Review: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
Author: Corey Olsen  
Title: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: September 2012
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 318 pages
Genre: Literary analysis
Why I Read: The Hobbit is one of my all-time favourite books + I enjoy reading Tolkien scholarship
Read If You’re: A new fans of The Hobbit; interested in literary analysis
Quote: “Even when [Bilbo] himself is facing the possibility of being devoured, the ‘idea of eating’ that is on his mind is a very positive one” (94).
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReadsIndieBound | Chapters | Amazon 
Two Tolkien posts in a row! I promise this isn’t just a Tolkien blog. I wanted to post my responses to those two articles while they were fresh in my mind, and then this is the only book I’ve read recently for which I have a full review planned. Now, onto the inaugural review of the reborn Falling Letters.

I added this book to my TBR list shortly after it was published, but I wasn’t eager to read it because it seemed to be an introductory text exploring themes in The Hobbit with which I am already familiar. This is not to say I didn’t think the text had anything to offer (otherwise I wouldn’t have put it on my TBR list), but after reading The History of the Hobbit in the same year this book was published, I felt I had enough Hobbit knowledge in my head for one year. In his introduction, Olsen describes how his love of Tolkien developed and became integrated into his academic work. He describes people who “get nervous at the prospect of a literary critic discussing a work they love”, because they’ve “had unpleasant experiences in high school English classes” (4). He assures the reader he will not take the same approach found in such classes (drawing inferences from the text as to what Tolkien really meant, judging passages as good or bad, etc.). He writes of his book:

“…we will take a journey through the story, looking carefully about us as we go. It is easy to rip through a book that you like at top speed; the main thing I hope to do is to slow things down enough to be able to see more clearly what is unfolding in the story as we go. We will take notice of the recurring themes and images […] We will listen closely to all the songs and poems […] If we walk slowly and pay attention, we may find that our perspective is enriched by the journey as much as Bilbo’s was, and that our eyes have been opened to marvels we never expect to see.” (5).

This paragraph made me more interested in the book than anything else I had read about it – I definitely know how it’s easy to rip through a favourite book! I read The Hobbit more often than any other book. I could benefit from a slowed down, close reading. That is largely what the book is – a close reading of The Hobbit. Olsen makes minimal references to Tolkien’s thoughts or works beyond The Hobbit. I thought it interesting that he chose to explicitly not discuss The Hobbit with any close relation to The Lord of the Rings, particularly given the release of The Hobbit films which are being brought more closely in line with The Lord of the Rings films. The publication of Olsen’s book likely connects to the release of The Hobbit films, as interest in books on which movies are based always surges when said movie is released. But, this is not a negative observation – The Hobbit is a fantastic work considered by itself. I don’t think it always needs to be placed within a greater context and it’s refreshing to read something focused solely on the tale I love.

 If you have read The Hobbit many times, you might not find a lot of new ideas here. HOWEVER! A major exception is the analysis of songs and poetry. I confess, I tend to gloss over songs and poetry whenever they appear in a novel, however crucial to the story they may be. I do this less with The Hobbit, where the songs are of a different nature than those found in The Lord of the Rings, but I still plead guilty to not fully paying attention to what the songs contribute to the story. Where Olsen’s text excels for me is in his exploration of the songs. John D. Rateliff’s quote on the back of the book accurately praises, “[Olsen is] particularly good at pointing out how Tolkien uses poems as characterization”. I suspect I am not the only adorer of The Hobbit who prefers to bypass songs and poems. Olsen has chosen an excellent area on which to focus.

Additional notes:  I enjoy reading interpretations of the riddle scene. While I thought some of the inferences were a bit stretched, I did like the perspective he took on the whole scene (exploring how the riddles reveal the riddler’s character while also reacting to riddles that had already been presented). The text is not written in a scholarly manner, it’s very accessible, but there were some instances where the use of slang stood out (“street cred” [113] is an extreme example). I’m not sure such language is necessary, even in a relatively informal work.

The Bottom Line: If you are a long time fan of The Hobbit, who appreciates the songs and poems contained within, you might find this book does not have a lot to offer you. But if you are a newer fan of The Hobbit, or you wonder what the point is of all the songs and poetry, or you just plain enjoy close readings, I recommend this book.

Response: Thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien

Yesterday, I read two articles about J.R.R. Tolkien that contextualized his work in ways I hadn’t considered before. Both articles gave me a sudden sense of clarity on the topic, so I thought I would note my response to each article here. I intend to make this a regular feature – since I no longer have to do any academic writing for university, I’m directing my thinking power here! Please check out the original articles if they sound interesting (both are short, under 800 words).

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Article: Michaels, Sean. “On J.R.R. Tolkien.” National Post. Postmedia Network Inc., 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 

Response: It is very difficult for me to chose a favourite book. If someone asks, there are a number of other books I will say before The Lord of the Rings (although I will usually say The Hobbit). I think this is because Tolkien’s creation of Middle-Earth is too dear to me – I don’t want to start a conversation with someone who doesn’t have the same level of passion or involvement with his works because I could never convey in words what Tolkien’s creation means to me. Other high fantasy, medieval fantasy, whatever genre label one places on Tolkienesque works nowadays, does not appeal to me. Michaels notes the human depths of Tolkien’s books that “set his Middle-Earth apart from Robert Jordan’s Westlands or George R.R. Martin’s Westeros”. Both series I have tried to read, and, while the plot lines of A Song of Fire and Ice appeal to me, they are not books I could ever become invested in in the same manner I am invested in Tolkien’s books. Michaels describes a process of distancing from Tolkien and high fantasy, towards “magical realists” and “contemporary fiction”. These are answers I would give if someone were to ask my favourite genre; I would never answer ‘high fantasy’. Michaels describes everything I love about such genres: “surreal fables”, “dreamlike or uncanny” stories, “grounded in […] reality”. What I found most comforting about Michaels’ article is that here is someone like me, who adores Tolkien, who finds great inspiration in Tolkien, but does not find the need to try to mimic his work. You can love Tolkien but not high fantasy, and you can love surreal contemporary fiction, and you can let both work together to fuel your creativity. I sometimes struggle in reconciling my seemingly dissimilar taste in books – this article reminds me of what those books have in common that drew me to them.

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Article: Cook, Simon J. “On Tolkien Fundamentalism.” Web log post. Tolkien Library. 23 Apr. 2014. Web.
Response: Cook’s article takes on the popular question of how much Tolkien fundamentalism is too much. He uses as an example the introduction of Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. He frames his consideration by looking at where Tolkien initially drew inspiration for Gandalf and the dwarves, in the Old Norse Poetic Edda. He observes “Tolkien’s stories are embedded in the fragments of much older stories” and asks “For surely Tolkien’s entire legendarium is the product of rather similar ‘creative engagement’ with older literary forms?” I think Cook clearly puts into perspective ideas of fundamentalism when he concludes with the question, “Is the discovery of Gandalf the wizard in the ‘Catalogue of Dwarves’ of the Völupsá any more (or less) justified than the discovery of Tauriel in the text of The Hobbit?”. In asking this, he takes us beyond our narrow view of popular 1930s children’s novel –> 2010s popular action-adventure movie and reminds us of the greater tradition of finding in inspiration in earlier creative works.

However, to begin to answer Cook’s question about “where we establish red lines in the creative adaptation of Tolkien’s work”, I would suggest that he uses the concept of adaptation too loosely. One should not overlook the fact that Jackson’s films are not just loosely inspired by The Hobbit. They are meant to be a direct adaptation of the story. To clarify my use of adaptation, I would say The Hobbit novel is not an adaptation of the Poetic Edda; it is merely a work inspired by it. I think one can argue for a bit more fundamentalism when a work is meant to be ‘adapted from’ rather than ‘inspired by’. In my ideal world, I would be an extreme Tolkien fundamentalist. I would want to see a movie exactly true to the book. But I know that’s not realistic, and I know modifications and adaptations and reinterpretations and additions can still make a great movie. Keeping this in consideration, I like the addition of Tauriel (if I don’t like the romantic angles that go with it…).

Back on topic – I think Cook’s article is a great starting point for a discussion of Tolkien fundamentalism. While I argue there is a difference between Peter Jackson’s films as an adaption of The Hobbit and The Hobbit as an ‘adaptation’ of the Poetic, I don’t think that difference is as a great as we fans sometimes make it out to be.  

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If you have any thoughts on these subjects, please share! Even if you’re not a Tolkien fan, I’d like to hear what you think about the now ever-so-common adaptation of books to movies, and where you personally feel lines should be drawn.

Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon

Last year I began my preparation post with “now that my busiest semester EVER is over…”. This year I can happily write “now that my last full semester of university is over…”! I finished writing my last exam a few hours ago and now I once again looking forward to participating in the April edition of Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon.  This is the pile of books I’m going to be picking through – my goal is to complete three books and read 100 pages of The Lord of the Rings. All of these books have been on my TBR for sometime, most for over a year. I’ve included a note as to why I’ve selected each book (if there’s no note, I can’t remember how I found the book – I just remember it sounded like a good book ;P). Titles link to GoodReads.

  • My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares
    • A birthday gift from a friend a few years ago
  • Justice by Rhiannon Paille
    • This was one of my reading options for last April’s Read-a-thon – I will definitely get to it this time! I recently reread the first book, Surrender, and the ebook prequel, so I’m ready to go.
  • Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
    • Purchased on release date in February. Even though the first book was just alright, I really like the use of photographs so I’m going to read the sequel.
  •  Stuck in the Middle by Bartley Kives and Bryan Scott
    • Purchased shortly after release last November, I meant to read this over Christmas break (was that really four months ago?!)
  • The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff
    • Spotted this at the library awhile back – the cover’s not my taste but it sounds like an interesting story!
  • The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Lehamn
  • The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver
    • I wanted to read more Tolkien books early this year, but I find it distracting to read books about his work while reading his works (I reread The Lord of the Rings at the start of each year). Hence why I’ve chosen this book!
  • Hikikkomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus
  • The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany 
    • After reading so much about this in other books and then editing a few students’ papers on the story, I figure I should check it out myself.
  • No Way to Treat a First Lady by Christopher Buckley
    • Found during library browsing. Not sure why I picked it up
  • The Great Reset by Richard Florida
    • I bought this in 2009 during an angry book buying spree – I’m hoping it will still be relevant.
  • Torture Team by Phillippe Sands
    • Found during library browsing.
  •  Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich
    • Another reading option from last April’s Read-a-thon
  • How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
    • Found during library browsing. I really like the book design… Also on last year’s April Read-a-Thon list – I will give it one more shot.

I will participate in the morning, then I will have to break for kendo practice (which will take me away from reading from ~11:00AM-3:00PMCST). Some vigorous exercise should hopefully help me push through the rest of the day! Afterwards I will be joined again by the same friend who participated last year. You can find him on Twitter. I will be participating on these platforms:

I hope everyone reads some great books this Saturday!

Summer Library Challenge

About: Hosted by Kate and Kristen of The Book Monsters, this challenge encourages library going and library book reading. The “Summer Library Readathon” will take place from June 16 to June 22, with other activities like challenges and Twitter chats throughout June and July. I think this sounds like a fun challenge for both power library users myself and those who don’t get out to the library as much as they might like. Sign up here.

My Interest: I’m not actively looking for events or challenges to participate in at this time, but when I saw this one posted on A Novel Challenge, I had to sign up. On 2 August, I will move to Japan for at least one year. My local library will be something I miss dearly. Almost every book I read comes from the library initially – I love buying books but I am very selective, so I prefer to read a book before purchasing. I had already planned to step-up my library going in the months leading up to my departure. Now I look forward to doing so in good company!

My Goals:

  •  Visit the library once a week
  • Read 12 library books
  • Attend two library-hosted events