Pete Jackson's recent film adaptation of The Hobbit — I'm not going to provide a link to it; it's all over the internet — which has now reached its second part, spurred me to take the novel down off my shelf and re-read it. (Actually I borrowed my young nephew's more expendable non-vintage paperback to read on buses and trains.)
I initially had some niggles about the book. Well, one niggle. Tolkien used anachronistic analogies which seemed to jar the reader (or this reader) out of the ancient fantasy world of the story. Similes including a sound "like the whistle of an engine", knowing a route "as well as you do to the nearest post office" and a "smell like gunpowder" in a pre-gunpowder world.
But then I realised this was utterly deliberate. Tolkien here is what we call an omniscient narrator. He address the reader directly, in an informal and colloquial voice — and was after all aiming at a young audience. Which also explains and forgives the cosy tea-and-crumpets-at-the-fireside tone the book often has
Now that's over, let's get to the goodies, of which there are many. There's amusing, authentic sounding dialogue (notably from the trolls), fine violent fights, rhapsodic portrayal of the countryside and wildlife — "the patches of rabbit-cropped turf, the thyme and the sage and the marjoram, and the yellow rockroses all vanished" — and wonderful moody descriptions, like the "enormous uncanny darkness" of Mirkwood, or "furtive shadows that fled from the approach of their torches" or the moment when "it seemed as if darkness flowed out like a vapour from the hole in the mountain-side."
I also really liked this sketch of Thorin, after he's been floated down a river in a barrel and left overnight: "out crept a most unhappy dwarf... He had a famished and a savage look like a dog that has been chained and forgotten in a kennel for a week."
And Tolkien's characterisation is often marvellous, especially when he's discussing Smaug, the terrifying, gold-besotted dragon snoozing on his horde of treasure. Smaug's name may today suggest an item of furniture from Ikea, but Tolkien brings him unforgettably to life. As Bilbo approaches with trepidation the dragon's lair he hears "a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring."
Smaug is genuinely fearsome, especially when he realises he's been robbed. "Up he soared blazing into into the air and settled on the mountain-top in a spout of green and scarlet flame." (And our heroes' poor old ponies don't fare too well, between Smaug and the goblins...)
I also particularly enjoyed the implicit class-war edge when Tolkien says of Smaug, "His rage passes all description — the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted."
What's more, Tolkien has a surprisingly line of wit and understatement. "Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality," he remarks at one point. And Bilbo calls him "Smaug the unassessably wealthy." And, in a priceless moment, Smaug goes flapping off towards the lake-town Esgaroth whose people are expecting the fulfilment of prophecies promising untold wealth coming back to them from the dragon's mountain. Instead what they get is an apocalyptic inferno and the fiery wrath of Smaug.
"The prophecies had gone rather wrong," remarks Tolkien.
But even better than Smaug is Thorin, leader of the dwarfs. For the entire book he has been likable enough and sympathetic — one of the good guys. But at the end he turns into an impressive bad guy and gives the plot a sudden new burst of energy.
Maddened by gold and corrupted in a manner worthy of worthy of B. Traven's characters in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Thorin refuses to share the hard-won treasure wrested from the dragon and goes to war against those who should be his allies and friends.
In many ways it's the best part of the book and gives depth and complexity and sophistication to what was regarded as a children's novel.
(Image credits: all the book covers are from Good Reads including the one at left ('International Children's Bestseller') with the cover art by Max Meinzold, which I borrowed from my nephew. Thank you, Simon. But the main illustration is by the woman I consider the greatest of all Tolkien artists, Pauline Bayne. It was taken from the wonderful Bayne's own website. And there's an article about her Tolkien art here.)