In honor of Tolkien Reading Day (March 25), we are making available the first of several book reviews written by professor Emeritus Michael Foster from Illinois Central College. This particular review was first published in the magazine Gilbert for the American Chesterton Society as part of a series called “Off the Shelf,” in which the reviewer was required to reread a book that had been read years before, and respond to it through the fresh lens given by time and a second reading. In this review, Foster also shows a connection between The Hobbit and the author G. K. Chesterton. Enjoy!
Book review by Mike Foster, 2004. Originally written for GILBERT, the American Chesterton Society. Republished with author’s permission.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
This column usually involves taking a book enjoyed long ago and far away and reading it afresh.
Thus The Hobbit should not qualify. I’ve re-read it at least annually for 26 years, blessed as I have been with the sweet burden of teaching a college course on Prof. Tolkien.
But a year’s sabbatical from that pleasant chore somehow encouraged another look, with the idea of simply enjoying the book rather than teaching from it. So instead of one of my much-dogeared scribblishly-annotated taped-together classroom texts, I took a fresh copy, the fiftieth anniversary English edition from 1987 hitherto unread, from a high shelf and opened it up.
This “Off The Shelf”ing can be risky business. Sometimes, as with The Power and the Glory and Under Milk Wood, the revisited book turns out to be even better than remembered. Sometimes, as in the cases of Mr. Blue and The Catcher in the Rye, it is not nearly as good. But, like anyone or anything long and truly beloved, The Hobbit turns out to be more lovely and loveable whenever seen as if for the first time.
Of course, it is a children’s book, and like Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, its virtue is that it was a tale first told to real children—Tolkien’s own—before it was written down and published. A child, ten-year-old Rayner Unwin, recommended that his father, Sir Stanley Unwin of Allen & Unwin, publish it and was rewarded with a shiny silver shilling for that wise decision.
So the book has, in its early chapters, the air of a story being told, with interjections from the author to his presumably juvenile readers. Later, with the introduction of Bard, the prototype of Aragorn, it assumes a more adult voice, perhaps due to the fact that Tolkien had shared the tale with C.S. Lewis and the Inklings. The handwriting of the manuscript of The Hobbit in Marquette University’s Raynor Library suggests that these last chapters, all shorter than the earlier, were written more straightforwardly—indeed, hastily–than the meandering earlier parts; Bilbo Baggins becomes almost peripheral and the deeper, darker world of the masterpiece sequel The Lord of the Rings glimmers into view.
On this umpty-seventh reading, new details leap into light, like the orphaned Tolkien’s poignant allusion to Gandalf’s tales of “the unexpected luck of widow’s sons.” A never-noticed anachronism (“The roar of [Beorn’s] voice was like drums and guns”) pops up. The character of the Elf-King Thranduil, father of Legolas, presents contradictions with the later book: Elves greedy for gold? Significantly, Bilbo’s Ring is benevolent and used for good here. That would change.
Above all, the Chestertonian nature of The Hobbit shines through more clearly and brightly. Tolkien’s poems, both merry and militant, are one similarity. The appealing littleness of its unlikely hero, Bilbo Baggins, is another. Chesterton’s “Doctrine of Conditional Joy” is scrupulously observed in Gandalf’s warnings.
In a 1996 letter, Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla wrote me, “I can at least confirm that my father greatly admired G.K. Chesterton and from my memory he had copies of The Ballad of the White Horse, The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, and In Coloured Lands in his library. I also remember him introducing me to ‘The Battle of Lepanto’.”
Tolkien’s friend George Sayer likewise said that Tolkien knew several poems from The Flying Inn by heart and delighted in reciting them. And in his 1938 essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien quotes Chesterton thrice.
If only Chesterton had lived one more year, long enough to have read The Hobbit. One believes he would rather have liked it.