The movie tie-in edition of The Hobbit is on shelves now. Can you believe that we’ve only got a few months to wait until the film hits theaters? Now is an excellent time to revisit this wonderful classic.
The Hobbit, at least for me, was the original YA fantasy novel. My mother read it to me when I was knee-high to a hobbit, and my only comparison point for elves was the kind that makes cookies. I loved it, even though my attention waivered from time to time. (Well, probably a lot of the time.)
Later, I was completely enthralled with the animated adaptation of The Hobbit produced by Rankin-Bass. The music was a bit corny, sure, but wow, Smaug became my go-to image for dragon-kind many years. Smaug so impressed me that when I bought a bearded dragon last winter, I named him Smaug. My favorite quote from the movie comes courtesy of that terrible serpent: “I am Smaug! I kill when I wish! I am strong, strong, strong! My armor is like tenfold shields! My teeth like swords! My claws, spears! The shock of my tail, a thunderbolt! My wings, a hurricane! And my breath, death!”
When I grew a little older, I sought out the book that had enthralled me as a child… this “Hobbit.” I read it during a long, hot Mississippi summer, when there was little else to do but take to the couch with a pile of books. I still remember the smell of library binding glue and the crinkle of the dust jacket; Tolkien’s classic balanced on a tower of books representing all of my childhood preoccupations (dinosaurs, sharks, Bigfoot, UFOs, snakes…).
It was a great summer, one of the final ones before the madness of adolescence, with its part-time jobs, heated crushes and Byzantine social hierarchies. I wasn’t concerned with anything beyond watching Lost in Space re-runs and what kind of Kool-Aid my sister and I were mixing up that day. (We took turns, or we were supposed to! I liked strawberry, and she was partial to lemonade – man, the fights we had.) It was a great summer for something else, too: I discovered literature for young adults. Let me back up a bit.
I was a very advanced reader: I might as well have been born with a bookmark in my hand. Reading “grown-up” novels became a point of childish pride for me. Peter Benchley’s Jaws was one of the first. There were many others after that. To my parents’ credit, they were more than happy to indulge my tastes. We didn’t have much money, but I had a library card of my own the very moment I could get one. While reading on a God-knows-what level was good academically, it wasn’t so great for enjoying the fruits of childhood. I sped past a lot of the good stuff my peers had enjoyed so I could be more “grown up.” It was during that hot summer that I circled back around to see what I had missed, and The Hobbit was the first on the list. Mom having read it to me as a child wasn’t the same as reading it myself; I could hardly remember it, at that time.
I cracked the book open expecting a childish little read (at ten-years old I knew the definition of “irony” but not what it really meant: this would have been example one.), and found instead a work of great sophistication. It was a story that a young person could enjoy, but this wasn’t really a kid’s book – at least, exclusively. There were trolls, goblins and elves here, but none of it was cartoonish and two-dimensional. This was a secondary world filled with adventure and frights plenty, and not all of them with sharp, pointy teeth and battered short swords. Souls could be corrupted by dark magic, not to mention more prosaic threats like greed and anger. Experience was its own threat, too. Bilbo had more to lose than his life: Even if he survived his adventure he wouldn’t come back to the Shire the same Hobbit. The Hobbit was my first dip into what fantasy could be: an engrossing reading experience that could whisk you away to another world and then return you to this one wiser and richer for the experience.
I still reread The Hobbit from time to time, and always find new things to enjoy about it. I can’t say the same for any of the other books I read that summer. You had better believe that I’ll be one of the first in line to see the new movie. If you’ve not ever read The Hobbit, then the new paperback edition just hitting the shelves of your favorite book retailer is your golden ticket to adventure. I urge you to seek it out. If you have already read it, then isn’t it time you returned to Middle-earth?