How 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.
One 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.