26/05/2007

The Hobbit (by JRR Tolkien)

I've read 'The Hobbit' at least three or four times - first when I was about ten, most recently to my sons - and that was probably about twelve years ago. So it felt like time for a re-read. Of course JRR Tolkien is now widely known due to the enormous appeal of the film versions of 'Lord of the Rings', but there are people who still don't realise that 'The Hobbit' was the precursor, for children, to that incredible trilogy.

Bilbo Baggins is the hero of the story, a quiet, unassuming and respectable hobbit who enjoys peace, comfort and good food. His mother was from a rather dubious family, albeit very wealthy, but his father was the epitome of respectability, and Bilbo hasn't any thought of leaving his pleasant home at Bag End.

A hobbit (for anyone who hasn't seen the Lord of the Rings films) is a human-like species, but rather shorter than most people and with huge hairy feet. They also live rather longer than the average human. Bilbo, at fifty, is now a young adult hobbit. He is sitting outside after breakfast one morning, smoking his pipe and relaxing, when Gandalf appears, quite unexpectedly.

We're not told exactly who or what Gandalf is, but any self-respecting child reading his description ('a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which his long white bears hung down below his waist...') would instantly recognise a wizard. They have not seen each other for many years, but Bilbo has happy memories of Gandalf's amazing firework displays when he was a very young hobbit, so he invites him to tea the next day.

To his horror, he finds that Gandalf has invited several other guests. Thirteen dwarves arrive on his doorstep the following afternoon, all under the impression that Bilbo is going to help them travel on a perilous journey to kill a dragon and retrieve large quantities of treasure. The thought fills Bilbo's mind with horror, and the dwarves aren't very impressed by what they see of him, either. But Gandalf knows what he's doing, and unsurprisingly, Bilbo ends up accompanying them.

Thus begins a series of thrilling adventures, in classic style: they are trapped by various enemies along the way, and imprisoned in several unpleasant places. Early in the book, Gandalf plays a large part in their rescues but gradually Bilbo takes a greater role, proving himself resourceful, intelligent, and courageous. So part of the story is related to Bilbo's growing confidence and maturity, and his companions' increased respect of him.

I think it's a wonderful book, and I'm not usually a fan of fantasy. The writing is fluid and clear; simple enough that (at least in my experience) children as young as seven or eight can enjoy listening to it, even though they wouldn't necessarily understand everything, yet there's plenty in it to appeal to teenagers and adults too.

It's a classic good versus evil plot, with the baddies - goblins, spiders, wolves and so on - being extremely nasty. But the good guys are shown realistically, with plenty of faults, and it takes a crisis towards the end before the sides are finally drawn, and a major battle takes place.

Definitely recommended.

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