Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Revisiting The Hobbit

Read Charlotte Canelli's column in the September 28, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin or listen to the podcast on SoundCloud. Podcasts are archived on the Voices from the Library page of the library website.

I’ve just found out that September 22 marks Hobbit Day each year. This date happens to be Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthdays. Hobbit Day, in fact, is during the official Tolkien Week. This year, all of these celebrations precede December release of the Warner Bros. film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

This date happens to be Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthdays. Hobbit Day, in fact, is during the official Tolkien Week. This year, all of these celebrations precede the release of the December release of the Warner Bros. film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

When I was in high school, all of my friends were eagerly devouring all of the J.R.R. Tolkien books. I simply wasn’t interested. I was never a fantasy or a science fiction fan and I concentrated on depressing classics by Upton Sinclair, Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck instead. What’s interesting now is that I can’t get through a chapter of “The Jungle” or “Of Human Bondage.”

My, how reading tastes change with time.

After Tolkien’s death in 1973, his son published a series of his father’s work, including the “Silmarillion.” In 1972, Richard Adams’ published “Watership Down” and everyone was reading it except me. I was once again very jealous of anyone who had read “The Hobbit”, the Fellowship of the Rings trilogy or Adams’ story of a band of rabbits and the perils and challenges they met in southern England. I really felt that it took a different kind of genius that I simply did not possess.

And so, it’s taken me practically a half century and I’m determined to tackle at least “The Hobbit.”

I have many editions to choose from and I’ll start with the revised and expanded edition annotated by Douglas A. Anderson whose complete and meticulous notes are printed alongside Tolkien’s fully restored and corrected text. “The Annotated Hobbit” contains many of the original illustrations that accompanied the earlier versions. I am a visual learner and there’s something to like about a book with maps of Wilderland and graphic depictions of Gandalf being rescued by eagles or The Lonely Mountain. The bibliography at the end of the book includes illustrations of covers of Dutch and Russian translations with titles like “De hobbit, of Daarheen en weer terug” or “Hobbit, ili, Tuda I obratno.”

I always lose myself in these annotated versions and there is so much to learn in them. For instance, annotator Douglas Anderson tells us right in the beginning that there are many similarities of Bilbo’s cozy hobbit-hole to the underground homes of the Badger and the Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows.” Graham published his stories in 1908 and Tolkien’s Hobbit was published in 1938.

In further reading about J.R.R. Tolkien, I’ve learned that he was not just motivated by Grahame’s Wind in the Willows stories but also by Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt” (1922) written about a man possessed by routine and love of the comfort of his home. Bilbo Baggins, after all, was completely content traveling between his panty and his cellar. Tolkien was actually more inspired by E.A. Wyke Smith’s “The Marvellous Land of Snergs” (1927), a children’s book featuring a race of stout, helpful people (not unlike the Hobbits), a wicked witch and an unfriendly giant. Whatever the beginnings, Tolkien reportedly wrote his famous first line, “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” while he was grading student essays.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” for his children. Born in 1892, Tolkien was a literature professor at Oxford. Interestingly, he gave all four of his children, three sons and a daughter, four names as well, the third of which was Reuel, like his own. He served in both World Wars and The Hobbit was published between those wars.

There have been many editions of The Hobbit and its famous settings, Middle-earth, Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains. Several of these versions are illustrated which somehow makes it easier for the unsophisticated mind to understand (this library director and young children.) Alan Lee has illustrated a version of “The Hobbit” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1997. Full page and color illustrations are not unlike those in Scribner’s classics illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and it is a beautiful book.

Charles Dixon and David Wenzel, respectively, adapted and illustrated the graphic novel of “The Hobbit” in 2008 which was designed mainly for teens. Another version by Dixon and Wenzel was published in 1998 for even younger readers. It is an abridged edition and abridgements, as we know, can tell the abbreviated story to a younger audience.

Of course, with film release coming just a few short months away, there are the predictable simultaneous publications of books like the one by Mariner Books which is a movie-tie in that was just released this week. There are also the requisite books about the making of the movie. Brian Sibley has written several books chronicling the film in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012) with behind-the-scenes photos of the actors and sets. (Silbey also published a color version of Tolkien’s map of Wilderland in “There and Back Again: A Map of the Hobbit” in 1995.) Others are “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – The Visual Companion” by Jude Fisher and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Chronicles: Art & Design” by the Weta Workshop.

Like Bilbo, I must be coaxed outside of my comfort zone to experience the adventure. After all we “are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing things! Make you late for dinner!” But the release of the film this year coincides with the 75th anniversary of the publication of Tolkien’s adventure. And so, it’s time I read “The Hobbit” for the first time. If you would like to reserve any of the titles above please call the Reference or Information desks of the library, 781-769-0200, or visit the Minuteman Library Network catalog online to reserve them.