Thursday, December 27, 2012

Exploring Corey Olsen's Hobbit Book: The Platypus Reads Part CCIV

Books on The Lord of the Rings are getting to be a dime a dozen these days, but books on J.R.R. Tolkien's first published masterpiece, The Hobbit, are still rare as, well, a hobbit.  Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that Washington College's self-styled "Tolkien Professor" was publishing an entire volume exclusively on The Hobbit.  The book is called Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and it very much lived up to my expectations.

I was in fifth grade when I first read The Hobbit.  I had no idea what the book was about.  The only impression I had to go on was the cover, an old Balantine Books edition with an image of Bilbo in Gollum's cave, and the rather impressive sounding name of the author.  I can't admit to having been a very great reader at that point by any stretch of the imagination.  The Hobbit hooked me, and I've been reading ever since.  As I've gotten older, however, I've been a little saddened by the short shrift the book seems to get from Tolkien scholarship.  Mostly, it's treated as a first draft for The Lord of the Rings.  I found The Hobbit utterly enchanting as a child and adulthood has only increased my admiration for the book.  This brings me to the first great virtue of Professor Olsen's work: it treats The Hobbit seriously as a work in its own right.

The first of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit's virtues is that it disassociates the book from material that came later.  Olsen sets out to help us understand The Hobbit as The Hobbit, not as source material for The Lord of the Rings.  References to other Tolkien works are few and far between, included only when they are vital to making a point about The Hobbit, and not the larger corpus of works on Middle Earth.  This has the effect of allowing Bilbo's adventure with the dwarves to stand in its own right and be appreciated for its own merits.

The second great virtue of Olsen's work is that takes the form of a critical appreciation.  There is a sort of literary criticism which destroys, even when it sets out to praise.  This is the sort of piece that feels the "scientistic" need to cut its subject into ever smaller pieces in the belief that the whole will be revealed as the sum of the parts.  There may be a use for such things, but thinking that they will tell us what a thing is is to leave the path of wisdom.  Olsen refuses this sort of minute dissection, and instead acts more as a tour guide to Bilbo's world, pointing out with an expert's eye the most interesting spots along the way.  Oslen seeks to increase both our understanding and our enjoyment of The Hobbit.  I believe that this approach works, and that I came away from Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's the Hobbit with a greater sense of the story's depth and coherence without any feeling of "having seen the man behind the curtain" that might detract from the pleasure of future Hobbit readings.  This leads into the third virtue of the book.

The third virtue is that Olsen sets out to find, and indeed does discover, the sort of deep interconnectedness in The Hobbit that marks The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  Following several themes such as "The Desolation of the Dragon," and "Took Versus Baggins," Oslen reveals the incredible complexity that holds the narrative together.  He also draws our attention to how Tolkien uses humor and misdirection to make what is in theme and content a very adult work safe and palatable for a young audience.  Professor Olsen's particular masterstroke, however, is to take the seemingly most ornamental and dispensable part of the story, the songs, and show how they are intricately woven into the fabric of the tale as vehicles for character delineation and theme.

The final virtue of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's the Hobbit admittedly owes more to the publishers at Houghton Mifflin than to the good professor.  The hardcover version is one of the most aesthetic texts I have seen in years.  The parchment like dust jacket with its Anglo-Saxon like ornaments is a treat, as is the heavy weight paper and robust canvass that forms the book.  The actual binding is pleasant with its sharp contrast of white and red.  Everything about the actual artifact proclaimed that someone at the publishing house expects to make some real money off this volume.  -and I hope they do!

So, should you hunt down a copy of this work?  If you love The Hobbit, yes.  Is it accessible to the general public, yes.  Is it still worth it for the more scholarly crowd, yes.  Will it enhance my appreciation and enjoyment of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved work?  Most definitely yes.  So what are you waiting for?  After Christmas sales are raging and its the perfect time to go "fill in the corners" as the hobbits say.  Know someone who's already got one?  Yank it away (as soon as they've finished).  Check your local library too.  All in all, Corey Olsen's Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's the Hobbit is an engaging read, you aren't likely to be disappointed. 



Herch said...

I haven't read it yet but I hope to soon. (Nobody was kind enough to get it for me for Christmas.)

Having listened to all of his Hobbit Lectures, my biggest question is how much more material is in the book when compared to his online lectures. Of course if his writing is in any way close to his lecturing style, I'm sure I'll find it an easy and enjoyable read, even if I don't get much new stuff.

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

James said...

Hi Matt,

That was my initial worry before I began reading.

The book has plenty of new content and often chooses not to repeat content already available in the lectures. The lectures strike me, in retrospect, as "trial chapters" for the book that were extensively re-worked when Olsen actually sat down to write (a normal practice for academics). The book feels more pointed and coherent than the lectures. Personally, I think I got more out of the book (though the lectures were great!).

All that to say that it shouldn't feel like reading a transcript of his "Hobbit" lecture series and is worth your time even if you've gone through all the material on the website.

Herch said...

That's good to know.