Seventy-eight years ago today one of the finest fantasy epics ever to grace the shelves of public and personal libraries alike was presented to the world as humbly as its eponymous protagonist. J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s fantasy The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was a landmark novel that still resounds today as so much more than a modern fairy tale. Its impact has been tremendous. Since its original publication in 1937, The Hobbit has been continuously published and sold in multiple languages around the world. It has spawned many forms of media adaptations like radio teleplays, comic books, and both animated and live-action films – although you can argue that the overwhelming amount of CGI in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy counts those films as animated too. Not to mention that it led to the production of the greatest (sequel) book in history. (That may be an example of my standard hyperbole, but I’m not the first to declare The Lord of the Rings to be the best book ever published.) Any way you look at it, The Hobbit is an incredible story that shaped its genre as a glacier carves out a fjord.
The story itself is a terrific hero quest that immerses the reader in the wondrous world of Middle Earth. Few stories before or since have allowed us to plunge into their setting with as much detail as Tolkien’s terra, thanks very much to the maps included and integral to the text. Fellow authors like Frank Herbert and George R.R. Martin are some who have had comparable success and their greatest works have a similar set of adaptations and rich fan bases, yet without The Hobbit to broaden the fantasy genre (which seems to be literarily linked to science fiction much in the way chemistry and biology connect as natural sciences) the sands of Arrakis and snowdrifts along the Wall might not be so deep.
I can talk for a long time about how The Hobbit affected the future of fantasy and every other aspect of twentieth century storytelling, but that has been done time and again. What has not been as thoroughly discussed is its impact on me and some of my favorite things to take away from it. Perhaps they are similar to yours.
I first read The Hobbit when I was a freshman in high school. I had already seen the first Lord of the Rings movie (The Fellowship of the Ring) and as a young child without any prior knowledge of Middle Earth or hobbits or how long the film was going into it, I was not thrilled with what I saw. That has since changed. I had actually seen much of the animated 1977 film adaptation of The Hobbit at my high school two years before I attended classes there. My elementary school was down the road a few miles and suffered a gas leak during school hours one day, so they loaded us students onto buses and dropped us off at my future high school where some of us got plopped into the chapel and shown the movie they had in the local media player at the time. I was not so thrilled with what I half-watched while talking excitedly with my friends about not having to do actual coursework that day. That still holds true. What was genuine from the start and has only grown over the years is my love for this book. I had a really good reading list in my high school English courses, and perhaps none better than that first year. This was helped tremendously by The Hobbit, which was one of the few books I would routinely read ahead of the required daily reading. I was thrilled by the adventures of these dwarves, wandering wizard, and timid Bilbo Baggins. It was especially easy for me to learn about allegory and the influences Tolkien’s life played upon his story when I was myself a shy boy seemingly going along for the ride with a class full of often boisterous but friendly teenage boys (no ladies at my school), and all of us were guided by our wise, middle-aged teacher and his remarkable wit. And mustache. That man’s facial hair was on Tom Selleck levels.
I reread one of my favorite scenes today and had a shocking epiphany. After the dwarves have been captured by the trolls and Bilbo is hiding helpless up a tree, all hope seems lost. Then Gandalf goes all deus ex Mithrandir and saves the day by impersonating the trolls voices and getting them to argue with each other about the proper means to cook a dwarf until the sun rises and turns them all to stone, as is befitting to all scary monsters in children’s stories. Only today did I realize what Gandalf did is like what happens on the internet countless times everyday: he stirred up an argument between a group of individuals over and over again after a matter had been settled among them. In order words, Gandalf trolled the trolls.
However, what is perhaps the best scene in the book is a great lesson in compassion and responsibility – one that Tolkien probably should have looked at a little more himself when considering who to base the dwarves and their greed off of – is one that almost never happened. Tolkien published the story, it was a hit, and his publisher asked for more. He gave him a draft of The Silmarillion and received a “no, not that – more hobbits please”. He then crafted what I’ve already described as the greatest book ever, but in order to fit The Hobbit more cleanly together with The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien made a few minor, yet important tonal tweaks to the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter where Bilbo finds the Ring and encounters Gollum (which is the best scene in the leaves-a-lot-to-be-desired-and-gives-way-more-than-what-is-needed Hobbit trilogy). Because the stories are told from the standpoint of a book that was written by the protagonist (Bilbo wrote The Hobbit as an account of his adventure and Frodo wrote The Lord of the Rings as an account of his journey) Tolkien cleverly explained the first edition, which has a less sinister selection of words and actions from Gollum, was Bilbo’s slightly falsified explanation of what happened that portray him in a better light. The second and subsequent editions contain the “true” story of what went down in that cave deep in the bowels of the Misty Mountains, and they show more trickiness on the part of Bilbo because he’s already feeling the Ring’s pull without knowing it. Also, Gollum’s scarier and more threatening, which is why the scene where Bilbo escapes after they exchange their riddles in the dark is one of my favorites. Here’s an excerpt from the critical moment Bilbo matures as a caring person and indirectly helps to vanquish the evil of the Ring many years before anyone even realizes what he’s got. Bilbo is standing near the exit of the cave with the Ring on, so he is invisible, yet Gollum unknowingly stands between him and his escape. And Bilbo has a sword…
Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.
There is a great reference to this scene in The Fellowship of the Ring film where Gandalf explains to Frodo the importance of valuing life and realizing that we must make the most of ours and not destroy the likes of others’.
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