I finished re-reading The Hobbit. It’s as good a read as it was when I was seven and my father read it to me aloud. As a book that was clearly written for young children, it’s always been an easier read than Lord of the Rings, particularly for non-Tolkien fans (though I recently came across an online discussion between Tolkien fans who said they didn’t like reading The Hobbit).
Whenever I re-read a beloved book, I tend to focus on things I paid less attention to in previous reads. This time around, I paid close attention to the development of the plot and Bilbo’s character. It really is an excellent children’s book, as the child-like Bilbo, who prefers to hide from the world in his little hole, goes out into the Wild and learns how to take care of himself. On that level, it works as well as anything by C.S. Lewis or Roald Dahl (or J.K. Rowling).
After writing Lord of the Rings–a novel ultimately geared more toward adults than young children–Tolkien went back and revised The Hobbit to better fit with the mythology he’d created. I suspect that when he first wrote The Hobbit in 1937, he thought of Gandalf as a traditional wizard–that is, an old (human) man with some magical powers. As The Hobbit is essentially an extended fairy tale, it makes sense that Gandalf’s role is primarily to get the hero out the door and meddle here and there when needed, but no more; it’s Bilbo’s adventure, not Gandalf’s.
Gandalf plays a somewhat similar role in Lord of the Rings, but he’s much more active. During this re-reading of The Hobbit, I couldn’t help but view the story from the perspective of the characters as I knew them from LR. From that viewpoint…what the hell did Gandalf think he was doing? He knows how dangerous Smaug is; Smaug is arguably more dangerous (perhaps much more dangerous) than any balrog, and yet Gandalf allows thirteen Dwarves and a hobbit wander blindly into the dragon’s lair?
There are really only two ways to view the situation. First, you can think of it in terms of Lord of the Rings, in which case Gandalf is apparently a rather cold (and sardonic) individual who thinks little of sending a few Dwarves and a hobbit to their doom. Or (and this is my interpretation) you accept that “the tale grew in the telling” of Lord of the Rings, and that The Hobbit has to be evaluated on its own as a children’s book, and not a true precursor of LR. The Hobbit is a fairy tale, while Lord of the Rings is an epic.
Okay, so those aren’t exactly new observations. But I found it amusing trying to figure out a way for the Gandalf of LR to have sent Thorin and Company on their way without seeming like a stone cold bastard. (Yes, I know he had pressing business with helping boot Sauron from Mirkwood, but it’s still awfully convenient, in terms of plot, for getting the all-powerful wizard out of the party.)
I was going to move on to reading LR next, but I need to re-read some of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories first, for writing purposes. After that, I have a class, so no more pleasure reading until July…and at that point, I don’t know. I’ve been wanting to re-read E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (which I highly recommend to high fantasy fans, though be warned, the diction is almost Middle English), or read the second book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series. Who knows? I’ve also got a book of Karl Wagner’s Kane stories I haven’t read yet…