“In Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, 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 down enough to be able to see more clearly what is unfolding in the story as we go.”
Corey Olsen is popularly known as “The Tolkien Professor”. After teaching academically on Tolkien for several years, Olsen became more or less dissatisfied with the way the academic publishing tended to go. Publication circulation is low and expensive, resulting in not many people having access to those works. It was in 2009 that using his nickname, he opened his own website and podcast, specialising in Tolkien and fantastic literature. The book Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is the result of several years of interactive analysis of Tolkien’s book The Hobbit.
What Olsen presents to his readers is an in-depth, though very personal, reading of The Hobbit, almost as if you’re reading the book through his eyes. That may sounds awkward, but Olsen leaves enough space for the reader to form his own opinion. In that regard, the style of the book is at the same relaxed, informative, unique and very understandable. No academic jargon thrown at you here!
In Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, each chapter accompanies a chapter from The Hobbit. Olsen explores several themes, images and general ideas that are repeated throughout The Hobbit.
The central element is the personalisation of Bilbo and his transformation from a respectable, homely hobbit (his Bagginsish side, as Olsen calls it) to an adventurous burglar (his Tookish side) and in certain respects, back to a content hobbit at the end of his quest. To analyse this development, the author has chosen several recurring themes and motives: Bilbo’s Nature, Bilbo’s Choices and Burglar Bilbo. Particularly interesting, at least to me, was the description of Bilbo’s growth shown by the recurring theme of the protagonist being alone in a tight situation: first with the trolls, then in the goblin tunnels, followed by Bilbo saving his friend from the spiders and Elves and lastly Bilbo entering the Dragon’s lair on his own. The nature of Bilbo’s riddling names, with which he tries to fool, flatter and impress the dragon Smaug, shows how detailed Tolkien looked at the way he expressed motives in his book (and forgot some details while re-writing sequences!).
Another major part of the book is the discussion of the poems from The Hobbit. These poems often seems rather superficial, especially compared to Tolkien’s other poetry. However, when the poems are analysed in detail, there is more going on between the lines. Olsen shows the reader how the Misty Mountains poem, and its companions, deal with the nature of the quest and of the history of Middle-earth itself. The somewhat childish expressions by the Elves (tra-la-la-lally!) carry more meaning than meets the eye and the comparison with Bilbo’s ‘attercop’ poem and the goblins fiendish exclamations is very worthwhile reading.
Dreams play an important role in Tolkien’s world. Even though there’s only little said about dreaming in The Hobbit, Bilbo’s dream at the eyrie of the Eagles seems very significant. The dream is described in only one sentence (“[Bilbo] wandered in his sleep into all his different rooms looking for something that he could not find nor remember what it looked like”, p. 104), but turns out to be very descriptive of the way in which Bilbo is growing during his adventure.
Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is well-written, but at that the book feels a little drawn. There is much summarising, which at times slows the reading down. I dare say that 90% of the pages contain quotes from the book. This might come in handy if you’re relatively new to Tolkien’s work, but avid readers might find this a bit distracting.
Even though Olsen explains in the introduction that his analysis of the story focusses on The Hobbit as a separate book (so ‘how it was to read it before The Lord of the Rings was published’), this way of looking at the novel doesn’t always feel balanced: yes, the style of the book is different, but the story is essentially entwined as the nature of the 1951 edition of The Hobbit is intrinsically linked with The Lord of the Rings.
I also think some of the themes could have been better explored – Olsen’s analysis are interesting enough for it – had The Lord of the Rings been taken more into account. For instance, Gandalf leaving the company to go to Dol Guldur is completely skipped. I would have very much liked to read Olsen’s take on those sequences further, which are further explored in Tolkien’s other works and essential to the background of The Hobbit.
However, these are all minor complains. That this books stands out among the heap of mediocre cash-in books published around the release of the movie-hype is also made clear by the many positive review it got from renowned Tolkien scholars. Douglas. A. Anderson (The Annotated Hobbit) calls it ‘admirable and thought-provoking‘, Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull (The Art of The Hobbit) feel that this book is ‘like having a long conversation with someone who shares the love of a favourite book and is excited to talk about it‘, while Verlyn Flieger (Splintered Light) praises Olsen’s ‘accessible language uncluttered with academic jargon‘ and is of the opinion that the book is ‘an informative companion to an enduring classic.‘
Concluding, I think that Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit succeeded in what it tried to do from the beginning: opening our eyes to the marvels that a lot of us never saw, looked for or even expected to see. The author manages to analyse The Hobbit both in story-wide motives as well as on the small scale of sentences and words. This makes Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit a particularly considered view of the story of Bilbo. Will we ever get to see a similar book by Olsen about another work of Tolkien? Let us hope so!
“Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit” Author: Corey Olsen (www.thetolkienprofessor.com); Pages: 306; Year: 2012; Publisher: Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Frank Wasmus (1986) discovered Tolkien’s work in 2000 when he read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In 2005 he joined Unquendor, the Tolkien Society in The Netherlands. Frank has been an active PR-member from the very start, by joining the Activity Committee, dedicated to promoting Unquendor and Tolkien to the public. In 2009 he became the executive committee member for Public Relations and currently holds the chair for Parties, Events and Smials.
He has given various lectures about Tolkien and his work, edited “Midden-aarde in Vogelvlucht” (a 40+ page brochure about Tolkien). His article “A survey among graves – burial rites in Middle-earth” was published in Lembas Extra 2012. Frank studied Prehistoric Archaeology of North-West Europe in Leiden, in which he has obtained his Masters degree. He is currently studying to become a teacher.