_Tolkien and the Great War_ is an obviously well-researched book that goes into explicit (at times I must admit tedious) detail on J. R.2.5 – 3 stars
_Tolkien and the Great War_ is an obviously well-researched book that goes into explicit (at times I must admit tedious) detail on J. R. R. Tolkien’s involvement in World War I and its possible impact on his then-current and later writings. We begin by observing Tolkien’s earliest close friendships formed at St. Edward’s Grammar School under the auspices of the “TCBS” (an acronym for Tea Club, Barrovian Society) where the core group of Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman, Robert Gilson, and G. B. Smith became close artistic confidantes, encouragers and critics of each other’s work. Convinced that they were a group that would change the world with their work, their dreams were turned to harsh reality with the advent of “the war to end all wars”.
We spend the majority of the remainder of the book following Garth as he traces the movements and vicissitudes of the various platoons to which each member of the TCBS was assigned, with a special concentration on Tolkien himself. It’s common knowledge that the Great War winnowed a generation, destroying the optimism of the Edwardian era and putting paid to facile romantic notions of the heroism of war. The ‘innovations’ of technology that made killing men easier than it ever had been before, along with the harrowing conditions of trench life and seemingly incompetent leadership, made this conflict a wake-up call for the world that shattered many illusions. As Tolkien himself noted: “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.” In the midst of this carnage and despair Tolkien managed to begin work on the poems and stories that would become the germ for his masterpieces The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as the accompanying material that would evolve into the posthumously published The Silmarillion.
Garth does a fine job giving us details of the World War I experience, but I have to admit that in general I was a bit underwhelmed by this book. I found the prose to be a bit workmanlike, and this wasn’t helped by the sheer amount of detail. I appreciate the thoroughness of Garth’s research, but I did find my eyes glazing over a bit from time to time as troop movements, platoon names, and other details were gone into. Some of the extra biographical detail given on Tolkien was interesting, but I must admit that most of it I already knew, at least in broad strokes, from other sources so I didn’t come away feeling that I had learned anything heretofore unknown to me about the man himself. The main gist of Garth’s critical argument, namely that Tolkien, far from being an anachronistic throwback despite his literary tastes, was actually truly a man of his era who was responding uniquely to the horrors present at the birth of the twentieth century has also been covered by others, especially Tom Shippey in several of his works.
I did find the last section of the book the most interesting. In it Garth concentrates almost exclusively on the early writings Tolkien did in what would ultimately become his legendarium of Middle Earth and examines how his experiences in the war may have coloured the world he created, or even been lifted from direct experiences in his life. It is a kind of ‘biographical criticism’ for which Tolkien himself had great distaste and whose value he felt was dubious at best, but I must admit that much of what Garth posits makes sense to me, and I imagine that Tolkien’s youth, coupled with the monumental nature of the events through which he was living, could not help but leave their mark on what he wrote in ways perhaps more apparent than exists in his later, more mature writings.
In retrospect my review is probably unduly harsh. This was a fine work of biographical criticism giving great detail about a formative period of a great writer’s life. I think it was simply the fact that I wasn’t utterly wowed by the book, and found some moments slow going, that made it an interesting, though not inspiring, experience for me. ...more
In the Book of Lost Tales, volumes 1 and 2, we have a more or less full picture of the earliest work Tolkien did in the development of his personal myIn the Book of Lost Tales, volumes 1 and 2, we have a more or less full picture of the earliest work Tolkien did in the development of his personal mythology that was to grow into the tales of Middle Earth. It was a mythology meant to provide his country England with something he felt it sorely needed, a foundation myth, and it was a vehicle which allowed him to explore and expand upon his own fascination with the world and stories of Faery and his love for the invented languages of his youth. The frame of the entire mythology at this point centred on the character of an English mariner (initially called Eriol and later Aelfwine each with varying origin stories) who was shipwrecked upon the isle of Tol Eressëa, the last bastion of the Elves who have all but fled the mortal world. Here are recounted to him the ‘lost tales’ of the Elves from prior to their departure from the wider world of men.
While it always remained the case that Tolkien envisioned his Middle-Earth stories to be tales about the earliest, unknown histories of our own world as opposed to stories set on some completely alien fantasy world, the two Book of Lost Tales volumes really point out just how strongly Tolkien initially envisioned this link to be. In the first volume we were presented with some of the more cosmogonic myths: stories of the Valar and the creation of the world, the creation of the two Trees of Valinor and the Silmarils, the creation of the sun and moon, and the ultimate exile of the Elves from Valinor to the wider world. In the second volume things get a little closer to the ground as we hear tales of heroes and their deeds in their attempt to fight against the forces of Melko who would overthrow all that is good and beautiful in the world.
I have to admit that volume 2 had a bumpy start for me with the Tales of Beren & Tinúviel and Turambar & the Foalókë being distinctly inferior to what they were to become in their fuller, more developed forms. In Beren and Luthien two things stood out as road blocks to my enjoyment: Beren as first envisioned was actually an elf of the Noldor and to me this robs the tale of his love of the immortal Tinúviel of much of its tragic grandeur, though it must be admitted that some does still remain; added to that was the fact that Melko’s lieutenant in the tale, and the main opponent to the heroes, was not Sauron of the Ainur and lord of the isle of werewolves, but Tevildo Prince of Cats! It might just be me, but a giant house cat (no matter how large and mean) is a slightly less intriguing villain than one of the greatest of the gods. As I noted in my review of book 1, Tolkien was still working within a model that was much more based on traditional ‘fairy tales’ than what his stories of the First Age of Middle-Earth were to become so this element isn’t exactly unexpected, just not my particular cuppa. As to Turambar, there wasn’t anything specific I could point to as the deciding factor in my relative lack of enthusiasm, but having read what this tale was to become it certainly pales in comparison. For me that can pretty much sum up the points at which I was disappointed in both volumes: these are much paler, thinner, and in some ways shadowy versions of the tales I know. That being said, they have the virtue of being able to show me just how much the constant work and revision, the lifetime of unceasing development, love and thought that went into them truly turned what were inspired, but limited stories into things that truly were comparable to the mythic workings of a people. The depth and reality of the tales of Middle-Earth all started here with something much smaller and simpler, but which would prove to be the seeds of something so much greater. The layers that one can see were built upon these first canvasses give a fascinating glimpse into a creative process that was truly monumental.
So on to what I did like in this volume: the tale of the Fall of Gondolin was almost all I could have hoped for. While I still weep at the unrealized potential of the rewrite to this story that Tolkien had started but abandoned far too early as presented in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth, I at least was able to see the story of Tuor and his flight to the doomed city of Gondolin just as it is about to be overcome by the forces of Melko in a complete, and I must say rather satisfying, version. Tied in with this is the story of the Nauglafring, or the necklace of the Dwarves, which in itself is a rousingly Germanic tale of greed, curses, and doom that also allows for two of the great love stories of Tolkien’s mythology to this point (that of Beren and Tinúviel on the one hand and of Tuor and Idril on the other) to dovetail into each other and become the genesis for the tale of Eärendel which was in many ways the very heart of Tolkien’s mythology from the beginning. Eärendel himself was the child of Tuor and Idril who falls in love with Beren & Tinúviel’s granddaughter Elwing and whose great mission is to be the only mariner able to sail to the land of Valinor. Interestingly in some early versions of the tale as presented here Eärendel is sometimes either unable to make his way to Valinor or finds that his journey there proved unnecessary and ultimately this is another case where Tolkien’s later development of the tale proved to be more satisfying than what we initially find, but it is still an intriguing (and more importantly a fuller) glimpse into what would otherwise be little more than some bare bones references in later works.
The final chapter of the volume is made up of scattered notes and poems that relate explicitly to the frame narrative and the life story of the mariner Eriol/Aelfwine. To me the greatest value these fragments hold is in showing how strongly Tolkien initially wanted to tie in his tales of Faery with the history of our own world (and specifically with England). I myself don’t worry too much about this aspect of Tolkien’s work, but it was obviously hugely important to him. Even in the later development of the tales of Middle-Earth which seem rather distant from any kind of mythological history of England we can see that the ‘historical’ element remains: specifically in the frame narrative of the ‘Red Book of Westmarch’ which lies as the pseudo-historical source of all of the published tales of Tolkien.
All in all while a bit uneven, this book gave some intriguing glimpses into Tolkien’s art, especially in places where a later development of a given tale was either never done or where what does exist is only fragmentary. Definitely something of primary interest to the Tolkien aficionado. ...more
My first attempt to read _The Book of Lost Tales_ was made way too early in my life and made certain that my response was to put it on the sh3.5 stars
My first attempt to read _The Book of Lost Tales_ was made way too early in my life and made certain that my response was to put it on the shelf and decide that all of this background stuff, especially taken from this early phase in Tolkien’s life as a writer, was way too different from the Middle-Earth stories that I loved for me to waste any time on it. Looking at where the book mark from my first attempt still sat when I picked it up again, I noticed that I didn’t even get much beyond the first several pages of the introductory chapter “The Cottage of Lost Play”. I remember thinking that it was just altogether too twee for me, what with the Eldar of Middle-Earth still being referred to as ‘faeries’ and the, to me, bizarre structure of a wanderer coming to a tiny cottage (bigger on the inside than the outside) peopled by dancing and singing children and adults who primarily sat around telling tales and reciting pretty mediocre poetry. It wasn’t really Middle-Earth now was it? Well, at the time I put down the volume and decided that I’d stick with the ‘real’ stuff of LotR, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion and that, as they say, was that for probably about two and a half decades. Then it came about that I discovered my greatest love vis a vis Tolkien’s work was growing to be the posthumously published The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth, both of which contained some of the most beautiful and powerful of Tolkien’s writing. I looked at the corpus of ‘The History of Middle Earth’ with something of a new eye and decided that I might just dip into it and see what it was like. I consciously chose to first read those volumes that dealt with the matter of the First and Second ages of Middle-Earth and were latest in the chronology of composition thus presumably assuring that I was coming across ideas and stories that were closer in tone and content to the ones with which I was so familiar and that thrilled me with their mythic reverberations. I ended up loving what I found in Morgoth's Ring and The War of the Jewels and decided that maybe this huge work undertaken by Christopher Tolkien to present the works of his father in toto wasn’t an altogether bad idea after all (especially given my hunger for more material regarding the tales as told in The Silmarillion).
So now I find myself re-embarking on the journey from the beginning and tackling the very Book of Lost Tales (part one) that defeated me in my youth. I’m glad I came back. Pushing through past the point in the first chapter beyond which I never made it before I actually found a fair bit to like, even though it wasn’t the undiluted Middle-Earth vintage I had initially wanted. I was actually reminded a bit of William Morris’ medieval romances that so influenced Tolkien as I read about the journey of Eriol the mariner upon the Isle of Tol Eressëa and once the tales themselves began to be told I saw that there was a surprising amount of coherence between these earliest versions of the myths of Middle-Earth with what eventually came to be published in The Sil. The differences themselves were intriguing and I found as the chapters sped on the framing device didn’t bother me half as much as once it had. I will readily admit that much of the poetry in this volume leaves something to be desired. I am not one of those readers of Tolkien that skips over the poems, and I think that many of them are quite beautiful (esp. Bilbo’s poem of Eärendil sung in Rivendell), but the early ones showcased in this volume are not really my cup of tea (though one can certainly see Tolkien’s word-craft in them improving as time went on). The Cottage of Lost Play itself took on greater interest as well as I started to see some parallels between it and the ultimate development of Elrond’s house of Rivendell as “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.”
Eriol the mariner, a man from medieval England who has found his way to the magical isles of the west, sits in this pleasant house and has recounted to him many of the tales of the elder days when the Elves were alone in Middle-Earth, or mankind just arising from their ages long slumber. All of these tales are ones that a reader of The Silmarillion will already be familiar with: the creation myth of the Music of the Ainur, the building of Valinor and creation of the Two Trees of Light, the battles against Melkor (here named Melko) and his initial imprisonment, the coming of the Elves to the blessed lands and their ultimate rebellion and return to Middle-Earth in pursuit of Melko, and the myth of the creation of the sun and moon upon the death of the two trees. Some of these are not very far from the more final versions that were presented in The Silmarillion, while others display drastic differences (such as the expanded legend of the sun and moon, the extensive bits that deal with cosmology and the make-up of the world, and the inclusion of Valar who mate and even include in their number some gods of war), but it is very safe to say that unless you have a deep and abiding love for Middle-Earth, and especially tales of the elder days, you probably won’t get much out of this book. I would agree with those who claim this is really only for aficionados of Tolkien’s tales who want more and who are interested in seeing the development of his mythology. It is indeed a fascinating peek over the shoulder of Tolkien as he writes his tales and we finally start to get a glimpse of the sheer magnitude of the effort that his son expended simply in producing from the jumble of inter-related texts about the legends of the Elves a volume as slim and relatively cohesive as The Silmarillion.
I’m looking forward to tackling Book II of the lost tales and proceeding with the history of Middle-Earth texts at least up to volume 5 to continue to get my fix and maybe even get a taste of some legends of the elder days that I haven’t already experienced in another form. Recommended for hard-core Tolkien fans who don’t mind critical apparatus and multiple versions of tales....more
_The Lays of Beleriand_ is a book that I’ve had on my bookshelf for many, many years and quite frankly never thought I’d get to. I think3 - 3.5 stars
_The Lays of Beleriand_ is a book that I’ve had on my bookshelf for many, many years and quite frankly never thought I’d get to. I think I probably got my copy around the time it was first published when I was but a wee sprat simply because it was by Tolkien and certainly at that time the likelihood that I would read a book comprised primarily of two long narrative poems accompanied by copious editorial apparatus was, to say the least, unlikely. As time went on and I got older I still never read it as I didn’t think the ‘History of Middle-earth’ series (or HoME) would hold much interest for me. Why bother reading the ‘preliminary drafts’ of the material when I had already read the finished products, or at least as close as we were going to get to them in the case of The Silmarillion? It took the podcasts of Corey Olsen (‘The Tolkien Professor’) to get me off my rump in this regard and encourage me to actually pick up the series which allowed me to more fully appreciate what the History of Middle-earth series really provides.
I had always thought the series was little more than rough drafts which would only, at best, provide a view into Tolkien’s writing process. An interesting area of study for some perhaps, but it certainly wasn’t my primary interest in him. While this aspect of the series is certainly still somewhat true, I found once I had given the books a fair chance that they offered far more. Ultimately they allowed me to see, in the best cases, much fuller versions of the tales of the First Age of Middle-earth that are given only in precis in The Silmarillion as published. I should have considered this possibility after being blown away by the content in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth when I read it, but all I remembered at the time were my failed attempts at the first volume in the series, The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, when I was young and as for the current volume in question? As noted above plowing through some very long narrative poems still didn’t exactly recommend itself to me when I considered all of the other items on my to-read list. Well, I will admit that I’m glad now that I *did* read it.
I could nit-pick and complain that instead of yet another version of the stories of Turin and Beren & Luthien (they were certainly the stories that Tolkien seemed to have loved the most and came back to again and again, re-writing, revising and tinkering as was his wont) it would have been great if we had gotten the full epic treatment of something for which we don’t already have a lot of material, say perhaps the story of Tuor…or hey how about Earendil? He was the first character in what was to become Middle-earth about whom Tolkien wrote and his was supposedly the tale that spawned the entire opus of Middle-earth and was, arguably, the cornerstone to the entire story of the First Age and yet we have little to nothing about him! Still, even if we’re visiting well-tread ground here (at least if you’re a Tolkien fan and have read the other material that exists apart from the HoME series) these versions have plenty to recommend them to us. For one thing there is just so much more detail than we get in the Silmarillion versions that you can really start to live inside the tales a little more easily as a result. You also get a glimpse of the true scope of what Tolkien worked on beyond his most famous works the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit; even though this material was all, in some ways, preliminary and ultimately published posthumously, it becomes obvious that this was really what was at the heart of his creative life and it was truly huge in scope.
I was actually surprised when I finished the book to find that I preferred the Lay of Leithian since I normally don’t gravitate as much to the story of Beren of Luthien, beautiful as it is, and the fact that it was written in rhyming couplets could have been disastrous. Luckily there was no twee sing-songiness to the poem (Tolkien really was a fairly accomplished poet) and the chance to see more of both Beren and Luthien in action (not to mention Huan the great hound of Valinor) turned out to be very enjoyable. All those people who think Tolkien didn’t like (or write) strong women really need to take a gander at Luthien. Her tale has been described as the story of a girl and her dog who go out to rescue her boyfriend, and while it is much more than that, the fact that it works well enough as a thumbnail sketch speaks volumes.
If you’re a Tolkien fan, especially one who enjoys poetry, and you enjoy the tales of the Silmarillion then you owe it to yourself to check out the HoME series and this volume does not at all disappoint in that regard. A must-read for the Tolkien completist....more
This is the first work that showed us how Tolkien's obsessive perfectionism was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it gave us the wonderfully deepThis is the first work that showed us how Tolkien's obsessive perfectionism was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it gave us the wonderfully deep world and implied distances of The Lord of the Rings; and on the other hand it left us with a jumble of tales in various states of revision and development that had to be compiled by Tolkien's son Christopher into some form as The Silmarillion...a jumble of tales that, if they had been finished, would have given us a truly staggering body of work. Just reading the fragment that makes up the entirety of "Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin" makes me weep for what might have been. Given the chance to expand even half of the partial tales from _The Silmarillion_ into something equating the full treatment of the LotR would have been a wonder indeed.
Even given the incomplete nature of the works herein, the reader is greatly repaid the effort of reading them even though many tantalizing questions are left unanswered. We get perhaps the only significant view of the land of Numenor in the Second Age; intriguing glimpses into the nature of the Istari, the Woodwoses, and the Palantiri; and expansions on the background of the Third Age and the events that led up to both The Hobbit and the LotR.
A really amazing work and enjoyable read if you're a die-hard Tolkien fan....more
I’m somewhat dubious of my ability to review this work, but I’m going to do my best. _The Silmarillion_ is the work of Tolkien’s most often viewed witI’m somewhat dubious of my ability to review this work, but I’m going to do my best. _The Silmarillion_ is the work of Tolkien’s most often viewed with apprehension by readers and, I think, the one most unjustly maligned. It has the reputation of being the most difficult of his published works and I guess this is not without reason, though I think it is often a position based more on preconceptions than due to the inherent value of the work itself.
I’ve read _The Silmarillion_ many times prior to this most recent re-read and I don’t remember what my first experience of the book was like, but I don’t recall being particularly put-off by it or finding it ‘difficult’ in a way that made me dislike it (though of course I am a devoted Tolkien-phile which may have contributed to this). My only real complaint is that I wish there was more and I think this ties in with what is the most common ‘problem’ that readers have with _The Silmarillion_. I imagine that nearly everyone who comes to this work does so after having read _The Hobbit_ and _The Lord of the Rings_ and thus they already have some preconceptions of what they are in for that are going to get crushed (or at least modified greatly) once they start reading the Sil. From the expectation, or hope, of having a novelistic narrative with a clearly identified group of main characters following a linear story arc they are instead presented with a pared down history of the Elves and Men of the first ages of Middle-Earth where many characters weave in and out of the story, each playing greater or lesser roles in what are really epics or sagas, each of which are connected to the others, but with their own concerns and tales to tell. They do follow an overall arc that tells us the travails of the Eldar (Elves) as they come in contact with the Valar (the 'gods' of Middle Earth that rule it under the auspices of Illuvatar, “the One”) and ultimately engage in their great war with the Enemy, Morgoth (the original Dark Lord of whom Sauron is merely a pale imitation). I love this group of tales and wish Tolkien had had the time to treat all of them in the full length, novelistic format that he gave to the LotR, but even having what amounts to précis of each of them is still better than not having had them at all, so my kudos go out to Christopher Tolkien (whatever his subsequent apprehensions) for compiling and publishing these tales after his father’s death.
These stories were the heart of Tolkien’s mythology of Middle Earth and are what allowed the LotR to gain its great depth and mythic context. Worked on for the duration of his life from the time of WWI until his death, the tales of _The Silmarillion_ were the ones Tolkien most wanted to see the light of day, and also the ones he felt never would. He worked on the various tales in many versions and drafts, many only partial narratives, others in the form of annals or chronicles and the sheer volume of work can be seen in the subsequently produced “History of Middle Earth” volumes which collected the complete works of Tolkien in annotated form. _The Silmarillion_ was an early foray by Tolkien’s son Christopher into trying to give some coherence to these tales in a publishable form (hence, I think, the root of most people’s problem with the work). We start with a creation myth, told in very biblical style (probably the first, and biggest, stumbling block for new readers) which delineates the names and characters of the major players amongst the angelic beings known as the Valar and Maiar and see their early travails in Arda (the Earth) wherein are created the major realms of Middle Earth and Valinor (the realms of mortality and the gods respectively) and their own wars with the rebellious Melkor, soon to be named Morgoth (the enemy) by Elves. We then go on to more historical/saga/epic style tales as we learn of the awakening of the Elves and their invitation to come to Valinor and live with the Valar in bliss. Of course there is a temptation and a fall, a rebellion and a return to the mortal lands as the Elves pursue Morgoth in an attempt to regain from him the stolen Silmarils, three gems created by the greatest and most powerful of the craftsmen of the Elves, Fëanor, and which contain the last vestige of the great light of the Trees of Valinor, a final reminder of the early bliss of the world. It is the story of these gems, and the attempts at their recovery, that creates the major story arc of the many tales of _The Silmarillion_ and is indeed from where the volume gets its name.
Amongst these tales are the three ‘great’ or central ones of Middle Earth: The tale of the children of Hurin which delineates the tragic fate of the conflicted Turin Turambar, a man driven equally by fate and his own pride and personal failings to suffer loss, murder, incest and death; the tale of Beren and Luthien, the greatest love story of the early days, wherein the races of Elves and Men are united and against all odds the strength of Morgoth is proven to not be unassailable; finally there is the tale of Tuor and the fall of Gondolin, a tale which perhaps combines something of the other two in that it details the tragedy of the fall of the last and greatest of the Elven kingdoms and yet also tells of the uniting of Elves and Men in the bonds of love and the subsequent hope this provides for future generations. There are many other tales in the volume and we move from the First Age into the Second wherein we see Sauron take over from his master Morgoth as the reigning Dark Lord and the rise in power of the men of the blessed isle of Numenor is told, as is their equally great fall; and finally a précis of the events of the Third Age (the time of the LotR) and the creation of the rings of power.
I love this book. It really does deliver on epic sweep and is a roller coaster of high emotions. It is a tale of tragedy that is interspersed with hope and I think puts the lie to the accusations that Tolkien wrote simplistic stories about white hats vs. black hats (which I think is a bad reading of LotR as it is, but is definitely untrue of Tolkien’s earlier myths). Here the Elves are not purely good superbeings, but very flawed (and in many cases borderline evil) people who screw up for bad reasons as often as anyone else. We also see in the tale of Beren & Luthien what I have seen described as “a girl and her dog go off on a quest to save her boyfriend and beat the dark lord” and while that oversimplifies things and perhaps downplays Beren’s part a wee bit it shows that Tolkien was in no way a misogynist who couldn’t bring himself to write strong female characters who were central to his tales. I encourage anyone who loves tales of high romance (in the original sense) and epic tragedy to give _The Silmarillion_ a chance…just don’t expect a modern novel and be prepared for something much more akin to the epics and romances of the Middle Ages. I envy you your first journey into the First Age of Middle Earth. You won’t regret the trip. ...more
I have a long and very personal history with _The Hobbit_. My first experience of it was, I think, at the age of 7 or 8 when my older brother (13 yearI have a long and very personal history with _The Hobbit_. My first experience of it was, I think, at the age of 7 or 8 when my older brother (13 years my senior) read the story to me and I was immediately captivated. After that came readings from the LotR and I was a Tolkien fan forevermore. My re-reading of _The Hobbit_ immediately prior to my most recent one was a bit of a disappointment. Somehow the same old magic didn’t all seem to be there and I was perhaps most discomfited by the gaps in style that were apparent between this story and its even more famous descendent, _The Lord of the Rings_. On this re-read, however, I found much of my initial love of the tale coming back to me and many of the same episodes stirred memories of my first hearing of the tale.
For those two or three people not in the know, this is the story of a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins by name, and his unexpected adventure with 13 dwarves and, for part of the time at least, the wizard Gandalf. Thorin Oakenshield and his followers have long been exiled from their home, the far-away and fabled dwarf-realm of Erebor at the Lonely Mountain, after its pillaging by the dragon Smaug. We follow Bilbo as he moves from inept bungler to expert burglar and begin to see, along with the dwarves, just why Gandalf chose this particular hobbit to round out the unlucky number of the dwarves’ party as his inner courage and resourcefulness grow. We see Bilbo through many adventures, from an encounter with trolls and a harrowing escape from goblins, to a dark journey through the treacherous spider-haunted deeps of Mirkwood and a creeping view of the great dragon upon his misbegotten mound of gold. There are many great characters to meet in the journey from Bilbo’s hobbit hole to the Lonely Mountain, even if only a few of the dwarves are fleshed out to any great detail. A personal favourite is the irascible Beorn, a vegetarian skin-changer and unwitting host to the party who eventually becomes a staunch ally; and am I wrong in seeing in the enigmatic and laconic Bard the bowman something of a prototype for Aragorn?
This is, of course, a children’s story, and as such does not always seem to sit well as a prequel to the later work, the Lord of the Rings (though of course in its original conception the tale was not meant to be a prequel to anything and its ultimate inclusion into the storied history of Middle Earth only grew as the tale did and the significance of certain elements, namely the Ring, became clearer in Tolkien’s mind). Whether it is the silly songs sung by the elves of Rivendell (can anyone picture Fëanor or Thingol singing these things?), the faux-cockney accents and names of the trolls encountered by Bilbo and co., or the various authorial asides, this book can appear hard to reconcile with the later tales. Of course one valid approach to this is simply to say, “who cares?” and move on. This is certainly valid, but after my most recent reading I found that taking into account the conceit of Tolkien’s that all of his tales from Middle Earth (even the posthumously published _The Silmarillion_) exist as documents taken originally from the “Red Book of Westmarch”, a hobbit tome detailing the adventures of the Shire’s most famous sons, and subsequently handled and translated by many hands before coming down to us was a helpful approach. In essence we can see in _The Hobbit_ how Bilbo’s diary of his own adventures was turned into an adventure tale for children, while the higher matters of the LotR were possibly deemed unsuitable for such treatment. Thus we have talking spiders, tra-la-laing High Elves, and silly trolls mixed in with berserk shape-changing warriors, hints of malign necromancy, and a final battle on the doorstep of the Lonely Mountain.
Bilbo is an excellent main character, both unsure of himself and eager to prove his dwarven compatriots wrong in their initial impression of him to be “more a green grocer than a burglar”. Many may criticize Tolkien for his apparent anachronism with the hobbits and the Shire in Middle Earth, with their mantel clocks, singing tea kettles and other modern conveniences in the midst of what appears to be a medieval world of saga and epics. Yet it is this familiarity that allows us to identify with Bilbo as he is thrown into the strange epic world outside the bounds of the Shire. To my mind, despite his estrangement from it, Bilbo sits much more comfortably in this world than do a pack of modern British schoolchildren crossing dimensions or some other conceit that might have been used to allow the reader to identify with the hero. This also gives Bilbo the chance to grow into something more akin to a hero and leader than we ever would have expected of him based on his origins and it is this growth that gives impetus to the story amidst its many colourful episodes. The most famous of these is, of course, the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum, a suitably creepy game played by Bilbo for nothing less than his life and the keystone moment that links this smaller tale to the greater epic of the LotR as we see just how important that question Bilbo asks is: “What have I got in my pocket?”
Bilbo not only grows in courage and resourcefulness, but shows his inner worth when he resists the call of the dragon horde, unlike the unfortunate Thorin, and even attempts to broker peace between those who ought to be allies when greed and anger threaten to destroy all that the quest attempted to achieve, at the possible cost of his own safety and the friendship of his comrades. This is a great story for children, of any age, and will provide them with not only an exciting adventure, but also some good lessons and a fine model for true heroism. It’s also a great introduction to the world of Middle Earth and you won’t regret your time spent with the charming Mr. Baggins of Bag End. ...more