Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937, 1965)

A colleague saw my 1965 vintage copy of The Hobbit in my bag last weekend, and asked me how often I'd read it.  That really made me think - how many times have I read The Hobbit?  A conservative guess.  I first read The Hobbit in 1977/78 after it appeared on television in November 1977.  So let’s say I read it once a year since then.  That’s about 37 times.  Let’s say, though, that I skipped a couple of years in college or later adulthood.  Conservatively let’s take that down to 30 times.  But I bet in high school, I read it twice a year at least two years, so that puts it around 35 times.  I think that’s a good estimate.  Let's say this is my 36th time to re-read The Hobbit.  

When you've read a book 35 times, you pretty much know every nook and cranny of the book.  So was greatly surprised on page 16 when I read this line:   "It had always been said that long ago one or other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (the less friendly said a goblin family)."  That wasn't how I remembered that line at all. I remembered the bit about the fairy wife, but the aside about the goblin family was completely new to me.  I soon found out (thank you Internet) that Tolkien revised The Hobbit several times. The line about the goblins was removed, and Tolkien replaced it with this:   "It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife." It was mostly to fit in with the Lord of the Rings universe which he had created prior to The Hobbit.  But obviously he made some minor changes to some of the language.  I couldn't find a definitive place online that listed all the revisions, but I identified a few:


1965 edition:  "Your grandfather was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by a goblin --"Modern edition:  "Your grandfather Thror was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin -"
Azog is backstory, named from TLOTR.


1965 edition:  With that he put on Bilbo a small coat of mail, wrought for some elf-prince long ago.  It was of silvered steel and ornamented with pearls, and with it went a belt of pearls and crystals.  Modern edition:  With that he put on Bilbo a small coat of mail, wrought for some young elf-prince long ago. It was of silver-steel which the elves call mithril, and with it went a belt of pearls and crystals. gems, was set upon the hobbit's head.

The mithril coat is almost a character in TLOTR, so it needed to be added into The Hobbit.   As a word, mithril only appears once.  


I'm sure there are others, but these are the ones I noticed.


As most Tolkien lovers (Tolkienphiles?) know, "Riddles in the Dark" was completely revised, sometime before my 1965 edition (which includes the "true" story of Bilbo's finding of the ring).  I won't go into much detail here, other than to note that Gollum may be the only original character in The Hobbit.  I was thinking that you could drop almost every single character in this book in th middle of a E.M. Forster book (or maybe a Nancy Mitford book, or even Agatha Christie) and after some initial adjustment they'd all become very English (or in the orcs case, German).  The Shire reads like a suburb of London, in which the Honeychurches take tea with the Bagginses, and fall inappropriately in love.  Gollum, though, he's definitely the outsider, the outlier of The Hobbit.  Even badass Smaug, could be played by some beloved British actor on BBC (perhaps a Scot) but Gollum, like the cheese, stands alone.  After 36 times, Gollum is no longer a mystery to me, but I imagine if you are a small child and you are reading The Hobbit for the first time, Gollum is both terrifying and sad.  Gandalf, Bilbo, the dwarves, the elves, Beorn - they are almost stock characters in various genres (from folklore to English comedy of manners) but Gollum is unique.  He becomes even more unique in The Lord of the Rings (when Bilbo becomes Frodo, and Frodo loses his Forster qualities and becomes a Catholic saint; Sam, though, remains English at his core, but I digress).  Gollum is Tolkien's one great creation.  

The goblins in The Hobbit are this strange cross of comic and horror.  Goblins are funny creatures that still sing funny songs and actually sit down and laugh.  They become orcs (a word mentioned twice, I believe, in The Hobbit) in TLOTR, horrific figures from nightmares.  Peter Jackson helped that along too.

Bilbo as a character really starts developing after "Riddles in the Dark."  It's gradual, until page 217, when he swells into a truly interesting character; perhaps I should say that at that point, he becomes us, and we can sympathize and empathize with him.  It's on page 217, which I had never noticed before, that Bilbo tells the dwarves of his encounter with Smaug.  "The hobbit was worried and uncomfortable, and they had difficulty getting anything out him."  He's embarrassed and upset, because he knows that he slipped up and revealed too much to Smaug, and he doesn't (yet) want to open up to the dwarves about it.  He takes it out the thrush (the unsung hero - whatever happened to that thrush anyway?), throws a rock at him (luckily the thrush is forgiving), and finally tells them what he said.  They are very forgiving - they, better than anyone, understand how tricky dragons can be.  It's here that Bilbo leaves behind comedy and enters, slightly, the world of tragedy.  The adventure becomes real, and Bilbo becomes real as well.  He's like us.  Thorin and Company, Gandalf, Beorn... they are all just characters in a book.  Lovable (or not), but not particularly relatable.  You and I will never be a wizard or a dwarf king.  But we will say things that later we regret, we will take out our frustrations on others, we will be reluctant to admit we've messed up.  We're all Bilbo at some point or the other.  Bilbo isn't a great or unique character like Gollum, but from that point on he's a character we can understand.  

Gandalf in TLOTR isn't one of my favorite characters  - but Gandalf in The Hobbit is.  He's much more likable and down to earth.  Here's Gandalf at the end, when he finds out Bilbo is alive:  

When Gandalf saw Bilbo, he was delighted. "Baggins!" he exclaimed. "Well I never! Alive after all - 1 am glad! I began to wonder if even your luck would see you through! A terrible business, and it nearly was disastrous. But other news can wait. Come!" he said more gravely. "You are called for;" and leading the hobbit he took him within the tent.

Gandalf wouldn't call anyone Baggins in TLOTR, particularly in Return of the King.  He's too busy being a demigod.   


The Hobbit, or There and Back AgainThe Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I did some loose calculating, and I've probably read The Hobbit 35 times in my life; this makes number 36.  I pick up something different every time I read it.  Last time, I realized what a bad ass Smaug was.  This time, I realized that Gollum may be the only original character in book.  I was thinking that you could drop almost every single character in this book in th middle of a E.M. Forster book (or maybe a Nancy Mitford book, or even Agatha Christie) and after some initial adjustment they'd all become very English (or in the orcs case, German).  The Shire reads like a suburb of London, in which the Honeychurches take tea with the Bagginses, and fall inappropriately in love.  Gollum, though, he's definitely the outsider, the outlier of The Hobbit.  Even badass Smaug, could be played by some beloved British actor on BBC (perhaps a Scot) but Gollum, like the cheese, stands alone.  After 36 times, Gollum is no longer a mystery to me, but I imagine if you are a small child and you are reading The Hobbit for the first time, Gollum is both terrifying and sad.  Gandalf, Bilbo, the dwarves, the elves, Beorn - they are almost stock characters in various genres (from folklore to English comedy of manners) but Gollum is unique.  He becomes even more unique in The Lord of the Rings (when Bilbo becomes Frodo, and Frodo loses his Forster qualities and becomes a Catholic saint; Sam, though, remains English at his core, but I digress).  Gollum is Tolkien's one great creation.  I could go on, but I won't here.  Check out what I've written about at my blog:  http://shawnmthrasher.blogspot.com/20...



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