This is not the book I remember from childhood, though my memory has no doubt been influenced by Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Those movies have such warm depictions of loyalty and friendship (dare I say fellowship?) that the emotional distance between Bilbo and the dwarves is initially jarring.
The Hobbit begins with one of my favorite opening paragraphs. It has that bedtime-story vibe that I loved about Roverandom:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Bilbo’s lovely door is soon defaced by a mark to identify it as a meeting place for a group of dwarves. They arrive singly or a few at a time, with poor Bilbo becoming more and more distressed by the growing party. (This scene reads differently as an adult—13 unexpected guests for dinner?!) The dwarves want to reclaim their ancestral home and treasure that is currently guarded by a dragon and Gandalf, a wizard, has told them that Bilbo is an excellent burglar. That he’s a burglar surprises Bilbo as much as the dwarves, but he leaves with them the following morning.
Most travel-based stories show the group bonding with time, but Bilbo is never part of the group. When he proves himself, the trust is curiously short-lived until the next disaster when he must once again pull the group to safety. There’s one moment when he alone escapes danger and debates not going back for the dwarves, only to find them already safe and having the same debate about him, but Gandalf comes to his defense:
Gandalf answered angrily: “I brought him, and I don’t bring things that are of no use. Either you help me to look for him, or I go and leave you here to get out of the mess as best you can yourselves. If we can only find him again, you will thank me before all is over.” (103)
I hope book purists won’t be too disappointed when I say I picture Ian McKellen as Gandalf! Which brings up another point—though The Hobbit is a self-contained story, it lays the groundwork for The Lord of the Rings. I wouldn’t call it a prequel, but it offers interesting backstory. (Ever wonder how Bilbo found the ring?) Though The Hobbit isn’t as immersive in its level of detail about Middle Earth, I had the sense that Bilbo and the dwarves were moving through a corner of a much larger world.
Oh, and I can’t forget Smaug! Every dragon I’ve read about ever since has always been compared to Smaug. The giant, talking dragon atop his pile of gold forms a cornerstone of my imagination.
I have mixed feelings about the end where a lot of misery is caused by greed. I don’t mind that the “heroes” have a common failing, but it would have been more impactful, or possibly relatable, if the dwarves had been developed before the final chapters. Other than Thorin (the leader) and Bombur (always last), they’re rarely mentioned singly or fleshed out as individuals. The Battle of Five Armies seems to come out of left field, fueled by the aforementioned greed. As things spiral out of control, the dwarves’s position becomes less understandable. The most consequential decision of the book seems the least supported.
Ultimately, The Hobbit has a lot of the same pull and lyrical writing as The Lord of the Rings, but in a compact format. It’s a very cozy book, even though it has loads of giant spiders.
Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0) A classic for good reason.