For some reason or other, I haven’t gotten around to reading too many of the classics, but after getting my summer reading list, it brought some of the best fantasy novels in modern English literature to mind. In my reading experience, I haven’t ventured very far into the realm of powerful magic, really only sticking to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and The Olympians, which are well-written and so far, have stood the test of the time. I don’t have any guilt for reading them, but I believe my greatest literary transgression is that I have neglected to immerse myself in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.
Recently, I read his novel The Hobbit, a wonderfully structured prequel to The Lord of The Rings, an extensive series which I have not read to this point (shame on me). It’s a classic narrative of a reticent and sheltered protagonist being thrown unwillingly into an epoch-making journey and conflict. Bilbo Baggins is a perfectly sensible and well-to-do hobbit who does not want any part of any adventure. However, when a powerful wizard and old family friend turns up unannounced on his doorstep, he’s forced to take him and thirteen hungry dwarves in as they regale him with verbal tapestries of adventures and try to convince him to join their group. Led by the dwarf Thorin and guided by the wizard Gandalf, they try and take back the vast stores of gold that were formerly owned by a vastly powerful and wealthy dwarf kingdom. While the riches are guarded by a fierce and brutal dragon, many dangers and roadblocks lie between them and victory.
The writing in it has simple prose without many frills (perhaps reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway minus the profuse cynicism), yet it retains its evocative power and a friendly tone that has helped Tolkien’s work maintain its staying power as the premier children’s fantasy book over the last eighty years. In a description of Smaug, the infamous guardian of the dwarvish loot, Tolkien wrote: “...a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep, a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber.” It’s sparse but highly effective in its descriptive ability. It also carries darker themes that were common in the writing of veterans of the First World War- the area surrounding him after a massive battle towards the end resembles a barren, scorched no-man’s-land, and after finding himself alone, his head aching from an injury, he grumbles “Victory after all, I suppose!...Well, it seems to be a very gloomy business.”
A passage I particularly enjoyed was when a group of eagles rescued Thorin and Company from wolves and goblins, with brief forays into the explanation of the eagles’ culture and vivid descriptions of the dangers they were facing. It had a level of suspense I didn’t expect, and the writing was cleverly crafted.
I am very glad that I read this novel. Its significance and quality has never been overstated, and even though I am in no way, shape, or form an expert, I agree with the conclusion millions of readers have come to- it really is one of the most brilliant fantasy novels of all time. I plan to continue reading Tolkien’s works in the future, and envy those who began their adventures into Middle-Earth earlier.