The Well is Dry

Tolkien was king, at least when I was youngHow many times do you read a book? For myself, I read the vast majority of books only once — it’s a simple case of too many options, too little time. When I was a kid, I often re-read books over and over again. My options were limited, but that’s not the only reason: when I found something good, I would become obsessed — it was like nothing else existed.

That’s what happened with Tolkien’s books. I estimate that I re-read the famous trilogy about 20-25 times, and The Hobbit probably in the neighbourhood of a dozen times. I couldn’t get enough, at least back then.

When I recently re-read The Hobbit, I had a strange reaction. All of the good stuff – adventure, magic, peril, treasure, monsters, unlikely heroes, and so forth – was still there, but simply didn’t have the same bite for me anymore.

The Hobbit is a story for children, written in an old-fashioned “Dear reader” tone where the author is constantly interjecting. There’s also a strong flavour of ancient sagas, perhaps less so than The Lord of the Rings, but the book still has a sense of groundedness that’s missing from many of Tolkien’s imitators. Tolkien knew his stuff and it shows.

The title character is Bilbo Baggins, a strange creature smaller than a dwarf and much attached to the comforts of home (like other hobbits). Bilbo gets caught up in an adventure, despite misgivings on his part. He’s soon on his way through much peril with a troupe of thirteen dwarves and a wizard named Gandalf. The dwarves want to reclaim their ancient – and treasure-filled – home from the nasty dragon Smaug, but just getting to the dragon showdown is three-quarters of the book.

I remembered every single stop along the way — the sequences where Bilbo and co. visit a bear-man named Beorn made the biggest impression on me as a kid — and there were no surprises (unlike some of the other books I’ve revisited recently — see list below). The book felt strongly constructed and all that, but a bit too well-worn for me now.

The Hobbit is considered a prequel for The Lord of the Rings, despite massive differences in tone. The trilogy simply feels more grown-up, whatever else people say about it. The Hobbit functions as a prequel because of what Bilbo finds in the deepest caverns below a goblin realm: it’s a magic ring, just a trinket that helps Bilbo go invisible at convenient moments. The Lord of the Rings begins with Gandalf’s discovery that the matter of the ring is very serious, and in fact that the survival of the free world depends on its destruction. In The Hobbit, the use of the ring is just a lark, one more cog in the adventure.

Tolkien was king, at least when I was youngOne interesting facet of the story is that Brand — the actual slayer of the dragon at the end — is not the hero of the book. Instead it’s a tiny little guy who will never be a leader of men but is somehow central to the events at hand. That’s something Ebert talked about in reference to the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring, where in his opinion the hobbits got ditched as heroes of their own story. Bilbo is definitely not the typical front man for an epic fantasy like this, but he has his own moments of courage (likewise the hobbits in the trilogy).

My detached feeling extends to The Lord of the Rings, and I find I have little to say about it. Frankly, it feels faint and distant to me. I knew it so well (although not as well as some people I’ve known, who could pick up from any line from the book and keep going with it) but now I’ve simply read it too many times. Familiarity breeds boredom, if you will.

Most people, however, have strong feelings one way or another, and my vantage point somewhere in the middle of the spectrum seems unusual. For example, Orson Scott Card could stand at one end:

“Lord of the Rings was the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century, period.”

And at the other end, there might be China Mieville:

“Tolkien is naive to think he’s escaping anything. He established a form full of possibilities and ripe for experimentation, but used it to present trite, nostalgic daydreams. The myth of an idyllic past is not oppositional to capitalism, but consolation for it. Troubled by the world? Close your eyes and think of Middle Earth.”

Interestingly, the two of them come to opposite conclusions about the Peter Jackson films! I’ve enjoyed the three Lord of the Rings movies, although the first one was clearly the best and 2 and 3 faltered (though they did stagger along despite the weight piled on top of them). The rumour mill for the movie version of The Hobbit has been in full swing.


In the last few months, I’ve been re-reading my favourite books from childhood, running through books by Patricia A. McKillip, Roger Zelazny, Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, and now Tolkien (I also summed up some thoughts about the project over at Strange Horizons). I think I’ve reached the end of my interest in the re-reading-childhood-books project – not that Tolkien drove me away, but more that I’m a novelty junkie and want something new.

6 replies »

  1. Revisiting childhood favorites has been agony and ecstasy for me. Recently I reviewed several old fantasy movies and was alternately horrified and gratified, sometimes by the same films. My childhood adoration of The Last Unicorn, Labyrinth, and Dragonslayer was clearly misplaced. An adult perspective on those films just exposed the depths of my childhood naivete. On the other hand, I’ve gained new respect for Legend, which informed the creation of one of the greatest game series of all time (The Legend of Zelda) and remains visually and conceptually stunning even in this CG age. I found more to like in The Dark Crystal as well. Still, both are valuable mostly as visual and technical spectacles, and don’t have much to say beyond the artistry of their creation.
    Once the shiny newness has worn off and we become more experienced (and jaded), all that remains is the substance of what it is that we’re reading or watching. Something like The Hobbit opens young eyes to adventure, imagination, bravery, and good and evil. But the essence of the novel is very simple, straightforward, and unrevealing. There’s a call to adventure, wacky hijinks ensue, our heroes fall into a brief period of darkness followed by a triumph and a return. Everything else is imaginative worldbuilding. You could say similar things about Beowulf, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. These stories have value in that they tell us about our fantasies, ideals, and aspirations, and even a little bit about our more admirable qualities. But ultimately, these stories tend to appeal more to the optimism and inexperience of youth. Those of us in hoary age appreciate the familiarity, but perhaps not the essence of these stories.


  2. What was most interesting – and was only mentioned in your Strange Horizons column – was the comment, “Unfortunately, some have been quite disappointed, finding little in supposed “classics” other than a sketch that an active young imagination embroidered with all the interesting details.” When it comes to re-reading any book, its ability to capture our ‘re-imagination’ would seem to be a crucial criterion for finding new depth in it. As we grow, various details of a book take on different significances for us – (I’m always pained when I find notes in the margin that I pencilled in 10 years ago and think to myself ‘I must have been an idiot to think that’) – but these new significances are only possible when the author has given us the right imaginative tools to work with.
    Over the years, I’ve found that Ursula K. Le Guin mastered this technique most prominently. Unlike Tolkien who historicized and generated a “world” into which he inserted characters such as Bilbo and Frodo, I’ve found Le Guin’s technique far more inviting to the imagination: she simply takes a character (such as Ged) for a ‘walk’ and asks him what he sees, what he desires, and how he feels about it – and that becomes her novel. What is lacking, I’ve found, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy are the ‘hooks’ for re-imagination – Tolkien is far more likely to describe a scene in painstaking detail than to hand over the brush to the reader and let their imaginations do the work. It seems that the Lord of the Rings trilogy did run dry for you – the world simply lost its feeling. I will be re-reading those books soon (they always seem like a good Spring read) and I hope that they do not lose their colours for me too.


  3. Hi James!
    An interesting thing about The Hobbit is that the ring seems unimportant, a mere trinket, precisely because that’s what it was back then. Tolkien basically re-wrote that part in order for the invisibility ring to become “The Ring” in LOTR, and it shows. I hear first editions of The Hobbit have no tie-in to LOTR at all.
    I think they are cool books, but of course, you can read them so many times before they lose their charm.
    What is your opinion about guys like Moorcock, who basically thinks LOTR is pretentious crap written by an “aristocratic” writer?


  4. I was very much enamoured of Tolkien’s books when I was younger, and have also re-read the books a number of times – though not annually (as some people do, almost religiously) and not anywhere near 20 to 25 times. I most recently re-read them in the wake of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations.
    At first The Hobbit and LOTR were the best things ever, then later I started to become more critical of them (my eyes were initially opened to criticisms of Tolkien’s work in the article Epic Pooh by Michael Moorcock.) However, I eventually came back around to appreciating Tolkien’s work for its good qualities, without expecting any more from it. One author can’t be expected provide the perfect work – that’s why other authors pick up the pen and create other books for us to read.
    Mostly, I think I’ve been able to appreciate and re-appreciate both the Hobbit and LOTR because of the gaps between reading and re-reading them. The gaps provided enough time for me to change(and possibly to forget some things) between readings – since obviously the books aren’t going to change. I think that your disatisfaction with Tolkien might just be as simple as that you have read these books way too much. I think you need to wait at least 7 to 10 years before you try reading them again.
    I definitely see that Tolkien has some shortcomings as a writer, but LOTR remains a remarkable book. It basically created a new genre of adult “fantasy” fiction, separate from science-fiction and adventure stories. While I’m not sure if LOTR should fall in the cannon of “literature”, it certainly isn’t “pulp” either. (I like both, by the way!)


  5. A re-read can function as an entirely different exercise than a first read. Sometimes we re-read to remind ourselves about what it was that we loved, or hated, or simply didn’t understand the first time around. Often, we pick up something we missed. Occasionally, we discover that the magic was in our heads, not in the prose; sometimes, rarely, it works the other way around.


  6. I am actually surprised that xyzzy lumps Beowulf, Star Wars and Harry Potter in together with LOTR. Beowulf doesn’t even really come from a textual tradition – it originated in an oral tradition and was preserved in a language we don’t even speak anymore. It seems unfair to label it as childish or escapist. It is more rightly compared (even if compared negatively) to something like The Illiad or The Odessey. And it really doesn’t stike me as a terribly optimistic story, either.
    On the other hand, I can’t see Harry Potter as having the same enduring appeal as LOTR. I have tried to read that series but stopped with the third book. Everything after the first book seemed derivative and uninspiring. People tell me I should read the later books, that they are more mature, but to me they just look bigger, not smarter or more substantial.
    I can, however, see the comparison of LOTR to Star Wars (the original movies) and how they might be the cinematic equivalent of LOTR – drawing on earlier myths and sources to create something new and fantastic. They also helped define a new kind of fantastic storytelling and inspired a host of imitators – and a host of fans who continue to recreate and re-enact the stories in various ways.


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