Few races are as appealing as hobbits, comfort-loving foodaholics who enjoy nothing more than a congenial meal, with a congenial pint or two.
“They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote. “They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with.”
Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” started life in the early 1930s as a story shared with family and friends. Tolkien (1892-1973) began writing it one day while grading papers, and — like his protagonists Bilbo and Frodo — stayed with the unexpected journey to the stories’ end, creating a rich mythology, set in “Middle-earth,” in the process.
Tolkien, a veteran of World War I who incorporated some of its horrors into his later fiction, was by that time a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. His love of languages, and of Norse mythology, also found their way into his books. Before “The Hobbit,” Tolkien was known in academic circles, particularly for his landmark work on the Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf.”
Tolkien loved his hobbits, though, not to mention his elves and wizards, and took his manuscripts along to the weekly meetings of the Inklings, a group of literary Oxfordians that also included C.S. Lewis and the poet Charles Williams. (Evidence suggests that some of his friends were heard to moan, “Oh, not more hobbits!” when Tolkien started up with his latest.)
“The Hobbit” is usually thought of as a children’s book, but it’s as accessible to adults as Harry Potter. It eventually led Tolkien (and his publishers and readers) into the far deeper, richer, darker world of “The Lord of the Rings,” all built on the extensive mythology Tolkien created beginning in 1917, during his recovery from trench warfare-induced illness. Echoes of Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen” also are heard throughout the books, starting with, well, the Ring.
“The Hobbit” begins with the comfortably well-to-do, rather staid, notably respectable Bilbo Baggins (“You could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him”) feeling pleased with himself and his existence. That ends a few pages in with the arrival of the wizard Gandalf, and, shortly thereafter, of 13 dwarves.
The dwarves are on a mission to regain their lost kingdom — and their treasures — in the Lonely Mountain, far to the east, from the marauding dragon who swept in one day and killed most of their kinfolk, and most of the people from the nearby lake town.
They need a 14th member (dwarves are superstitious about the number 13), and they need someone with the skill to break into tight places. The tight place they particularly have in mind is a secret door into the mountain itself, and the dragon’s lair.
Gandalf knows Bilbo, and, more importantly, knows his family history, which has a certain wild side. He has recommended the hobbit for the job, which startles Bilbo and leaves the dwarves dubious: this plump, bourgeois little figure, a burglar? Bilbo wants no part of it, until he hears their insults, and then he boldly volunteers.
He has many opportunities in which to regret that decision: Hobbits love their creature comforts, and there are few of those in the danger-filled months that lie ahead. But he returns a very different creature from the soft chap who first departed Hobbiton.
In short order, Bilbo meets trolls (defeated with the help of Gandalf), elves (beginning a love for all things elvish, which lasts the rest of his long life — oops, spoiler), goblins and a dragon.
Most significantly for the rest of the saga of Middle-earth, he meets Gollum, an unpleasant creature who started his own life as something very like a hobbit, but changed. Gollum lives at the deep roots of a mountain, paddling around a little lake, subsisting on fish and the occasional goblin imp.
Gollum values one thing: a golden ring, his “Precious.” On the fraught day that Bilbo, fleeing from a goblin army, finds his way to the mountain’s base, he also finds the ring, which has slipped from Gollum’s finger, seeking to move on to its master.
The ring is, of course, The Ring, the One Ring that sets off the epic events of the trilogy “The Lord of the Rings”: “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
But that’s still a long way away. For now, Bilbo appreciates the invisibility it confers upon its wearer, using it to escape the goblins, and assorted other life-threatening creatures.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first movie of a planned trilogy, goes back to the Shire, visits the elves’ Rivendell and takes us through Bilbo’s acquiring of the ring.
Let the adventure begin again.