The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

There and back again…

😀 😀 😀 😀 

Bilbo Baggins leads a respectable life, as befits a hobbit approaching middle-age. He loves his hobbit hole, has plenty of money so doesn’t need to work, and would rather dream of tea and cakes than adventure. But for some reason the wizard Gandalf the Grey decides that he would make a perfect thief for an expedition that a group of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, intend to undertake to regain the treasure of their forefathers, stolen years ago by the great dragon, Smaug. And despite feeling that he’s not at all suited to the task, Bilbo soon finds himself setting off on the journey, without even a handkerchief to remind him of homely things.

When I first read this, I think I was too old to lose myself wholly in the adventures as a child would, but not yet old enough to appreciate it as an adult. As a result, it has never held a deep place in my affections, unlike its big brother, The Lord of the Rings. So I haven’t re-read it for many years, but when I saw that Audible had a new audio version, narrated by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, I felt this was the time to try it again. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those lucky people who still, as adults, get a great deal of pleasure from children’s books, unless they are ones, like Anne of Green Gables, which I loved so much and read so often as a child that they instantly take me back to those far-off times. So while I enjoyed my re-read of this, I still didn’t fall wholeheartedly in love with it.

Andy Serkis’ performance is great. He throws himself into it with gusto, using a whole range of British regional accents for all the various characters, especially the dwarves, which helps to distinguish them from each other. He sings all the songs – I don’t know whether he made up the tunes himself or if they are taken from the movie, which I haven’t seen, but he does them brilliantly, using different voices and characters appropriate to the singers, be it dwarves, elves or trolls. His Gollum, unsurprisingly, sounds exactly like Gollum from the films! He very definitely gets five stars.

I’m now going to get a bit critical (and probably a bit spoilery), so people who love the book or haven’t yet read it may want to look away now…

Gollum and Andy Serkis (but which is which?)

There were two things that stopped me loving it wholeheartedly. Firstly, I found I didn’t really like most of the characters, especially the dwarves, but also the elves and the humans. Bilbo himself is fine, but he’s no Frodo. He does indeed steal the ring from Gollum, which I had rather forgotten. I know that in LOTR we learn that Gollum himself stole it and also that the ring probably exerted its influence over Bilbo to take it out of the caverns where Gollum had kept it for so long. But we don’t know that in The Hobbit, so it just leaves Bilbo as a thief, stealing Gollum’s one precioussss possession. I’ve always had difficulty with heroes who aren’t any more morally upstanding than the villains, especially in children’s literature.

The second issue came as a big shock to me, and that is that the dwarves are given many of the negative characteristics associated with anti-Semitic tropes – their physical appearance of small stature and long beards, their essential cowardice, their love beyond reason for gold and jewels, their miserliness. I certainly didn’t pick up on this when I was young, and was so gobsmacked by it this time that I wondered if I was inventing connections that didn’t exist. So I googled, only to discover that there is a wealth of academic writing on the subject. I am not, repeat not, suggesting that Tolkien was anti-Semitic – simply that to modern eyes (mine, at least) the portrayal of the dwarves in this way leads to a rather uncomfortable reading experience, somewhat like trying to see Shylock through the eyes of Shakespeare’s contemporaries rather than our own. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if Thorin had suddenly started wailing “O, my daughter! O, my ducats!”, if only he had had a daughter.

I also couldn’t help feeling rather sorry for Smaug. (As a side note, Serkis pronounces it Smowg, to rhyme with now, whereas I’ve always thought of it as Smog, to rhyme with dog, so I found that a bit disconcerting.) It appeared to me Smaug was no less moral and no more obsessed with treasure than the dwarves, so it was difficult for me to feel they were the good guys and he the bad. As I say, I don’t think I’m very good at reading children’s literature!

JRR Tolkien

However, there are lots of fun episodes, like the trolls (I felt a bit sorry for them too, admittedly – they were just doing what trolls do), and the eagles, and all the stuff in Mirkwood is wonderfully scary, especially the spiders. Poor old Bombur provides a good deal of comic relief (despite the fat-shaming! Oh good lord, I’ve been brainwashed by the Woke!) and I felt Fili and Kili (always my favourite dwarves) redeemed the dwarves’ reputation a little by their heroism at the end.

Overall, a book I’m sure I would have loved far more if only I’d first read it when I was a couple of years younger. Maybe in my next life…

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79 thoughts on “The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

  1. And I pronounce it Smorg. As in caught. Perhaps an indication of where my 8-year-old self sat on the spelling/phonic scale. For me, the dragon will forever be Smorg. But that’s incidental. Of course Bilbo is not Frodo. This is because he is Bilbo. I loved Bilbo 😳 In fact, I loved every character in the entire book. Except the orcs. And Gollum. He was slimy and scary. The orcs were just scary. I didn’t mind that Bilbo stole the ring because he was Bilbo and Gollum was slimy and I was eight. But most importantly, I fear I may never think of the dwarves in the same way again 😱 You warned me. Did I listen …. 😖

    So, just in case it’s not clear, I loved this book as a child 😁 Haven’t read it again since reading it to my own children when I still loved it. Dare I read it again? 😵

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hahaha, I feel guilty now, but I did try to warn you! I feel reading other people’s opinions of much loved books is always a risky business. 😉 From my youtgful read, I think I loved Bilbo back then, and Fili and Kili, but I don’t think I ever liked Thorin. And I didn’t like Gollum, but then when I read LOTR I came to feel sorry for Gollum and so that coloured my opinion of him in The Hobbit this time round. We can totally agree about orcs though – orcs are horrid! If you ever do decide to read it again you might wnat to try the audiobook – Serkis really does a great job! 😀

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  2. I’ve also never loved The Hobbit the way I do Lord of the Rings – I read it much later and was in my early twenties, and although I do sometimes read and love children’s books that are new to me in adulthood, it’s still rare.

    On the topic of anti-semitism in the dwarves, I recently read this interesting article (https://www.commentary.org/articles/meir-soloveichik/the-secret-jews-of-the-hobbit/). It now seems to be mostly behind a paywall, but was not a couple of weeks ago! In it, the author argues that there are definitely anti-semitic tropes informing the depiction of the dwarves in The Hobbit, presumably because British culture was so steeped in it at the time. He goes on to argue though that in Lord of the Rings (written during and after WWII), you can see him repenting of and rewriting his earlier depictions, and goes through individual bits of the text and some of Tolkien’s letters to look at the evolution of his views and therefore his writing. I’ve stuck the link in despite the paywall, in case it’s a “you get one free read” situation – it’s worth reading if you’re interested and can access it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the link – it doesn’t seem to be behind a paywall so you must be right about the one free article thing. I have to rush out soon, so I’m leaving it open to read later, and will answer properly then. But meantime, I did think about Gimli while I was having my shock moment, and I do think he’s portrayed very differently – he’s more obsessive about the mining aspect and the craftsmanship of gold, whereas Thorin is really just a horrible greedy miser type, so I do think Tolkien must have made deliberate changes…

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    • Thanks again – very interesting! Although I’d picked up on the anti-Semitic tropes, I hadn’t made the connection (obvious now it’s been pointed out) to the Jewish diaspora and Zionism. It’s a pity that Tolkien made the dwarves so unlikeable – it would have been easy to avoid the worst of the stereotyping, I think, as he did in LOTR. But I’m glad the article clears him of the charge of active anti-Semitism. I did too – it felt lazy rather than deliberate, if that makes sense.

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  3. I always liked Frodo better than Bilbo, too, FIctionFan! You make such an interesting observation about the dwarves, too. I’d never really have thought about it that way, so it’s going to need some time to sink it. But I truly do see your point. Even though you didn’t find yourself in love with this one, I’m glad you tried it again as an adult. It’s always interesting to see how our views of books change (or, sometimes don’t) as we mature.

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    • Frodo has so much more moral depth – Bilbo is quite fun as a children’s character, but he’s not really a hero type. The dwarf thing really threw me. I wouldn’t have been aware at all of anti-Semitic tropes when I first read it and really did wonder if I was imagining things this time, so it was a bit of a relief to know that the subject has been raised by more knowledgeable people, and even more of a relief to discover that they seem to have absolved Tolkien of being anti-Semitic himself! I’m always a bit wary of re-reading kids books because I do tend to over-analyse them now, but it’s not so hard when I didn’t wholeheartedly love the book in the first place… 🙂

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    • If you ever get the chance to listen to the Andy Serkis version, I’m sure you’d enjoy it – he really does a great job! I’m hoping he might go on to do an audio version of LOTR…

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  4. An interesting take on this. I actually read LOTR before The Hobbit and that rather spoilt any enjoyment I might have had for the children’s novel. Ho hum.

    As regards stereotyping I think that Tolkien, being a child of his time, would have fallen in with facile tropes when writing his children’s fantasy, though it’s interesting that in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (cited as an influence for his Father Christmas letters to his sons, as well as for The Hobbit) the dwarf-like goblins don’t come across as perjorative Jewish stereotypes. More suspect I think are the Goblin bankers in the Harry Potter films, partly based on the 60s trope of the Gnomes of Zurich but also made up with questionable prosthetics.

    Incidentally, once I learnt that LOTR’s Sauron was pronounced Ow-Ron with an initial ‘s’ it was an easy task to retcon Smaug from rhyming with Deputy Dawg. (Showing my age there…) Given that Tolkien was a linguistics specialist he’d have appreciated that though English is in love with diphthongs, the two vowels of Smaug in a non-English language would need to be differentiated as ‘ah-oo’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t spotted that about the Potter goblins, but now you say it, yes, I can see that! And in a sense that’s worse, since they’re a much more recent creation. I felt the dwarves in LOTR were very different to the Hobbit dwarves – they are more about the craft of mining for gold rather than simply the miserly hoarding of it. The hoarding aspect was what made it hard for me to see the dwarves as any better than Smaug. I was glad Fili and Kili redeemed them a little in the end.

      Yes, I found the whole Sow-ron thing hard to accept too, since to me he was always Saw-ron. It’s actually another of the things that often bothers me in adaptations of books, if they pronounce something differently from how I do in my mind. Even if I become convinced they’re technically right, it never FEELS right!

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      • Another thing that bothers me is how they say Isengard in the films. If that’s the way Tolkien pronounced it then fair enough, but I would’ve assumed it wasn’t spoken as Eye-zen-gard but more with a short ‘i’ as we’d say in Brunel’s forename Isambard. (Isambard was a French name of course, after Brunel’s father Marc Isambard Brunel, derived ultimately from Germanic isan+berht, “iron bright”.)

        By the way, I love the way Ian McKellen rolls his ‘r’s whenever he says “Mordor”. (No double-entendre intended here, nothing to see, move on.) That’s Shakespearean acting for you.

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        • Ah, now, oddly I always called it Eye-zen-gard in my mind so that one didn’t bother me. I have no idea though why I decided on that pronunciation – I can’t think of another name I’d have been comparing it too…

          Ian McKellen was fab as Gandalf. Real acting talent will always out – Patrick Stewart as Jean Luc Picard took Star Fleet captains to a new level. 😀

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  5. My problem with LOTR is that it goes on forever and seems to wander incessantly. I haven’t read The Hobbit; perhaps it should have been the first place to start? At any rate, isn’t it interesting how one’s ideas about things change as one moves from child to adult??

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    • If you think LOTR goes on forever, Debbie, then a clue about The Hobbit comes in the form of the song in it called ‘The Road Goes Ever On’ — which may tell you all you need to know!

      Actually LOTR, after a long compositional evolution, is very tightly structured, as I’m exploring in my blog tag Talking Tolkien. In my reread I’m starting the second volume so nearly all my discussions concern The Fellowship of the Ring (should you be interested): https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/tag/talking-tolkien/?orderby=date&order=ASC

      And I agree, growing experience and maturity does affect how one reads children’s novels: the trick, I suppose, is to enter into the read with the mind of one’s inner child to really experience the magic that may lie within—after all, adult authors have to do it when they write the story! 🙂

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      • I do love LOTR, but even in it there are bits that I routinely skip over when re-reading – the Tom Bombadil section, for example, and a lot of Sam and Frodo’s journey once they break away from the Fellowship until they get close to Mordor. On the other hand there are bits I could read a million times and never tire of them! For me, Merry and Pippin are the real heroes – they give the book its humanity, or should that be, its hobbitity. 😉

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        • My memory of the books is that Merry and Pippin achieve a kind of nobility from the way they conduct themselves in Gondor and Rohan, but despite despite nods to this aspect of their characters the films played them more for laughs, perhaps as a contrast to Frodo’s damn annoying seriousness. Also I get confused with their names — who’s who? — since they play parallel roles to Théoden and Denethor. Maybe this time my reread will finally clarify things for me! 🙂

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          • Yes, they came home changed in the books, but in the films they don’t change much at all. I love both performances though, and yes, both book and film need a lift from the Frodo/Sam sections which can be wearying!

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    • To be honest, there are sections of LOTR that I skip over whenever I re-read it, so I know what you mean! The Hobbit is much shorter, but for me LOTR is a much better book – it’s got a much better good v evil story, which I always enjoy. I’m always wary of revisiting books from my childhood because my adult self is so much more critical – I can spoil my own memories if I’m not careful…

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  6. I’m prepared to dodge rotten tomatoes from the audience, but I did not care for this. I read it in my early teen years and it bored me enough I never moved on to the trilogy. I did enjoy the film versions of LOTR, but lost interest in the Hobbit adaptations (3 or 4 films for the one book??)

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    • In my opinion, LOTR is vastly superior to The Hobbit. I think The Hobbit is OK, but nothing special really, but LOTR really is a classic, and so influential on later writers. I love the LOTR movies and can re-watch them endlessly, but I’ve never got around to The Hobbit movies, partly because I don’t love the story so much, and partly for the reason you say, that to make three movies out of a short book just seems to be milking it. I keep meaning to watch them, though… one day…

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  7. I’ve never read The Hobbit or LOTR, which is odd as I was a voracious reader as a child. For some reason they passed me by. Now as an adult I think maybe one day… but I’m not really in a rush to do so. An audiobook could perhaps be the way to go!

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    • This audiobook would be a great way to read The Hobbit since Serkis throws himself into it heart and soul! But for LOTR I’d strongly recommend the movies – much though I love the books, I actually think I love the movies more. This may have something to do with Aragorn… and Boromir… ❤❤

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  8. Huh! I read this long ago but I never made the connection you made about the dwarves. I think they are supposed to love gold in mythology, too, though, so maybe this isn’t a Tolkien thing so much as a mythology thing. Or it could be both.

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    • I never did before either and even this time I had to google to reassure myself I wasn’t imagining it! Definitely just a time thing, though – we’re all so much more aware of these things and sensitive to them than anyone was back then, maybe too sensitive sometimes. I never felt Tolkien was deliberately setting out to be anti-Semitic – it just felt as if he was using existing tropes without much thought, if that makes sense. And these dwarves felt very different to the dwarves in LOTR, so he must have decided himself to get rid of some of the stereotyping in the later novel.

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    • I love the LOTR movies and honestly feel they’re as good as the books for once, so if you’ve watched them I’d say you can pretty much tick the books off unless you really want to read them! I haven’t seen The Hobbit movies, though, and I suspect they must have changed them far more, since I don’t see how they could have made three full movies out of a relatively short book. I will watch them one day…

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  9. The problem with comparing this to LOTR is that it’s a fairytale written for a child audience, without the character development, background details and sophisticated plot that adults appreciate. I do like The Hobbit and I enjoyed it when I recently re-read, however I really liked the film adaptation which filled out the story and made it suitable for adults. We also have to remember that it was written more than 80 years ago and is a product of the prejudices and social climate of that time.

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    • This is why I’m not very good at children’s books – I judge them with an adult eye and have lost the ability to be able to see them as a child would. It’s only if I loved a book as a child that I can still go back and feel the same way about it, although even then sometimes my adult mind starts nitpicking! I haven’t seen the films of The Hobbit, mostly because there never seemed enough in the book to justify three full movies, unlike LOTR. But I will watch them one day!

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      • I think it’s hard to get into a kids’ book if you’re an adult who never read it as a kid, if that makes sense, as there isn’t the familiarity of a comfort read. If you watch the films then maybe don’t bother to compare with the book and you’ll enjoy them more 🙂

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        • I think that’s probably the secret to enjoying film adaptations in general – they so rarely match the books in more than outline! Plus we all create our own mental pictures of characters so a director’s idea is unlikely to be the same as our own.

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  10. I loved The Hobbit when I was about nine or ten but have never tried to read it again since. I always worry that childhood favourites might lose some of their magic on returning to them as an adult. For some reason I could never manage to get into the LOTR books – maybe one day I’ll give them another try, but I don’t feel tempted at the moment!

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    • Yes, I really must stop re-reading children’s books – I nearly destroyed my memories of Narnia by trying to re-read them and had to stop after just a couple of them. I can’t remember what age I was when I first read The Hobbit, but I went straight on to LOTR and enjoyed them so much more, so I think I must have been a few years older than you. I must admit these days I’m more likely to re-watch the movies of LOTR than re-read the books, though.

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  11. I think the name Smaug must have been inspired by German? If that is true, the correct pronunciation would be something like Smowg (where the “a” sounds more like “ar”). Anyway, that really was a sidenote. I read this one as child and I am not sure, whether this is one to leave in my childhood. On the other hand, I did enjoy LOTR as an adult and Andy Serkis on audio sounds like a treat. Obviously, I didn’t pick up on any anti-Semitic undertones as a child. But now you’ve mentioned it, potentially it would bother me as well.

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    • A bit like your post from a while ago about associating people with their avatar, I’m afraid once I know someone by one name or one pronunciation I find it almost impossible to change even if I discover I’m wrong! LOTR is a vastly superior book, in my opinion, and the dwarves in it are very different to The Hobbit dwarves, so I suspect Tolkien must have deliberately got rid of the worst of the tropes in the later book. But the Serkis narration definitely is worth listening to if you ever do decide you want to revisit The Hobbit – I’m hoping he might go on to narrate LOTR…

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  12. I only read this once, to my son when he was younger. I enjoyed it but wasn’t in love with it. I cannot remember if I have read any of the Lord of the Rings, but probably not. I would be interested in trying the first one, but I think I have too many books ahead of it. Oh well.

    We did watch all the adaptations by Peter Jackson.

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    • I think the Lord of the Rings is vastly superior to The Hobbit, not least because there’s a real sense of good v evil, which I felt The Hobbit lacked. But unusually for me, I actually think the LOTR films are just as good as the book for once, so if you’ve watched them then I think you could pretty much feel as if you’d read the book!

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  13. Interesting about the dwarves being anti-semitic constructs. That never occurred to me, I admit; I’ve always thought of them as northern miners with battle axes, kind of like short Vikings. Hmm.
    The main difference I’ve noted between The Hobbit and LOTR, is that the former is told as though from outside the world of Middle Earth, whereas the latter is related entirely from inside that world. The narrator of LOTR knows nothing of us 20th/21st century readers, but the narrator of The Hobbit is of our world but has visited Middle Earth and is telling us kids about it.

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    • That’s an interesting point that I hadn’t picked up on at all, but you’re right. The telling in The Hobbit is done very much like a fairy-tale with a narrator speaking directly to the reader, whereas in LOTR it’s much more like what has become a traditional fantasy novel style. Although I enjoyed The Hobbit, I do think LOTR is vastly superior – it’s a real classic, whereas I’m not sure this one would be if it wasn’t for the connection to the later books.

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  14. My brother was the one who was a fan of both The Hobbit and LOTR, I never quite clicked with them. Maybe I was slightly too old for the first and a bit too young for the second, and have never been all that tempted to read either as an adult I’m afraid. But we did have a cat named Smaug!

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    • Haha, great name for a cat – they do seem to breathe fire quite often! 😉 I think I was just the right age for LOTR when I first read it – old enough to appreciate the romance elements and young enough to find them romantic! My eldest sister was a huge fan and used to have posters of all the characters and the map of Middle Earth in the bedroom we shared, so I was kinda steeped in them long before I actually read them – brainwashed, clearly!

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  15. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on The Hobbit, particularly as I re-read it this year with my own kids. I do love it entirely, having been immersed in Tolkien before I could even read. I’ve read and re-read The Hobbit countless times. I didn’t pick up on those anti-Semitic tropes when I re-read it most recently but I was surprised by how unpleasant the dwarves were. They’re mostly very unkind and ungrateful to Bilbo and so focused on their treasure. I’ve never had a problem with Bilbo stealing the ring but this time I was struck by the fact that he steals the Arkenstone.

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    • I think that’s the secret to The Hobbit – to read it very young and love it before reaching an age to start feeling critical towards books. I wish I’d read it a few years younger! Even apart from the anti-Semitic thing, I found I didn’t like the dwarves at all, especially Thorin. Fili and Kili had some redeeming features, and one of the others – was it Balin? – who tried to help Bilbo occasionally, but otherwise I couldn’t see them as the good guys at all. And yes, Bilbo’s behaviour was questionable several times. Give me true-hearted Frodo any day!

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  16. Well, I’ve never managed to make it through more than a few pages of the Hobbit. I think I found the narrative too wordy and in need of editing, LOL. My husband loved it as a kid. And now I’m going to venture into the realm of film, because I saw the first film of the LOR and was appalled by what looked like the “big scary black man with dreadlocks” trope for one group of bad guys (the uruk-hai orcs??). And when I Googled how close this was to the book, this is what I got. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/dec/02/jrrtolkien.lordoftherings

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    • Again that passed me by in childhood, though I do see it as an adult – another argument for reading these books young! I very much doubt that that was conscious racism on Tolkien’s part, any more than I convict him of anti-Semitism for The Hobbit. I fear that was pretty standard stereotyping back then, when Britain was still an Empire and we’d all grown up on Heart of Darkness-type stories of the great colonies – namely India and Africa. In a sense, it’s the same kind of thing as the good cowboy always wearing the white hat. Even our language associates white with good and black with evil or scary, so much so that it feels from over here that it’s too deep to actually be about race at all. Devils were black and angels were white long before we had an empire, as far as I know! I’m sure I’ve said this to you before, but I never met a black person in real life till I was twelve, and then he remained the only black person I knew until I was around twenty – we were pretty much exclusively a white society in Scotland till, I’d say, the late ’60s, and even now most of our ethnic minority populations up here are Asian or Eastern European rather than African. So I think race as an issue probably stands out far more clearly to you, in your more mixed society, than it did to me until more recent times. We always joke that we haven’t got time to be racist because we’re still too busy fighting over religion… 😉

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  17. HAHA, I pointed out all the fat-shaming in Nancy Drew novels, so it’s unavoidable these days I think.

    The Hobbit is the only JRR Tolkien novel I’ve read. I tried reading LOTR and had to abandon it after a few pages, I hated it. The Hobbit though was short enough that I enjoyed it, and put the effort into getting into it and learning all the names, etc. I’ve read it a few different times for various school projects, etc. I also read it as “Smog” rhymes with “Dog”!

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    • There’s so much fat-shaming in older books, especially kids’ books! A fiendish plan to get kids to lay off the chocolate and eat their veggies, perhaps… 😉

      I don’t know what I’d have thought of LOTR if I’d read it when I was older. My love for it seems odd given that I don’t really enjoy fantasy, so I think I must have been lucky to read it exactly the right age for it to work for me. And because I loved it then, I still love it now. Ha, I’m glad I’m not the only Smaug/Dog pronouncer! It just seems natural to me to pronounce it like that… 😀

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  18. Somehow I didn’t read Tolkien until my early teens the first time and then reread of The Hobbit and LOTR about 20 years ago (I didn’t know it was that long ago…). On that reading, I also found that The Hobbit did not completely envelop me in the way the LOTR books did. However, I would be interested to listen to this well-performed audio version (and I can access a copy) so it’s gone onto my list. Thanks for the recommendation.

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    • I think LOTR is much more thought through – The Hobbit feels a bit as if he hadn’t quite decided on the tone, somehow. Parts of it are too dark for a book that is mostly light adventure with a touch of humour. Serkis really does a great job of it, though – hope you enjoy him! You’ll probably enjoy all his regional accents for the various characters… 😀

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