Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 1, 2008

Giving J. R.R.Tolkien a Chance

I pleased my husband by putting The Hobbit on my children’s lit syllabus, which meant I finally had to read it. I’m used to the split in our reading tastes, and grew up as the middle child between a brother and sister who were Tolkien geeks (a word I use in the best possible way; linbinwriter recently flattered me by calling me a research geek). I was all let-me-find-another-book-by-Laura Ingalls Wilder. Animals as protagonists were fine – I can weep all over Charlotte’s Web and forget that animals don’t really talk in barnyards – and I enjoyed the Borrowers, but, with the exception of some Disney moments, there’s always been something about elves, dwarves, and dragons that’s left me unenthralled.

So recently, while I had a cold, my nice husband bought me some deli chicken soup and has reverently carried The Hobbit upstairs, then downstairs, then back to make sure I have it at hand. He kept asking me about parts have I gotten to yet, and somehow, it always seemed no. After I came back from a staff meeting, with lots of talk of pedagogy he cared nothing about my rehashing, but his eyes lit up because one of my colleagues had asked me to ask him if the ents ever found their female counterparts.

“Are you going to blog about Tolkien?” he asked. “I think you’ll get more readers.”

“But then they’ll all be disappointed when I go back to, oh, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, or Margaret Atwood, or Ellen Wittlinger, all those books I really like to read.”

So after twenty-five years of marriage to a Tolkien lover, I finished The Hobbit. I enjoyed beautiful sentences as well as the main hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who’s endearing for his love of a lavish second breakfast. But what’s with all the battles? Isn’t one enough in a book? And Gandalf appearing and disappearing and appearing again. I can’t quite connect to the allure of dragons nesting in gold and elves or even walking, talking trees. (By the way, my husband says the ents did find their ent-wives.)

I did like the hobbit homes, but couldn’t really understand why we had to leave them. I know the journey is supposed to be important, oh, and good and evil. I’ve got the Annotated Hobbit with a clip of a review from C.S. Lewis who notes that the tone and style changes from the common, when the Hobbit is home, to “noble and high” while away. Um, he’s not the first to suggest I’m less than noble in my tastes.

I did enjoy the book and I’ll look forward to classroom discussions down the road. But I’ll wait, maybe not twenty-five years (but maybe) before I pick up Lord of the Rings. And thanks, honey, but I guess I won’t borrow your life-sized cardboard Golum for my office. Are we genetically predisposed toward fantasy – and its trilogies! — or realism? I’ve met at least one editor who claims she is certain she would have turned down Harry Potter if it came across her desk. Are any of you lovers of both fantasy and realism, never mind, as long as it’s well written?



  1. You are not alone!
    My boys begged me to read THE HOBBIT alound to them, which I did. They were enthralled, but I was, well, disappointed mostly. Is it not odd that the narrator faints during the climax of the book? that we readers have to hear about the big battle with Smaug after it happens? I didn’t dare blog about the book, Jeannine, because I was sure the Tolkien fans of the world would unite and slay me.
    For the record, I was convinced to tackle THE LORD OF THE RINGS aloud too. (I am a pushover when it comes to children begging to be read to.) This time even the boys got discouraged by the long, long, long meanderings that comprise the first third of the book. We’ve tucked it aside, our place carefully marked, while we take a break with something shorter and sassier.
    (I hope your husband won’t read this response and think ill of us!)

  2. Jeannine,
    I have to admit I’m on your husband’s side re the Hobbit, but…I had to share a quote I think you’ll appreciate. Helene Hanff, who wrote 84 Charing Cross Road, also wrote a book called Underfoot in Show Business. For some time, she made money as a reader for a movie studio. Now, keeping in mind she rarely read novels, let alone fantasy, here’s a tidbit for you (and your husband!).
    “…on the blackest Friday I ever want to see, I…was handed three outsized paperback volumes…I had to read all three volumes over the weekend…What I had to read, during that nightmare weekend…was fifteen hundred stupefying pages of the sticky mythology of J.R.R Tolkein.” She puts in a copy of the bill she sent to the studio. She charged them $20 for each volume and $40 for “Mental Torture.” They paid.
    I love Hanff’s writing, and her full description of her agony is laugh-out-loud funny, so I did forgive her!

  3. You know, I’ve still not made it through the Hobbit, though I finally read Lord of the Rings about 10 years ago and adored it. Not so much for the battles as for all the thematic underpinnings. (And we do go home at the end of Lord of the Rings, only find home and the characters both changed, and the sense of loss-yet-hope is overwhelming.)
    For what it’s worth, I think most fantasy readers I know read other things as well, and won’t be disappointed at all when you talk about them. 🙂
    I did like the hobbit homes, but couldn’t really understand why we had to leave them.
    This is a fascinating statement to me, for all it says about reading protocols. I’ve been thinking a bit about how in my books characters never stay home, but always have to journey out and return, and about how that’s really only one way to tell a story.

  4. Re: You are not alone!
    Good for you for being the read-to-me pushover. It does get us to new places!
    Well, my husband will read, but no surprises. I certainly hope other readers know that while I may be ho-hum re Tolkien, I love Tolkien-lovers, including husband, sibs, cousin J. who read him obsessively to get through 2001-02, and many smart friends.
    And, for the record, my husband has not read Little Women.

  5. Well, yes, where would the world be if we didn’t have different tastes? Thanks for the great story — and goodness to share from “the other side”!

  6. Janni, I loved your description of the end of Lord of the Rings. Maybe I will have to pick up sooner than I thought, esp is okay if I skim the battles (as I did years ago reading War and Peace, to get back to the parties and Levin in the fields for pages and pages, which I know many others stall at.)

  7. It is, to be fair, a long journey to get there–I bounced off the books twice before I finally got through them.
    I seem to recall this last reread being startled at how little time Tolkien actually spends on the battles. But he does linger over other things you might want to skim on first reading if you hit bits you don’t much enjoy–I still sometimes skim the poetry and songs, even though I enjoy poetry, because I actually think are not as strong as the rest of the writing.

  8. Yes, there is that length thing.
    I did pick up The Tolkien Reader at the library and look forward to read his essay, “Tree and Leaf.”
    I’ll probably be blogging about that at some point!
    And thanks for being such an understanding fantasy-fangirl! The best!

  9. I should blog about my mainstream reading kick sometime. Where the whole while I was thinking, “I don’t read these sorts of books” but finding things I loved anyway. 🙂 (Including Ellen Wittlinger’s books. As far as I’m concerned, you can blog about those anytime!)

  10. I’m missing the fantasy gene
    In high school, I read The Hobbit. I liked the whole “other worldliness” of it, so I went out and bought the LOR trilogy. Couldn’t get through Book 1. I did enjoy the movie version, but that’s after one of my sons told me, “Mom, you HAVE to watch this.” And even while I liked the characters, scenery, special effects, etc., I had to hold my tongue not to do the annoying, “Oh, come on. Now they’re all going to _________?” (fill in the blank with something that defies logic).
    I enjoy a well-written fantasy, when it comes to children’s books, but I’m never quite able to suspend disbelief and fully immerse in an author’s fantasy world. I’m always asking myself, “But . . . why don’t they just a) go tell the king, b) become invisible, c) drink the stupid strength potion already,” etc.
    And forget about fantasies set in the far distant future, where, in addition to logic blips, authors have provided new nomenclature for everything from toasters to dogs.
    Which is why I don’t write fantasy . . . and stand in awe of those who are able. 🙂

  11. Re: I’m missing the fantasy gene
    That’s it, maybe a genetic predisposition. I enjoyed the LOR on film, too, but did not feel compelled to see it more than once, as do some family members. It is fun, though, to enjoy their fascination!

  12. Isn’t it nice that escapeism can take any form, color, and/or dimension while remaining so alluring? Still, not everyone’s pleasure receptors fire in the same pattern–thank heavens–thus, the need for variety will never diminish. And debates about ‘what floats your boat swamps mine’ will also carry-on full steam.
    I like Jackson’s spin on LOTR, enjoying the complex tapestry he gave us while also seriously appreciating the monumental challenge he undertook to create it from the original masterwork blueprint. Try as I might, and I’ve made several attempts, I just cannot equally enjoy that blueprint to the same extent as Jackson’s retelling. I can certainly see and grasp Tolkien’s brilliance on the pages, much the same as a classic art masterpiece hanging in a museum, but it just doesn’t transport me to another place where my cares remain forcefully on hold.
    For my 12-year-old son though, Tolkien is better than any Calgon bubbles could ever hope to be.

  13. I envy your son’s bliss. What a great world he can enter again and again.
    Interesting to hear you liked Jackson’s take more than the original book. My husband didn’t complain about the movie version, and saw them multipe times, so while I don’t think he’d say he liked them more, they certainly measured up. He might cringe at blueprint though! In my course we’re also reading Wizard of Oz, which in my opinion can’t hold a candle to the MGM version (not to mention being a lot thinner than Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.)
    Thank you for your thoughts!

  14. Great points, which seems to reinforce that it’s not so much the story per-se as the manner in which it gets “told.” I continue to schlep through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time epic for more doses of the amazingly complex dimension that he’s bestowed upon us as well as seeking ultimate gratification to the investment stakes I’ve built up so far. Other tellings or derivatives of his work leave me utterly flat though, despite the medium used.
    If you were to put the question to my sons: Eragon – book or movie? It’s no contest. Ditto for The Golden Compass. They’re both concerned about the now-probable movie version of The Hobbit. Though having the same guy at the helm as for LOTR gives them great hope.

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