Friday Reads: The Hobbit

Well it was inevitable that one of the Gollancz Friday Reads would be for The Hobbit. I’ve seen the film twice (once 2D once 3D, I preferred the 2D version), and after the second viewing I found myself picking the book up again.

I think most folks know the story. Bilbo Baggins finds himself, a little unwillingly, embarking upon an unexpected adventure with a collection of dwarves bent upon reclaiming their ancestral home from the mighty dragon Smaug. For many novelists that would be adventure enough for one short volume, but this outline isn’t even the bare bones of the hobbit’s tale. As Leonard Nimoy reminds us, Bilbo is chased by wolves, lost in the forest, escapes with a barrel from the Elf-King’s Hall and more.

I won’t go into all of his adventures because, in short, there’s a huge amount going on. He and the dwarves do wander through a battle between thunder giants, they are chased into trees by wolves and saved by the eagles, Bilbo picks up the ring, they do have to escape from the Goblin King, with Gandalf’s assistance . . . and the incident with the trolls is a masterpiece. If you’ve seen the film, those events took place in, more-or-less, the first third of the book. I will leave the remaining two thirds a mystery for fear of spoilers.

As for the book itself, it’s a rather wonderful story which I highly recommend. It’s not dense, it’s not long, it has a wicked sense of humour and it had plenty of charm. It’s also a cracking adventure with some unexpected twists. Don’t delay – read it!

I also realise that this re-read gave me a pause for thought about the so-called ‘gritty’ fantasy revolution of recent years. There’s been a sense that we’ve moved away from Tolkien’s ‘high fantasy’ towards something darker, less idealised, more unpleasant and ‘real’ and I’m not sure that’s true. There is plenty of dark psychology, nasty deeds and nuanced characterisation to be found here – more, if I’m honest, than I expected. Tense political and emotional links between characters and races abound, hatred (reasonable or not) between races is explored, and frustrations and disagreements between the group of dwarves are not uncommon. The race of Men is rather weak; the races of Dwarves and Elves are shown to have their weaknesses; and spiders are proven once again to be a Bad Thing. Gandalf is a far more ambiguous figure than we meet in the film, and his motives are rarely brought into the light. But you have to read attentively to catch much of this. It may be a line, a word, or between the lines that these nuances are given and then left undeveloped. If anything, there has been a revolution within the fantasy genre to delve into the detail of these relationships, explore them and bring them out into the light far more fully – but not markedly more grittily – than Tolkien ever did.

A quick comparison with Robert E. Howard’s writing suggests that the ‘low/pulp’ fantasy genre is a little more descriptive, if not particularly more emotionally engaged, or more inclined to explore complicated dynamics between characters. So when we talk about the evolution of the genre (even so briefly as this), perhaps we should spare a thought for the changing interests of readers and writers (psychology, accessibility, commerciality, setting/world-building) instead. I’m thinking particularly (perhaps wrongly) of the influence of film and TV on the elements we now look for in novels – have we moved away from the ‘high’, ‘low’, ‘epic’, ‘pulp’ etc categories we’ve become so familiar with . . . or has the development of a new and more visual medium to tell stories changed novels in ways we never anticipated?

For The Hobbit, whether it’s dark, gritty, YA or epic, I propose the following category: ‘cracking good story’.