Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: The Hobbit. By J.R.R. Tolkien

I must preface this review by saying that I do not usually like fiction. I am primarily a pastor. But I loved The Hobbit.

When I heard the announcement that Tolkien's great prequel to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was soon be made into a movie trilogy of its own right--and indeed the film adventure begins in theaters today--I thought it was time to delve into this classic adventure myself. I am so glad that I did.

Let's start with character development. Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Wizard are two of the best characters Tolkien has ever created. (And he has created hundreds!) In The Hobbit, we learn to trust each of them. Bilbo emerges as a reluctant yet heroic protagonist. He is hesitant, traditional, mannered, quick-witted, and yet shockingly courageous. This despite his diminutive stature! Drawn into an adventure larger than life--to recapture dwarvish treasure held captive by a murderous dragon--Biblo shows himself over and over again to be the most reliable compatriot of the band.

Gandalf on the other hand is Biblo's perfect compliment. He is strong, indomitable, larger than life, and yet flighty and preoccupied. He swoops in at just the right moments to rescue the would-be treasure hunters. In chapter five (revised in later editions) we also meet the grotesque Gollum, bent helplessly inward by the ring's debilitating powers. The repartee between Bilbo and Gollum while the ring's fate stands on the line is deeply memorable. We only learn later that all of Middle Earth hangs also in the balance of this test of wits between the deformed Gollum and the sharp-tongued hobbit.

In terms of visual drama and setting, Tolkien in unmatched. He is able to create vast worlds that seem both familiar and impossible to the reader. Throughout his works, the Shire, the Misty Mountains, the Mines of Moria, Esgaroth, and Mirwood are described with vivid imagery. Tolkien creates a world that can both enrapture and repulse his readers. Few fictional writers can create and balance such elaborate settings as Tolkien does. (Thankfully, the movies have not let us down in portraying these stunning worlds).

Most readers will be not surprised to note that The Hobbit (much like The Lord of the Rings series) contains a substantial amount of poetry. In Tolkien, this functions to create a timeless quality, blending Middle Earth's mythic age into current bends in the plot. The poetry often emerges in the form of dwarvish songs, assuring the reader that the characters themselves are captivated by myths and legends of their own. These poetic songs and tales are sometimes warning, and sometimes consoling the heroes along their path of destiny.

The plot itself, primarily a dragon-slaying tale, never lags. In each successive chapter, Bilbo finds himself entrapped in another web (once literally!) that seems at first inescapable. Once Biblo and the dwarves--led by the overly confident Thorin Oakenshield--actually meet the dragon Smaug, the reader stands convinced that their gold-snatching feat will at last be impossible. Only the heroic resolve of a certain halfling will prove otherwise! But I won't spoil the tale for you here.

The Hobbit ends exactly where the reader hopes it will all along: with a cataclysmic battle scene featuring all the forces of Middle Earth present. Men, elves, dwarves, wargs, gobblins, eagles, and one particularly irrepressible wizard all arm themselves for battle to the death for fame and fortune.

No wonder this work is timeless!

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida.

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