Author: JRR Tolkien
Details: (c) 1937; Pub George Allen & Unwin 1975; ISBN 0-04-823126-6
Verdict: The hobbit is a delightful children's fantasy which stands up well to rereading.
Reasons for reading it: I haven't made a habit of rereading The hobbit since I was a kid, but since it is such a big thematic element in Babel Tower I was motivated to have another look at it.
How it came into my hands: I picked up a nice edition in one of the Dundee second hand bookshops, one with plates of some of Tolkien's original drawings.
It's a bit of a risk to reread a book loved as a child, but The hobbit did not disappoint me. It's not a masterpiece like LotR, but it's still a very enjoyable children's book and it has sublime moments. Even after a gap of not much less than twenty years, it still feels very familiar, though there were a couple of scenes I'd forgotten or remembered a muddled version of the details. And as soon as I started reading it I started dreaming in Middle Earth, and very vividly.
The weakness of the book is that the seams show where it has been adapted from a bedtime story. There isn't a clear structure, and sometimes the party get into an impossible situation and then miraculously escape in a way that feels unsatisfyingly handwavy. But that's being hyper-critical. Most of the time it's incredibly exciting, and the allusions to a mythic structure work really well without being heavy-handed. The riddle scene and the whole long climax at the Lonely Mountain are outstandingly good. And it's very atmospheric, particularly the scary sections.
The other thing that carries the book is of course the characterization of Bilbo. He is really a very different sort of hero from Frodo; I'd rather forgotten that he is very much middle-aged, respectable and set in his ways at the start of the book, and that aspect is developed really interestingly. Another thing that is better than my memory of the book is the character of Thorin; he's very complex, a real mixture of noble and materialistic.
There are a couple of annoying things that were better forgotten: sub-Pratchett jokes about golf (!) and the trolls speaking like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. I'm not sure about the narrative voice, at all. It's very much typical of a children's book of that era, and I think I find it more jarring now when I'm not generally in the habit of reading pre-war children's books.
Generally, though, rereading something like this is one of the few things in the world that cause me very fleeting moments of thinking it might be nice to have kids, because I would like to read them the really good books. (That's not generally something that is possible with other people's kids, though sometimes there are opportunities.) But my plan of acquiring some step-grandchildren might work for this.