Reviewing literature can be a daunting task—the interplay of author, characters, plot, motifs, and my own thoughts is a complex thing. And when the book under review is The Hobbit, a work both popular and well-studied, the tension is ratcheted up.
Nevertheless, in what follows, I give a brief overview of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first published entry into Middle-Earth and Bilbo Baggins—in case you’ve only just begun to read in anticipation of the cinematic experience later this week or have never ventured into a land flowing with hobbits and dragons. What you’ll encounter is not only the bare plotline of strange whimsy, but the conjunction of this present age and an age long past: the old and the new collide in the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.
While many have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, a slightly different fantasy appears in The Hobbit. Written with an eye to children, it presents a tale of Bilbo, hobbit ordinaire. Pressed into service with a band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo embarks on a quest for lost treasure whose twists and turns have enthralled for decades.
I could go on about Smaug the dragon, Beorn, trolls, and wood-elves, but I trust that you will read or see them soon enough. Instead, I’d like to talk about a couple of subtle elements that lurk beneath and behind the scenes of Tolkien’s Hobbit.
First is the element of history. The world of The Hobbit, this Middle-Earth, is not quite the filled-out world with lurid and detailed maps that it will become when Frodo Baggins appears on the scene. Bilbo’s home is called “The Hill”, not Hobbiton; there is a noticeable lack of any description of Gondor or Mordor; the great evil Sauron is merely the “Necromancer”. Tolkien, in other words, is writing here for children, not adults—the rush and flood of names would bog down most young readers.
Despite this comparative lack of detail, there is still the inescapable sense that the history and world of The Hobbit is not simply window-dressing, not merely an artificial stage concocted for a one-off story. Middle-Earth pulses with history—the aura of the ancient is palpable. Tolkien’s world is not like so much of the fantasy literature you and I see nowadays—filled with names compiled by pushing consonants through a random-number generator—it has coherence and substance outside of The Hobbit. The world Bilbo inhabits, so we gather as we read, can exist without him: indeed, Middle-Earth is different from him. He (as the English are wont to do) may enjoy tea-time, butchers, and an efficient post office. Elves, dwarves, and dragons know little of such things.
So just like us readers, Bilbo begins the tale as a modern hobbit living in an ancient world—the second element. He hears noises that sound like the rumble of steam engines—an anachronistic touch in fantasy, but perfectly normal in 20th century England. Whereas the Harry Potter series (for instance) solves the ancient-modern conundrum by positioning its wizarding world upon 21st century “Muggle” England, Tolkien takes a different tack. He places modern tastes, values, and phrases in the character of Bilbo, forcing an interaction and clash between the ‘old world’ of Middle-Earth and the new world of industry and individuality.
Yet as the story advances, the aura and enchantments of Middle-Earth begin to worm and work their ways into Bilbo’s modern soul. By the time he encounters the “small slimy creature Gollum”, Bilbo’s perception has changed:
“…his hand came upon the hilt of his little sword…somehow he was comforted. It was rather splendid to be wearing a blade made in Gondolin for the goblin-wars of which so many songs had sung…”
The young hobbit, originally pictured as a middle-class English type—a love of clocks, precision, and technology uppermost in his mind—is thus slowly transformed into a man with one (hairy) foot in both worlds. Look at, for instance, the “bravest thing” Bilbo does: it is not the clash of weapons or the fire of dragons he must ultimately conquer, but himself. The real battle, according to Tolkien, is braving the warren of dark tunnels close to the snoring dragon Smaug. This internal conflict between bravery and fear is not prominent in ancient literature, but pervades modern, angst-driven literature. Bilbo does not lose his modernity, he rather adds to it the positive qualities of Middle-Earth. Chief among these old-world characteristics are dignity in the face of crisis and loyalty to one’s friends (as seen through the interactions of the dwarves with each other).
Whether this theme of ancient pasture transmuting modern piston is a thinly veiled attempt to critique mid-20th century modernity is not my concern: Bilbo bridges the gap between the age of today and the age of yesterday, yet the seeming contradictions of old and new are not fully resolved in Bilbo’s life.
For you and me, though, does The Hobbit offer a similar experience? Can we read it and be shaped by its world or values, or is this fantasy literature merely a decent bedtime story for children? In a word, yes—Tolkien’s fictional and fantastical elements, though marketed widely today, should not obscure the richness of his characters nor the interplay between the two ages of Middle-Earth and our Earth. The emotional depth present in the short-temper of Gandalf or the animalistic ferocity of Beorn are not for children only, but are reminiscent of the unique peccadillos of your friends, neighbors, and even your very self. Seeing these emotions and these dual ages writ fantastic on the pages of The Hobbit should whet your appetite—not just for the movie or for more Tolkien, but for a quest which, ultimately, resolves.
John Stovall is a M. Div candidate (2013) at Westminster Seminary California and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in America.