Why The Hobbit Shouldn’t Work as a Children’s Book (But Does)

Hobbit Hole, by Jeff Hitchcock. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Generic

Hobbit Hole, by Jeff Hitchcock. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Generic

Something must be wrong with my brain this holidays. I didn’t realize it was Friday till Friday was over, so… this will be a Saturday post instead.

I watched The Hobbit last night, and decided Peter Jackson has my permission to split The Hobbit into five hundred movies if he wants to, and I won’t let the words ‘cash grab’ ever cross my lips. Because it was so much better than I ever thought it would be, and I’d expected it to be good. But watching it got me thinking about The Hobbit in a way I hadn’t before. And I realized it’s really a very weird sort of children’s book. It really shouldn’t work as a children’s book at all, much less be known as ‘great literature.’ Why, do you ask? Well, consider:

1.) The main character is a middle-aged man – er, hobbit

Would you pitch a novel to a publisher featuring a man who suffers a mid-life crisis and ditches his comfortable life for a madcap adventure, as a book for children? Honestly, which of the books on the shelf of the children’s section feature adults much at all, much less as the main character? Accepted wisdom is that books for children should star children. Children shouldn’t be able to relate to the tribulations of a character their parents’ age. And making him a hobbit doesn’t help too much – you have to go into the whole business of explaining what a hobbit is first.

Or maybe it does help. There’s a reason “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” is such a famous line, after all…

2.) The other main characters are thirteen dwarves with very few distinguishing features or character development.

I read a review for the movie version of The Hobbit the other day, complaining that none of the characters of the dwarves are developed much at all. Then I went to see the movie myself, and I was amazed at how well they managed to differentiate a good handful of the dwarves. Because in the book, there’s hardly any way to keep them apart at all. It’s not recommended to have a billion protagonists in a novel, and this really is one reason why. Thorin Oakenshield gets the most development, and thus the most of my memory’s section on “dwarves in The Hobbit” is devoted to him. Then there’s Bombur, who I mostly remember at the fat one. And Fili and Kili, because they’re the youngest and are brothers. And Dori, Nori and Ori because they come in three for some reason. But characterization-wise? The dwarves from Snow White went through more character development than them.

It should be a death-knell for any book to feature thirteen characters that don’t develop much over the course of the story. Somehow, with The Hobbit, this doesn’t matter.

3.) There are no female characters.

None. No females at all in the book, and one shoe-horned into the movie so far (Galadriel). I presume there are female townspeople in Dale, and female hobbits in the Shire, and female dwarves and elves somewhere in the world of The Hobbit, but none of them are really mentioned. Yet I, as a female, love it. Why is this? Shouldn’t I decry it as a fusty bastion of sexism as the modern young female I am? I have absolutely no urge to, and if the movie had made one of the dwarves a female or something I would’ve been quite mad.

4.) The plot is – somewhat wandering.

I forgot how much time the characters spend in Beorn’s house, without much happening. And how much time they sit outside the door into the Mountain before they figure out how to open it. And how often Bilbo tiptoes down into Smaug’s lair before anything major plot-wise happens. Several of the series of adventures lead nicely into each other (clearly indicated by the chapter title, “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire” – literal fire, in that case), but some bits lag upon re-reading. And the ending comes out of left field. After a whole book about defeating the dragon, the dragon is defeated and the gold it leaves behind sets into motion an epic battle involving almost all the groups in Middle Earth. It was like Tolkien was revving up for Lord of the Rings a little early, and had to remember he was just writing a children’s adventure story. So he conks Bilbo on the head and has him conveniently wake up when the eagles rescue everyone – a bit of a downer for all readers eager for Tolkien to describe another one of his epic battles. But maybe a little more suitable for the childish and tender ears which presumably this tale was written for? I don’t know, I just know the ending didn’t ruin the book for me. Tolkien never was one for making sure everything ended neatly and happily. The Hobbit has less hints of sadness than Lord of the Rings, but it certainly makes the point that just because you defeated a dragon, doesn’t mean you life is roses from then on. And that’s why it’s a great book.

Yes, it’s a great book. Despite all its flaws – no, forget about the flaws, it does more than rise about them. It breezes past its own flaws without even the acknowledgement that they are there, and before you know it you are swept right along with the characters into a world almost as real as the one you live in. I seriously think Tolkien has spoiled me for any other fantasy, because I can never take any of the world in books I’ve read after as seriously as I can take his. So yes, I felt the least I could do was devote one blog post to The Hobbit.

What do you think of The Hobbit? And have you seen the movie yet?

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