Habitual Mood

Re-reading The Hobbit

I was a bookish kid, with a vivid imagination and an enthusiasm for (vicarious) adventure, so it's strange that my childhood was essentially Tolkien-free. When I was ten or eleven my brother and I were dragged to a (tedious and to me incomprehensible) stage production of The Hobbit at the private high school the lads next door attended. In high school, I had friends who read Tolkien, but the first fantasy in the cod-medieval mode that I properly engaged with was the work of Michael Moorcock and Terry Pratchett. I responded to Moorcock's punkish middle finger to the fantasy "establishment" (despite my not having actually read any of the writers he was flipping off), and delighted in Pratchett's parody of Tolkienish tropes (with which I was only familiar at second remove). I was like someone whose teenage allegiance to The Clash blinds them to the pleasures of The Byrds.

As an adult, I duly watched and enjoyed Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and have made several attempts on the books. I have read Fellowship twice, The Two Towers once, and The Return of the King never. And I have read The Hobbit, first as a sprightly thirty-year-old, second as the derelict hulk of whatever age I am this week.

The experience has been an object lesson in the value of re-reading books. At thirty I enjoyed The Hobbit well enough, but I was pretty sniffy about it. A little slight, isn't it? A bit childish and simplistic. (Moorcock's essay "Epic Pooh" is a tough polemic to shake off.) Not really literature.

There has to be some benefit to getting older and sadder and why does it hurt so much to just get out of a chair... As I say, there has to be some benefit to maturing as a person, and perhaps, for me at least, it's this: developing the smallest amount of humility before works of art and/or entertainment, such that you can approach them not uncritically, but with the awareness that your younger self might have been ignorant, hidebound, and just plain wrong.

Which is a long way of saying that I'm genuinely enjoying The Hobbit this time round. Relative to The Lord of the Rings, it is indeed slight - but most things are. It's a children's book (non derogatory), a series of adventures where a ragtag group of characters overcome adversity. Younger, haughtier me was inclined to look at this and say: is that all there is to it? Aged, decrepit me is more inclined to argue: that's ok! It's fine for something to be the thing it is.

But of course The Hobbit is deeper than that. (I'm far from the first person to say this!) We could talk about the monomaniacal Gollum, we could talk about the dragon with the hoarding problem, and we could talk about Bilbo, who might be the perfect protagonist for a book like this. As I say, I didn't grow up reading The Hobbit, but I imagine to a child Bilbo is eminently relatable. He is small, lives a circumscribed life of small pleasures, mostly concerned with food. Then, at the behest of some older, stronger, taller people, he must undergo various trials, meanwhile trying to find within himself the strength not only to endure, but to grow and accomodate his new knowledge. That's The Hobbit, but it's also the education system.

At thirty, when I first read The Hobbit, I was lacking a sense of connection to Bilbo. My life was not without problems, of course, but I felt myself fully formed. I was a grown-up, living my grown-up life, and there wasn't much that Mr Baggins had to tell me about the human condition.

Well. Time makes hobbits of us all. A decade and a half later, years filled with many joys but also relationship breakdown, mental health crises, physical health problems, a global pandemic, the deaths of family members, and the realisation - he said, middle-agedly - that yes, I too am going to die one day, has opened my mind and my heart to Bilbo's story. Because I too am a fellow of advancing years, a homebody, a person who would increasingly, like Melville's Bartleby, prefer not to. Even my feet are getting hairier. Bilbo Baggins, c'est moi.

It's to Tolkien's credit that the flowering of Bilbo's character takes place in a moment of relative quiet. Bilbo has infiltrated Smaug's mountain, and is heading towards the dragon's lair. There is an ominous red light, "steadily getting redder and redder"; hot vapour floats upwards, and there is "the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there".

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait. (p. 214)

He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone. Acts of overt heroism are one thing, but the true battle takes place within ourselves. Simplistic? Perhaps, but truths often are. It is a magical piece of writing, positioned at the point where the action of the novel tips from steady build-up (Bilbo and the dwarves' picaresque journey to the Lonely Mountain) to the climactic battle, followed by the denouement of Bilbo's return to Bag End.

Crucially, despite winning this battle with himself, Bilbo remains Bilbo. He doesn't become something else, rather something new emerges within him: courage, self-possession. He is Bilbo 2.0. Yet Bilbo has lost his innocence and has been inducted into a wider, more savage world than the one he has hitherto known. Recognising that there is no going back is the older reader's privilege.