It’s been an interesting few days, to say the least. It was definitely a good time to sink into The Hobbit, which really is a charming book and the perfect escape.
This book was one of my early exposures to fantasy, though when I first read it, nothing really clicked for me. It didn’t turn me into a fantasy fan (not that I was opposed to fantasy, I just didn’t think of it in terms of “I want more books like this”). I was in fourth grade, and my teacher would read a book out loud to us, a chapter a day, every day after recess, as a way of settling everyone down. I suspect she might have been something of a geek because most of what she read to us was fantasy or fantasy-adjacent. I remember a lot of Roald Dahl, and then there was The Hobbit. She read that to us around the time the animated movie version came on TV. I was never patient enough for the chapter a day pace, so I’d usually check the book out of the library the next time I went and read it straight through. I remember doing that with The Hobbit and watching the movie, and I’m pretty sure I liked it, but it wasn’t as though it grabbed me so intensely that I wanted to find more books like that. I’m not sure why. I was mostly obsessed with Star Wars at that time, so I think anything that wasn’t Star Wars couldn’t get a toehold on me. I was looking for more stuff like that and reading books with spaceships and robots.
Ironically, I’d have probably found more of the stuff I loved about Star Wars by reading fantasy, since Star Wars is essentially a fantasy in science fiction trappings, what with its mysterious wizard knights with their magical swords and cloaks, hidden “chosen one” farmboy and feisty princess. But I didn’t yet know enough about genre and story structure to realize that, so I was reading books with spaceships on the cover.
I didn’t get into fantasy until a couple of years later when I discovered the Narnia books and it really flipped a switch. I read The Silver Chair (yeah, a strange one to read first), then got into The Lord of the Rings. I’m pretty sure I reread The Hobbit around that time, too. I know I reread it a year later when I read it out loud to my little brother.
The last time I remember reading The Hobbit was about ten years ago. I’d written the fifth Enchanted, Inc. book for the Japanese publisher, which finished out my plans for the series, but then they asked if I’d consider writing a sixth book. My initial inclination was to say no because I didn’t have any ideas, but then an idea hit me. I thought it would be a lot of fun to set a traditional fantasy quest kind of story in modern Manhattan, and I’d have the whole thing take place in one day. Thus No Quest for the Wicked was born. To outline it and come up with ideas to spoof and play with, I rewatched the Lord of the Rings movies. I didn’t have time to read that series, but I found a copy of The Hobbit at my parents’ house and reread that (it must have been one my brother left there because I found a boarding pass with his name on it stuck in the book, so he seems to have reread it as an adult after I read it to him when he was a little kid).
I think I’m liking it a lot more this time around. I keep finding little things I love about it. I had to empathize with Bilbo when all those dwarves showed up at his place and he was overwhelmed, as well as when Gandalf was trying to get him to go on the quest. It seems that people are always trying to get introverts to get out more for their own good. I think when we can get back to socializing, at parties I’m going to shake my head sadly at extroverts and tell them they really should have stayed home and done something quiet, that they need to do more of that, for their own good.
The thing that’s struck me on this read is the fact that the stakes and motivation for Bilbo are almost entirely internal. There’s no threat to his home, his community, or his way of life if he doesn’t go on this quest or if the dwarves fail. If he doesn’t go, life will go on as it has. The book makes it clear early on that Bilbo is already reasonably wealthy. He doesn’t need the treasure. He only goes on the adventure because the way Gandalf described him to the dwarves made him see himself in a different way, and he wanted to be the person Gandalf saw him as. He’d never imagined these possibilities for himself before, but once he starts thinking that way, he’ll be dissatisfied if he doesn’t find that within himself.
That makes this an oddly intimate book. In the midst of this epic journey that has Bilbo and his companions battling trolls, goblins, wolves, giant spiders, elves, and a dragon, it’s really mostly about one small person’s inner journey to figure out what he can be. That’s why I think the movies based on this book missed the point entirely. They more or less ignored Bilbo and focused on the epic, turning even small incidents into huge deals. This book is so very filmable and would make a lovely film if they just stuck to the book instead of bloating it. Martin Freeman’s face is basically a special effect, so you know he could have conveyed the inner journey.
It’s so very encouraging to see Bilbo rise to the occasion, to go from being paralyzed with fear to coming up with a plan and coming to the rescue. I want to cheer for him and hug him. I’m just at the part where things get really tense, though. Then this may not be such relaxing reading. It’s still hopeful reading, though.
But if I need something to send me to sleep, I’ve got The Silmarillion, which is somewhat fascinating but not exactly leisure reading. I’m in awe that these are essentially Tolkien’s worldbuilding notes, written as though they’re scriptures in the poetic language of the King James Bible. Mine are more like cryptic scrawls. I don’t worry about wordsmithing when I’m coming up with the backstory for my world.