Warning: this post may contain spoilers for JRR Tolkien’s classic novel The Hobbit, prelude to The Lord of the Rings
Finally, I am undertaking my re-read of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There are certain books that are always worth re-reading, no matter how many times I may have read them before, and these most definitely make that list. Since this is the first time I’m re-reading them since I started posting reviews here on the site, I think it is only appropriate that I go ahead and review them here. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, I usually try to do a re-read every four or five years, since the first time I read them back in third grade. We’ll see if I decide to re-read and post a review for The Silmarillion, too.
I’ve read some classics, in a variety of genres, that left me wondering why they were considered classics, aside from the fact that they happened to have been written a long time ago (and in some cases they lacked even that qualification). Sometimes, it seems that a classic is just a self-fulfilling cycle, where once something receives sufficient acclaim, it will continue to be popular, regardless of how good it actually happens to be in substance. However, there are plenty of classics that absolutely deserve to continue being read and re-read by people far into the future, and JRR Tolkien’s classic works are absolutely in the latter category.
Recently, my wife and I made the observation that people tend to be most fascinated by stories that are set in a much larger world, but that merely allude to the idea of bigger and grander things. Franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Shannara, and to a lesser extent Marvel’s “MCU” keep people coming back and enjoying them because of the implications as much as the explicit storytelling, and Middle-Earth absolutely fits into that concept. Tolkien may be the most famous world-builder in all of genre fiction, as anyone who had read the Silmarillion (as I have), or studied one of the many dialects of the Elvish languages (as I have not) knows, and while both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were arguably written to explore the world of Middle-Earth, The Hobbit is more emblematic of the idea of world-building by implication. It is really a rather little story, a relatively light-hearted adventure that hews more closely to a classic fairy tale than the darker retellings in the movies (we’ll talk briefly about those later).
In fact, The Hobbit was actually even more light-hearted than I recalled. What makes this book so compelling, aside from the story itself, is the language, which is simply beautiful. I would happily read Tolkien’s description of, well, just about anything. It is so very vivid and visceral and varied. It really does in many ways have the feel of a children’s book. Yet for all its lightheartedness, there are also many of those implications of a larger world and more profound happenings, like the Necromancer in Mirkwood and Gandalf’s mysterious disappearances, which we do not learn the details of until The Fellowship of the Ring.
Which brings us conveniently to the movies, which while I enjoyed I did not enjoy as much as the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Beyond the fact that they were too long (there are as many hours of Hobbit movies as there are of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, despite it being the shortest book), and tried too hard to tie into the main Lord of the Rings sequence. Interestingly, I actually found that I was more accepting of some of the movies’ decisions after this most recent re-read. I still don’t like the forced addition of extra characters, especially those from the mainline Lord of the Rings, but I was more ready to accept the side-plot with Gandalf and the Necromancer. It was a valid story-telling decision to include these, and probably made sense for better continuity with The Lord of the Rings movies, which weren’t able to include some of the descriptions and explanations that are included in the books.
What I really enjoy about this book is how understated it is. The entire battle with Smaug takes just a couple of pages, as does the so-called “Battle of the Five Armies.” There is very little of the blow-by-blow, dramatic fight sequences that are so characteristic of both the movies and most modern fantasy, and it was really quite refreshing. It is beautiful and lyrical and basically perfect in diction and tone, while also being, in two words, simple fun. The narrator, which always makes me wish that more modern stories were written with an omniscient viewpoint, is casual, with occasional asides and digressions that enhance rather than detract or distract from the story. Tolkien, you could say, is no conjurer of cheap tricks.
Doubtless I could go on waxing rhapsodically about how much I enjoy this book, and its companions, The Lord of the Rings, but I do still have at least four more reviews in which to discuss everything I find so perfect about these books. If for whatever reason you have not already read The Hobbit, you really must. I promise you won’t regret the adventure.