Will Byrnes's Reviews > The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
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it was amazing
bookshelves: all-time-favorites-fiction, young-adult, fiction, literary-fiction
Read 6 times. Last read January 21, 2013.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
Books exist in time and place and our experience of them is affected by the specific time and place in which we encounter them. Sometimes an uplifting or inspiring book can change the path of a life that has wandered onto a wrong course. Sometimes a book, discovered early on, can form part of the foundation of who we are. Or, discovered late, can offer insight into the journey we have taken to date. Sometimes a book is just a book. But not The Hobbit. Not for me. In January, 2013, I pulled out my forty-year old copy in anticipation of seeing the recently released Peter Jackson film. It is a substantial book, heavy, not only with its inherent mass, but for the weight of associations, the sediment of time. The book itself is a special hard-cover edition published in 1973, leather bound, in a slipcase, the booty of new love from that era. The book, while victim to some internal binding cracks (aren't we all?) is still in decent shape, unlike that long-vanquished relationship. Not surprising. I had read the story six times and been there and back again with this particular volume five.

J.R.R. Tolkien - image from Vision.org

The Hobbit had first come to my attention in 1965 or '66. I was then a high school underclassman, and my eyes were drawn to it at a school book fair. That was probably the ideal age, for me anyway, to gain an introduction to Tolkien. Not too far along into adolescence and an appreciation of the reality of the world to have completely tarnished my capacity for child-like wonder. That is what one must bring to a reading of this book, openness and innocence. Tolkien was a step sidewise for me, as I was a fan of the science fiction of that and prior eras. It was also, of course, a gateway drug for the grander addiction of LOTR, still my favorite read of all time.

One might think that looking at this book again with old, weary fresh eyes might lend new insight. After all, I have read literally thousands of books since, and have picked up at least a little critical capacity. And yes, there are things I notice now that perhaps skipped past back then. Of course that begs a specification of which back then one considers. While I first read the book as a high-schooler, I read it again when I was gifted with this beautiful volume, in my twenties. That makes two readings. But there would be more. I well recall reading the book aloud while sitting in a chair by my son's bed. And yes, each of the major characters was delivered with a distinct voice. I went as deep as I could for Gandalf. I vaguely recall giving the dwarves a Scottish burr. Bilbo was definitely a tenor. My Gollum was remarkably like the sound of the one created by Andy Serkisssssss. (patting self on back).

Of course, my son was not the last to arrive at the gathering. Some years later there was a daughter, and more bedside theater. It was a bit more of a struggle then. Life was rather hectic. Nerves were often frayed. Sleep was in short supply. And there were far too many times when my eyes closed before those of my little gingersnap. But reading it that fourth time, one couldn't help but notice the absence of any significant females. Who might my little girl relate to here? It is certainly possible for folks to identify with characters of another gender, but the stark absence of representatives of the female persuasion did stand out. Somehow I managed to keep my eyes open long enough to get through the volume.

But the party was not yet complete. There would be one more arrival, and one more opportunity to sit on or near a daughter's bed and read aloud, sometimes to an upturned, eager face, sometimes to a riot of ringlets as she settled. My capacity for consciousness remained an issue. By then, my voice had also suffered a bit with the years, the reward for too many cigarettes, too much yelling, too much ballpark whistling, and the usual demise of age, so it took a fair bit more effort and strain than reading it aloud had done previously. I am pretty certain I made it through that third time aloud. Truthfully, I am not 100% certain that I did.

You probably know the story, or the broad strokes anyway. In the quiet rural village of Hobbiton Across the Water, in a land called Middle Earth, an unpresupposing everyman, Bilbo Baggins, lives a quiet existence. He has a smidgen of wanderlust in him, the genetic gift of ancestors on the Took branch of his family tree, but he is mostly content to enjoy hearty meals and a good pipe. One day, Gandalf, a lordly, father-figure wizard Bilbo has known for many years, comes a-calling and Bilbo's life is upended. Gandalf is helping a group of dwarves who are on a quest. Led by Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf king, they aim to return to their home, inside the Lonely Mountain, somehow rid the place of Smaug, the dragon who has taken up residence, and regain the land and incredible treasure that is rightfully theirs. Gandalf has recommended that Bilbo accompany the group, as a burglar. Bilbo, of course, has never burgled a thing in his life, and is horrified by the prospect. But, heeding his Tookish side, Bilbo joins the dwarves and the adventure is on.

One need not go far to see this as a journey of self-discovery, as Bilbo finds that there is more to him than even he realized. This raises one question for me. How did Gandalf know that Bilbo would be the right hobbit for the job? Bilbo faces many challenges and I betray no secrets for any who have not just arrived on this planet by reporting that Bilbo's dragons, real and symbolic, are ultimately slain and he returns home a new, and somewhat notorious hobbit. Bilbo serves well as the everyman, someone who is quite modest about his capacities, but who rises to meet the challenges that present, acting in spite of his fear and not in the absence of it. He is someone we can easily care and root for.

Elements abound of youthful adventure yarns, treasure, a map to the treasure, a secret entrance that requires solving a riddle to gain entry, a spooky forest, foolishness and greed among those in charge, a huge battle, and, ultimately, good sense triumphing over evil and stupidity. Oh, yeah, there is something in there as well about a secret, powerful ring that can make it’s wearer invisible. Sorry, no damsels in distress.

(Rivendell remains a pretty special place. If I am ever fortunate enough to be able to retire, I think I would like to spend my final days there, whether the vision seen by Tolkien or the Maxfield Parrish take as seen in the LOTR films.)

There are magical beings aplenty here. Hobbits, of course, and the wizard and dwarves we meet immediately. A shape shifting Beorn assists the party but remains quite frightening. There are trolls, giant spiders, giants, goblins, were-wolf sorts called wargs, talking eagles, a communicative, if murderous dragon, elves of both the helpful and difficult sorts, and a few men, as well. Then there is Gollum.

IMHO, Bilbo is not the most interesting character in Tolkien's world. Arguably there is a lot more going on with Gollum, an erstwhile hobbit riven by the internal conflict of love and hate, corrupted, but not without a salvageable soul. While he is given considerably more ink in the LOTR story, it is in The Hobbit that we meet him for the first time. He is the single least YA element in this classic yarn, one of the things that elevates this book from the field and makes it a classic.

The Hobbit was written before Tolkien's ambitious Lord of the Rings. While there are many references to classic lore, the bottom line is that this is a YA book. It is easy to read, and to read aloud, (something that is not the case with LOTR. I know.) and is clearly intended for readers far younger than I am today. It remains a fun read, even on the sixth (or so, I may have dipped in again somewhere along the line) time through. Were I reading it today for the first time, I would probably give it four stars. But as it bears the weighty treasure of memory and fond association, I must keep it at five. If you are reading this for the first time as an adult, or an antique, the impact is likely to be different for you. If you are a younger sort, of the adolescent or pre-adolescent persuasion, particularly if you are a boy, it might become an invaluable part of your life. Maybe one day you can sit by your child's or grandchild's bedside and be the person who reads these words to them for the first time, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" and begin the adventure again. To see the glowing young eyes as the tale unfolds is nothing less than absolutely precious.

PS – I would check out the review offered by GR pal Ted. He includes in his review outstanding, informative and very entertaining excerpts and comments re info on The Hobbit from JRRT's son Christopher.

==============================EXTRA STUFF

Here is a lovely article on JRRT, from Smithsonian Magazine, January 2002

In comment #32, below, GR pal Rand added a link to a reading of the entire book by Nicol Williamson. It is just the thing for bedtime, yours or your child's. Adding it here was done with Rand's kind permission.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
Finished Reading
Finished Reading
Finished Reading
Finished Reading
November 5, 2008 – Shelved
November 5, 2008 – Shelved as: all-time-favorites-fiction
Started Reading
January 21, 2013 – Finished Reading
September 22, 2013 – Shelved as: young-adult
June 9, 2018 – Shelved as: fiction
May 5, 2019 – Shelved as: literary-fiction

Comments Showing 1-50 of 103 (103 new)

Katy I think this is my favorite book of all time (as opposed to what I consider the best book, but that's another set of things). I am certain I've read it at least two dozen times, and each time I find something new. I first discovered it when I was 9 or 10, but at the time I was not yet ready for it. I first read it all the way through when I was 12, and I was hooked. Lovely, lovely. Now I want to read it again... X-D

message 2: by Janet (new)

Janet Very good review, I could picture you by the bedside of your children reading aloud! I know from experience how hard it can be to keep up certain voices and should you slip into a weaker version of it, they won't let you get away with it!

Will Byrnes Thanks, Janet. It got a lot tougher with LOTR, more voices. And then Harry Potter. Sheesh! But it was fun.

Megan Baxter I've been read this multiple times (as well as reading it myself), starting in utero, after I was born, and a few years ago by my husband. It rewards being read aloud so well - thank you for capturing that!

message 5: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline A lovely picture of you reading to your children in all those different voices :~)

How nice that you were able to go back to the book for the umpteenth time, and still find riches there....

Love, love, love the illustrations.

Terry Fantastic review! This was definitely one of the books that shaped my life when my brother read it to me in my far-away youth. I very much look forward to returning the favour for my son and daughter.

message 7: by Steve (new)

Steve As I scrolled down to the end of the comment section, I thought of a first sentence to get me rolling. Hand to God, I was going to write "Fantastic review!" All credit to Terry -- it is the most appropriate thing we can say.

Well since I can't copy his whole comment, let me differentiate by singling out one of the many enjoyable aspects of your review. I liked the almost poetic sound of this: "It is a substantial book, heavy, not only with its inherent mass, but for the weight of associations, the sediment of time." I'm sure it is.

Will Byrnes Thanks Steve. It may not have that personal heft for everyone, but it certainly does for me.

Lawyer Will, this may be the most charming essay I've read on the power of a book on memory no matter how much time may separate the reading of a book and all those matters associated with it. Kudos, from one who has also read to much smaller heads in bed, with all the different voices I could muster.

message 10: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Mike. Sometimes a book can earn a place in one's personal history. And reading to the wee folk is fun.

Suzanne I've read this 3 or 4 times (or 5?), and I don't even remember when the first time was, only that I have always loved this book.

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.

I don't know how anyone, of any age or gender, could fail to fall for a book with such a charming first sentence.

message 12: by Ted (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ted Will, thanks for the mention. I like your reminiscences of reading the book to children. As I said in my last spoiler, I thought I had read it to my son, but now I'm not sure (and my wife doesn't think I did, either). What we agree on is that I did read the LotR saga to him, at a fairly early age; and that he then for several years as he approached and passed through high school, read the whole LotR over and over, maybe once a year. I happen to think that as an adult read, the LotR offers a lot more than The Hobbit; but as a story for the young, the opposite is true.

message 13: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes I agree, Ted, about the relative challenges, and benefits of reading. I did read LoTR to my son, but it was daunting, and I did not get through it at all with my girls. So much more adult than The Hobbit. The Christopher T bits you noted are fascinating.

message 14: by Sue (new) - rated it 3 stars

Sue Wonderful review Will. I've read this only once, in my 20s, maybe not the best time for it. I liked it but.... I know I should read it again now. Sometimes I think I'm younger now than I was then --- more open to reading experiences of different types.

message 15: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Sue. Sometimes it takes many years to allow ourselves to be young.

Jeffrey Keeten Excellent review Will! Ordinary women don't seem to have a place in Tolkien's universe. No girls allowed on this boy's adventure. The women that do show up are pedestal worthy. I really noticed this watching the recent Hobbit movie. Nice mix of yourself and the book with this one Will.

message 17: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks Jeff. Clearly this one holds a special place in my heart. Missed seeing the film last wkend due to car miseries. I hope we can get out to do the deed before it fades from theaters.

Sherri Fletcher I really enjoyed your review. I wouldn't be too worried about your daughters not having female characters to relate to. I read the books for the first time in junior high and enjoyed them very much. I have read them many times since and I never noticed the lack of female characters until I saw the movies and realized that the producers were padding the parts of the female characters. They did it well, but to me, it seemed totally unnecessary. I relate to a well written character more than a specific gender and Tolkien series will always be a favorite of mine.

message 19: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks for commenting, Sherri. Yes, the book is quite good enough as is, but our sensibilities change over the decades and were this being written today, I expect there would be a bit more feminine presence.

message 20: by Mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark Following on from Steve's comment earlier, this thread appears to have a habit, or is that hobbit, of repeating itself. I wanted to say what Jeffrey said; a lovely personal review Will, thank you.

Interesting discussion about the feminine presence. I suppose it could be said that in the Tolkien Universe Galadriel, whilst certainly not centre stage throughout, does lend an atmosphere of feminine necessity to the well being of his world.

message 21: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Galadriel is indeed a wonderful character. I suspect, though, that a lot of her presence is how a pre-adolescent boy views the feminine, powerful, remote, and when it comes near, inspiring and terrifying. AS this book is a YA, that is not unexpected. But I do take your point about the suggested centrality of her as required for a healthy Middle EArth.

message 22: by Dolors (last edited Jul 10, 2013 09:06AM) (new)

Dolors Loved that personal insight you gave to this review Will. And how your life has shaped while reading this little treasure of a book (good lord, six times!). In any case, precioussss treasure of a review! :)

Traveller Wow, you really gave it the treatment, my precccioussss!
Me loves this little book too, you know. Very sspeccial, my preccioiusss! Me likes your review too, Bagginses...

message 24: by Connie (last edited Jul 11, 2013 05:52AM) (new)

Connie G Delightful review, Will. It brought back memories of my husband reading "The Hobbit" to our two daughters, also giving the characters their own voices. They loved it as much as your children. Cheers to all the parents who read to their kids!

message 25: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Readers Rule! (or should, anyway)

message 26: by Alec (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alec Hensley I will like to say sorry Will for not liking this sooner. I too have ties to this work of art. 5 years ago on 2007 a 4th grader stumbles into his school library. Walks over to the fantasy section and looks for a read that isn't Harry Potter or Magic Treehouse. He pulls this book out at random checks it out and goes home. That boy wasn't expecting a read like this. It was by far the hardest thing he ever read but the boy did not care for he was the top of his class and had a college reading level. He goes and reads. He falls asleep with nightmares of trolls eating him and him stuck up a tree with goblins underneath. He did not care. This was the moment where he found the beauty for writing and made him read more... Most kids can say that Rowlings made kids read I can confidently say it was Tolkien who made me read. Eventually that kid finished the book. And he cried. I have never cried at the end of the book except for the third installment of lord of the rings: the return of the king. Most girls say that Nicholas Sparks writes the best love stories. I disagree it is Tolkien. He writes this book like he is writing it for you. This boy hasn't heard of lord of the rings yet and thinks that he will never see bilbo baggins again. He is wrong for there is a world of more adventure waiting for him. Thanks for writing this Will I am glad this touched your heart. It may be in a different way but, alas, it is never the end.

Caleb Hafner The Hobbit is probably the greatest book, that I have ever read, in my entire life. It's better than The Lord Of The Rings. Bilbo and Gollum telling riddles, trolls turning to stone, and some guy who can turn into a bear. I did not want to put this book down, because it was basically putting me into a trance. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a great film, and I can't wait until The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug comes out

message 28: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes The Hobbit and LOTR, while obviously having much in common, are intended for different audiences. The Hobbit is definitely a YA yarn, whereas LOTR is a very adult fantasy.

message 29: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Wonderful review. Sadly, I read LOTR first, so this didn't have the same impact as the trilogy. Still a terrific book.

Christophe Anagnostopoulos A very good review of a great book, although LOTR trilogy was in my opinion the most epic & "complete" work of Tolkien.

message 31: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Christophe wrote: "A very good review of a great book, although LOTR trilogy was in my opinion the most epic & "complete" work of Tolkien."

I think in everyone's opinion, including Tolkien

message 33: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Way cool, Rand. Great addition.

Arah-Lynda My goodness Will. You have captured so well everything about this book that puts it on favourites shelves the world over and then wove this into the fabric of your own reading history. I think I can hear your voices as you read to the wee ones. Take a bow sir!

message 35: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Why, thank you, kind lady


message 36: by Lilo (last edited Dec 14, 2013 04:31PM) (new) - added it

Lilo Hi, Will,

Since I haven't time for any luxury fantasy reads, your wonderful review of The Hobbit will have to do (and I might get the movie from our library during the holidays).

The main reason I am commenting here is the beautiful picture of Rivendell. It looks somewhat similar to the area around our guest house. Therefore, I have to repeat myself and tell you that you have to come and visit.

message 37: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Hah! A compelling argument. I think this is a question more of when than if we undertake a journey there and back again.

message 38: by Lilo (new) - added it

Lilo Will wrote: "Hah! A compelling argument. I think this is a question more of when than if we undertake a journey there and back again."

Our Cabin is waiting for you. I hope "when" will be soon.

Sidharth Panwar A touching yet fitting review.

message 40: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Lovely review Will and the Nicol Williamson reading made me want to pick up my copy again. I think you do have to read Tolkien when you are young or have it read to you. I'm familiar with the problem of staying awake at kids bedtime and it's normally nothing to do with the merit of the book.

message 41: by Cecily (last edited Jan 03, 2014 05:29AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily What a delightful review - especially memories of reading it to your children.

I read this as a child, disliked it, and (unusually for me) didn't finish it, but by reading it to my own son, I came to love it. It's wonderful how someone else's eyes (even when triggered by one's own voice) can shed new light on something.

message 42: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth all three of my kids are in a local production of the hobbit and opening night is january 17th. i read them your review!

message 43: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes :-)

message 44: by Sammy (new)

Sammy happy new years!!!!

Ioana Johansson Wonderful review! I can hardly wait to do the same for my kids.

message 46: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Ioanna. It is something worth looking forward to.

message 47: by Lily (new)

Lily Wonderful review.

message 48: by sue seay (new) - added it

sue seay Wo Wo

Emma Sailer a.k.a California Girl I really love this book. I have my own copy of it and I love reading it over and over again. I am currently reading the fellowship of the ring. I love J.R.R. T olkein's writing!

message 50: by Mugdha (new) - added it

Mugdha  Keskar Awesome i too have read it!!

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