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Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" Hardcover – September 18, 2012
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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.
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I found it interesting when Dr. Olsen discussed the old meanings of the word "clue." Even into the early 20th century, in the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, a "clew of garn" meant a ball of yarn with a rattle in it, so that when the ball rolled into a dark corner, as knitters knitted by the light of the fireplace, it could be found easily.
Dr. Olsen, please write a similar analysis for Lord of the Rings!!
When I saw that this book was divided into 19 chapters, one for each chapter in The Hobbit, I decided to read a chapter from the Tolkien and then follow it immediately with the corresponding chapter from Olsen. In this way, I worked my way through both books over the course of about two weeks. It was an excellent experience. Not only did I get to immerse myself once again in Middle-Earth's founding text, but I was able to look at it in an entirely new light thanks to Mr. Olsen's insights.
To begin with, it was nice just to read The Hobbit again. Though I knew the story well, the intervening years since my last reading had faded my memory a bit. For example, I'd forgotten how early in the story it is that Bilbo encounters Gollum and acquires the Ring. Being a bigger fan of The Lord of the Rings had made this moment the climax of the story in my memory. Instead, this encounter lays the groundwork that allows Bilbo to succeed in the many events that are to follow including (but not limited to) escaping from the spiders, escaping from the Wood-elves, and conversing with Smaug.
More importantly, however, reading Mr. Olsen's work allowed me to come to a deeper appreciation of what Tolkien accomplished with The Hobbit. When he wrote The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings was yet to come. The Hobbit has a simplicity and unity that is clouded by the impact of The Lord of the Rings. (In fact, Tolkien had to go back and make some small but important changes to subsequent editions of The Hobbit to make it work with what he created in The Lord of the Rings.) Mr. Olsen is especially good at tracing the development of Bilbo's character from retiring hobbit to successful thief: in pointing out the thesis, antithesis, synthesis movement of Bilbo's character between his Baggins side and his Took side.
Of course, Mr. Olsen covers a lot more ground than this. He points out the importance of luck in the proceedings. He analyzes the difference between creatures that are "wild" and creatures that are truly evil. He has a particularly excellent look at the "dragon-sickness" that takes over nearly everyone as the novel draws to a close, nearly causing disaster. He also has a serious interest in the poetry and song that appears in nearly every chapter of The Hobbit and argues well for its importance in understanding the nature of the novel.
In the end, Mr. Olsen did not convince me that The Hobbit is a better book than The Lord of the Rings (nor am I quite sure he is trying to do so). On the other hand, he greatly increased my appreciation of "the prelude". With the coming of the first of The Hobbit movies this Christmas, I am glad that I was able to do a close reading of the novel. I will always be grateful to Mr. Olsen for that.
He writes not for academics, but for anybody who has loved The Hobbit and wants to know more about how its parts fit together. He wants us to actually read each of the poems and songs and to treat them seriously; there's a lot more in them than meets the eye (especially if you just skip over them, as so many people do, including me).
Of particular interest is the Gollum chapter. Olsen talks about the history of the chapter, and the ways in which it was tweaked to fit into The Lord of the Rings. The chapter is also fascinating for its in-depth analysis of the riddle game.
The book can be read either after reading The Hobbit or in parallel, with each chapter of Olsen's book corresponding to a chapter or two in The Hobbit. If you've read The Hobbit before, it will definitely make you want to read it again and see just how much more there is than you noticed the first time. Highly recommended.
It is important to point out that this book concentrates on The Hobbit all by itself, aknowledging the rest of Tolkien's body of work, but not going beyond a few mentions here and there. The Hobbit was written as a standalone story, and it is important to read it as such. It is later that the relationship with the rest of the books is established. (In fact, this book does a great job at explaining and analyzing the importance of the changes Tolkien did between the original edition and the one released later and retconned to better fit into the larger story. And the masterful way Tolkien managed to include both the original story and the retconned one into the Lord of the Rings canon without creating a plot hole.
Professor Olsen does a spectacular job at showing the depth and thought behing this "children's" book, and does so in a very clear and pleasant way. One is compelled to go running to re-read The Hobbit, just to spot all those little but important details seeded all over the story.
I learned about Exploring The Hobbit at the author's podcast, and even while I was familiar with the book's content, it was full of pleasant surprises and extensive cross-referencing (of a friendly and non-intrusive kind). A very enjoyable read through and through.
My only complains are that the book was too short, and that it will take several years until professor Olsen is able to write some similar books about LotR.