Friday, 7 December 2012

Books: The Hobbit


The Hobbit
Written by J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Dixon and Sean Deming
Art by David Wenzel

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

I know I've mentioned this quote before [1] (but what the hey - it's a good quote): when the first volume of The Lord of The Rings came out The Sunday Times stated that the world would forever more be divided into two types of people: "those who have read The Lord of The Rings and those who are going to."

And then there's me. The guy that missed the boat on the whole Tolkien thing. In the house I grew up in we had these three massive handsomely-bound leather back copies of The Lord of The Rings sitting on the bottom shelf of our book shelf. I don't know - maybe they just seemed too intimidating or something? Maybe I was always more (even then) a sci-fi nerd rather than a fantasy one? (I've always thought that there's - like - a spectrum of geekdom that has Star Trek on the hard right "pure science-fiction" side, Lord of the Rings on the hard left side representing the "pure fantasy" contingent and Star Wars in the middle - expertly balanced in-between both of them. Going on that model: well - I've always been more of a Trekkie than anything else: I guess (I dunno) because it's always seemed (somewhat) more realistic: plus you know (as a philosopher-wannabe) more appealing because it's a good and interesting way to tackle and deal with stuff like moral and ethical dilemmas and stuff [2]: while Fantasy is just Wizards and Dragons having fights and stuff - right?).

But anyway: I feel like the perfect moment to read them has passed. Does anyone want to read The Catcher in the Rye when they're thirty? I mean - it just won't be the same would it? Like taking a drug when you know that you don't have the proper brain chemistry for it to work (or something). Yes I have seen The Lord of The Rings films (both in the cinema and - later - the Extended Editions (oh boy [3])): but I think that's down to the fact that pretty much all my friends at uni had the Tolkien bug - and yeah: I was curious to see what all the fuss was about and figured that it would be easier to watch the films than read the books and - what can I say Officer? - it seemed like a good idea at the time.

But then (obviously) there's a difference between sitting down to read a whole book and picking up the Graphic Novel Adaptation and when I saw this copy of The Hobbit sitting on our shelves - well - it seemed like something that would only take a hour or so to read: plus - what with the film coming up - my thinking was that it would be pretty easy to get someone to borrow it: "Oh wow! The book that's also the film that everyone's talking about! Yeah gimme!" [4].

Of course what I don't think I was quite aware of at the time when I picked up The Hobbit was that (unless I'm imagining things maybe?) is that I've actually read this comic a long, long time ago. Like - I'm guessing back when I was a young teenager or something. And I'm fairly certain that it was a library copy (not Islington - but maybe Brixton library or somewhere near to there maybe... [5]) which makes sense because (is this just me?) but as soon as I took the time to actually think about - rather than just acting on - "ohhhh gimme" instinct - this is a book that has always kinda just been hanging around on the shelves of libraries (and when I say always - well - it was first published all the way back in 1990 - so Peter Jackson had only just made Meet the Feebles - Braindead was still two years away - and if you told anyone that you thought that the Lord of the Rings would be a good idea for a trilogy of films - people would have just laughed in your face [6]). I mean - maybe it's just because I read it at a young age - but then it does seem like a good library book - it's a comic so (you know) anyone can read it, it's based on a "classic" so it has some sort of literary pedigree but also (bonus) - it's a fantasy classic [7] - so it's got elves and magic and stuff and - ooooh! - there's even a dragon!

But yeah: for any of you scared or apprehensive that this is somekind of quick fly-by-night cash-in - rest assured: even tho it's slightly dated (and slightly usurped by the films) this a comic that has a lot of respect for it's source material: it's not some BANG! SMASH! rushed-job - more like (if you're looking for reference points) a cross between Posy Simmonds (in all it's wordyness - I mean obviously they've probably cut loads (I don't know for sure - because (like I said) I ain't read the original) but there's still quite a lot of sentences bouncing around the pages) and Raymond Briggs (in it's rustic, slightly provincial looking artwork - the kind of thing you could easily imagine being drawn under an old oak tree in the summertime) - in fact a bit more of the Briggs than the Simmonds - but still: (in case it's not clear) it's a very English kinda book. I mean - yeah - that makes sense - what are Hobbits after all but Middle Englanders viewed through a particularly rosy lens [8]. I mean - all they need to do is throw Alan Partridge in there somewhere and you're done.

What was I saying again?

Ah - yes. The Hobbit. So. Opening with that oh-so-famous first sentence  "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." [9] and knocking on straight into the action and adventure I've got to admit that this is a pretty charming little book whose unfussy ways soon ended up winning me over. Obviously I've seen The Hobbit trailers so the widescreen (and much more gold and black) images were rattling around my mind as I read it (and at certain points I got to go: ooooh! It's like the bit in the trailer! which was very much fun for me obviously) but - in spite of that - the book was pretty successful at establishing it's dominance. Of course the first (and perhaps the main challenge) for the modern 2012 reader is that David Wenzel's version of Bilbo Baggins looks more like David Mitchell [10] than Martin Freeman [11]: drawn with a big round nose, full fat cheeks and a Dumb and Dumber-style pudding bowl haircut: he's less action hero and more middle-aged chartered accountant (I don't actually know what a "chartered accountant" is - but you get the point - right?): but only a few pages in Freeman started to fade from my mind as this strange little (almost antiquated) comic began to work it's homely magic on me.

And - yeah - it's pretty good fun. If only for the spot the Led Zeppelin references [12], the frequent use of the word "adventure!" (Wooo! Yay! Adventures!), Lord of the Rings things (the Mines of Moria? Oh - I know where that is! [13]) and finding out the etymology of the word "Took" [14] (or did everyone else already know this?). The authorial voice (which I'm guessing is taken exactly as it is in the books?) is lovely and warm and - well - grandfatherly ("I do not know how long he kept on like this." "If we ever get to the end of it." "Teaching his grandmother, teaching his grandmother to suck - ") and always ready to comfort and reassure and happy to let slip some of the stuff that it hasn't quite got to yet....

The best bit I guess is when Gollum shows up. When the book kinda switches from it's never-ending cycle of danger-rescue!-eating-danger-rescue!-eating-danger-rescue!-eating-danger-rescue!-eating and finds a strange new rhythm of - well - riddles in the dark. Just be prepared for Gollum not quite looking like the more well-known Andy Serkis version (In a word: purple?).

And - yeah - the end. I mean - I thought the story was that The Hobbit was the quick, straight to the point adventure: there and back again thing while The Lord of the Rings is the more bloated, heavy-duty epic - which means that I found myself a little wrong-footed when it turns out that the thing that you thought the book was about takes a back-seat to - well - the geopolitics of dwarfs and elves. I'm sure that there's some people out there who must have loved this sort of stuff - but for me - it was like getting to the end of a Bond film only to find out that there's half an hour of Bond sitting in the UN accounting for his actions and filling in the proper paperwork.

[1] When talking about Stephen King's The Dark Tower (I think).

[2] When I applied to do Philosophy at University one of the first things we were tested on was the "Transporter Problem" (namely - if you destroy someone's body and then reconfigure all their cells at another location - are they still the same person?). As far as I know - philosophy doesn't really deal with things like Dragons or "The Problem of the One Ring" - sorry guys.

[3] Not really by choice. But like I said (Or am going to say? Seeing how it's after this footnote?) my friends at uni were big fans and so I was the guy sitting in the corner desperately trying to stay awake at the all night marathons while everyone else was doing their best Tom Bombadil impressions... (And it should give you some idea of just how effusive they were in their Lord of the Rings devotion that I'm able to make the reference without - like I've already said - ever having read any of the books).

[4] And - ok - yeah - fine. I guess also I figured that maybe it could get me some internet traffic too. What the hey - it's always worth a shot right?

[5] Yes. Ok - I admit it - I'm a South London kid. Try not to look too scared ok? We're not all Orcs.

[6] Top most successful films of 1990 (in descending order): Ghost, Home Alone, Pretty Woman, Dances with Wolves, Total Recall,  Back to the Future Part III, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Presumed Innocent, Teenage Mutant Ninja and Kindergarten Cop. Truly it was a different world (take that Middle Earth!).

[7] Although my brain is wrinkling at trying to think of any other books apart from the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that could be described (by the average reader) as a "fantasy classic." I mean - the only other thing I can think of that has such wide-ranging name recognition would be Game of Thrones and that's only because of the TV show and - well - it's still too new (I mean - it's not even finished yet) to be considered for "classic" status. But whatever. Why am I even talking about this?

[8] There's that John Major quote: "Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, 'Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist' and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school." I mean - he could have easily have fitted "hobbits" in there somewhere and I'm pretty sure no one would have noticed... (Also - do I really have to spell out the link between Middle England and Middle Earth? No? Ok. Good).

[9] You want some trivia? Ok then - here's you go: "As the story goes, he was grading papers during the “summer session” of 1928 when he came across a page which had been left blank. Tolkien was an inveterate doodler on any paper or margin that was available. Many of the earlier stories in his Middle-earth “mythologies” were first recorded this way, and The Hobbit was no exception. On that blank page, Tolkien wrote the sentence, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” This has since become one of the most recognizable sentences in all of English literature."

[10] That's David Mitchell (comedian - Peep Show) rather than David Mitchell (author - Cloud Atlas). The author version = slightly hotter. The Peep Show version = the actor that (having now finished the comic) I most wish had been cast instead of Freeman (come on! The Hobbit starring JLB Credit's Mark Corrigan! Don't tell me you're not even curious to see what that would be like? Just think of the internal dialogue before he entered Smaug's cave: "Here I go. Palms dry, mouth dry, inter-buttock area moist." Instant brilliance!).

[11] Who - sorry Martin - is someone I will always think of as Tim Canterbury from the office. (Like it says so in this salon article ("“The Hobbit” is not a hipster!"): he often stole an entire episode simply by turning to the camera such a look of acknowledged defeat that he might have been the love child of Stan Laurel and Jerry Seinfeld." (The article then goes on to argue that this sort of modern infliction is exactly the sort of thing that the Hobbit film doesn't need - while (me) - speaking as a non-fan - would love it if Peter Jackson just allowed him just the one-stolen-look-to-audience in the middle of some big massive Middle Earth battle sequence. But what the hey).

[12] So I'm packing my bags for the Misty Mountains Where the spirits go now, Over the hills where the spirits fly, ooh. I really don't know... (I'm not actually a Led Zeppelin fan - but for a bit (in my misspent youth before I realised where all the good music was) - I kinda pretended to be: please don't hold it against me).

[13] And for the next person to make the Lord of the Rings films (oh come on - you know it's going to happen one day) - can I suggest this Aphex Twin track (Vordhosbn) for the whole Mines of Moria sequence? Because I think it would be cool.

[134] As in: "Fool of a Took!" (and don't act like you didn't know that already).


Further reading: The Dark Tower, MazeworldOrc Stain, StardustArrowsmith: So Smart In Their Fine UniformsJoe The Barbarian, SmaxRudyard Kipling's Jungle Book Stories, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters.

All comments welcome.

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