Gunner McGrath's Reviews > The Hobbit

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
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Apr 01, 14

bookshelves: own-in-audio, own-in-paperback, fantasy, kids
Read from November 08 to 22, 2012 — I own a copy

Back in high school, as an avid D&D player, I was pleasantly surprised to find my dad's copies of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I wanted to read the latter and figured I should start in the beginning. I remember quickly deciding it was too childish and unfortunately giving up not just this book, but Tolkien altogether. Well I've grown up a lot and have read a lot of Fantasy in the past few years, so it's about time I gave this series another shot.

Unfortunately I find all my old objections to be not only justified, but clarified. The Hobbit is poorly plotted, poorly written, there is not a single likable character, and deus ex machina is employed to such a degree that I would have never believed possible. Even the one single real triumph in the book is made by a character that no one cares about, and never have I seen such literal use of the term "a little birdie told me", particularly in such a way that ruins what little excitement this terrible book offered.

The only three reasons I can imagine for its popularity are:

1) Nostalgia (how many Saturday morning cartoons have been proven to be truly awful when viewed again through adult eyes?)

2) Because most people reading it have very little experience with High Fantasy, and so the worldbuilding, races, magic, etc. are interesting enough to counteract the awful story

3) Because of its relation to Lord of the Rings, which I understand to be much more of a mature piece of writing

Now that I have finally begun The Fellowship of the Ring, I can see that The Hobbit really is the proper first chapter of that tale, which is a shame because they are so drastically different in style. On the bright side, Gandalf repeats so much of the story in the first few chapters of that book that reading this is probably entirely unnecessary to enjoy that work.
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Reading Progress

11/09/2012
1.0% "Well I have gotten a few pages in and remember why I thought of it as very childish my first time through: It reads exactly like a Winnie the Pooh story."
11/19/2012 page 183
63.0% "I need to hurry up and finish this in the next few days so I am free to read Cold Days when it comes out."
11/19/2012 page 203
70.0% "This book sucks, and i am not looking forward to slogging through 84 more pages."
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Kevin Koperski Keep in mind, this book invented High Fantasy and helped define many of its conventions. Obviously, given that it was written for Tolkien's children, it's not an adult book, and perhaps if I read it first as an adult (after reading dozens of other fantasy novels) I'd feel the same as you. Don't know. But I've read it to my kids twice, and each one has gone to read it on their own, as well as to become fascinated with other YA fantasy. As an introduction for children to magic and other worlds and other creatures, it is quite worthy of its reputation. And Tolkien's language is beautiful. And yes, Lord of the Rings is better, given that it wasn't written for children and has a far more elaborate backstory. That being said, if you didn't like the Hobbit, I don't know that you'll like the Lord of the Rings. Maybe.


Gunner McGrath I have to disagree with you, despite the fact that you are both more qualified to discuss literature and a parent of more and older children. Yes, it defined a genre, and for that I understand why it is revered. But as a story, it's awful. I don't just mean in comparison to adult novels, I mean in general, it's really poorly put together. Why should we lower our standards and call it a children's book? Why not give children books to read that are better than this one?


Gunner McGrath P.S. Wikipedia credits George MacDonald with the invention of modern fantasy, and his work influenced Tolkein. =)


Jonathan Gunner wrote: "P.S. Wikipedia credits George MacDonald with the invention of modern fantasy, and his work influenced Tolkein. =)"

That is correct. However it's not only him but E.R. Eddison and other earlier fantasy writers. Tolkien merely mixed the epic and the fairytale into the epic fantasy form.

I actually read this again earlier this year and I found that the story was actually still decent. Yes, The Hobbit may not be as good as some 'modern high fantasy' tales but what it is is more of a fairytale novel when compared to The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is a darker, grittier tale while still not at the darkness of G.R.R Martin.

Why not give children books to read that are better than this one?

Well what do you think is so bad about it?

I'll explain what I think is good about it, countering what you say about plotting, deus ex machina and so forth. The story in my view is clever and while you are right in saying poorly plotted to a degree since Tolkien put less time into The Hobbit apart from writing it for his children I think there are elements which excuse that. Though inconsistent in places and with more flaws than 'Rings I think The Hobbit is meant to be more of a 'fairytale' novel. Tolkien as you know studied Norse myth and languages extensively and I feel his aim was to draw from those myths and fairytales to create a similar archetypical story. So yes, there are many elements which appear deus-ex-machina in form and are perhaps appear to be poor plotting, however they are following the magic of the fairytale. My re-read revealed that the plot was actually quite clever in everything that happens in The Hobbit.

Yes, people like it for nostalgia, yes people like it for its relation to Lord of the Rings. Some people like it because they haven't had much encounter with fantasy. However, people also find it a well written fairytale more than a modern fantasy novel. Each time I've re-read it I've found something charming and beautiful about its writing and the world of the story and that's after encountering a lot of high fantasy. I like it for being a light-hearted, fun fantasy read with characters I like.


Gunner McGrath I respect your right to like the book, even though this is the rare book that I actually think is objectively bad. I cannot think of what you would like about the characters, because I cannot think of a single likable thing about any of them, but again, I respect your opinion and differing taste.

You said you were going to explain what was good about it, but then the bulk of what you wrote was essentially admitting how flawed it was and making excuses for it, rather than actually describing any strengths it had. You can call it a fairy tale, but there are plenty of good and interesting fairy tales, so that's not really a justification either.

As for what I thought was so bad, again, I don't want to go into a long essay on it's badness. I will say that from the first page, the story makes no sense. There is no reason why Gandalf would choose Bilbo for this adventure, and his usefulness was largely accidental throughout, and mostly due to luckily finding a magical ring that just happened to be perfect for the quest he was on. Gandalf is a bit of a douche with surprisingly weak magical abilities, and Bilbo is understandably a whiner and a coward who never stops being such. And for each piece of the adventure, there is some surprising character or situation that saves the day.

Overall, I just didn't enjoy reading the book at nearly any moment, it was usually quite boring and there were a few times that I was actually angry at how bad it was (the "little birdie told me" scene was particularly hateful). Luckily general dislike doesn't actually require any justification, so I'll just leave it at that and we'll agree to disagree. =)


Kevin Koperski It's actually the simplistic nature of the plot that makes it work so well for children. There's no politicking or intrigue, no subtle hints necessary to decipher before you can follow the plot. For young children, it's an understandable and fairly easy to follow tale of adventure. My six year old had a hard enough time understanding what was going on (attention spans are short). Anything more complicated would've been too much. My eight year old grasped the humor. She didn't question motives. If a wizard asks you to do something, you do it!. They both found parts of it scary and exciting. They couldn't grasp the reasoning behind the final battle, but that didn't bother them too much. Again, I think much of your argument is reasonable. I just think it's a result of your age and experience at the time you first read it that differentiates you from those of us who read it at younger ages (before we had read many complicatedly plotted novels).

You don't have to like it. Doesn't bother me at all.

But by the way, Sanderson is kicking ass with the Wheel of Time. He really hit a groove half way through the first book. I should go finish it right now.


Kevin Koperski And while Tolkien may not have invented the genre, he was certainly one of the most responsible for popularizing it. Ask writers of fantasy over the past 40 years who influenced them. I doubt many will name Macdonald, but a very high percentage will name Tolkien. Lord of the Rings, after all, is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of literature in the 20th century. I don't know how this is relevant to anything, but yeah. :)


Jonathan Well I think it is objectionably good, perhaps not as good as I may think but at least good enough as a book. Rating it one star is like saying it has no merit which I think is subjective rather than objective. I'm not having a go at you (I've rated a few loved books one star), I respect your opinion and that you wrote a review! As for being vague I was trying to address what you thought was bad about it from what I could see. So I had to try and excuse elements in the book because they actually may have been seen more subjectively.

Yes, there are elements which are deus ex machina. However I think there are objectionably strong elements. Also I think Tolkien can be excused for some of his flaws because he does make a good story. There is no author who does not have a flaw and I think that most people who read look for the good story. That said Tolkien does use a lot of good as well as bad writing techniques. Objectively I can accept two or three stars (mediocre) but I can't see a poor rating though I get you didn't like it.

"Gandalf is a bit of a douche with surprisingly weak magical abilities, and Bilbo is understandably a whiner and a coward who never stops being such. And for each piece of the adventure, there is some surprising character or situation that saves the day."

I actually found Gandalf to be a wise, eclectic type of character, the Merlin type of character. A wizard who picks someone to become a hero. I see that he picks Bilbo because of Bilbo's parentage. He wanted a Hobbit and picked Bilbo because Bilbo had Took and Baggins' blood. In other word he was different from the other hobbits. That said yes it can be seen that he was accidentally picked however I choose to see that he was picked because of various attributes he had, that Gandalf wanted a hobbit and chose him. It also serves as a kind of fairytale technique to pick someone who is 'a loser' character and watch them progress. The heroes journey kind of thing which happens in mythology all the time. Bilbo is a whiny character at times however I feel that he believes he was forced on the quest. This explains some reasons I agree with, http://tolkien.cro.net/hobbits/whybil...
You see Gandalf is not a wizard as we understand it but in Tolkien's mythology is a spirit, a kind of guiding angel figure.

Tolkien did also write with a lot of symbology and metaphor. Speaking on the thrush: http://middle-earth.xenite.org/2011/1.... I've read an annotated version which explained Bilbo's taunt of the spiders as coming from older English.

Another thing that must be mentioned I guess is that yes this does tie into the entirety of Middle Earth. I think one must look at the world of Middle Earth as a whole with the ring playing into The Lord of the Rings and both forming part of the later history of Middle Earth dealt with in The Silmarillion. Objectively I see that this book is not quite as good as either of the other Middle Earth books but still has worth as a look at references to the other literary texts and techniques of the time, the story is likeable, the writing is beautiful and Tolkien's language use is to be admired (creation of languages, use of old languages for names). Viewed now I think it comes across worse than it is in some ways.


message 9: by Jonathan (last edited Nov 23, 2012 12:15AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jonathan Peto I loved it when I was younger. I'm reading it to my son now and am enjoying it again.

That said, I can't imagine only reading fantasy books modeled on Tolkien. I want to investigate the directions that other authors are taking it. China Mieville's stuff looks interesting.


Jonathan Jonathan wrote: "I want to investigate the directions that other authors are taking it"

I always use this site - http://bestfantasybooks.com/top25-fan... - to try and find good fantasy. It helps that it has recommendations and descriptions. I'm trying some Mieville, don't know whether I'll like him. You've no doubt seen I like Sanderson he's Tolkienesque but he is also different. You should really try Neil Gaiman, I think you'd like it.


Jonathan Peto I have read one by Mr. Gaiman and I did like it!


Jonathan Peto Thanks for sharing that site, Jonathan. Looks like an easy place to loose a few hours.


Jonathan It definitely is...


Gunner McGrath Kevin wrote: "It's actually the simplistic nature of the plot that makes it work so well for children. There's no politicking or intrigue, no subtle hints necessary to decipher before you can follow the plot."

This is an acceptable explanation, and I will take it for what it's worth, but I still say that even a simple story should make sense. I enjoy the simple Winnie The Pooh stories I read to TJ every night, and those are written for even younger audiences than The Hobbit, with simpler stories. =) So simple is not a problem.

Anyway, I will keep the book on hand and consider reading it to him when he is older, though I hope that by that time I will have found other books that are far better to share with him. After all, the problem with books that define genres is that they're often far inferior to the ones that follow in their footsteps by people who learned from their mistakes.


Jonathan I still think The Hobbit beats many fantasies written now though. They're still trying to copy Tolkien's ideas...


Laura I absolutely loved The Hobbit. Outside of Grimm's/Anderson's Fairy Tales it was my first introduction into full-fledged fantasy. If you've ever read fairy tales, you know they rarely follow any manner or logic, reasoning, or understanding. The Hobbit had mountains of logic, reasoning, and understanding compared to fairy tales. I think your assumption #2 is correct in this regard. It's a good primer for fantasy.


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