Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Re-reading The Hobbit: better than LOTR?

To begin with, a confession: I hadn't read any Tolkien in at least ten years until last week.

As a one-time teenage fantasy reader, I'll fess up to the fact that The Lord Of The Rings remains the book I've most re-read. But I feel I've gotten what I need from it now. I'm also worried that I'd see only the character flaws and the ponderous pacing, not the panoramic vision in the writing if I were to pick it up again.

If life's too short to plough through LOTR again, let alone make time for the dead weight of saga that is The Silmarillion, The Hobbit is an altogether different proposition. 

Indeed, having just finished a new edition a friend bought for me, you could make it a case for being Tolkien's best book.

Yep, you heard me.

While it's unfair to pit The Hobbit - a children's fantasy - directly against LOTR, which even if you don't care for it remains (plus attendant scholarship) a staggering piece of work with huge cultural significance, it has less of its sequel's faults, not least because it's much shorter. However, it also stands on its own merits.

Chief among those is a lightness of touch LOTR mostly lacks after the initial chapters, with its dominant epic/grim mode broken up by passages aiming for comic effect but ending up in bathos

The Hobbit is altogether more mock-heroic, with a strong comic reading of the text showing Thorin & Company as semi-competent at best, Bilbo at least as lucky as he is able, and several characters (hello Bombur, the Fat Owl of The Remove Lonely Mountain) purely there for comic relief. Even if you veer towards a more serious, high fantasy take on it, the playfulness of the narration bubbles through and allows for a much more convincing tonal changes than LOTR.*

And how the tale is told is one of the best things about it. Derived from bedtime stories by Tolkien to his children, it reads as if it has been honed and refined in the telling. To put it another way: Lord Of The Rings is a book that has been written; The Hobbit is a book that has been spoken. Like his beloved mythologies, it's a piece of oral tradition that has been committed to paper.

I would also go out on a limb and argue Tolkien writes much better when doing so for a more demanding audience - i.e. children. Any readers of high fantasy claiming to be a tough, selective crowd, raise your hands now. No? thought not... Each chapter in The Hobbit is a clear set-up/encounter/resolution which moves the journey along at a rate of knots, unlike the sequel. Bilbo's interior journey is shallower but not essentially different to  Frodo's, but he learns the same life-lessons in a quarter of the time and returns home, lickety-split.

The Hobbit is Tolkien as a lean, un-donnish, writing machine, and all the better for it. It has faults - the ending feels a little contrived, the poetry is wince-inducing, and it displays the cultural attitudes of your great-grandfather -  but it is a great piece of storytelling with high adventure and a sense of humour about itself.

Better than LOTR, for all its gravitas? You bet.

More Hobbit posts on this blog

Providing precious Hobbit quoteses for Friends of the Earth

Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

* In retrospect, one criticism of the Hobbit film which I've heard from others is that it basically turns the story into the LOTR prequel, tonally speaking, forgoing some of its YA roots and playfulness.


  1. I've never finished Lord of the Rings. Managed Fellowship of the Ring but was bored to tears by the Two Towers. I love the Hobbit though. I had no problems watching the Lord of the Rings movies because I had no attachment to the story. I'm dreading watching the Hobbit though. In fact, part of me refuses to...

  2. Thanks Dave! Interesting to find a role-player who hasn't read LOTR.

    I think the best way to come into the Hobbit film is treat it as totally different to the book and with low expectations. They will be comfortably surpassed...

  3. Re: Lord of the Rings - yes, I am the exception that proves the rule ;)

    I was talked into renting the Hobbit on whatever Virgin Media are calling FilmFlex nowadays. I took your advice though and was pleasantly surprised. Still no idea how they've managed to stretch it to three films (two would have been more than enough using the current additions as a guide).

    Personal gripes? Some of the dwarfs really need to grow some beards - I've got more facial hair than a couple and that's only because I haven't shaved for a week!

    The best thing about the movie though? I've pulled the novel off the shelf again and it's been promoted to "next" on the reading pile :)

  4. Glad you liked it Dave!

    I've just picked up the Silmarillion from a jumble sale for 50p so I supppose I should probably read that next.

  5. Worth adding also - everyone who's commented via FB also prefers the Hobbit to LOTR. Interesting...

  6. I know others who prefer The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings - in fact, I'm probably the only person I know who prefers the latter.

    Certainly, the Hobbit is a tighter, sharper book. Tolkien revised it twice after publication. Toning down the childish elements and tweaking the Bilbo-Gollum encounter to make it "more consistent" with The Lord of the Rings. Another revision, abandoned, would have made the tone even more adult. I think if he'd had the time and the technology, The Hobbit would have been brought "up" or "down" to the level of The Lord of the Rings.

    As you said, The Hobbit benefited from being honed as stories told to his children and perhaps just the right amount of post-publication revision to remove some of the overly childish elements.

    Going from memory, a clash of styles occurs when Bilbo arrives at Rivendell - the transition from 1st edition sillysongsinging elves bouncing around teasing dwarves (sorry, dwarfs) to final edition, melancholic, world-weary killing machines was clearly a work in progress.

    I prefer the evolution of The Lord of the Rings, from its Hobbit-like beginning, to high adventure, to the grey, weary ending. I like the fact that in terms of Mission Success Frodo scores 9/10, failing at the end to do what he set out to do and requiring an own goal in extra time by Gollum for the win. I like that the hobbits return to The Shire to find Saruman's industrial revolution waiting for them. I particularly like the two Tom Bombadil chapters (especially Fog on the Barrow-Downs) and the Paths of the Dead. The Hobbit has a dragon and a bearshifter, The Lord of the Rings has undead oathbreakers and a ghostly arm walking on its fingers towards Sam.

    I also prefer the "spoken style" of The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was written to be read out by the bedside, The Lord of the Rings was written to be read out in a meadhall or an oak-panelled pub (once the story leaves The Shire, as I said above, the beginning is very Hobbit-like).

    Anyway, before leaving it at that, I do have a thought about the way The Lord of the Rings is remembered. My feeling is that readers generally remember the grandness of scale and key scenes but a lot of details get lost because it's a big book. It's the difference between remembering Boromir trying to take the ring from Frodo and forgetting that Boromir held off Black Riders, travelled from Gondor to Rivendell on his own (and on foot for a great part of it) and WANTED TO FIGHT THE BALROG.

    1. Thanks Chris,

      I'm going to tweet this and see if stimulates further debate.. :-)

      There's definitely a lot that's good about LOTR - and I do need to re-read it again at some point to enjoy it properly as a more mature reader.

      It's interesting to hear about the revisions of the Hobbit - I'm assuming that the one on the shelves is the most current version?