Book Review
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There and Back Again with Bilbo Baggins

Be warned: there may be spoilers.

The first few pages found me proud. Finally! A Tolkien book I have the patience to read. Then I discovered that The Hobbit was actually written as a children’s book.

A Brief History on The Hobbit

The Hobbit was published in 1937, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction. Among children’s literature, it’s considered a classic. Later on, the publisher requested a sequel to The Hobbit. Which is how The Silmarillion was born. (although there was a misunderstanding between author and publisher so the early draft of it was rejected…blablabla and now we have both The Silmarillion and The Lord of The Rings) Despite the lack of significant female characters in the story, it is amusing to note that the first authorized adaptation was a stage production in a girls’ school.

The Hobbit is the story of a Bilbo Baggins. A comfortable, homebody of a hobbit who lived in a cozy little hole in the ground. In the middle of his consistently happy-go-lucky life, he’s tricked by the wizard Gandalf into embarking on a grand adventure with thirteen dwarves involving the perilous forest of Mirkwood, a long-lost treasure (guarded by a legendary dragon), and the uncertainty of coming home. To join such a quest was absurdly out-of-character for a Baggins, or a hobbit.

Initially, Bilbo was shy, and his being chosen by Gandalf was often questioned. But the wizard’s wisdom was proven true: there’s more in this hobbit than can be guessed, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself. In several instances, it was Bilbo who saved the dwarves from all sorts of regretful ends: the spiders of Mirkwood, imprisonment by an Elven king, and a certain dwarf making a complete ass of himself for the rest of Lord of the Rings history. Throughout, Bilbo was genuine: a cautious Baggins yearning for the simple comforts of his hobbit hole. But the adventure revealed just as genuinely his lesser-known Tookish side: a brave, crafty, Sting-wielding, burglar who speaks with greedy dragons.

I’ve tried researching other adventure novels (for kids) prior to 1937, but the best I could find were Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1985) and The Wind in the Willows (1908) which, though also containing themes in fantasy, adventure, and anamorphism, are less rugged and ‘woodsy’ in comparison to this one. Considering the time it was written, it’s no surprise how favorably it was received, or how significantly it may have contributed to the genre of fantasy literature. I love what C.S. Lewis, a friend of Tolkien, said about the novel,

The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology… The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity that is worth oceans of glib “originality.”

Nowadays, fantasy stories are vomitingly abundant. The cast of magical and mythological characters (giants, trolls, wizards, elves, werewolves, dragons, faeries, etc.) have been overly used from fairy tales to fantasy novels, to sacrilegious cheesy teenage romances, with only few literary pieces that do justice to these otherworldly beings. It takes a writer of true originality to study these creatures carefully, and weave their details poetically into an epic story. If I were a child in the 1930’s, I would have swallowed The Hobbit whole, regurgitated the mithril and ring of power, and embarked on my own quest for dragons, treasures of old, and the mysterious Necromancer.

A hat tip to Tolkien for the dragon Smaug, who epitomizes the wily, exceedingly greedy creatures dragons could be instead of the mindless, violent brutes they’re commonly depicted as. In all my encounters with dragons, it’s hardly explained why treasures often come with dragons, hence, Tolkien’s elaboration on the greedy nature of dragons sheds light. In addition, much as I enjoy heroes valiantly slaying these armored fire-breathers, I do love a dragon that can toy with the mind. The unexpected conversation between Smaug and Bilbo were my favorite parts of the novel because it gave so much texture to Smaug’s character– his arrogance, weakness for flattery, and foolishness. The whole of it, though brief, was even exchanged in polite, good humor.

We need more dragons like these. We have enough majestic, noble dragons, or ferocious black stealthy ones (although I still want my own Toothless). Fantasy literature is sorely lacking diabolically sly dragons, with a wicked sense of humor, fire pouring from their mouths and lightning on their tails, who guard a kingdom of desire that overwhelmingly stirs your innermost yearnings. And collects beautiful virgins on the side. Such a dragon would garner my fondness and respect. Smaug is merely a hint of this magnificent being.

Smaug’s death was the biggest disappointment in the book. After being built-up as a the destruction of the King under the Mountain, a mighty wolf munching on Dale’s poor inhabitants, basically: a legendary creature of great destruction–whom these little folk have travelled extremely far and life-threatening lands to meet… Smaug’s fiery attack of Lake-men’s village was nothing noteworthy, and was even cut short by a measly arrow to the chest. And just when you thought he’d rise from the waters in glorious rage, he never ever does.

My gratitude goes out to Tolkien for making a recent hospital confinement feel as though something worthwhile happened (being strapped to an iv= meh). The Hobbit is a promise of better adventures to come (The Silmarillion and the tedious The Lord of The Rings trilogy are on the list). Future adventures may (interestingly enough) have similar plot sequences (a gathering/fellowship is formed, the quest begins, Elrond (first elf encounter), battles with orcs (underground), another elf encounter, long and desolate travel, a great battle, and establishment/restoration of a king, and back to the Shire) but I trust Tolkien enough to make it worth the long journey back to a singing kettle by the familiar warmth of a hobbit hearth.


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