Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reading With My Kids: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Source of book: I own a marvelous hardback edition of this book. Illustrated by Alan Lee.

Reading this book with my kids brought back lots of memories. The unpleasant one I address in a footnote. But most of them are good. I was introduced to Tolkien when I was around age ten or so, when my dad read it to me and my siblings. (He also introduced us to C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, and created a PG rated version of Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising on the fly.) I would read The Lord of the Rings soon thereafter on my own. Along with the Narnia books, The Arabian Nights, and the usual fairy tales, Tolkien’s works would form the backbone of my experience with fantasy and magic. 

"On the Edge of Mirkwood" - Alan Lee's illustration in The Hobbit
For the few who do not know, Alan Lee's marvelous illustrations were so good that Peter Jackson hired him (and the equally amazing John Howe to direct the art concepts for the movie versions.

The Hobbit, much more than its successors, is a children’s book. The plot is exciting - and easy to understand as a child. The characters, although memorable, are not overly deep. Except perhaps Bilbo Baggins. The issues faced by the characters are clear enough, but lack the nuance that Tolkien would develop in his later works. The humor is direct and a bit broad sometimes, and there is little that went over the heads of my kids. I had to explain a few words here and there, and a few ideas, but they kept up just fine, and laughed and shuddered at the appropriate times.

Needless to say, they loved this book. I enjoyed it too, as I have each time I have read it. (I also got to see the first of the Hobbit movies at this time, so it was interesting to compare them.)

I think that the character of Bilbo is particularly well suited to children’s literature. He is a reluctant adventurer who oscillates between excitement and fear. Often, he wishes he was back home, but cannot resist the part of him that enjoys the danger. He starts off naive and largely helpless, but gains experience and skills as he goes. He expands his universe from the tiny world of the Shire to include much that is good and noble, and much that is evil and treacherous. Thus, despite Bilbo’s nominal status as a middle-aged man, he is easy to identify with as a child. The Hobbit is thus an adventure and a coming-of-age story rolled into one.

While the plotting and descriptions are good, the characterization is a bit weak - again, to be expected in a children’s book. Bilbo is well developed, and we get a bit of a glimpse of Thorin, the tragic hero. Gollum is unforgettable, of course, and we are allowed to see inside his head, although not nearly as much as in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf has his moments in the first part of the book. But the dwarves all tend to run together.

On the other hand, Tolkien shows flashes of the his descriptive powers in the scenes with Gollum and Beorn, and in the extended episodes in Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain.

I loved reading the part of Gollum to the kids - and I think I do a pretty good job. “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!”

And, of course, the poetry. Tolkien’s poems roll off the tongue much like the old ballads that they imitate. There is music there, even when no tune is given. My children so far seem to have inherited at least a bit of my poetic bent, particularly my eldest daughter, who steals my Wordsworth book from time to time. Here is the Dwarves’ song before they set out on their journey. It absolutely must be read aloud.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day
To claim our long-forgotten gold.

Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold; where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by men or elves.

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

The bells were ringing in the dale
And men looked up with faces pale;
The dragon’s ire more fierce than fire
Laid low their towers and houses frail.

The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!

My very favorite of the poems is “The Road Goes Ever On and On,” but in the version Bilbo sings at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, rather than the Hobbit version.

Finally, Tolkien captures a vision of goodness that has always spoken to all of us who never expect or intend to be heros on a large stage. Those of us who really prefer to do good in little, everyday ways. And those of us who love a good meal, friends, and a song. As Thorin puts it on his deathbed:

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

Bilbo is effective precisely because he isn’t a traditional hero. He knows he can’t win in direct battle, so he must use his wits - and the fact that gold has little effect on him. He would prefer a warm bed, good food, and a few smoke rings to treasure and power.

In reading this to my kids, I was reminded of the charm that it held when I was first discovering the world of magic and imagination. I also remembered with fondness the evenings spent listening to my dad make worlds come alive for us.

Note on a book burning:

Most of us who grew up in the 1980s in conservative Christian homes remember the paranoia that swept through regarding a supposed conspiracy by toy makers and television to indoctrinate children into the occult. My mom was heavily influenced by two books in particular, The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow, which alleged a new age conspiracy that would eventually take over the world. In addition to other rather dubious claims, it considered yoga to be the gateway drug into the occult. (Frank Peretti’s novel, Piercing the Darkness would dramatize these fears.) The other book was Turmoil in the Toy Box, by author Phil Phillips. (Not to be confused with the American Idol winner of the same name. Or the Nineteenth Century lawyer and congressman. Or the Irish archbishop, or the archeologist. Also, he does not appear to be a relative of Douglas or Howard Phillips.) This book purported to find the occult in everything from He-Man (arguable - assuming your kids know advanced symbolism) to the Care Bears and Mighty Mouse. (really?) The biggest bogeyman, however, was Dungeons and Dragons. I remember being paranoid about that. Not that I actually knew anyone geeky enough to play it at the time - that happened in Law School, and I discovered that most of what was said about it wasn’t actually true. Phillips would also write a book about the satanic dangers of Halloween. (This idea has had a huge influence on conservative Christianity.) Later, he would write books specifically warning of the dangers of Power Rangers and Barney. I should also mention televangelist, sensationalist, and “exorcist” Bob Larson here as well, who saw demons everywhere, and helped stir up the panic about toys and games. And about a satanist conspiracy.  (He also was part of the “rock music is satanic” movement of the 1980s - although he has since changed his mind. I imagine it was easier to sell the idea of hidden messages in Black Sabbath and Stryper than in Train and Brandon Heath.  I talked about the real origins of that movement here.) What was it about the 1980s and satanist conspiracy theories anyway? It’s not like any of us actually knew any real satanists. Did more than a few dozen exist? Our county (and others) had those now-reversed “molestation ring”  cases where kids were led psychological coercion to allege ludicrous satanic ritual abuse. Innocent people spent a decade or more in prison as a result of this panic...

Since I was never into modern television (except Mighty Mouse, apparently), and greatly preferred Legos and books to everything else toy related, this never really affected me in a negative way, at least personally. But I am sure I said some unkind things to kids who did play with these toys. To my knowledge, none of them ever got into the occult.

I would later find out that this paranoia extended far beyond cheesy kids’ television and stuffed bears with hearts on their tummies. For Bill Gothard, many objects contained malevolent powers - and the worst offender was Cabbage Patch dolls. They caused infertility. (I am not making this up.) And so, a purge of the household was necessary. (It occurs to me, after having had five children in seven years, that it would be cheaper and far less painful to put a cabbage patch doll under the bed than to get a vasectomy. Except that birth control was considered evil as well.)

This idea of destroying “evil” objects extended to books too. Books with magic in them were the equivalent of Simon the Sorcerer’s magic scrolls. So, at the peak of my family’s involvement, we burned our Tolkien books. I did not agree with this decision, and didn’t watch the whole thing. Since they were cheap paperbacks had seen better days, it wasn’t a huge loss.  I can tell you that books don’t burn very well by themselves, unless you take them apart page by page. Otherwise, they are pretty much the same as a log. For some reason, we spared our C. S. Lewis - although many others considered these occult as well.

Fortunately, this insanity passed, and we all went to see the Lord of the Rings movies in the theaters when the came out. I would say that, since that time, the more mainstream Christian groups have moved on to new issues (and new panics), while the most conservative elements - particularly in the home schooling movement - have broadened the forbidden list to include pretty much everything in culture more modern than the Victorian Era. And it even can get more restrictive than that.

My wife’s family never destroyed any books. (My wife didn’t read Tolkien until after I introduced her to him, although the rest of her family read them before the movies came out.) The group they were in, however, was extremely restrictive on reading material. (Many within Gothard’s group are this way as well, but not all.) For some of them, the only acceptable reading materials were the Bible and missionary biographies. Fiction was out, because it was “telling lies.” Because, you know, the story didn’t really happen. Particularly suspicious were magic and talking animals. Not only did it not happen, but it couldn’t happen in our world. Even those that allowed fiction tended to seek out books like Elsie Dinsmore, which portrayed their view of appropriate child behavior. Certainly no book could be allowed that had a child tell a lie or disobey! And the illustrations were not exempt from this paranoia either. If a girl’s skirt was too short (you know, like the actual clothes little girls wore when the book was written), they drew a longer one. Can’t have those knees showing.

It still amazes me that there are people - plenty of them - that cannot fathom that fantasy and magic, and indeed imagination - are vitally important a child’s development. And to an adult’s mental health. They really cannot believe that children can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The use of the impossible, the fantastic, and the unfamiliar to illuminate the possible, the everyday is a crucial feature of imagination. We can see the issues more clearly when we remove the trappings of our particular situations. We don’t really think that a wizard and dwarves will invade our house and sweep us along on an adventure. We know that we will probably never have to fight off car-sized spiders. We won’t be literally looking for vulnerable spots on a real dragon. But that doesn’t mean that we learn nothing from The Hobbit. As G. K. Chesterton put it in Tremendous Trifles:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

So for me, this era is a reminder of the power of cultural panic, which we still see today about food and medicine in addition to an ever-changing array of moral and spiritual “conspiracies.” It’s comforting to direct our natural fears of somehow ruining our children (which are difficult to raise!) into the avoidance of an outside malevolent influence. It’s easier and more comforting to believe that evil comes primarily (or entirely) from outside of ourselves. I doubt that anyone missed out on much by being denied the latest disposable plastic action figure, but the general idea of isolation from anything “outside” is damaging. When a child discovers that yoga is not, in fact, a gateway drug to the occult, and that the toys of his or her childhood were the result of a marketing conspiracy, rather than a demonic one, it does tend to lead to skepticism of other claims. And when good books are burned because of irrational fear, something in the soul dies. Fear becomes a barrier to the enjoyment of a great story, and future opportunities to learn and explore are circumscribed by the terror of contamination. And so, one retreats further and further into the bubble of “likemindedness” until everything in life becomes black and white - and very little of the white.


  1. Interesting note on book burning. Just curious, what do you think of His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman?

    1. I haven't read any of Pullman's books, so I don't really know enough to give a coherent opinion. I know that they are to a certain degree expressly anti-religion, and pretty clearly anti-Catholic. I also have heard that the writing is sub-par, tending to preach more than illustrate, which may be why they never caught on the way the Narnia books, The Lord of the Rings, and especially Harry Potter did.

      Given the limited time I have to read and the many books I wish to experience, Harry Potter will come long before Pullman.

    2. I also might note that the objection to Pullman's series is that the story itself and the philosophy behind it are the problem. In contrast, the moral panic about Tolkien and Lewis was based on the symbolism, not the message. Narnia is largely an allegory of the Christian message, as Lewis interpreted it. LOTR is a classic good versus evil tale with undercurrents of agrarian superiority to urban living (perhaps a fight against the industrial revolution), but an allegorical representation of the dehumanizing effect of totalitarianism. (I have heard other interesting interpretations as well. Great legends speak to us in many different ways.)

      But some influential leaders could not see past the use of "magic" and the supernatural to the underlying themes. I still see this in the weird panic every time Disney releases a new movie with some sort of magic. (Lots of pearl clutching about the voodoo in The Princess and the Frog - although I think the feminist themes probably caused as much of a stir.)

      Bottom line: I believe that when we focus on the surface trappings and worry about inadvertent contamination, we are unable to evaluate ideas on their merits. LOTR is a powerful tale of individual heroism in the face of impossible odds. It would be better to grapple with the implications of that in our own lives rather than panic that reading about magic causes occult involvement.

  2. I love the hobbit. We didn't burn our cabbage patch dolls. We threw them away. Probably because of the age difference between you and I, we never burned the books. We just never had them in the house. I found out about the Lord of the Rings in my late high school years, whenever I went to the movie theater for the first time (we left ATI when I was in 10th grade). Regretfully I am one who saw the movies first, but I absolutely love the poetry in them.

    I'm glad you are reading it to your kids. I found the movie very disappointing.