Review of Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
I must confess: I’m a Tolkien latecomer. Normally my literary fancy is only tickled by theological writings or that of Pauline scholarship, but in capitulation to the relentless prodding of a friend to engage Tolkien’s work I’ve now found myself playing the addict. To my own surprise and delight, I’ve now developed a taste for Tolkien’s legendarium and being the habitué that I am quickly rushed to the local bookstore to find more publications on the man and his work. Having just concluded The Hobbit I decided to engage Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Thumbing through the initial pages I chanced upon these words:
This book, however, is not called Dissecting The Hobbit. I will not be acting as an amateur psychiatrist (or psychic), claiming to tell you what was in Tolkien’s mind and why as he wrote the book. I will not be enthroning myself on the judgment seat as the arbiter of taste, telling you which bits of The Hobbit are good and which are bad. In the end, this book just sets out to do a little more of what I suppose you already do yourself: reading and enjoying The Hobbit.
Needless to say, I purchased the book.
Olsen’s book functions as a “journey through the story” and it does not take long to see that he possesses a keen sensitivity to aspects of Tolkien’s narrative that an unseasoned reader (read here me) would almost certainly miss. His acuteness to the growth in characters, the value of the various songs and poems, and the moral implications of various actions by the characters will certainly lead to an enriched reading of this great classic. Olsen pays special attention to several reoccurring themes throughout this analytic journey:
(1) Bilbo’s Nature: “we learn that Bilbo is the child of two very different families, the Tooks and the Bagginses…”
(2) Bilbo’s Choices: “these are the particular moments that define Bilbo’s character as the story progresses, and the narrator lays great stress on them.”
(3) Burglar Bilbo: “At first, Bilbo’s hiring seems like a rather absurd human resource failure, but his burglarious career ends up going some quite surprising directions.”
(4) The Desolation of the Dragon: “we begin to see that the physical desolation that the dragon has created also serves as an image for the destructiveness of dragonish desires… Each character confronts these desires…”
(5) Luck: “Through the interactions between the choices of the characters and the frequent interventions of luck, Bilbo’s story challenges us to think about the relationship between fate and human choice.”
(6) The Writing of The Hobbit: “we will pause to look at the construction of the story and the secondary world that Tolkien has made through that story.”
When we finally reach the end of Olsen’s journey through The Hobbit we cannot help but feel that we’ve grown alongside Bilbo Baggins from Bag-End. We learn that in life we must take chances and go on the occasional “adventure” lest we succumb to the sterile life of comfort and ease that we’ve so grown accustomed to; what we really need is a balanced blend of the Took and Baggins natures that wrestles inside all of us. We also gain practical wisdom to the threat and danger of riches—“dragon-sickness”—that can cause ruptures in valued relationships, something materialist culture needs constant reminding of. Finally, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit will equip you to become a better Tolkien reader in general, worth its weight in gold the moment you pick up The Lord of the Rings and so continue your long journey in Tolkien’s mythic world.