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…

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. 


0 thoughts on “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…”

  1. Nice review.

    I think part of the “why don’t you end now” issue is that, structurally speaking in genre terms, The Hobbit isn’t fully a modern novel. It’s got enough elements of it that it can code that way, but really sits between and across a few structures.

    So you read it, your brain sees the structures of a novel, and then skips a track when the book doesn’t actually follow it all the time.

    I also don’t know about blaming Lewis. I haven’t read the series in awhile, but the Narnia books had torture and murder and literal Armageddon, so….

  2. On the YA thing: probably it extends backward further, to maybe the 1940s (pretty much concurrent with Tolkien) and Black Stallion and the Hardy Boys books. Different (American?) tradition. Probably there are still YA books in that hard-G tradition for certain communities.

  3. Oh yea, the American genre and the English are quite different.

    Also, I think even with the American genre a lot of us are used to a certain sanitized subset, versions made “safe” by cultural drift in the 80s.

    Mo’s mom is an honest to god expert on this stuff, I should ask her wtf happened.

  4. My friend, the NYT-bestselling novelist Jim Butcher, once said on a fantasy panel at a convention that Tolkien needed an editor. He got horrified looks from the audience. But it was actually true. 

    Also I can namedrop him since I’ve known him forever.

  5. Cam Banks yeah…Tolkien worship is on my same top-five list of fandom shit I wish were different, alongside uncritical adoration of steampunk and stuffing Cthulhu into everything.

  6. The Hobbit is clearly the main inspiration behind The One Ring, way before The Lord of the Rings.
    In fact, someone who would just have read the latter may not understand many game design choices for this game.

  7. A while back, I read an interview with some heavy metal guitar phenom — Winger’s Reb Beach, maybe? — and, when asked about Jimi Hendrix, said something like, “I would have told him to tune his guitar.”

    FWIW, that’s sort of how I feel when I read the Butcher anecdote above, and I freaking love the Dresden Files books like there’s no tomorrow.

  8. I think “this dude does all this amazing shit but you know that and he DOESN’T do this one thing that bugs the shit out of me” is a pretty legit place to be, though. Not, you know, as a balanced appraisal, but we don’t go to novelists or guitarists for balanced appraisals, generally, and certainly not in panel discussions or interviews.

    Coming from a history-nerd perspective, I think Tolkien… kinda knows how the world works but doesn’t like it, maybe? Like, he knows Laketown is important as a trading center, he knows that’s a thing, but he doesn’t want it to be important, he wants the wood elves and the horselords and shit to be important. So he reluctantly admits that it’s a trading center and that’s a big deal, but he really doesn’t want to go into who is trading or what they trade.

    Likewise Gondor, which is still basically in free-fall after the loss of Osgiliath and the defection of Umbar (because of course the river-city and the ocean trade are important and the overgrown fortress is secondary) and kind of knows this (Denethor is basically right) but won’t admit it, certainly not in an authorial voice. Note that Dol Amroth, which appears to be a sort of daughter-colony to the aristo/militarist element of Gondorian society, is the most notable vassal. Note also that whoever is growing all the fucking food and handing up all the fucking money is barely noted in the text, but that the text is careful not to suggest that it gives a full appraisal of anything but the tactical command structure. In other words, Tolkien knows there’s some major vassals he’s leaving out and that they actually matter way more than Dol Amroth (who would be out of the equation in days without Dol Wheatroth and Dol Clothtrader backing them), but he doesn’t want to talk about it.

  9. Well, sure, but Laketown. Also Beorn, because apparently he’s kinda rich out in the middle of nowhere? Which suggests that maybe there’s more trading going on than we hear about.

  10. Or maybe that’s giving Tolkien a lot of credit. Might be that he’s more interested in the imagery and situations and doesn’t feel like it’s that important to get into the why. And I agree with him! Overly fussy operational nitpicking is the death of drama and a classic nerd hangup.

    You may have read my comment in the op as critical but I assure you it was just an observation about his style. And a rationale,I guess, that it’s okay for there to be unexplained stuff like unaccounted treasure hoards stuck in Mirkwood.

  11. It’s definitely giving him a lot of credit, and/or playing very fast and loose with his awareness.

    An alternate take on his awareness would be that he’s not interested in trading or economics, but he’s read enough history and has enough of a subliminal and intuitive sense of how the world works that even though he won’t let it affect his actual thinking,* it does slip in around the edges in a way that adds a lot of (positive) texture.

    *This is a criticism. I read his disinterest in where food or arms or any damn thing comes from as part and parcel of his disregard for any subhuman who works with their hands or generally lacks the good grace to be born an aristocrat. (Not trying to start a fight, btw: I know you don’t share his values in that regard. But whether something’s fussy nerd nitpicking or not kinda depends on whether you think it signifies, and in this area it connects to some things I really do care about. So we’re maybe gonna differ on that score.)

  12. Oh yeah, the meta-reading of Tolkien is kind of its own subject, isn’t it? I love stumbling into analyses like yours — it sure seems to fit the work. Kind of like speculations about LOTR being heavily informed, or even a direct metaphor, for England’s stance toward Hitler (even as JRRT hissownself stridently disavowed this). I honestly don’t know enough about the full scope of his work, so in the case of The Hobbit I’m mostly taking it at face value. I don’t think we’re disagreeing at all. 🙂

  13. I buy into the interpretation that says “in as much as Tolkien is writing about a real war, it’s the Great War more than WWII.” But I think the influences are general rather than specific. It’s definitely not an X-Men/Civil Rights kind of allegory, it’s a little more like the relationship between the American Revolution and Star Wars.*

    To add another layer of meta-analysis, I’m definitely overcharitable to Tolkien when he gets it right (as with Laketown’s trading prosperity) because I know my bias against him. I also suspect that were he (still) sui generis, I’d cut him a lot more breaks. But his imitators tend to fall into two camps: either they double down on “who cares how the world works, aristo murder-bohos are all that matter” (which has the result of sensitizing me to how obnoxious and fucked that is) or they make it a point to do better (which reduces the excuse-making I’m willing to do, since obviously it can be done. Perhaps unfair, since I’m applying that retroactively, but still.)

    *Which I guess maps Admiral Ackbar onto de Grasse? In my head, I will now assume that on first meeting Luke, Ackbar kissed him on the cheek and exclaimed “mon cher petit chevalier de Jedi!”

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