One to Rule Them All: Lord of the Rings vs The Hobbit

20:16, Oct 10 2012

While we're on the subject of fantasy adaptions, I thought it might be a good time to look at one of my favourite books- The Hobbit.

Peter Jackson first expressed an interest in adapting The Hobbit in 1995, confirming this in 2007. The first of three films from the book, An Unexpected Journey, is due for release on November 28. The second two are scheduled to screen over the next two years and are named The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again, referencing a chapter name and an internal title for The Hobbit itself.

For those who got excited about epic fantasy when the Lord of the Rings movies came out but couldn't handle the books, I'm here to tell you The Hobbit is a different beast altogether.

My first attempt at reading my mother's gorgeous vintage hardback copies of LoTR came at age 12. I liked the dialogue and quickly decided I wanted to be an elf when I grew up, but eventually the long, slow style ground down my resolve and I gave up. The section with the stairs of Mordor defeated me again at 16 and I decided I just wasn't a Tolkein kind of person.

I finally made it past those bloody stairs after re-watching the trilogy last year. Seeing the movies several times made it much easier to slog through the tedious bits of the book- having some indication of how long I would have to hear about the stairs made them less exhausting to deal with. I found that having a broad indication of what was important and what I could cruise through helped me develop a much more detailed picture of what was going on politically, as well.

At its best, LoTR is a big, comfortable series to sink into like a bubble bath. Tolkein was a lifelong scholar of myth and languages, and the depth of his academic understanding of Middle Earth means there are very few niggling inconsistencies keeping your head above water. With the first book published in 1954, Tolkein also subscribes to a more genteel style of adventure novel than George R.R. Martin- central characters are more or less sacred and major events tend to be telegraphed delicately with a change of mood, or directly foreshadowed before they occur.


Narnia author C.S. Lewis was part of Tolkein's group of friends at the time and loved the books, saying "Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart."

However, I think Roald Dahl's Matilda had a better handle on both writers:

"I think Mr. C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books."

"You are right there," Miss Honey said.

"There aren't many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien either," Matilda said.

"Do you think that all children's books ought to have funny bits in them?" Miss Honey asked.

"I do," Matilda said. "Children are not so serious as grown ups and they love to laugh."

The Hobbit has all the humour and humanity that the LoTR books lack. It reads like it came easier than LoTR did for Tolkein - the narrative has a really likeable natural flow that draws you in and onward, and not once is it hard work.

The Hobbit is a legitimate prequel in that it was written before LoTR in 1937, although the second edition does contain small changes made to accommodate the larger series. It's the tale of Bilbo Baggins, a very comfortable wee chap who is more or less forced to go and have an adventure by Gandalf and the ancestors of LoTR's dwarves. The story is very much focused on Bilbo's personal development and how his experiences change him as a person by widening his formerly narrow world-view- it's a morality tale in a minor sense, but not intrusively so.

I can find some negative things to say about The Hobbit if I think really hard, but none of them are dealbreakers. Being essentially a caper novel, it's undoubtedly a less important book than LoTR and is unlikely to change anybody's life in a big way. It has the same terrible problem I remember from my younger brother's Brian Jacques books, where you will definitely need to get up and make a sandwich part-way through at least the first section. It was written shortly before Enid Blyton's Famous Five series was launched, and the level of twee sometimes reflects this.

By my reckoning, there's just time to read The Hobbit before the first movie comes out - it's well worthwhile, especially if you have a child in need of a bedtime story.