The Hobbit (Book Review)

Title: The Hobbit

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

Copyright Date: 1937, 1938, and 1966 (by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Recording Date: 1991 by Recorded Books, Inc.

Narrated by: Rob Inglis

THE PLOT:

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. Hobbits are half the size of humans but otherwise have much in common with them. By the standards of his own people, Bilbo is wealthy. He lives in a large underground house in the Shire. The Baggins family is respectable and is known for wanting nothing to do with excitement or adventures. However, Bilbo’s mother was of the Took family which is known for such things. One day Galdalf arrives. Gandalf is a wizard who knew Bilbo’s embarrassingly adventurous grandfather on the Took side. Gandalf proposes that Bilbo join him on an adventure. Bilbo is uncomfortable with this invitation but invites Gandalf to tea the next day. At tea, before Gandalf arrives, numerous dwarves begin to arrive first. Gandalf at last shows up also with the remaining dwarves. The dwarves are lead by Thorin Oakenshield, and they are trying to recover their family’s lost home and treasure, under the Lonely Mountain, from a dragon named Smaug. Bilbo is offered one-fourteenth of their treasure in exchange for his service as their burglar.

The next morning, after sleeping in and not yet agreeing to serve as a burglar, Gandalf tells Bilbo that he must meet the dwarves at the local pub. Bilbo hurries there without packing and leaves with them. Sometime later, after they start out, Gandalf disappears and it begins to rain. The group sees a light up ahead in the distance and sends Bilbo to investigate. He finds three trolls eating in front of a fire. The trolls catch Bilbo, but he soon gets away. The trolls subsequently capture the thirteen dwarves who have come to investigate Bilbo’s absence. Gandalf arrives in secret, imitates the sounds of the trolls’ voices, and he causes them to argue for so long that they are turned to stone when the sun rises. The party finds two swords as well as a long knife that Bilbo takes and uses as a sword for himself.

The party next travels to the elf city of Rivendell which is ruled by the elf, Elrond. After they share with him their plans, he tells them about a secret door in the side of the Lonely Mountain. After they leave Rivendell, hey travel through the Misty Mountains. While sheltering in a cave, they are all, except Gandalf, captured by goblins. The rest of the group are taken to the Great Goblin. While there, Gandalf reappears, kills the Great Goblin, and frees the group. As the group flees, Bilbo is dropped. He bumps his head and loses consciousness.

Bilbo wakes up alone in a dark cavern. He finds a ring lying on the ground and puts it into his pocket. Soon, he meets Gollum, a creature living within the cavern. Gollum and Bilbo have a riddle-telling contest. If Gollum wins, he will eat Bilbo. If Bilbo wins, Gollum agrees to show him the way out of the caverns. Bilbo eventually wins the contest. However, after losing, Gollum goes to find his ring. When Gollum cannot find the ring, he is furious. He decides to kill Bilbo. Bilbo does not know that the ring renders its wearer invisible and he accidentally puts it on. After Gollum fails to see him, Bilbo realizes that the ring makes him invisible. Wearing the ring, Bilbo follows Gollum out of the cavern and escapes to the outside.

Not long after, Bilbo finds Gandalf and the dwarves outside. They are now impressed with him due to the story of his escape. Not long after, though, wargs and Goblins catch up to them and force them to hide in trees for escape. Gandalf uses fire conjured by magic to fend off the wargs. However, the goblins direct the fire toward the trees in which the party is hiding. When all hope seems lost, giant eagles arrive and carry the group away to Carrock. Soon after they travel to meet and stay with the shape-shifter Beorn.

At this point in the story, Gandalf tells the group that he must leave them to attend to business of his own. The party travels through the Mirkwood forest. Both Gandalf and Beorn advise the group to stay on the path and not to stray from it at their own peril. However, the group leaves the path due to seeing wood-elves eating a feast. After leaving the path, the party is captured by giant spiders. Bilbo uses his knife and ring to free himself. He then kills a lot of giant spiders and frees the captured dwarves. After this, though, the wood-elves capture the group and imprison them all, except for Bilbo who is still invisible. Using his magic ring, Bilbo is able to sneak around and free the dwarves. They are able to escape from Mirkwood Forest inside wooden barrels which are floated down the river to Lake-town.

Lake-town is not far from The Lonely Mountain where Smaug the dragon lives. The local people welcome Bilbo and the dwarves warmly at the prospect of their removing the dragon from the mountain. The group travels to the Lonely Mountain and they are able to open the secret passageway that Elrond told them of in Rivendell. Bilbo goes alone down the passage. Once inside, he takes a golden cup from the pile of gold and jewels and leaves to show it to the others. Smaug notices that the cup is missing and becomes furious. After the dragon seems to have calmed, Bilbo sneaks in again to take more treasure. He finds that the dragon is pretending to sleep. Despite not being able to see Bilbo while he wears his magic ring, Smaug can smell him. Bilbo then speaks to Smaug in riddles. Among the things he says when describing himself is that he is “a barrel-rider.” While they speak, Bilbo sees that Smaug has a weak point on his belly that is not protected with jewels or armor. Bilbo later tells dwarves about this weak point on Smaug and unwittingly shares the information also with a talking thrush. During that same conversation with Bilbo, Smaug uses dragon-talk to convince Bilbo that the dwarves will not give him his one-fourteenth share of the spoils. Bilbo steals the Arkenstone, the most beautiful jewel in the dwarves’ treasure, and hides it among his things.

After connecting Bilbo’s riddle-talk of “barrel-rider” to mean that he has been aided by the men of Lake-town, Smaug flies there to destroy the town. After he arrives, an archer named Bard, who is himself a descendant of the Lord of Dale, learns from the thrush where Smaug’s weak point is located, He uses the knowledge to kill Smaug with black arrow from Bard’s family line.

After Smaug dies, the news travels far and wide. The men of Lake-town, led by Bard, join forces with the wood-elves. They arrive at the Lonely Mountain wanting a reward for their role in killing Smaug and for the rebuilding efforts of the town. Thorin refuses on account of their being armed. Thorin secretly sends a messenger raven to another dwarf, Dain, who is soon to be arriving with troops of his own. Bilbo believes that war is inevitable, so he sneaks out of The Lonely Mountain and gives the Arkenstone to Bard and the elves. He believes that this will help their bargaining position with Thorin. Later, when Bilbo admits to Thorin that he has done this, he is told to leave the Lonely Mountain. After leaving, Bilbo finds Gandalf with the others outside.

Just as Dain arrives to help Thorin defend the mountain, a goblin army, with wolves in tow, arrive to avenge the Great Goblin’s death. Facing a common enemy, the men, dwarves, and elves join forces and the Battle of the Five Armies begins. As it appears that the combined forces will not be enough to defeat the goblins, Beorn and the Eagles arrive, turn the tide of the battle, and deliver a victory. During the battle, Bilbo uses the magic ring to hide. After, he finds Thorin is mortally wounded. Thorin expresses regret over his previous words to Bilbo and the hobbit, in turn, weeps over him after his passing.

Bilbo returns home, escorted for much of the way by Beeorn and Gandalf. His reward from the dwarves is two chests of treasure. He arrives just in time to learn that he has been declared dead. Most of his furniture has been sold already, however, he is able to prevent the Sackville Baggins’ from taking his home. He is visited a year later by Gandalf and Balin, one of the dwarves. They tell Bilbo that Bard is now the master of Lake-town. They also tell Bilbo that the goblins have been almost entirely killed off. Bilbo also learns that the dwarves, elves, and men are living together peacefully.

THE REVIEW:

I listened to the audiobook and I had a choice between Andy Serkis and Rob Inglis as my narrator. I decided to listen to the latter’s telling and it was excellent. His voice is a perfect match for the grandfatherly tone and style of the story-telling.

Prior to this past week’s effort, I had not read The Hobbit in more than a quarter century (despite owning multiple hard cover copies of the book and an audiofile of the book.) I am happy to have returned to the story, though, and I enjoyed the read quite a lot.

This book is by reputation a children’s book. The reputation fits. The story has the look and feel of a traditional fairy tale. That said, there is a lot of violence, some death, and some creepy passages about spiders wanting to eat dwarves and Gollum wanting to eat Bilbo. It might be best to think of this as a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. I would not recommend the book for very young children but I do believe that kids around eight or nine and older will be able to handle the contents relatively well.

What’s to like? I believe that children and adults alike will enjoy the style of the narration. The Hobbit‘s narrator is presented as third person and omniscient. Stylistically, the narrator has a folksy English charm and the narrator’s prose is written to reflect the way that someone might tell a story orally over a campfire or around a table of friends. This effect is – in my opinion – made perfect with the audiobook telling.

The Hobbit also excels with a warm and inviting presentation of its magical world. Bilbo the Hobbit is the fish out of water in this tale. The Reader sees this magical world unfold all around him and we relate to how he handles it. In short order, Bilbo meets a wizard, dwarves, goblins, wargs, a shape-shifting giant, giant eagles, elves, giant spiders, goblins, and dragons. The fairy tale style of the books presents these encounters as magical and distant rather than gritty, visceral, and nearby (the more modern approach to fantasy.) After identifying ourselves with Bilbo Baggins, we learn that he seems to have a bit of magic in him, all his own, that he never knew about. For the reader, this feels a bit like learning that we ourselves might have a bit of dormant talent just waiting for the right circumstances to bring it out.

If you have fond memories of The Hobbit, I recommend a re-read. If you have a child who might be ready to dip his or her toe into the water of fantasy fiction, I also recommend The Hobbit as a relatively safe place to begin. In particular, I recommend the audiobook.

QUOTES:

“And what would you do, if an uninvited dwarf came and hung his things up in your hall without a word of explanation?”

“It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt,
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills,
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.”

What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

“So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”

“Farewell,” they cried, “Wherever you fare till your eyries receive you at the journey’s end!” That is the polite thing to say among eagles.

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