It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
There are few books I’ve reread as often as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Anne of Green Gables is the only other that springs to mind), and I’d been meaning to return to the first published of Tolkien’s fantasy novels for some time. Although I’m quite certain I’ve read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings multiple times, the current reread felt foreign enough to me that I’m don’t think I reread it when I last picked up the longer Lord of the Rings, precisely ten years ago. (I distinctly recall having reread The Lord of the Rings just before the second of the films hit the theaters in 2002.) So it’s been perhaps been fifteen years since I’ve read this favorite, and I found myself approaching it almost with new eyes.
I often see a fear among book bloggers about rereading old favorites–that the book somehow won’t be the same, or that the reader will have changed so much that even though the book remains, the magic they first experienced will somehow be gone. The counter argument to this becomes that the good books will still be there, that though we may change that simply means we will find something new in them, perhaps even something better. But I didn’t find this when I started The Hobbit. The magic seemed lost, replaced by an annoying and intrusive narrator. I grew up and the aspect of the book directed at children seemed to have become lost on me.
I am not interested in the ‘child’ as such…and have no intention of meeting him/her halfway, or a quarter of the way…. I have only once made the mistake of trying to do it, to my lasting regret, and (I am glad to say) with the disapproval of intelligent children: in the earlier part of The Hobbit.*
Interestingly, Tolkien apparently felt the same. As he grew as a writer and, perhaps more importantly, worked through his own scholarly analysis of what fairy-stories are or should be, Tolkien became dissatisfied with the tone of the novel, and apparently even considered a rewrite to better align its style with that of The Lord of the Rings, although he was later dissuaded from this idea. As it is, after he completed the lengthy Lord of the Rings, Tolkien made revisions to his earlier work in order to maintain plot-line consistency between the two. (Specifically regarding the story behind Bilbo’s acquisition of a certain famous ring.)
It is not a style-choice that I recall noticing before, and while I may have simply been too entranced by Middle-earth previously, I wonder if my awareness of the faults of The Hobbit this time isn’t in part due to my summer reading of The Silmarillion. Where The Hobbit is a children’s adventure story, The Silmarillion is a grand pseudo-mythical epic and often reminded me in style and theme of the Biblical Old Testament narratives. If I am to be objective, I believe that The Silmarillion is the superior book.
About halfway through The Hobbit, I fell in love with it all over again. I don’t know if it was a change in tone or a change in mood or if the book had simply had the time it needed to work its magic on me, but for the last section of the book I didn’t want to put it down, even knowing what would happen. Or at least knowing the general idea—I can’t believe how many of the details I’d actually forgotten! I don’t think I’d forgotten how wonderful Bilbo is, as I don’t think I had really recognized that previously. If my memory of my past impressions is correct, I had also misinterpreted both the elves and the dwarves and their motivations, simplifying them, rather than allowing them to have the dimensions Tolkien had granted. Perhaps here though I am influenced by The Silmarillion, which makes much more clear the complexity of the relations between the two groups. I believe I mentioned in my post on The Silmarillion the depth of the world Tolkien created, down to the linguistic variations of his invented languages over time. Although The Hobbit is an early work, I could make out hints of the deep background given Middle-earth as I read, from the names derived from the elven tongues to the casual references to events from The Silmarillion. This depth is part of the magic of Tolkien’s world—as was his ability to make us want to live there, scary monsters and all. (Truth? The life of a hobbit, at least of the non-adventurous sort, does sound pretty good. Actually, I think my dad already eats on a hobbit schedule, six times a day…)
So I find that my latest excursion to Middle-earth was not a disappointment of tainted memories after all. The pesky narrator was quite easily forgotten and I find myself with strands to explore on my next venture through, the ideas of themes that Tolkien seems to have returned to throughout his stories. They may not mean anything, but I find myself curious as to their recurrence. (I’m most curious about the presence of some sort of special—and trouble-making—stone or jewel in each of the books I’ve read to date—silmarils, arkenstone, palantirs. Or is it just a hit-us-over-the-head commentary on greed and desire?) Regardless of any significance of Tolkien’s works, I find myself ultimately unable to completely separate myself from my continued enchantment with his world. Perhaps I’m not grown up after all.
*Letters, 309-310, as quoted on pages 15-16, including ellipses, from Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes, Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson, Editors, 2008