J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (London: HarperCollins, 1999), 310pp
I picked up a copy of The Hobbit in anticipation of the new film coming out soon, and found it an enjoyable read. With The Lord of the Rings, I had watched the films before reading the books, and wanted to experience it the other way around this time. Of course, some of the films' imagery was inescapable; reading The Hobbit I imagined Ian McKellen as Gandalf, the dwarves all as some variation on Gimli, and switched haphazardly between picturing Ian Holm and Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Far from being a detriment, I found that relying on the crutch of Peter Jackson's interpretations of Tolkien's universe improved the tale in my eyes. In my readings of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I find Tolkien's queer and whimsical Middle-Earth far less appealing than Jackson's relatively earthier and more restrained vision. Somewhat to my dismay, the Tom Bombadil-esque happenings I encountered in the Lord of the Rings books also appear here. Personally, I find talking animals and characters bursting into song on every other page not to my taste, and indeed rather tiresome and embarrassing. I much prefer the clash of swords and shields found in the films, where magic and fantasy is rarer and more restrained and all the more wondrous for being so.
Of course, I appreciate that Tolkien is practically Genesis in the fantasy genre, and The Hobbit is a story of great imagination. In essence, it is a cautionary tale on greed, as the characters' primary goal is to retrieve a vast dragon-hoard of treasure. Towards the end of the book, this underlying theme of greed is exercised as various interested parties descend on the unguarded riches. With this in mind, I found that none of the dwarves (with the possible exception of Balin) were all that likeable and they contribute little to the quest. At first, the party relies on the wizard Gandalf, and later, it is Bilbo that is compelled to take all the risks on behalf of the haughty and timorous dwarves. Yet they greedily profit from the fruits of the labours of others as the embers of an unfortunate town smoulder in the distance. To this end, Bilbo emerges as a role model, as he is on this quest to the Lonely Mountain solely for the thrill of adventure, and cares more for a cosy fireplace and a full stomach than he does for mounds of dragon-gold. "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world," one character remarks to Bilbo (pg. 266).
However, reading the book, I could not help but wonder how scenes such as Smaug's attack on the town, or the Battle of Five Armies, will be realised on screen. Of course, this is probably inevitable for those of my generation whose first experience of Tolkien was through Jackson's lens (I was 11 years old when The Fellowship of the Ring film was released). I still see The Hobbit as a good tale but, as the book was so quick and easy to read, for me it served more as a primer for the new film trilogy than a separate experience to be savoured.