Exploring The Hobbit

When most people think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, they think something like “classic children’s story” or “charming fantasy tale.”  They are not likely to think “serious work of literature”, and in that respect they would find they are in good company with most literary critics.

Dr. Corey Olsen, Professor of English at Washington College, has set out to paint a very different picture of this beloved book, and to help us all think more deeply about it.  At his website, The Tolkien Professor, you will find a wonderful series of lectures on The Hobbit, wherein he delves deeper into the themes and characters of the book as well as the style and intentions of its author.

Recently, Professor Olsen revised and expanded these lectures into a book, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  It’s a fascinating read, and is sure to please any Tolkien fan.  Olsen follows The Hobbit chapter by chapter, so it can be read as a kind of exegetical commentary.  He deftly pulls out underlying themes that can sometimes be missed on a casual read.  For example, he points to the many “coincidences”, some absolutely incredible, in the story (the Dwarves find a Troll hoard that just happens to contain ancient Elven swords, the party just happens to arrive at Elrond’s house on the only day where he could have seen the secret moon runes on Thorin’s map, etc.).  Olsen points out that Tolkien is not merely hoping we will accept and ignore these fantastic coincidences (suspending disbelief), but actually brings them to our attention.  Tolkien wants us to see how unbelievable these coincidences are, according to Olsen, so that we cannot possibly believe them to be coincidences.  Tolkien is pointing to a higher power or purpose behind the events of the story, as he will do more explicitly in Lord of the Rings.

Professor Olsen uses the “dual natures” of Bilbo as his one guiding thread.  Bilbo is a product of the Took clan, a family of Hobbits so strange and prone to adventuring that there are rumors of a distant Took ancestor marrying an elf.  He is also a Baggins, a family so mundane and boring that the most unordinary thing a Baggins ever did was marry a Took.  Bilbo’s character arc, then, is a war between these two sides of himself, the adventurous Took and the mundane Baggins.  But we are not to think that mundane equals bad and adventurous equals good.  Indeed, the headstrong Thorin, leader of the Dwarves, is all about adventure and at first despises Bilbo for being so ordinary.  Yet this attitude will get the company into trouble time and again along their journey, and ultimately leads to the most poignant conflict of the book.  Indeed, near the end of the story, in what is probably my favorite line of the entire book, Thorin says to Bilbo “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”  This is an affirmation of the value of the Baggins in Mr. Bilbo.   

Professor Olsen teaches Middle English poetry, and so has a special interest in the songs or poems in The Hobbit.  For my money, this is also one of the most worthwhile aspects of his book.  He argues that Tolkien doesn’t merely add the songs as unnecessary dressing that can be skipped over to get back to the “meat” of the prose.  Instead they add a different but still essential quality to the story.  During the unexpected party the Dwarves sing the story of the Desolation of Smaug.  Bilbo then asks for a less poetic explanation of events, and is (grudgingly) given one.  So on the one hand, you can skip the song and still understand what happened.  On the other hand, the song is quite moving, and allows you to enter into the prose version of the story in a more direct and emotional way.  You feel what it was like.  Olsen also devotes a good deal of time examining the riddles of Bilbo and Gollum, and shows us a much more complex and interesting scene than a simple children’s game.

Another nice addition is Tolkien’s own notes and revisions of The Hobbit, showing the evolution of the story in Tolkien’s mind, things that were cut or added, all of which helps to illuminate Tolkien’s intentions at various parts of the story.  And of course Olsen touches on many themes and ideas that have been discussed by others (such as Tolkien’s concept of Eucatastrophe), bringing his own unique insight and expression to them.

The first film of Peter Jackson’s adaptation, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, hits theaters this Friday.  If, like me, you can’t bear the excitement and need a Tolkien fix (and, like me, you have already read and reread The Hobbit and watched and rewatched the Lord of the Rings films) then Professor Olsen’s book may be just what you need.

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David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.