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
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.