A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When the Book Foxes decided to run a week of fantasy-themed pieces to coincide with the opening of Peter Jackson’s film version of The Hobbit, Moira (who had read the book in her extreme youth) suggested to Hilary (who’d attempted to read it at college) that they both tackle it again and then compare notes. Part way into the re-read, Hilary offered the opinion that it was like ‘Scouting for Boys’, but with dwarves, and Moira simply wanted to throttle Tolkien.
Did they stay curmudgeonly to the end, or did the wily old campaigner manage to win them over?
If we’re very, very quiet, we might be able to eavesdrop on their conversation in the Den as they share a cappuccino and brush the cheesecake crumbs off their notebooks …
H: Well – I must have been in an uber-grumpy mood when I last made the attempt to read The Hobbit, got to about Chapter IV and made the unfortunate ‘Scouting for Boys but with Dwarves’ remark. I really should learn – classics don’t become classics for nothing. Some of them may not be exactly what I like to read, but rarely are they rubbish. I am a converted and chastened reader. What about you, Moira?
M: Very much the same here, interestingly enough. I first read The Hobbit when I was about 12 or 13 … I have a vague memory of the iconic blue/green/white ‘mountain’ cover, but at the time, I don’t think it made any great impression on me, so I didn’t really come back to it with much in the way of preconceptions – just the fuzziest of memories and a mild curiosity about how I would react to it forty years later.
This time, it took all my determination to get through that bloody tea party at the beginning with all those short, dark hairy blokes sporting names like Coming and Going and Roaming and Gloaming. I had to remind myself, frequently and through gritted teeth, that Tolkien wrote the thing for children; but even allowing for that, I still found the tone overwhelmingly patronizing. I began to feel that if Tolkien had been strangled at birth it would have been no bad thing – and very nearly heaved it into the corner where all the bad books go to be attacked by dust bunnies.
I’d read The Lord of the Rings when I was in my early 20s. It didn’t absolutely grip me the way it’s gripped so many people before and since, but I enjoyed it nevertheless: I didn’t struggle to read it, and I appreciated Tolkien’s skill as a story-teller. So, I was a bit taken aback by my initial reaction to The Hobbit, because I was expecting to zip though it effortlessly as a nice, easy read.
H: My history with Tolkien is one of caution and wariness. Fellow Foxes can snooze off for a bit, because you’ve all heard me say this before … many times … . I read Lord Of The Rings first, the whole lot, when I was about 19. I was at university, it was term-time, and I have the overwhelming recollection of becoming completely absorbed in it, carrying it round, reading it late at night and into the small hours, taking it into breakfast, reading it when I should have been working, and having a bit of a problem with my essays that week. I simply left this life for Middle Earth, and didn’t come back until I’d finished it. And then I did come back – how odd. Strangely, that was enough for me, and I’ve never felt the need to re-read it, though I’ve never let go of the paperback (who else remembers it? The great fat edition with the yellow spine). I think I’m afraid of disappointment, and of not being able to recreate that complete immersion in another world – maybe because I’m no longer 19, more’s the pity.
M: I read that self-same edition …. sort of framed by Mirkwood … I still have it on my shelf, a bit dog-eared and battered. I’ve often considering revisiting it, but never found the time (or possibly the courage) somehow. When did you first read The Hobbit?
H: I’m sure I made the attempt at around the same time as I read LOTR, but on re-reading it this time round and assessing what’s familiar and what isn’t, I conclude that I don’t think I’ve ever got to the end. It’s such a different proposition from LOTR – so much more pacey, the language so much more geared to the young, and the stakes (treasure and wealth) so different from those of LOTR (power, good and evil). So it didn’t work for me, that way round.
My next attempt to read The Hobbit was about 2 or 3 years ago, when it was announced that Peter Jackson would be filming The Hobbit. I had enjoyed his LOTR trilogy hugely, and would have been interested to see this anyhow – but the casting of Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield certainly did pique my interest (I’m a fan, see? Ever since his turn as Elizabeth Gaskell’s John Thornton. I think I may have told you this a couple of times). This time, I started it and was thoroughly irritated by it about 75 pages in, and got no further. It seemed so hearty, and alpha-male, and, yes, not a female in sight.
M: Richard Armitage? John Thornton? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard you mention either of those names before … But it sounds as if we were irritated by exactly the same things to begin with …
H: So, now Part 1 of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is upon us (Part 1? Of 3? Good heavens. We’ll come onto that, no doubt). So it has been time to try reading it again, challenged by you, to see how we both got on. And by the end I loved it! I think I was ready for a new mythic world, having revived an interest in folk tales and music and indigenous myth in recent years.
I approached it as a work written for children (of all ages, if you’ll forgive the cliché), I’m well and truly detached from my experience with LOTR. This time, I forced myself through the clubbable jollity and hearty maleness of beginning, with its uninvited band of dwarves and cricket tea hospitality. This time too, thanks to Kate’s timely reminder, I clocked the ‘famous Belladonna Took’, Bilbo’s mother, who is just outside the reader’s ken but exerts a very strong impact through Bilbo’s personality. I suppose that with the inspirations for Tolkien’s work that Kate describes, that is possibly the best he could do in terms of introducing even a smidgen of female influence. I got as far as Bilbo riddling with Gollum (all very familiar), and was away! I think that I may have abandoned my earliest attempt to read The Hobbit somewhere between Gollum and the Eagles, because this time it was after that I felt I really was in what felt like new territory. And this time, it worked. I joined the adventure.
M: How odd – or perhaps not. It was at that exact same place in my re-read that I found myself reading because I wanted to and not because I’d said I would … Bilbo and Gollum. It was Gollum that did it. He’s such an utterly extraordinary creation. Even before Andy Serkis made him his own and somehow managed to be (and sound like) the Gollum we’d ALL seen in our mind’s eye … Gollum was who I remembered most vividly from my first reading of the book. All those dwarves, Bilbo – even Gandalf – were all shadowy figures, but Gollum on his island in the middle of the pitch black underground lake, I remembered distinctly, and he was no less unnerving the second time round than he was the first. From that point onwards, Tolkien had my full attention. Bilbo starts to come into his own then, too – I admit to a little thrill of pleasure when he found the ring in the darkness and I realized that it was THAT ring – destined to be at the very centre of the masterwork to come. I’ve read theories that the Hobbits fill the role of all those missing women in Tolkien … and I take the point, but Bilbo, bless him, is such a typical fussy, bachelor. I loved the way that what started out as his weaknesses and peculiarities slowly became his strengths. It’s Tolkien saying, of course, that we all have something to offer, but the lesson is delivered with considerable subtlety.
H: Yes! Two minds with but a single thought. It’s a magnificent scene, Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum. I felt a real stab of excitement when Bilbo picked up the ring, while marvelling at the same time that Tolkien had the genius to make it such a mundane detail.
So, what did I learn to love? I think that Tolkien is a wonderful storyteller – a true skald. I love his use of language, especially the subtle pathos of the words he uses for Bilbo Baggins to show that he is small and sweet and utterly unsuited to be hero material – yet he is brave and true. He ‘patters’, while the dwarves ‘rattle’ along. In fact, Tolkien has perfect descriptions for the action of his different sets of creatures, that define their character and relative dignity.
M: Absolutely. More than once I was brought up all standing by a particular turn of phrase – never anything flashy or ‘look at me!’, but just so beautifully crafted … by a master of his art. And brother, did he know how to write a page-turner.
H: I love the moral ambiguity of the dwarves too, who start off being all wronged and justified, but in actual fact may not be the best and most loyal of companions because of their lust for treasure. The same goes in a way for Gandalf. It is so refreshing to catch him not being completely all wise and all good. He’s a more complex character, within the simpler context of The Hobbit, than I was expecting.
M: Yes. One of the lines I particularly remember, and that has stayed with me, was Tolkien’s shrewd description of the dwarves:
“There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.”
Just like human beings, in fact …
Smaug was a terrific creation too … That chilling description of him sleeping on his treasure with one eye open … in fact the whole episode in the heart of the mountain.
H: Yes. After my excursion into discovering good old English ‘worms’, I now find I love a good dragon. Smaug is an absolutely epic one. Not only scary as anything, described in phenomenally lucid visual terms, but madly articulate as well. I think Bilbo’s encounters with Smaug are my favourite part of the book.
M: I actually felt a little sorry for him in the end, and I’d completely forgotten how his storyline ended. I did love it that it was little Bilbo’s sharp eyes that effectively saved Laketown ….
H: I am speculating about the interaction between the book and the movies – especially in today’s spoiler-averse climate. Rumour has it that Part One: An Unexpected Journey gets us as far as about Chapter 6 (albeit with back story from other Tolkien sources), which in my edition is about 130 pages in. What does the reader do? Stop there until part two comes out 2013 and read the middle, then hold back on reading the final part until 2014? I defy anyone (who hasn’t thrown the book at the skirting board because there are Elves in it and they don’t like Elves) to be so self-controlled!
M: I don’t think it’s physically possible to stop reading, once the story finally takes off. But I, along with a lot of other people, was amazed to hear that there were going to be THREE films. Three LONG films at that. I know that there’s a lot of peripheral material to draw on, and that quite a lot happens when Bilbo’s out for the count (that’s the way to get through a pitched battle or two …) but even so I can’t help but feel Peter Jackson’s pushing (or possibly stretching) his luck a bit. Tolkien groupies will probably lap it up, but ordinary punters might be a bit – I hate to use the word – bored. The spoiler thing is a real problem, though … because the ending – well, you don’t really see it coming. The story heads off in a direction that you don’t expect at all …
H: On the other hand … Tolkien-lovers may mourn the loss of the pace and the headlong what-happens-next readability of the original, while those who don’t know the book will just love being immersed in this new world. Or, much more likely, some and some.
There is a tie-in edition of the novel with the movie artwork and branding that has the whole text. However, I am so pleased that I have the edition that you mention, Moira, with the iconic cover of Tolkien’s own design. I love Tolkien’s drawings and maps (which also grace the tie-in edition). But I’ve grown up with the look of this book, even if I have been – ahem – dilatory in reading it all the way through.
I suppose for those movie-goers who want to remain spoiler-free, the companion books to the movies as they come out will be the way to go. But, for once, I recommend getting hold of the novel, reading it straight through, at a sitting, and resolving to enjoy or endure the spoilers for parts 2 and 3.
M: Me too. You can read it in a day. It was meant to be read as one story. Chopping it up into three bite-size pieces just seems wrong.
H: And besides – life is too short to wait two years to find out how The Hobbit ends!