Nonfiction Review: “Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s the Hobbit” by Corey Olsen

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J. R. R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit” was released seventy-five years ago this past month, introducing readers to Bilbo Baggins and his adventures with Gandalf and a group of dwarves. It was the first introduction most people had to Middle Earth, which Tolkien revealed in the book’s sequel “Lord of the Rings,” and the vast amounts of stories and histories released after his death.

For its anniversary, and in anticipation of the upcoming film adaptation of the book by Peter Jackson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who has the US publishing rights to the book, has put out a guide by Corey Olsen, “Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit.’” It’s intended as an analysis and description of “The Hobbit,” going slowly through the book, chapter by chapter, and taking a close look at Tolkien ‘s writing process.

Olsen is a professor of English at Washington College and produces a podcast called “The Tolkien Professor,” and some of that podcast is reproduced in the book. The conflict between the two Bilbos—the adventurous Took and the homely Baggins, how Tolkien uses humor to lighten some of the violence and Olsen’s dissection of “dragon-sickness”—are all adapted from the podcast.

Much of the analysis is on things that are easily found—the role that luck plays in the quest, and how it suggests a greater purpose of the quest, for instance. The conflict between Bilbo’s adventurous nature and Bilbo’s desire to go home is readily apparent.

Some things are skipped over like the allusions to Middle Earth’s greater history made throughout the book. “The Lord of the Rings” has many more of these, but it had an appendix to explain most of them, while the rest were explained by “The Silmarillion” and other stories. Those stories are barely mentioned, making “Exploring” a very self-contained analysis, which is odd considering the connection “The Hobbit” has to the wider history of Middle Earth.

The most interesting parts of the book are when Olsen analyzes the songs, which he says are often skipped over by readers as unimportant. He says they reveal much about the various people in the book—the dwarves, the goblins and the elves—and he’s right. He also spends a great deal of time analyzing the riddles told by Gollum and Bilbo in the riddle game, which reveal just how opposite they are and how twisted Gollum is. He also goes into how that chapter was changed by Tolkien in 1951 to make it more in line with the yet-to-be-published “Lord of the Rings,” where Tolkien made Gollum more of a threat to Bilbo and Bilbo more treacherous in his dealings with Gollum.

Olsen wisely does not look for subtext or allegory in Tolkien’s words. Allegory was something Tolkien disdained, especially when people applied it to his own work. He also makes it clear at the beginning he’s writing for a general audience as opposed to an academic one. Readers looking for new ideas or theories regarding “The Hobbit” or Tolkien will not find them here.

The general audience Olsen intends the book to be has most likely seen the film versions of “Lord of the Rings” made by Jackson a decade ago. That audience will see very different elves of Rivendell and a very different Gollum in “The Hobbit,” and it makes me curious how this audience will react to just how different some characters are between the two. Gollum, for instance, is less pathetic in “The Hobbit,” and delights in telling Bilbo just how much he enjoys the darkness that surrounds him. A far cry from the worm-like creature he is in the later books. The elves of Rivendell in “The Hobbit” joyfully sing the praises of everything around them, a joy that is completely absent in “Lord of the Rings.” (Robert O’Connor)

“Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit'”
By Corey Olsen
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $25 


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