Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Rating: 3 & ½ Stars

The challenge in fantasy is in creating an imaginary world that is apparently fabulous, but one that beguilingly draws the reader in. It’s a world that we want to be real. The influence of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) can be seen in works ranging from Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Paolini’s Inheritance books, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, right down to fantasy role-laying computer and video games.

His books highlight that often unsung hero – 'the little guy'. Hobbits, who feature both here, and in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy are quite literally, little guys – child-sized beings with no remarkable abilities, fond of food, drink, and company. Innocent and mild-natured as they are, it’s their actions and choices which tip the balance of good over evil.

The hobbit in this story, which is the prequel to the The Lord of the Rings, is Bilbo Baggins, a ‘grown-up’ hobbit at the age of fifty. Fond of hearing tales of adventure, Bilbo doesn’t actually want anything so disreputable as to be personally involved in one. That changes when Gandalf, wizard extraordinaire, enters his life. Before he knows it, the harassed Bilbo finds himself neck-deep in dwarves, dragons, trolls, orcs, and danger. Yet, our unlikely hero is not to be underestimated; cautious, pragmatic and unassumingly selfless; Bilbo surprises everyone before the tale is done.

If the plot sounds a little jejune for the sophisticated reader, think again. This is a fantasy written by a very grown-up writer for those who haven’t abandoned their inner child. Though in many ways, surprisingly anti-intellectual (surprising because Tolkein was an Oxford professor, a philologist), a mature sensibility pervades the novel.

Most of the wry, ironic humor is at the expense of the comfort-minded, risk-averse hobbit. Tolkien saw active duty on the Western Front in World War I. The book never loses sight of the fact that in events the outcome of which will impact multitudes, there is no single rescuer striding in to save the world from calamity. Many contribute to the problem, many suffer the consequences, many must come together to find a solution.

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