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May the hair on your toes never fall out

September 21, 2012

I think it may be a promotion by the publishers; but still I want to give a hearty greeting to everyone celebrating Hobbit Second Breakfast today (in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the book).  My mother first read the Hobbit to me when I was just a little tyke, and I remember liking it a lot; and I still like it today.  

There are zillions of editions to choose among, but my preference is for editions with Tolkien’s illustrations.  I can recommend the green leatherette slipcased edition, which is elegant, but not pretentious, and printed in a way that either an adult or older child could enjoy.  Also worth noting is the annotated edition (I learned from it); the boxed set with The History of the Hobbit and the new book The Art of the Hobbit (US edition, British edition – the British edition is slipcased and better]). 

Thomas Shippey has an insightful article today in the Telegraph:

What has made the book such an enduring success? There are lots of reasons why one would not have expected it to be. Too much poetry! No female characters at all! (How will Jackson get round that one?) A lot of professorial quibbling over words!

But maybe Tolkien’s boldest defiance of accepted children’s-fiction practice was that he offered no child figure for the reader to fix on. It’s true, the hero Bilbo Baggins is “only a little hobbit”, so he’s a kind of surrogate child, but he’s put in positions no child could be expected to identify with.

Like finding himself alone, in the dark, playing riddles for his life with a creature who means to eat him, or being trussed up by a giant poisonous spider, or — worst of all, alone and in the dark once again — being sent down a tunnel at the end of which he can hear a dragon snoring. Tolkien presents a very cold-blooded image of courage, and expects it to be understood.

He adds to it the element we call moral courage. Bilbo decides (on his own again) that his dwarf companions have got it wrong in their greedy defence of the dragon treasure, and so secretly gives away the greatest treasure of all, the Arkenstone, to his friends’ besiegers, to use as a bargaining point. And then he goes back to be exposed, in the end to confess, because they’re his friends still.

Anyone could have told Tolkien this is not kids’ stuff. Nor, for instance, is the death of Thorin Oakenshield. An American lady told me once that she read the whole book to her sons, aged seven and ten, and when they got to this scene, she saw the tears rolling down their cheeks.

Not very politically correct stuff, but interesting literature need not be politically correct at all.  I would certainly be distressed if all children’s literature lacked female characters, but for a tale told in “Icelandic style” it hardly seems a strike against the book.  (One can make similar remarks against many children’s books – except for a brief appearance by Mrs. Hawkins, there are no female characters in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, for example.)

There is another brief opinion piece by Corey “The Tolkien Professor” Olsen in the Wall Street Journal.  Olsen has some great podcasts, and I bet his book [which I have not yet read] is much better this excerpt (apparently placed by the publishers.)

I should mention briefly the forthcoming PeterJackson films (apparently, this short film is becoming a film trilogy).  I cannot fathom how the movie can possibly compare favorably with the book.  (The Lord of the Rings movies were exquisite from a technical point of view, but I think that most people who knew the books well found them disappointing, since they did not convey the many genres and “complete description of a world” effect that Tolkien’s adult sequel to the Hobbit had.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 21, 2012 4:25 pm

    Drat! I missed the opportunity to have a conscience-free second breakfast. Oh well, maybe tomorrow…
    Intrigued by the comments in Thomas Shippey’s piece that some of it is ‘not kid’s stuff’. Why do some adults think children don’t like being scared, dealing with moral conundrums etc. Why do they think Roald Dahl was such a brilliant author.
    I read The Hobbit when I was still at primary school (okay, I was a bit precocious) and it will never lose it’s place in my heart. And yes, the version with original illustrations was best.

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