Oct 092011

The HobbitI hadn’t read this book since I was a child. Rereading it now, my response repeats near exactly my reaction a few years ago when I reread The Lord of the Rings while I was in Paris. I was surprised at how good they are and how melancholy (The Hobbit less so). Tolkien’s talents as a writer are immense although–and I hate saying this–they are undermined by his subject. There’s no getting away from the fact that Middle Earth and all the rest, treated this carefully and this well, seem silly and more than a little embarrassing. Which is ridiculous, because I honestly love these books. But reading them, I can’t get away from wondering how a grown man (like me) could sit down and write this seriously about these things without chickening out. Which raises immediately the question: would Tolkien have written better or not at all if he had tried to write something else?

Reading this time, I was conscious of the shift of action off-stage and onto non-major characters in the last chapters of the book. Reading as a child, this shift always threw me. In fact, I was surprised how much of the book takes place after the Mirkwood. When I was younger, Bilbo’s adventures as he’s trying to keep up and keep it together attracted me. When (I now see) he begins to manage events that are larger than him and center on others, I dropped out of the story. Reading now, I see how important this shift is to what came after. It is as if Tolkien, like Bilbo, is inching his way out of the atmospheric but non-dramatic shire and discovering what might be possible elsewhere, and at what scale.

I was also caught off guard by the length of chapters. These are tightly narrated units that, especially early on, progress with the benefit of only a few line breaks to separate and organize action.

Finally, the illustrations were new to me. No other edition I read had them. Seeing them here, I was struck by how much the visual art interacted with and supported the literary art. Wikipedia has a nice run down of their history here.

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