’t know.
Reading The Hobbit as homework for running The One Ring is super interesting. I can literally see every design decision laid out very clearly. There’s some Lord of the Rings influence in The One Ring of course (i.e. all of the Shadow/Hope mechanism), but 90% of TOR is right there in the text. Extended layover as a guest in a friendly home? Getting too worn out during a journey to deal with problems? Losing your standing after an extended absence? The ever-present Song skill? Oh yeah, it’s right there.
Having literally stumbled into a big fucking troll-horde of treasure, yup, it’s right there too. What’s kind of amazing, and either points at Tolkien writing for a young audience or Tolkien’s own weak grasp on the workings of the world (he was a … language professor, yeah?), is how mostly unexplained things go. Like, what exactly would the goblin horde do with Smaug’s treasure if they got it? Do they have a working economy? What on earth would Bilbo do with ponies laden with gold and silver? Who does Lake-Town trade with? What do the wood-elves even have to offer Esgaroth? Who did those trolls even waylay to build their hoard in the first place? And so on. Things are just in place and work without explanation. The world-building is historical, cultural and fantastical but not really operational.
Anyway, fun to go back as an adult.