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Cynewulf Unraed presents a trip through Middle Earth. Part 1: The Hobbit

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Seasons' Greetings and Happy New Years, Geekdom!
I haven't posted on this site for a long time, but hopefully I'll have some time to post over Winter Break. And I wanted to bring myself back by sharing one of my most favored holiday traditions: reading through as much of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth Cycle -- including The Hobbit, the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion -- as possible. I started doing this about 7 years ago, I think. Some may find this a strange activity; I know plenty of people who don't see the need to read the same book more than once. But I'm already a compulsive re-reader. Since my academic work requires so much difficult, heavy reading, when I read for pleasure I like it to be something relatively effortless-- like repeat of a book I already know. Re-reading Tolkien isn't exactly effortless, although it's easier than some of what I read, being (mostly) in Modern English. The real reason I re-read these books every year is that I get something new from them every time. Once-readers don't get this, but I've never read the same book twice: every time I read a book a second time, if it's a good book, it'll be a different book (if it's not a good book, I won't re-read it or I probably won't read it in the first place).

If you're unfamiliar with the works of Tolkien... um... what are you doing on a site about geekdom? Well, I'll give you a little bit. Tolkien is best known for his Middle-Earth books, but his career was academia. He was a professor at Oxford and published some very important academic work on Medieval English literature, including the incredibly influential article "Beowulf, the Monsters, and the Critics." Tolkien's academic work had a serious impact on the popular literature he wrote. You don't have to be a student of Old English literature (which I am) to read his work, although it adds an interesting dimension to the reading experience. In this blog series, I'll try to offer some guidance for experiencing Tolkien's most enduring works (I promise I'll keep the Old English stuff to a minimum). Oh, and I don't know if this rule applies to books over 50 years old, but there be spoilers ahead. First up: The Hobbit

What's it about Doesn't everybody know what this book is about? Okay, here's the short recap: Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit (if you don't know what a hobbit is... well...) ends up on an adventure with a wizard Gandalf and a band of Dwarfs looking to reclaim a lost treasure from a dragon named Smaug.
The Reading ExperienceThe Hobbit is the first Middle-Earth novel Tolkien published (technically, he began writing The Silmariliion before any of the other ones, but that's for another blog). It's also the easiest of the books to read. In fact, those familiar with the epic narrative voice, style, and breadth of The Lord of the Rings, or Peter Jackson's recreation of the same, might be a little surprised by The Hobbit's relatively lightweight tone. Tolkien occasionally breaks the narrative to insert little jokes like this:
Old Took's great-grand-uncle Bullroarer... was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul's head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment

Also different from The Lord of the Rings is the narrative structure. For the most part, the book follows a straightforward narrative, being largely free of the flashbacks, diversions, separations, and references to Ancient Days that characterize the later works. In many ways, it reads like a campfire tale. Each chapter follows the characters on a new episode of their adventure, often ending on a cliffhanger.
Near the end, though, the book takes a somewhat surprising turn. Most fantasy adventure novels end when the heroes recover their treasure; this book goes past that point to its logical conclusion as various factions once friendly to each other bicker and nearly come to war over the treasure. And Bilbo finds himself compelled to make an unusual sacrifice -- through an apparent act of betrayal -- to resolve the conflict.
Who should read it? This work is usually classified as Juvenile Children's Young Adult literature or whatever they call that now. Although the book is approachable enough for kids, it's not too childish for adults to enjoy.
Digging Deeper Like I said, The Hobbit doesn't dig too deep into Tolkien's world-creating mythology, but it has a few tantalizing references here and there to things like Gondolin and a mystical land called "Faerie." There are also a few references from Tolkien's academic background. Indeed, the whole incident with the dragon recreates elements from the third part of Beowulf in which an unnamed thief steals a cup from a dragon's hoard, inciting him to ravage the countryside. But in Tolkien's version, the thief is the protagonist, and the bold warrior is sort of a side character. Other elements of the story, such as an encounter with a shape-shifter named Beorn, have the feel of a folktale. Bilbo's actions to resolve the dispute at the end of the book are a clear Christ parallel. The chapter in which it happens is titled "The Thief in the Night," a reference to Christ from 1 Thessalonians. Tolkien's Christian faith was an important influence on his work, as it was for his friend and contemporary C.S. Lewis, although Tolkien's works are less transparently allegorical than many of Lewis's.
Recommendation if you want to read the works of Tolkien, you can't find a better starting point than The Hobbit. If you enjoy it, it's likely you'll get at least a little ways into The Lord of the Rings. On the other hand, if the book leaves you utterly bored and confused, it's not likely you'll enjoy the other books.
1 comments:

Rick here: The Hobbit is absolutely essential reading before you get into Lord of the Rings. It adds so much more context to things that if you don't read The Hobbit first, you will be lost if you attempt LoTR. And you would be missing out on a truly fun adventure of a book.


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