A Writer’s Review: Lessons from The Hobbit
I remember the curious faux-gold cover of my family’s 50th anniversary edition of The Hobbit, the curious incomprehensibility of the runes across the surface. I was familiar with the story of The Hobbit from before I could read at all (thanks to the animated movie), and reading the book itself was inevitable.
In celebration of the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit‘s release, I’ve re-visited the story. Now as then, it was a pleasant, easygoing read that launched me into a world that mixed equal parts fantasy and danger.
The Hobbit is a highly accessible adventure that mixes a powerfully constructed macro level (the plot is great, the world is enthralling) with a gritty sense of micro level (the everyday struggles faced by the cast). The balance between these two poles makes the book simultaneously relate-able and fantastic.
The narration is charming, the dialogue memorable, and the work itself founded a genre. If you haven’t read The Hobbit, you kind of have to. If you read it when you were young, it’s well worth re-visiting.
Lessons from Tolkien’s Strengths
Here are a few of the lessons I gained from my attentive reading of this book.
Become the voice of authority on your world.
Tolkien takes control of language, comfortably adding definitions, languages, tendencies, and worlds by audaciously stating that this is simply the way it is. One example of this is found at the end of the book’s first paragraph: “It was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
The confidence with which Tolkien provides this wholesale description characterizes much of the rest of the work. This is the way dragons are because dragons are just kind of like thatl this is what dwarves are like because, well, they’re dwarves. These nondescript generalization plunged me into the work by requesting no suspension of disbelief; Tolkien simply asserted a reality without an alternative.
Imperfect narrators add charm and a sense of active storytelling.
Tolkien uses an interjecting narrator who shows his human nature in the way he describes the world and tells the story. We are never introduced to the narrator, yet he (or she) speaks to us directly. For example, on page two, the narrator repeatedly interrupts himself: “… but gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end. // The mother of our particular hobbit—what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays […].” It gives the sense that we are being told a story directly; it felt charming, and its “flaws” (the missteps of the narrator) enriched the experience by giving it that sense of life.
Maybe I should relax my exclamation point rules.
According to my own rules, Tolkien uses far too many exclamation marks. Lately I’ve questioned whether or not to use exclamation marks within dialogue to show volume. I didn’t feel irked by Tolkien’s generous use; maybe it’s time to relax my finicky rules on this topic.
Set up recurring themes or lines early; it creates a sense of unity.
There were themes Tolkien set up in The Hobbit which were revisted in his later work as well as in the films of The Lord of the Rings. We all know Gandalf’s line of, “Keep it secret, keep it safe”—which makes the “Keep it safe!” exclamation on page 21 (upon handing Thorin the key to the mountain’s back door) feel like a call forward; it provides the work with a sense of unity, whether or not the repetition was conscious.
Likewise, the later “return of the king” (meaning Thorin, who is hailed specifically as a returned king) calls to the full story arc of Strider in The Lord of the Rings. (Its archetypal role and Christian symbolism are also hard to miss.)
Spend time creating a sense of the environment.
Tolkien has a peculiar way of grazing over details that seem important (providing summaries of weeks-long journeys in just a sentence or two) and then focusing in on immaculate details that don’t serve the plot directly. Rather, they serve the environment—and in the creation of that environment, more than anything, is what draws people into Tolkien’s work (while simultaneously making it a bit difficult to get absorbed in; I speak mostly of LotR here, as The Hobbit begins tidily at the start of the action but in the middle of a broader story and a set of mysteries that quickly draw the reader in).
The struggle/recover pattern works well in building anticipation.
The Hobbit uses a fairly predictable pattern: The group moves forward and encounters difficulties, from which they narrowly escape and which they require time and new allies to recover from. They then move forward again, face additional difficulties, narrowly escape, etc. The difficulties they face escalate, and the reader is consistently reminded of the goal—building a gradual sense of excitement as the goal becomes closer; there is a sense that all this effort and adventure is leading to something grand.
The common “allies unite” sequence gives a diverse story cohesion.
As I’ll talk about in my writer’s review of Final Fantasy IV, there seems to be something immensely powerful about bringing a diverse cast of allies back together for a final battle. While I’ll note my complaints on The Hobbit‘s final battle, this return of all the allies made in the journey gives the story a powerful sense of unity.
Objects can be a powerful way to show character transformation.
This is not merely the story of how Bilbo changed an adventure but how that adventure changed him. On page 201 we get the line, “Already he was a very different hobbit from the one that had run out without a pocket-handkerchief from Bag-End long ago. He had not had a pocket-handkerchief for ages. He loosened his dagger in its sheath, tightened his belt, and went on.”
The power of this transformation is bestowed first by how gradual it is, second by how intimate (we see it up close throughout the journey), and third thorough the use of several objects that gain a layer of symbolic meaning (perhaps bestowed by Bilbo himself). As Bilbo transforms, the pocket-handkerchiefs are disregarded and Sting (his sword) and the ring are used more and more.
Mundane elements give stories a gritty, earthy, relate-able tone.
Tolkien also leaves us as readers preoccupied with a very pragmatic but ultimately unadventurous element of journeying: Food. We learn much about the food being eaten, the risks of starvation at various point, how the weight of the food slows down and fatigues the adventuring group, and even their boredom with cram (a hard-tack travel ration). Food is common to all of us, but it’s also beautifully mundane at most points of the story, which gives the story an earthy feel.
Page 2 continues with the lessons I learned from elements I didn’t like.
Lessons from Stuff I Didn’t Like
Characters become anonymous unless you give them appropriate stage-time.
Fili and Kili are young dwarves. Thorin is the king and definitely the leader. Bombur is fat. Balin is kind, old, wise, and has good eyesight. Bilbo is our hobbit, Gandalf is our wizard, and Bard is the guy who shoots the dragon. There’s also some guy who turns into a bear.
Of the immense cast of characters, these are the ones who left any lasting impression. The size of the adventuring group makes the dwarves, as individuals, fairly anonymous. Then, when Fili and Kili die, they are jotted off in just a couple sentences. Even with Bombur and Thorin, who are touched on regularly, there’s no sense of intimacy or development. Balin is the only dwarf that I felt any sort of connection to—and this seems to be because of his willingness to help Bilbo as he crept back toward the dragon’s lair, as well as his show of sympathy for Bilbo earlier on. Showing sympathy for other characters may well be one of the most powerful humanizing tools in developing a character!
I don’t like how hollow these characters rang in the end, and would have appreciated more time spent on fleshing them out—if only slightly.
Emotional titles alone are non-descriptive.
Emotions were often summative. We are told that a character is sad, angry, hungry, or whatever else, but we receive no other details; while I understand, I do not comprehend. I would have appreciated time spent imbuing these emotions with physical symptoms that I could feel vicariously.
Action needs detail to avoid becoming a blur.
The action scenes, while fine, were blurs. We are told about repeated stabs and dead spiders, or about bursts of light in the dark, or about a major attack—but in such cursory detail that we understand what happened without ever taking part in the (potentially thrilling) scene. As if to prove this, Tolkien even has Bilbo knocked out in the final battle.
Passivity from lead characters in climactic action can be unsatisfying for readers.
The risk of multi-climax was understandable, and by knocking out Bilbo in the final battle, the arc of the plot comfortably shows its peak at the death of the dragon. However, that peak is unsatisfying because we are led to believe it will be followed up by even greater battles and struggles.
I like that Bard killed the dragon, and that Bilbo had to do with it only accidentally. The non-main character completing the heroic act gives a sense of a broader world—but Bilbo’s passivity was just too much for me. Bilbo sends a message about the dragon’s weakness, yes, but he does so entirely on accident. As knowledge won by Bilbo’s culminating heroic act (his willingness to talk to the dragon and even trick it), this “boon” seems like it deserves something more.
Page 3 continues with my favorite lines from the book.
Lines I loved:
“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”
Bilbo gives this description (on page 4). Very quotable! I’ve used it several times in the last few weeks, actually.
As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer. Occasionally a slender beam of sun that had the luck to slip in through some opening in the leaves far above, and still more luck in not being caught in the tangled boughs and mated twigs beneath, stabbed down thin and bright before them.
These lines describe Mirkwood (on page 131). I love the vivid image created here. The use of personification combines with lyric language (“darkened green glimmer,” “slender beam of sun,” “thin and bright before them”) to create a powerful scene.
A whirring noise was heard. A red light touched the points of standing rocks. The dragon came.
This describes Smog’s first attack of the dwarf group (on page 206). I love the simplicity of it. Tolkien relies on all that he’s built up already, giving a sort of dead pan to the intense danger. He trusts that readers knows why “The dragon came” is so significant. It is just as powerful as a bloated, descriptive paragraph would be.
“There is a long road yet,” said Gandalf.
“But it is the last road,” said Bilbo.
This dialogue (on page 284) is touching for reasons I can’t quite place. I find myself nodding in agreement—feeling a sense of satisfaction and relief with the characters. What’s being seen may be the result of all the book’s hard work in creating that sense of a hard-won adventure. This beautiful “last road” gently uncoils the final parts of the post-climax.
Things The Hobbit Taught Me About Life
As I try to navigate my long journey home—deciding what sort of home I want to have, what sort of adventures I want in my life—this particular story speaks to me in powerful ways. The pull between comfort and action, the balance between the dangerous magic of the world and the beauty of building a home, is a struggle I connect with. Here, Bilbo is a grown man, yet this is clearly his coming of age story, returning to a home that’s been his for decades. Maybe that’s part of what a true “coming of age” story is: Not merely that you leave, but that you return.
Buy your own:
You can buy the special edition I mentioned, the new 75th anniversary edition, or the Kindle edition. The page numbers I reference are based on the Kindle edition. I will quickly make note: The Kindle edition had the full images from the book, which I thought was quite impressive.
As always, products I link on Amazon give me a small commission (2% to 10%)—but if you’re looking to buy something to support me, this isn’t the way to do it! Either hang tight for my creative work or buy me a cup of coffee.
And that’s my writer’s review of The Hobbit.