We come to the end of another summer, and with it another Summer Reading List challenge. With all the seriousness on here and in the world at large, I thought I’d lighten things up a bit to close out this year’s series. Well, I didn’t really plan that, but it turned out that way, and that’s sort of the same thing, right?
Title: The Hobbit
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Genre: High fantasy
I’m a serious Tolkien geek. I have been for 20 years. I’ve read Lord of the Rings at least a dozen times. I’ve read The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and most of the History of Middle-Earth series. Tolkien was one of the inspirations when I first started writing my own novels, and he’s the reason why my Otherworld saga focuses so much on the language of the natives. (Technically, making my own languages came before reading Tolkien, but let’s not quibble. Becoming an author was definitely after.)
Strangely enough, though, I’d never read The Hobbit, the story that started it all. Years ago, I found it too childish to bother with; I’d rather read “adult” fantasy, not some children’s bedtime story turned into a novel. But time and the wisdom of age, along with the nuisances of the world around me, have left me somewhat disillusioned.
So much modern fantasy exists solely to satisfy the author’s wishes or push a political agenda, and that’s just boring. I gave up on Anthony Ryan’s The Waking Fire, which felt too much like a rant against capitalism. I never even started Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, because I don’t think I can stand another assassin story. And Martin, of course, will gain enough weight to finish collapsing into a black hole before he ever writes another book, but I still wouldn’t bother reading The Winds of Winter if it ever did happen to exist.
I never thought I’d say this: fantasy has become boring.
So why not go back to the roots of fantasy? The Hobbit certainly isn’t a match for today’s epics, but then it was never intended to be. It’s a fairy tale. It’s a modern myth. It never tries to be anything more, apart from a few vague hints that the world of Middle-earth is larger than the confines of this little story and the perspective of its little protagonist. That’s very refreshing, in my opinion.
The writing is very…haphazard. Certainly, it’s not as polished as LOTR. You can attribute that to the intended audience or to it being Tolkien’s first foray into fiction intended for other people to read. Whatever the reasoning, it’s jarring. So is the narration, because The Hobbit, unlike modern fantasy, is indeed told by a narrator. He often speaks, sometimes offering foreshadowing, sometimes warning the reader away from digressions, occasionally making a little joke that readers not from prewar Britain just won’t get. (LOTR had those, too. Nobody alive today would understand the in-joke of Sam Gamgee hooking up with a woman whose last name was Cotton.)
Despite being written by the true master—indeed, the inventor—of worldbuilding, The Hobbit does seem to fall short in that department. Again, that’s because it wasn’t intended to be an introduction to Middle-earth. Myths, by their very nature, assume that you already know the context. Thus, you don’t get the backstory of the Necromancer, the king of Mirkwood, or Bard of Lake-town. Indeed, you don’t even get the names of the first two in that list! (You do in LOTR, of course.)
So we’re dealing with a book that’s light on characterization, light on worldbuilding, and heavy on songs. Does that make it bad? No. Does that make it bad fantasy? By modern standards, perhaps, but tastes change. Maybe today’s emphasis on epics will eventually end, the pendulum swinging back towards shorter fiction or serials. Something like Amazon’s Vella, for example, might do the trick. It’d certainly be better than their attempt at a Middle-earth TV series.
Speaking of which, I can’t end this post without mentioning the movies. I’ve only seen most of them; I still haven’t watched the first half of An Unexpected Journey. What I’ve seen is troubling, to say the least. There seems to be more content that was added by Peter Jackson than what was originally written by Tolkien. Granted, a lot of that is for monetary reasons, and I understand that. Hollywood is a corrupt empire. Still, this book in no way has 9 hours of film in it. It barely has enough for a single movie. And that, I think, is one of its charms.