In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
***Read as part of the Through the Wardrobe Debut Novels Challenge***
Tolkien’s debut novel always posed a quandary for me – how could something be so undeniably popular and classic in the world of children’s fiction also be something I couldn’t stand?! When I was younger I attempted to read The Hobbit three times and always gave up at the exact same place, despairing, desperate and relieved to put it down. But this year Tolkien reared his literary head once more as his debut novel was put on both my university course list and as part of my Through the Wardrobe debut challenge. So I began again, endeavouring to read past the place I had not ventured to pass before…
This is a quest tale of epic proportions that follows a band of less-than-merry dwarves, their token burglar (our protagonist hobbit Bilbo) and the shrewd yet wise wizard Gandalf as they set out to reclaim stolen ancestral treasure from the terrifying dragon, Smaug. Along the way the band of travellers meet a veritable host of creatures, persons and situations that slow their progress and threaten their lives, forcing Bilbo to bend the rules, push his limits and question his capabilities.
The balance between a recognised reality and pure fantasy is a difficult one to get right – too much of either means you run the risk of losing your audience or your authority. Tolkien wisely starts his tale very simply as he ingeniously wraps the fantastical elements in a matter-of-fact disguise that satisfyingly transports you straight into a world you can picture and believe in. He chooses the fantastical elements with skill and precision, effortlessly combining the recognisable with the imagined. By picking elements from myth, legend, folklore and fairy-tale, the world of The Hobbit is originally both accessible and deep.
As in every quest story there is the figure of the hero, one character who will inevitably save the day. Despite having the perfect-on-paper Thorin Oakenshield to play with, I love that Tolkien chooses instead to champion the character of a hero over and above the physicality of one and elects the unlikely Bilbo Baggins into the role. Our titular hobbit is a surprising little package who is taken from his life of privileged safety and forced to survive in the unknown, undertaking a personal journey as well as a physical one. I must admit I didn’t particularly warm to Bilbo at first but then I don’t think you’re supposed to. It is only through his development that his honour, humility and (dare I say) humanity begin to shine through.
There is something comforting in the alternate title of this story (‘there and back again’) that alludes to the traditional home-away-home format found so often in children’s literature and yet Tolkien’s epic quest cannot be second-guessed – you never know what’s around the corner! I do take issue with the conclusion of the dragon (it was far too easy and straightforward for me) but there is no doubting, now I have actually finished it, the pure delight in the reading and richness of Tolkien’s tale. I may even be tempted ‘back again’…
To find out what Tolkien did post-Hobbit click here!