Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tolkien's The Hobbit at 75

Corey Olsen netted a Wall Street Journal article titled "The Grown-Up Pleasures of 'The Hobbit'" proposing that "J.R.R. Tolkien's classic book, celebrating its 75th anniversary, isn't just for kids" in the September 21 issue:

'The Hobbit' turns 75 this week, an occasion that will cause many to fondly reflect on their childhood memories of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. "The Hobbit" remains widely respected as a children's book, but too often it is overlooked by adults. It tends to remain locked into the category of "juvenile literature," and even serious fans of J.R.R. Tolkien sometimes neglect it when they grow up and move on to "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Silmarillion." But Tolkien's first published novel is a much more sophisticated book than it often gets credit for, and it richly rewards adult rereading.

Professor Olsen's guide to The Hobbit has been published to coincide with this anniversary, and Houghton Mifflin sent me a review copy. I enjoyed reading his study of Tolkien's first novel because Olsen holds to the text, explicating the signficance of events, songs, characters, and even Tolkien's decisions as an author. One of the most crucial issues about The Hobbit is that Tolkien rewrote the scene of Bilbo's encounter with Gollum and the hobbit's acquisition of the Ring after he wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy to make the character of Gollum more consistent and the nature of the Ring more important.

Olsen's two themes in this study are Bilbo's two ancestral legacies, Baggins and Took, and how they influence his behavior during his stint as the professional thief in the dwarves' mission and adventure, and the importance of the songs sung by the dwarves, the elves, the goblins, and Bilbo himself.

Bilbo's staid, homebody Baggins side means that he often frets and complains about the inconveniences of travel, while his more adventurous Took background leads him to go on the journey in the first place. Olsen demonstrates how Tolkien builds on these two aspects of Bilbo's character in his development from tag-along to leader.

Olsen highlighted the importance of the songs in the WSJ article: "The songs in "The Hobbit" aren't merely verses embedded in the story; they are carefully designed to capture the voices and illustrate the attitudes of their singers." Olsen's efforts to interpret these songs might sometimes slow down the action of the summary, but they uncover many insights into the often monosyllabic, onomatopoeic verses of Middle-Earth and their singers.

Olsen does not ignore the crucial issue of "eucatastrophe", Tolkien's term for the sudden, happy reversal of an event into something good. As Tolkien said in "On Fairy Stories",

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist', nor 'fugitive'. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

As the publisher notes, "Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is a fun, thoughtful, and insightful companion volume, designed to bring a thorough and original new reading of the The Hobbit to a general audience. Professor Corey Olsen (also known as the Tolkien Professor) will take readers on an in-depth journey through The Hobbit chapter by chapter, revealing the stories within the story: the dark desires of dwarves and the sublime laughter of elves, the nature of evil and its hopelessness, the mystery of divine providence and human choice, and, most of all, the revolutions within the life of Bilbo Baggins. Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is a book that will make The Hobbit come alive for readers as never before."

Professor Olsen also publishes podcasts and other material as "The Tolkien Professor" here. As a former English literature student, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. If you like close reading and analysis of text that illuminates your experience of literature, you will also enjoy this book.

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