Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

There should be more books like this one. I used to listen to The Tolkien Professor's podcasts on iTunesU -- in fact, it's where I got the idea for the Day of Common Learning Lecture that turned into the "Trees of Life" book chapter on J.R.R. Tolkien and Paul Brand. In Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Corey Olsen (AKA The Tolkien Professor) recapitulates his Hobbit podcasts in book form.

Olsen's focus is on the character of Bilbo Baggins, on the nature of luck in Tolkien's writing, and on what we can get from the frequent songs and poems. It gave me a new appreciation for the quiet faith of Tolkien: in his writing, luck is never just luck and the wind is also spirit, just like in the ancient Greek. Also, Olsen points out the teasing of the elves and the natural beauty of the Arkenstone. Tolkien's pure joy in the natural world is something we all share, and one of the reasons everyone can relate to these books. Although the elves are too somber in Jackson's movies, the natural beauty of New Zealand does provide this element. In Olsen's book, I would have liked more connections to Old English literature and to The Silmarillion (there's a really nice one comparing Gollum's riddle to Sauron's old speeches that left me wanting more). That can be the next book.

This book's unique strength is that it is written for the ordinary person interested in The Hobbit, and as such, it's a very nice gateway drug into the land of scholarship. In fact, I was able to give this book to my 10-year-old son Sam and he finished it before I did. That is as valuable as the Arkenstone to me. So while the writing at times felt a bit baggy and redundant to me, I've got to say there's enough scholarly articles out there for me as it is. Fellow profs, let's write more things like this for my boy ... and who knows what he'll be some day?

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