Title: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
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: GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon
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”  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.