Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
Houghtin Mifflin Harcourt 2012
I am a Tolkien-ite from way back. I read The Hobbit young (I want to say sixth grade) and often. The first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I was home from school with strep throat; I read the whole trilogy in less than a week, including the appendices. I have reread each of them annually ever since, so I have read them at least thirty-four times (yes I am a nerd, thank you, although I had to do math to figure out the difference between my age now and how old I was in sixth grade). And with every read, I come away with something different. Something inspiring, something that touches me deep down inside and subtly changes who I am.
So when Corey Olsen’s book, Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit arrived on my doorstep as an unpublished proof for me to review, I was excited. I was more than excited. I pulled out my highlighter and dove in.
Dr. Olsen is an expert on all things Tolkien; I immediately felt a connection: the bond of Middle Earth, Rivendell, the Shire, Elvish, Orcish. Bilbo, Frodo, Strider-cum-Aragorn. Yes, kindred spirits. He teaches courses on Tolkien! He was my hero before I even started reading.
I found myself nodding my way through the introduction – yes, yes! Exactly! I was surprised to know that there were still things for me to learn about the text. Did you know, for example, that we don’t read the original? Really. Bilbo’s whole relationship with Gollum changes in the rewrite. In the first edition, Gollum willingly bets his magic ring (not yet the ring of power). He doesn’t curse Bilbo; they part amicably. It wasn’t until Tolkien began work on The Lord of the Rings, that this storyline shifted. I want a copy of that first edition. Gollum and Bilbo could not part as friends once the storyline for The Lord of the Rings was developed. But, I am so attached to the story I know that it was hard for me to conceive of this—really—an alternate storyline? Despite the acclaimed author and text in front of me, I googled it. Twice.
Olsen’s book moves through The Hobbit chapter-by-chapter offering logic and analysis to the storyline. What’s it about? What’s the lesson to be learned? What is Bilbo, as the main character of a children’s book, teaching? Learning? Do those differ? How does Tolkien invite the reader in? Get the reader on Bilbo’s side? How does it relate to the real world? Why is it important? And Olsen answers all of these questions by looking at themes that recur throughout the text.
Olsen, a medievalist by trade, focuses on the poetry (which avid readers will sometimes gloss). He discusses rhyme, meter, nuances in tone and imagery. What do the poems/songs tell us about the singers? How do the goblin songs compare to the dwarf or elf songs? I find myself forced to reread The Hobbit again (twist my arm). What’s the difference in their word choices? Cadence? And what sort of information does that give the reader?
Early on, Olsen claims that he isn’t going to reference The Lord of the Rings. But he does, again and again. Olsen claims that he is trying to stay true to where the book was when it stood alone. A noble, but to my mind, untenable idea. Can we consider the three musketeers without D’Artagnan? The three stooges without Curly, or Shemp? The Beatles without Ringo? And so, I don’t think it possible, for those who have read all of the books, to look at Bilbo without the fellowship isn’t an option. For many readers the stories of Middle Earth blend into one mythology. So, Olsen’s failure on that particular promise was neither surprising nor disappointing. But, had I not been a life-long Tolkien-ite, the references may have been disconcerting.
This book hits the stands on September 12, in anticipation of Peter Jackson’s movie (well, it’s going to be a trilogy, but that’s another issue). It allows the casual reader to consider the themes Tolkien-ites have mined for decades: hope, luck, the conflicting sides of the self. In many ways, The Hobbit is a coming of age tale, despite Bilbo’s age. Perhaps it is because of his age that The Hobbit has entertained adults as well as children. Olsen gives the citizen of Earth a glimpse into the realm of Middle Earth so that we may earnestly enjoy the film, and perhaps pick up the book and learn something about our interdependence and ourselves. If you’re a fan of The Hobbit, or Tolkien, or you plan to see the movie in December (December 14—three short months away), read this book. Discover the things you missed, meet the songs and characters anew.