As part of making 2014 the year of long books, I’ve just finished #25 The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. The Hobbit is not, on its own, a long book but it forms a prologue to #1 The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been informed by at least 2 of my favourite people that The Lord of the Rings means The Whole Trilogy, not just The Fellowship of the Ring, which makes it a very long book indeed.
The Hobbit is a children’s fantasy adventure story. Bilbo Baggins is the hobbit of the title. Hobbits are cosy, tidy creatures with hairy toes who rarely stray far from home. Caught up in an epic quest and taken along by 13 dwarves and a wizard to slay a dragon, Bilbo finds himself travelling far from home with unlikely companions and even missing a meal or three – a big deal for a hobbit.
I don’t like this book
I realise that a great many people do, and I can sort of see why. The Hobbit reminds me very much of The Magic Faraway Tree. Tolkien, at least when writing for children, has the same glossy style for his adventures. Nothing very bad happens to a named character, and everything is clearly going to work out in the end. If you’re a true hero, million-to-one chances come off nine times out of ten (as Pratchett describes beautifully in Guards! Guards!, in a section that is lampooning, it turns out, the end of The Hobbit).
The whole time I was reading The Hobbit, I kept looking for depth, and not finding it. The world building is terrible – nothing makes any sense, not the geography, the travel, the supplies, the economy. Despite the fact that the group is usually 15 strong, no one fails to offer them hospitality. A single man, living alone in the woods happily feeds them for half a dozen meals an then kits them out with a pony each to ride, a bow and quiver each, and food for a fortnight. I appreciate that he is a special snowflake of awesome power, but where did all this stuff come from? Who made the bows, and why does he have an arsenal lying around? Who saddled all these ponies? Who made the saddles? And given that this man doesn’t like hurting any animal, where did the leather come from?
Every time they stop, the wealth of a small township is showered over them. As a result, the questers can be heroically unconcerned with their goods, and lose an awful lot of stuff along the way. They never pay for anything, or trade, or do any useful work so why people are so willing to help I really can’t think. Presumably it’s because no one has any memory of last winter or any plans for the next. Everything is in an epic context, and the only events that matter are those that happened a hundred and fifty years earlier.
On race and gender and the working class
Do you know, I’m not sure that there’s a named female character anywhere in this book? I’m not sure there’s even a female speaking part, which is impressive given how much attention is paid to food. There aren’t any workers, either, unless you count the goblins and the dwarves. The entire story is that of some rich dudes going on a quest to get some more money, and getting a bunch of ordinary folk killed along the way.
I’m also really not happy with how the different races are portrayed in this story. Even if we assume that Tolkien invented them all whole cloth, and that hobbits aren’t supposed to be one sector of humanity, elves another and goblins a third, it’s still pretty horrific. Entire races are either Practically Saints, Quite Good or Really Bad. If you’re at all bad, you have to be killed. In the book, the elves and the goblins have been at war for a very long time, and I can see why because the elves go and hunt the goblins. When they’ve nothing better to do, they hunt gobilns. When goblins have nothing better to eat, they eat elves. Now, out of those, which is worse? Hunting sentient creatures for food or for fun?
Moreover, everyone eats sentient animals, which I find horrific. Sure, dragons eat humans, but humans eat sheep and it turns out they can talk, although not in a human language, and wait at table. This book is an ethical mess, and I really can’t see that any of the characters come of out of it looking good.
It remind me of the sort of games I played as a child. The kind that’s described so well in Swallows and Amazons, where it’s clear who the main characters are (the real people pretending to be other people) and everyone else is less than a breath on the wind, as real or disposable as you like. The Hobbit is like two children playing “I kill a goblins with a single blow with my magic sword” gets the reply “well I kill two, no, ten, no a thousand goblins with my, um, with my mighty hammer”.
I didn’t enjoy The Hobbit and I don’t expect to read it again. That said, it was an interesting exercise as it so clearly provides a background to other works I’ve experienced and even love. Pratchett clearly knows this book well, and reacts to it in several of his works. A lot of roleplaying games and roleplayers act like they’re in The Hobbit, where certain creatures are bad and can be killed at will, and I suspect one of the origins of that is this series. Although, to be fair to Tolkien, mass slaughter is common in SF novels and action films too. But just because the other kids are all doing it, doesn’t mean it’s cool, OK?
I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.