Category Archives: The Hobbit

Concerning Hobbits – Why We Love Them

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“You do not know your danger, Theoden,” interrupted Gandalf. “These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and remote cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience. Some other time would be more fitting for the history of smoking!”

The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I just really love how clearly hobbits’ character comes through here.

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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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Talking Down to Readers

The Storyteller

The Storyteller (Eugene, Oregon), by Visitor7. Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

That Pedantic Tone of Writing

 You know the style of writing – “Now let me tell you a story…” or “As you shall see in the end…” The style of writing where a strong narrator’s voice almost intrudes into the story, reminding the reader that it is a story. Often this is thought of as children’s literature, because the tone of voice appears to talk down to the readers, and because it’s often used for fairytales and such. It was also used in two classics I’ve talked about before: The Hobbit and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. This has been a reason for some to heap scorn on these books, insisting the authors are being ‘twee,’ and that no self-respecting adult can actually enjoy these books anymore once they’ve grown up. Obviously, I disagree. But does this pedantic tone of voice really spell a death-knell for any book that uses it?

Interestingly enough, Tolkien himself came to regret the tone of voice he’d used in The Hobbit, and wanted to re-write it closer to Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings starts off a bit pedantic itself, but by the end it is a much more serious and ‘adult’ book. Tolkien later began to argue strongly against associating ‘fairy stories’ with ‘children,’ and felt he had betrayed himself a bit by earlier using a tone of voice in The Hobbit that talked down to children. He actually began re-writing it, but people told him “it just wasn’t The Hobbit” anymore, and he had to stop.

Personally, I am not insulted when an author uses this tone of voice on me. Some are – see, for example, this quote from Michael Moorcock (which refers to A.A. Milne but implicates a whole host of pedantic authors such as Tolkien, Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton) – “There is an element of conspiratorial persuasion in his tone that a suspicious child can detect early in life. Let’s all be cosy, it seems to say (children’s books are, after all, often written by conservative adults anxious to maintain an unreal attitude to childhood); let’s forget about our troubles and go to sleep. At which I would find myself stirring to a sitting position in my little bed and responding with uncivilized bad taste.” He must’ve been a smarter child than me, because I don’t remember feeling conspired against. I enjoyed both this style of book and the ‘more adult’ styles, including some Moorcock uses as examples of better books. I don’t think it has to be an either-or proposition.

But after all, this strong narrative tone was used for centuries. Epic ballads, narrative poems, you name it. “Let me tell you the story of Robin Hood,” or “This is a story of King Arthur.” Just because a story uses this tone, doesn’t mean it can’t be a rip-roaringly good story. The voice of the author does add an extra layer of separation between the reader and the characters engaged in the story, reminding the reader that they are safe at home and no danger is coming to them. But, if the reader cares about the character that is involved in the danger, this doesn’t matter. You want to know what happens to the character.

I think I am nostalgic for story-tellers, and that includes this story-telling tone of voice. My clearest memory of first grade is how after lunch we all sat around our first grade teacher and she used to tell us the most amazing fairytales. She got them out of a book, but they were spellbinding because they weren’t just the usual ones about Snow White and Cinderella. I still remember a few of these. Now, to live in a time where people told stories like this to each other everyday, and even made up more of their own, would be lovely.

Unfortunately, in the end I have to agree it is one of the worst mistakes to use this tone of voice nowadays. Unless you actually are writing for children, and even then you might face some opposition. People of our day and age are not used to being “talked down to” while being entertained, while in the past villagers may have thought nothing of sitting around the feet of some travelling bard while he told the story of King Arthur or something. However much I enjoy this style of writing myself, I think if you tried to publish a book like this you wouldn’t get far, and if you did publish people would instinctively put it down after reading the first couple chapters. Like I said, we’re not used to it. This may change someday, but we got to wait till then.


What do you think?

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Filed under Lord of the Rings, On Writing, The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe