There are certain children’s stories that occupy a place in the collective consciousness so intuitive and natural that they seem to become an inevitable part of childhood, experiences as closely linked with being young as playing with toys or going to school. J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit is one of those stories, a book so widely recognised you’d have to go a long way to find someone unfamiliar with that opening line the Oxford don once scribbled on a blank exam page.
The same goes for the story. The eponymous Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of some wealth and reputation is coaxed into embarking on a dangerous adventure, something no self-respecting hobbit would ever normally choose to do. His press-gang are the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves led by the hard-headed Thorin Oakenshield whose plan in to retake a mountain stronghold full of treasure once occupied by Thorin’s people from the terrible dragon now residing there. With Bilbo reluctantly enlisted in the role of a burglar the company sets on a thrilling adventure through dangerous territory and terrain.
There’s something wonderfully reassuring about reading The Hobbit, its structure and style feeling decidedly old-school yet maintaining its quirky charm and sense of humour. The plot rattles along at a terrific pace taking in encounters with goblins, wargs and spiders and takes place in a number of vividly described locations; mountains, caves, the darkness of Mirkwood forest. It is a story that completely sells its world, a fully realised land of fantastical creatures to which there are no portals from rural England for children to enter through. This is immersive fantasy and actually rather dark for its target audience. There is suffering, peril, war and death contained in the pages that balances the character-driven comedy and the product of this is a mature and serious story.
At the book’s core is a theme that runs through much of Tolkien’s work, the notion that the small and humble can achieve greatness and alter the course of important events. Bilbo is a superbly appealing hero and his constant battle between his down to earth Baggins persona and his more adventurous Tookish instincts provides a great canvas on which to build character. He’s in over his head but he is surprisingly resourceful, a useful hobbit to have in a tricky spot but he never loses that longing for his comfortable armchair and a fresh handkerchief. His is not the role of the dashing hero, he is the sly manipulator who can go unseen (sometimes with the help of a magic ring) and is perfectly suited to his employment as a burglar. This is the key to the success of The Hobbit’s drive; the hero is more than meets the eye and we are always discovering new things he is capable of.
Not that it is only Bilbo’s show. Gandalf is an arguably even more iconic character, the definitive literary wizard, mysterious, powerful and indomitable but with a good heart and humorous disposition. Then of course there is the riddling Gollum who hear is presented as a much more child-friendly creature than the fouler thing seen in The Lord of the Rings. The dwarves are a fine company to follow through an adventure but their character is found in their culture rather than individual personalities as few of them are developed beyond a handful of quite basic traits. And don’t forget Smaug, a dragon who goes far beyond the statues of a monster whose mind games and wit make for just as serious a threat as his flame-breath in his brief but memorable scenes.
The first of the films will be making all the headlines in the coming weeks but don’t forget the source novel that spawned it; a veritable masterwork of engaging children’s fiction.