open the pages, read the words, savor the magic

Reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: An Experience

I remember the first time I read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It was in 2003, after I’d watched the Extended Edition DVDs of the Lord Of The Rings movies. My dad had bought me the book the year before when he got the LOTR books on box set, with the movie tie-in covers. He’d given it to me while I was still living in Italy, just after I watched Peter Jackson’s adaptation Fellowship Of The Ring. I remember saving The Hobbit for a year before I read it, simply because I was still too preoccupied with finishing LOTR first. Then I opened the book and read it. And I fell in love.

I won’t say that The Hobbit is superior to the trilogy. In terms of grammar and style, this novel comes across as rather amateurish compared to the trilogy. It doesn’t have big ideas and it’s very linear: a “they go from point A to point B and along the way something happens” story that is very much intended for children. It’s a tad dark but there’s also plenty of levity and a cast of amiable characters that don’t mean each other harm. Even the book’s most heinous villain, Smaug the dragon, is rather comical in his first appearance. There are battles and there is death but they’re not the kind that require volcanoes to jump into and a single eye of doom that haunt your nightmares.

But when I think about it, there is no surpassing the charm of The Hobbit. When I first read it, I was won over completely by one character and that was the creature that Tolkien used for the title of the book: a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. And he completely owned me because he was Bilbo Baggins and he was a Hobbit.

Of course I’d already known who he was and the importance of his role in Middle Earth through Fellowship Of The Ring book, where he explained to the readers what Hobbits really are. But my first encounter with Bilbo in the pages underlined every single thing I’d already known about them and then some. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin were astounding characters – the Hobbits were always my heroes in the trilogy despite my occasional championing of the Rohan heroes and heroine – and I’d already fallen in love with them, with Hobbits in general. But meeting Bilbo was akin to finding the Hobbit of your dream and falling in love with him and hoping to marry him.

Well, at least that was what my 21-year-old self thought of. Now that I’m older, I can see that it was just the fancies of my youth… but can you blame me?

Over the years, I made it a point to read LOTR and The Hobbit once annually. I wanted to copy the people who’d discovered the books long before me, who read it from start to finish every year and can memorize passages from the books. (Actor Christopher Lee, who played Saruman in the movies, was said to have done this and I took my cues from him.) And so it usually goes like this: I would read all the Harry Potter books and when I finish, I will pick up either Fellowship or The Hobbit. In the end, The Hobbit came out as the winner of “my most frequently read books”.

Not that I don’t love LOTR – I love the trilogy just as much – but The Hobbit is the shorter book and it’s always very easy to finish. I usually finish it in one week. It could be faster, but I usually savor it to last. Furthermore, as I grew older, I became more easily (mentally) weighed down by the things I read. To break free of depression and endless brooding, I pick up The Hobbit for the laughs.

Last year, I read The Hobbit in February. I skimmed through some parts, I’m ashamed to say, but then I started writing down the quotes. When I wrote down the passages, I began to realize how strong the book was as a character development story. It was fierce but also there was a sense of childhood innocence there – like the first time a person experienced real life. I know Bilbo was not exactly a teenager in the stories but he was quite horribly sheltered, so his discovery of life beyond the door of his little hobbit-hole is similar to Harry finding magic and evil and Percy discovering that Olympus gods were real. Once Thorin’s Company arrived at his door, Bilbo’s life began. The Bilbo I met at the beginning is not the same Bilbo I said goodbye to at the end.

Of course, the adventure is pretty much taken out of a child’s fantasy. Swords! Riddles! Creatures! Dragons! Strange men! Big men who depend on this little guy! And the little guy eventually gained the respect of the big men… how fun is THAT? If I’d read the book as I child, I would’ve pumped my first in the air and said, “All hail the little guy!” (To be honest, though, I still do that anyway, despite my age…)

It’s a bit of an escapist novel (which fantasy novel isn’t? Although The Hobbit is probably a bit more of that than others.) Fluffy, fuzzy, funny… a heartwarming tale, one might even say. Its literary values are not as strong  if you compare it to, say, Ursula K. Le Guin. But by God it is memorable. And wonderful. And fantastic. And incredible.

Perhaps I’m only saying that because I’ve had a longstanding crush on this Halfling who said, “I am almost dead of [hunger]” to the Lord of the Eagles, but trust me when I say, there is so much wondrous sentiments to be had when you get to know Mr. Baggins a little deeper.

To close this essay of massive adoration, I will show you the things I wrote from 2004 (from my old Lord Of The Rings-centric blog) concerning The Hobbit:

Apr. 2nd, 2004 @ 09:59 pm

I was reading The Hobbit the other night and in the story Gandalf ate bread and plenty of butter for dinner when they were at… somewhere. (Sorry I forgot.) Anyway, just by reading that scene in the book, I suddenly felt very hungry and I went to get bread and butter for dinner!

Isn’t that weird?! I mean, getting influenced on food BY A BOOK! That’s just weird, man. Now, I only eat plain bread (not toasted or anything) with butter. Only. In spirit of Gandalf and the Dwarves and Bilbo in The Hobbit.

That wasn’t the only time since then that my eating habits were influenced by a book, mind you.

Apr. 8th, 2004 @ 11:45 pm

Apparently now there’s an online petition to make The Hobbit into a film. As we all know the filmmaking rights belong to New Line Cinema but the distributional rights belong to another company (is it MGM?) and Peter Jackson had said in his Oscar interview that the lawyers could discuss this for years, so there’s no immediately plan to turn The Hobbit into a film.

So, I don’t think we’re going to be seeing it anytime soon.

However, as long as PJ is the one who makes it, I’d wait for years, if I have to, because I know “years of waiting” is going to be worth it.

I’m glad to say I am now reaping the benefits of my patience. As we all know, Peter Jackson’s first The Hobbit movie (subtitled An Unexpected Journey) will open on 14 December 2012.

The next one is an episode of my early years working in the bookstore.

Sep. 30th, 2004 @ 10:50 pm

CUSTOMER: I need all the available versions of The Hobbit that you have.
ME: OK, could you wait for a while? (goes to pick up the books) Here you go.
CUSTOMER: (sees the cover) Hmm… where’s the black cover one?
ME: Oh that’s sold out.
CUSTOMER: What?! How come?!
ME: Apparently a lot of people liked that cover.
CUSTOMER: Oh no! My son wants that one!!! Could you please get it for me?! I don’t care how.
ME: We’re waiting for replenishment orders, ma’am. It might take a while.
CUSTOMER: But how about your other store?!
ME: OK, I’ll check. (calls the other store) Well, ma’m, they don’t have it at all. They only have the green on.
CUSTOMER: Oh god… how do I find it?
ME: Have you tried going to other bookstores?
CUSTOMER: They don’t have it either. That’s why I came here. Please, I need that book for my son! Urgently!
ME: I’m sorry ma’am. The fastest we can get it is within a month.

In case anyone was wondering, the customer bought the one with the green cover (published by Del Rey). I don’t remember if she returned to get the one with the black cover (published by HarperCollins UK) but maybe she did.

And a little bonus, this was the little Tolkien corner on my nightstand in 2004:

Happy Anniversary, The Hobbit!

I may have only known you for 9 years but, it’s been a lovely 9 years. Long may our affair continue…


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