Book review

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien (1937)

I think there is quite a lot of hobbit in each of us. I don't mean the leathery feet covered with warm, neatly brushed, brown hair that help hobbits to disappear quietly and quickly when trouble comes along. I really mean the ordinariness of them. Bilbo Baggins, for instance, lives very quietly in his comfortable hobbit hole, burrowed into a warm, sandy hill: The Hill, Hobbiton, The Shire. He likes to take at least two breakfasts every day, an early and a late one, and smoke a pipe of tobacco sitting comfortably outside by his own round, bright green, front door.

Actually, that is just what he is doing when this story starts. But as he smokes his pipe, an old man happens by and Bilbo, being a friendly soul, falls into conversation with him. He's an old man with a staff and a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a very long white beard hanging down below his waist. This is Gandalf, a remarkable and powerful wizard, who you will get to know very well, and respect, if you read this book. Bilbo already knows Gandalf from his childhood, but he doesn't recognize him immediately because Gandalf has been away in other, unmapped regions of the world, on wizard's business for many years.

Gandalf, it seems, is in Hobbiton for a purpose:

' ... I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone.'
'I should think so - in these parts! We are plain and quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them ...'

Clearly Bilbo doesn't think he's the one that Gandalf is looking for, but Gandalf has his own ideas. He scratches a secret mark on Bilbo's front door and at tea time next day, in ones and twos and threes, thirteen dwarves come calling on Bilbo, and Gandalf, of course. It's quite a tea party! And it's more than a tea party - it's the final planning session for a great undertaking.

One of the dwarves in Bilbo's parlour is Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain son of Thror, King under the Mountain. The dwarves of the Lonely Mountain were a race of highly-skilled craftsmen, workers of stone and metals, wealthy and strong. That is Thorin's rightful inheritance, but the kingdom was lost to the worm dragon Smaug. Now Smaug sleeps deep in the heart of the mountain on his immense heap of treasure, and desolation creeps over the land outside, for who can live next door to a dragon?

Thorin has the support of his twelve companions, and Gandalf, and just needs a burglar to complete the expedition. They intend to return to the Lonely Mountain to recover the kingdom and its treasures and to bring home their curses to Smaug, if they can.

Is Bilbo really the man for the job?

To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf's hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.

Bilbo has been very happy living in his own quiet corner of the world, but he is about to discover the evils and marvels which occupy the wilderland. His journey to the Lonely Mountain takes six months of hardship and short commons and he encounters many dangers.

One of the most significant events in the book is when Bilbo finds a magic ring, deep in the heart of the Misty Mountains, after he has been captured by goblins and taken down, down into the deep tunnels and black halls of the Great Goblin. The ring is a pretty handy thing to find because it enables Bilbo to escape from his captors and later on it helps him to confront Smaug the dragon. The ring makes the wearer invisible, you see. If you enjoy The Hobbit so much that you go on to read The Lord of the Rings afterwards, you will see that Bilbo's little ring is at the very heart of legend, and although Bilbo Baggins may feel very ordinary, Bilbo the Ring Finder has a very special part to play in the great events which shape his world.

As Bilbo's adventures unfold he becomes a rather different kind of person. He learns to rely on himself:

Then the great spider, who had been busy tying him up while he dozed, came from behind him and came at him. He could only see the thing's eyes, but he could feel its hairy legs as it struggled to wind its abominable threads round and round him. It was lucky that he had come to his senses in time. Soon he would not have been able to move at all. As it was, he had a desperate fight before he got free. He beat the creature off with his hands - it was trying to poison him to keep him quiet, as small spiders do to flies - until he remembered his sword and drew it out. Then the spider jumped back, and he had time to cut his legs loose. After that it was his turn to attack. The spider evidently was not used to things that carried such stings at their sides, or it would have hurried away quicker. Bilbo came at it before it could disappear and struck it with his sword in the eyes. Then it went mad and leaped and danced and flung out its legs in horrible jerks, until he killed it with another stroke; and then he fell down and remembered nothing more for a long while.
There was the usual dim grey light of the forest-day about him when he came to his senses. The spider lay dead beside him, and his sword-blade was stained black. Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath.
'I will give you a name,' he said to it, 'and I shall call you Sting.'

Gandalf was right, you see. Bilbo is the man for the job. As his self-confidence and keen judgement increase he plays an increasingly significant part in the great events which unfold at the Lonely Mountain.

This is a tale which seems to grow in the telling. You may think the characters are lifted out of fairy stories, elves and trolls, dragons and shape-changers, but the motives and emotions of the characters are totally compelling. See how you feel about the final conflict between Bilbo and Thorin Oakenshield. How do you think the real owner of Bilbo's magic ring felt when he realized he had lost it? And isn't Bilbo's return home to his own quiet fireside a bitter-sweet mixture?

'Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!' said Bilbo.
'Of course!' said Gandalf. 'And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!'
'Thank goodness!' said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

What can I read next?

What a brilliant story! And there's more. If you are an older reader (the plot is quite complicated) have a look at the trilogy known as The Lord of the Rings:

I promise you, you will be spell-bound!

Also for older readers, you could look at Philip Pullman's extraordinarily powerful trilogy:

Or you could look at the Earthsea sequence written by Ursula Le Guin:

Younger readers might like to look at anything by Stephen Elboz:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

The Hobbit features in these lists: