The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is one of those books I’ve only read three times, but I feel like I know it so much better as if I’ve read it twenty times. Maybe it’s because I’ve read it that many times and seen the movies (which are not an improvement on the books). But I think it’s because Tolkien does such a good job of opening up this world to the readers and keeping the plot simple enough that we have time to stop and smell the roses along the way.
The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo, a Hobbit, who is hired by a company of dwarves to accompany them on their journey to their former kingdom under Erebor and reclaim it from the dragon, Smaug, who drove the dwarves out. The trouble is, Bilbo has never left home and ends up in many life threatening situations along the way. He’s forced to face these challenges even while all he wants to do is be back home in his arm chair.
Because this is the first time Tolkien has taken us into his world, called Middle-Earth, he does an extremely good job of painting a picture of what the world looks like, who lives in it, a touch of history, and a whole lot of culture. He uses the classical style to tell the tale and by that I mean he uses lots of poems and songs to convey characterization, culture, and response. The first time I read the book these poems and songs were annoying; I wanted to get back to the plot. But now that I’m older and wiser (ha!) I’ve learned to look into the these lyrical devices and think about what they say about the speaker/singer and why Tolkien would use these devices. I think he’s doing it on purpose to connect his story to the epics such as Beowulf where there are several poems and songs strung throughout the narrative.
He also uses a narrator who utilizes an informal tone almost as if your grandparent was telling you the story. I feel that this keeps the plot from taking itself too seriously. However, it does give the story a very naive and innocent feel even while people are dying in battle, dark lords are trying to bring down good, and spiders are running rampant. This is also a different narratorial voice than Tolkien utilizes in Lord of the Rings. I think he used the more informal, grandparent-type voice for The Hobbit because he wants to convey the innocence of Bilbo and of Middle-Earth at this period in history. I also think it was his first book and he was experimenting with it. Because Lord of the Rings is a much more dark and mature novel, the more formal voice matches with the content better than a more informal voice would. I also think that his writing style matures between the two books and, thus, his narrator reflects this maturation.
I used to not like Bilbo. But after this third reading I can see a bit of myself in him. While I don’t panic at the thought of going on an adventure, I do like to be home. My home is comfortable and it’s routine. But I always enjoy traveling and the challenges it brings. I’m never the same person coming back home from a trip. I think, like Bilbo found out, that it’s hard to go on a trip and not be changed the events and by your reaction to them. Good travelers throw themselves into the challenges and, like a crucible, are molded and changed and become stronger versions of themselves. So even while I may never meet Elves or see the Arkenstone, I can still hum Bilbo’s song every time I step out the door and encourage myself to let the journey mold me. “The Road goes ever on and on…”