I remember reading this book when I was thirteen and I don’t recall being impressed by it. This was most likely because I loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tolkien’s other complicated works like The Silmarillion. The book probably was too simple for me to fully appreciate at such a young age. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense but that was what I was like when I was a child. I read the book again about two weeks ago after watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. So many fans of the book have criticized the new movies because supposedly Peter Jackson made it too dark or has taken too many “creative liberties”. I will give my reviews on the Hobbit movies later but for now I want to focus on the original first novel of J.R.R Tolkien who, in my opinion, is the greatest fantasy author of all time.
The plot for this novel follows the literary pattern called “The Heroes Journey” or the monomyth. Many stories have followed this cycle, some you wouldn’t even think of. Some examples that I can think of from the top of my head include The Odyssey by Homer, George Lucas’s Star Wars , the Mesopotamian written work The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar the Last Airbender (the animated series not the movie). There is a fairly flexible pattern that the story must follow, the three most important aspects being Departure, Initiation and Return. A more simplified model of the monomyth looks somewhat like this:
- Ordinary World
- Call To Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting With The Mentor
- Crossing The First Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Supreme Ordeal
- The Road back
- Return With Elixir
(If you are interested I have left multiple links for any questions you may have.) Moving on, I believe that The Heroes Journey represents progression or a needed change, either for the hero, for those around them, or both. I think in the first movie the conversation between Gandalf and Bilbo before they started their journey best embodies this idea.
Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back.
Bilbo Baggins: …Can you promise that I will come back?
Gandalf: No. And if you do… you will not be the same.
The hardest part of life is learning to change and, more importantly, to take the steps necessary to allow that change to happen. Wisdom and understanding then come depending on how we react to the challenges and opportunities we are presented with. Bilbo was content at the beginning of the story to never change and live a simple life separated from what was away from the shire and the comforts of his home. However, that changed once he SAW the world, became a part of something bigger and stepped up as a leader and motivator.
There are other elements of the story that are equally important, such as the nature of greed and the corruptible effect the treasure hoard had on those who were exposed to it. I found it compelling to see how in the end all the armies who were about to fight each other over the treasure united when they were faced with destruction by a fifth army of goblins and wargs. Evil was shown then to come from within as well as in a tangible physical force. Each needed to be fought and defeated in order to find peace and contentment.
I find the characters in this story to be intriguing and real. Some are there only to help Bilbo and the others on their journey, like Beorn the skin changer and Elrond from Rivendale. Bilbo, our hero, learned and grew possibly faster and better than his companions. Though he was the most inexperienced, Bilbo became the one who led the group and made the important decisions (after Gandalf left) and he remained unaffected by the treasure, though it seemed to corrupt almost all who looked upon it. Tolkien wrote “All the same Mr. Baggins kept his head clear of the bewitchment of the hoard better than the dwarves did. Long before the dwarves were tired of examining the treasures, he became weary of it and began to wonder nervously what the end of it would be.” (Chapter 13).
The other characters like the dwarves, especially Thorin, took a lot longer to learn from their mistakes and see things clearly. Thorin allowed himself to become consumed by his greed, going as far as to banish Bilbo from the company though Bilbo had saved his life and the the lives of the others many times. Though he was the heir to the throne he didn’t become the leader he needed to be until it was too late. In the end he learned from his mistakes but it cost him his life.
Smaug has intrigued me the most since I watched the second movie and read the book. He represents evil, of course, and is possibly the embodiment of the evil that is born from greed. To me though, he shows the true nature of evil. Evil isn’t stupid. It is conniving, intelligent, malicious, and well aware of its nature. That is something that I have come to appreciate in Tolkien’s works. Not only does he show the true nature of evil embodied by creatures who have become consumed and controlled by its power but also that good men can change by willingly choosing to follow it. Along side it though are those who are willing to fight against it like Bard from Laketown and those who don’t allow themselves to be controlled by it like Bilbo.
There is something so endearing about this story. Many have called Tolkien’s writing style boring or overbearing but I think that he is one of the few who was able to write so thoroughly and yet retain a feeling of enchantment in his stories. The Hobbit is different then his other works however, because it was originally written for children. It is a story that takes them on an adventure, where they fight against evil, defeat it, and return to the comforts of home. It also teaches important lessons like change and overcoming temptation. I will say this often but just because a work is written for children doesn’t mean that it is childish. It merely simplifies things and makes it easier to understand the story, its characters, and the lessons that are meant to be learned.
I finished this book in less then two days. I couldn’t put it down. I find it somewhat amusing to think that I enjoyed this book more when I became an adult then I did when I was a child. It is a shame. Despite my lack luster opinion of the book as a child, I look forward to reading this book to my children. I want to them to experience the same enchanting world presented in this book that I have experienced and now come to cherish. Even if they are like me and don’t absorb this story in childhood, hopefully they will come to appreciate its magic in time.
“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit