Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Hobbit

This is one of those books I have read for my book group, so I'm only going to delve into one aspect of it.

I know the story of how Tolkien decided to write a prequel to The Lord of the Rings for his children, but I only ever heard that after I last read The Hobbit, which was, admittedly, nearly 30 years ago. So I was surprised to find out how much of a "young adult" novel it really is

Tolkien's narrator is a whimsical character, directly hinting to his reader of events to come rather than using foreshadowing. I wonder if this is where Guy Gavriel Kay picked up the pattern, since he uses it repeatedly in his own works and worked with Christopher Tolkien on the elder Tolkien's notebooks. These explicit hints act as a salve to a worried reader's mind, letting him know that all will be well with the characters in question, just as Tolkien would have as he reportedly told the story to his son as he was preparing to sleep.

There is no violence in the story at all, which is far and away from where high fantasy has gotten to now. Even when characters die, they die off-screen or, at the very least, very calmly. Thorin dies after admitting that he was wrong in his treatment of Bilbo and Fili and Kili's deaths are not to be seen. Even the three trolls, with the whimsical names of Tom, Bert, and William, are not killed so muchas turned to stone from which they could supposedly be brought back once they recognize the error of their ways. Sure, Smaug destroys Laketown, but that's okay since the events of the book lead it to be rebuilt better than it hand been for years. But even the battles in the War of the Five Armies are particularly bloodless, at least in their descriptions.

But I really didn't expect to rediscover just how funny the book is. Between the narrator's asides and the ridiculous situations the party finds themselves in, the book is filled with comic moments. Even the daring escape from the Elven king's halls is muted somewhat by the repeated struggles Bilbo has trying to stay atop the rolling barrels in the river. I seem to recall having a hard time starting Fellowship of the Ring and as I look back, I would guess because it is far more humorless and much more scary than its prequel.

I'm reminded of the two attempts to animate these stories.The Hobbit was done by Rankin/Bass, the folks who brought you most of the beloved Christmas shows like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Bilbo looked not so much like a short human as he did Mr. Frog from Wind in the Willows with white skin, clothes, and hairy toes. Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, was rotoscoped, so that actors were filmed and animated over by the studios of Ralph Bakshi. The sharp contrasts in the styles used to portray the stories is illustrative of the tremendous difference between them.

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