IS THE HOBBIT THE GREATEST CHILDREN’S BOOK EVER?
A lot of people are going to be very cross this month. The film of The Hobbit, much- delayed and long- awaited is going to turns millions back onto the original book, much as Peter Jackson’s film of The Lord of the Rings did. Some will fall in love with it for the first time, others will rediscover it and others still will reject it.
The Hobbit, unlike its sequel, is unequivocally a children’s book, and possibly the greatest ever written. There are plenty of other contenders for this title – among them Kipling’s Jungle Book, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. All use fairy tale tropes, all are written by masters of prose with a profound insight into the way children think and feel. Yet The Hobbit is, to my mind at least, the one with the strongest claim to lasting greatness.
The first is its warm, authoritative, unpretentious tone, which appeals to any reader of 7+. "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” That first simple sentence, scribbled in a moment of unpremeditated inspiration on an Oxford student’s exam paper which Tolkien was marking, tells you a good deal. It introduces us to something ordinary, a hole, and puts in it a creature which is not an animal (as expected) but pure invention. Its hero, Bilbo Baggins, is soon going to discover very different kinds of holes – most dangerous of all, the holes beneath the Lonely Mountain where Smaug the dragon lies on his bed of stolen treasure – but when we first meet him he lives in comfort and respectability.
One of Tolkien’s many brilliant touches was to make Bilbo child-sized, with a child’s greed for food, but middle aged and rather fearful of the world beyond his home. Contrary to what writers of children’s books tend to believe, children themselves tend to be deeply conservative; few of them would choose to abandon home comforts to go on a quest. Bilbo, though he has no responsibilities to anyone, runs off with the dwarves on a moment of mad impulse.
His journey is packed with unforgettably exciting moments which, if combined with the back-story in the appendices to Lord of the Rings, will make a film trilogy without much difficulty. It is highly episodic, going at an unreflective speed from event to event, with the unflagging ebullience of a story made up at bedtime to amuse the young. As such, it is never predictable - as when all fifteen of them are stuck in burning pine trees and are carried off by Eagles, or when Bilbo springs the captive Dwarves from the Elvenking’s prisons in Mirkwood. Yet it is also describes a classic form of spiritual progress. Initially, Gandalf is there are the leader and guide, rescuing them with his magic and cunning; but as Bilbo grows in confidence, Gandalf leaves them. Like all great heroes, Bilbo has to find his way out of being effectively buried alive, and the scene where he and Gollum duel by means of answering each other’s riddles in the dark is one of the greatest in any work of literature of this kind. By the end of the novel, he has experienced not just his own second near-death but that of three of the dwarves who have, unexpectedly, become his friends.
Tolkien’s work is not without flaws. and his poetry usually falls short of the kennings in the riddle scene. His attempts at epic verse are excused as being “translations”, so he probably knew this. The Rivendell Elves in The Hobbit are as silly as those in Rupert Bear, and nothing like the angelic beings in Lord of the Rings. Those irritated by them, and the kind of adult fans which the work picked up when Tolkien’s novels were adopted by the more soft-headed supporters of the counter-culture, have a jaundiced view of the book. I can see why they deride it as twee, arch and Manichean. It is not, however, intended for the child in adults but for the adults in children.
The Hobbit has a special place in my heart because it was, more than any other, what turned me into a reader – and eventually a writer of very different, adult novels. The best fantasy is not only an escape from reality but something which returns you to this world with a keener appreciation of it, with renewed optimism and courage. Bilbo’s experience as a bewildered, derided outsider changes as he becomes acknowledged as lucky, clever, wise and even something of a poet. This is the experience which lies at the heart of the book. For The Hobbit is not about revenge, or the acquisition of gold or swords or magic Rings. It is about discovering your true self, even if, like Bilbo, you are too busy enjoying life to reflect on what this might amount to.