So last weekend, we rented the new Hobbit movie and watched with the kids for a Friday night family movie. Afterwards, I was struck by how much I did not really remember from reading The Hobbit (which was way back in 1995..otherwise known as 18 years ago now). And so, I promptly picked it up (well, not so promptly I finished reading An Uncommon Education, and then sped through Bel Canto and World War Z since they were already downloaded onto my kindle). Anyway, turns out that I hadn't forgotten a ton, the creators of the movie (gotta love Hollywood) just made a bunch of shit up and moved stuff around and added stuff to make it flow better into their LOR trilogy of movies. Made me feel better about my memory.
The surprise was that I did not remember it as such a kid's book. I read it in college and had it in my memory as being for the dungeons and dragons 13+ crowd. Really, this book could be for kids as young as 7 or 8. I found Bilbo to be quite childlike. For example, during the Gollum riddling, Bilbo is not just trying to save his skin; he believes whole-heartedly that "the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity". This solemnity is the way that children's eyes grow large and they swear that evil creatures will swoop down and eat you if you don't play their game following the rules. The language is probably tough for a lot of 7 year olds to read to self, but I think bright ones could certainly handle it as a read-aloud and decent 10 year old readers should be able to get through on their own.
I found Beorn's household to be reminiscent of CS Lewis's Narnia. I'm not sure exactly what sparked this (other than the personified animal servants), but the whole scene felt like it could have been from Lion, Witch, & Wardrobe. Clearly, Hobbit was published first (1937 vs. 1950), but I had not really noticed or thought about the similarities in tone and style before (obviously the children on adventure and mythical/magical world similarities had not escaped my notice). I thought "Smaug is dead" to be reminiscent of Wizard of Oz (written in 1900, movie released in 1939). Again, the epic nature of the book carries it's own similarities, but in reading this passage I kept humming to myself "ding, dong, the witch is dead, which old witch, the wicked witch...."
I get that the point of the story is to see Bilbo develop into a respected and adventuring Hobbit (and also to plant the ring for the Trilogy), but I actually found it quite annoying in the end that Bilbo was always the hero. He saves the dwarves from the spiders and the elves and finds the hole in Smaug's armor and then he is the one who finally brokers the negotiations with the men and elvenking. Really, after a while I started to wonder what the dwarves could possibly do for themselves (especially when they were hiding in the tunnel in the dark WHEN SMAUG WAS NOT EVEN IN THE BUILDING). What happened to the boasting, bragging creatures that first set out? It is fine for Bilbo to grow and develop, but the dwarves should not have had to simultaneously wither to make this apparent.
I also thought the whole scene in which Bard kills the dragon was way too Disney-fied. I liked that the thrush gave him the clue (especially because this time Bilbo's heroics were understated), but I really wish that Bard did not use his last arrow to kill Smaug. And I really, really, wish that arrow was not a special arrow that had never failed.
Finally, I was annoyed with the way that the birds' gossip traveled so fast. I get that it was a useful device (and certainly necessary for Bard to know how to kill Smaug). BUT Tolkien needed to have only some birds communicate (maybe only those close to the mountain because of some genetic thing in the past??). The reason is this: all along their journey the group kept encountering creatures (Elvenking, Beorn, men in Lake Town) who did not know they were coming. However, once Smaug was dead, these same creatures discovered the news within a few days. Why, oh why, wouldn't the gossiping birds always keep their friends abreast on traveling groups? How could travel be secret EVER with these birds flitting along?
One of my favorite passages is replicated in the movie and I find it just amazingly clever and cute:
"'What do you mean?' he said. 'Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?' 'All of them at once,'" I like the subtle commentary on our use of rituals without ever questioning their meaning
My other favorite passage was the description of the dragon as having the "sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted." Here I just like the way that greed (especially thinking that this is written near the end of the Great Depression) goes unquestioned. Reminded me of Todd Snider's lyric: "84 percent of everything you got you bought to satisfy your greed/Because 90 percent of the world's population links possessions to success/Even though 80 percent of the wealthiest 1 percent of the population drinks to an alarming excess/More money, more stress." The more you have, the more you have to lose, the more concerned you are about losing it.
Good news is, I'm not changing my star rating. I still think that this is a 4 star book. It's not absolutely fabulous (there are really only a few poignant philosophical moments and most of those just center around greed), but it is a great kid's book and quite entertaining. And of course, there is so much lore about it that it is a must read for really everyone.