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Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" Paperback – August 6, 2013
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Open Letter to Readers (Amazon.com Exclusive)
On September 21, The Hobbit turns seventy-five. That's not a very advanced age for a hobbit, of course, but it is still an occasion well worth noting. The Hobbit is a book beloved by millions, and it has served for many as the gateway to a lifelong love of Tolkien's works. Nevertheless, I often feel that The Hobbit lives a little too much in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings. Sitting on a shelf next to the three larger volumes that come after, The Hobbit is easily overlooked, dismissed as a simple, childish "prequel" to Tolkien's great masterpiece. The 75th Anniversary provides a wonderful occasion on which to turn the spotlight back onto this brilliant little book. I can think of no better way to celebrate The Hobbit's birthday than to give it a good, open-minded re-reading, and my book Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Hobbit" is my invitation to you to join me in this delightful project.
For those of you who are not familiar with my podcast, The Tolkien Professor, let me explain something right away. I know that many people find the idea of "literary criticism" rather tiresome, and the thought of some English professor "dissecting" a book that they hold dear is rather awful. In my book, I seek only to invite you to take a slow stroll through The Hobbit with me, stopping long enough to pay attention to its subtleties and to take note of the larger themes and ideas the story engages with. I won't be examining the book like a lab specimen, but enjoying it with you and sharing with you the things I find so amazing about this book. Whether you are reading The Hobbit for the first time or coming back to it for the thirtieth time, I think you will find that there are always new marvels to discover.
To my podcast listeners, let me express my gratitude and my admiration. This book is not only for you, it is also from you; it is the product of your enthusiasm as much as of mine. When I started my podcast in 2009, thinking it would be fun to share some of my thoughts about my favorite books, I had no idea how dynamic, how thoughtful, and how dedicated an audience would find me. I have enjoyed the last three years of discussion, debate, and camaraderie with you enormously. This book is only one of the first fruits to be borne by the branch of the Tree of Story that we have been unfolding together, and I am tremendously excited to see what else we will build together.
I hope you will all have the chance to read The Hobbit again this fall, and thanks for joining me on my little adventure.
"Succeeds spectacularly. . . Olsen's highly accessible writing on such a beloved classic will appeal to Tolkien fans at all academic levels, while the detailed and thoughtful analysis of the original text will keep literary scholars and fantasy lovers engaged." -- Library Journal
"I cannot imagine a more patient, astute and well-informed guide to the world of The Hobbit than Corey Olson. His readers are lucky." – Patrick Curry, author of Defending Middle-earth"Sharing Corey Olsen's personal view of The Hobbit is like having a long conversation with someone who shares the love of a favourite book and is excited to talk about it. His exploration of the journey of Bilbo Baggins will encourage readers to think more deeply about Tolkien's classic tale." -- Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, authors of The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien"Most readers race through The Hobbit at breakneck speed, drawn onward by the exciting plot. Professor Olsen encourages us to slow down and take the scenic route, savoring each chapter. Through close, careful explication, he points out significant details and draws attention to hidden themes; he's particularly good at pointing out how Tolkien uses poems as characterization. Recommended to hobbit-fanciers everywhere." – John D. Rateliff, author of The History of the Hobbit"An admirable and thought-provoking consideration of the underlying themes of The Hobbit, following the there-and-back-again progress from its famous first line on through to Bilbo's return home at the story's end." -- Douglas A. Anderson, author of The Annotated Hobbit" Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's ‘The Hobbit’ moves step by step through the text, explaining references, pointing out themes and clearly and carefully showing how Tolkien's book—although one of the most beloved children's book of the past century—isn't just for kids. Neither is Olsen's book, which will be as useful to adult readers as it is to students." – Michael Drout, Editor of J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics and the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia
"In clear, accessible language uncluttered with academic jargon, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit does just that. Corey Olsen conducts the reader on a guided tour through this seminal work, pointing out crucial plot points and themes, analyzing characters, acquainting first-time readers with the appeal of Tolkien's bumbling hero, and helping returning readers enjoy Tolkien's classic even more more. An informative companion to an enduring classic." - Verlyn Flieger, author of Green Suns and Faërie
"Tolkien’s roads, it seems, go ever, ever on, but with as amiable and knowledgeable a guide as Olsen, the weather remains fine and the journey sweet." - Kirkus
"A work of love backed up by professional experience, this book is packed with information; the author’s infectious enthusiasm pervades his words, ensuring that what could have been a dry work in other hands will retain even a casual reader’s interest. The result is a text suitable for fans and scholars alike." - Publishers Weekly
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Olsen is better known on the web as The Tolkien Professor. His website of the same name offers a rich resource of reading material and podcasts on Tolkien's writings. An Assistant Professor of English at Washington College in Maryland, he has spent years in research and analysis. This might set off warning bells for people who associate college English professors with dry as dust monotonal lectures, but let me hasten to reassure you that Olsen's writing style is as fresh and lively as his scholarship is rigorous.
This book is a chapter by chapter analysis of The Hobbit. There are six main themes: Bilbo's Nature, referring to the struggle between his stodgy Bagginsishness (a delightful coinage by Olsen) and his audacious Tookishness; Bilbo's Choices, the turning points in various stages of Bilbo's journey; Burglar Bilbo, referring to his "official" role as part of the Quest for Erebor and how he fulfills it; The Desolation of the Dragon, meaning the environmental and moral depredation caused by the dragon and the all too desirable golden treasure; Luck, meaning the many "coincidences" and fortunate turns that save Bilbo and the dwarves many times throughout the journey, and which Olsen demonstrates are not just "lucky" at all; and finally The Writing of The Hobbit, descriptions of how Tolkien constructed the story and wrote and rewrote it as its nature changed.
Olsen covers each of these themes thoroughly as he takes us through each chapter. Every step of Bilbo's journey seems to have some significance and each song has deep and layered meanings. Olsen takes us through it all at a comfortable, ambling pace, almost as if we were on a stroll through the Shire, and delivers his interpretations and analyses as if he was an old friend having a pleasant conversation with you.
Again, I'm a long time reader of The Hobbit, and Olsen found plenty to surprise and delight me with as I read this book. If you have just become acquainted with Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves, or if you have not yet had the thrill of reading "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit . . .", then I can recommend no better guide than Corey Olsen's Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
Professor Olsen chooses to look at "several central ideas that come up repeatedly":
1) Bilbo's Nature (Took vs Baggins)
2) Bilbo's Choices
3) Burglar Bilbo
4) Desolation of the Dragon
6) The Writing of the Hobbit
This really isn't a book to read stand alone. Plan to read The Hobbit chapter by chapter as you read this book. This book examines The Hobbit chapter by chapter. So this organization makes it quite easy to follow along with the The Hobbit.
There are a few places where his analysis is a bit confusing. Let me give an example to illustrate this. In chapter three where he discusses "A Short Rest" and the company meeting the elves of Rivendell, he provides the beginning of the elves' song but then goes on to talk about the rest of the song. So unless you have a copy of The Hobbit at your side to reference, it's easy to get lost and not know what he is talking about.
I don't like the choice of ignoring the information provided by The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien's other books). I did very much enjoy Professor Olsen's discussion of the history of the original release of The Hobbit and then the revision 17 years later to correct one major aspect in preparation for (and to make it compatible with the) eventual release of The Lord of the Rings. However we are not reading this exploration in the 1950s when only The Hobbit had been around for seventeen years. This exploration is being published in 2012 and thus I feel it would be more appropriate and interesting to observe all the clever and interesting details written long before The Lord of the Rings. Why not discuss and explore how well the books work together to tell one larger and greater story? Why not understand Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves from the greater context of all the information we know?
I'm torn as to how to rate this book. For the subject matter I'd be tempted to give it five stars. For some of the analysis I'd probably only give it three stars. So I've compromised and given it four stars as it's a great excuse to read The Hobbit again (and to get refreshed in anticipation of the movie being released later this year).