Sunday, December 8, 2013

Of hobbits and humanity

The Hobbit with brass buttons. Photo by Alli Kirkham
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole,  and that means comfort."

My copy of The Hobbit comes to me third-hand; first it belonged to the Alhambra High School Library, then to my father who bought it when the school library had a book sale, and then to me (with a library checkout card still glued neatly inside the front cover. It is the first book I remember having read to me at bedtime, the first story I really connected to. My dad would read a few pages to my sister and I every night - the three of us would sit on my bed (my sister and I snuggling under the covers, much warmer than poor Bilbo for most of his adventure) and for half an hour or so each day we were all transported to Middle Earth, finally settling down to sleep dreaming of elves and dwarfs and roads untold.

I adore Tolkien. I have a Tolkien-based tattoo. I went to the midnight premieres of each Lord of the Rings film in full hobbit regalia. I have watched the Ralph Bakshi LotR films a few times and the Rankin/Bass Hobbit film innumerable times. But for me it all comes back to this little orange paperback book with yellowing pages and a fading cover illustration - this is the book my dad read to me, this is the first real book that I remember reading.

The Hobbit is, at its core, a children's book. It is the story of a wonderful adventure with unlikely beginnings and an even more unlikely hero. The language is simple, fresh, and surprisingly funny through the whole length of the novel. The book introduces you to a delightful array of characters, with its troop of dwarfs and hordes of goblins; this is where we meet the Bagginses and Gandalf and Gollum, where we first encounter Elrond and start to have the great names of this universe laid out for us.

It is not an introduction to Lord of the Rings, not a simple post-script to The Silmarillion. This is an amazing, complete, moving novel all on its own. The depth and complexity of The Hobbit is, like so many things within the story itself, unexpected. It is a deeply human book in spite of the fact that the race of Men is so frequently absent from its pages.

What struck my mind most on this rereading was the discussion of war; not the Battle of Five Armies, which is the only war that happens in the story, but the tensions before the battle - when good folk lose sight of their goodness for a while. The Hobbit has much to say human frailty, and about those things that divide even the best of us from our better nature. Heady stuff for a children's book but lessons worth learning, and worth learning young.

There is magic in all stories, and particularly strong magic in good stories. It can change who you are and who you want to be. The Hobbit is full of the best kind of magic; it makes you long for adventure, teaches you to fight for what is right, and, once you have read it and known its lands and people, becomes a part of you forever.

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