It’s Hobbit Day today. If you’re not still a virgin, that means it’s September 22nd, which happens to be the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins (or Took-Baggins, as some distant relations would later claim, or Baggins-Took as would claim still others).
In any case, September 22nd, referred to by Tolkien enthusiasts around the world as “Hobbit Day,” is when I traditionally begin an annual re-read of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So today I picked up my battered old copy of The Hobbit and curled up on the red couch in my office for a good read.
When I posted the commencement of this adventure on my Facebook wall, a friend suggested that I post my thoughts as I went through this, my 17th annual re-reading of all four books (or both books, according to Tolkien). I thought it was a great idea. So I’m going to write and schedule out a blog post after each chapter in every book. For now I’ll schedule them every three days, which means this will go for a LONG time—maybe I’ll increase the frequency at some point.
The first chapter of The Hobbit kicks off pretty much exactly as I remember it: with a flummoxed Bilbo utterly at the mercy of a meddling wizard. One thing I did not remember so well from the book (no doubt colored by recent re-watchings of the Hobbit films) was exactly how Took-ish Bilbo got. He got downright angry at the dwarves, practically daring them to take him on their adventure. That’s not quite how he was portrayed in the movies. I understand why, but still, it was nice to see a feisty little Bilbo getting his gander up in the argument scene with the Dwarves.
I was astounded at the amount of exposition in this chapter. There is SO MUCH going on—all of which is familiar to me now, having read all of the other books and many of Tolkien’s other works besides. But we learned of Azog in this chapter, and the Necromancer, and Thror and Thrain and all the rest of it. This was just one big fat exposition scene, is what it was.
And it’s utterly amazing.
Exposition can be tiresome to the reader and troublesome to the author. How do you justify entering exposition in your book? Well, the easiest shortcut is to include a character who knows NOTHING of the story—in this case, Bilbo. The other characters then have to explain everything, and of course that explanation is passed on to the reader.
But Tolkien goes beyond that. The first couple of pages of the book are all exposition, straight info dump (beginning of course with the renowned line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”).
Normally exposition is a no-no, an amateur’s literary device to be shunned at all costs by the discerning author. Tolkien’s simply feels masterful, and I can’t explain why. The man was a master of language, of course. And perhaps the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia flummox my inner critic. But I don’t think so. I recently picked up Eragon again and thumbed through a few pages. My God, what dross that was in comparison. I remember loving that book as a teen, but now it reads like so much unedited hack-work. Still a good story, still maybe worth a re-read. But lacking in artistry.
The Hobbit, meanwhile, keeps me riveted even when it’s holding my hand and guiding me gently through the world, pointing out things I already know full well. Something magical lives within Tolkien’s writing, and it’s not just a wizard.
That’s all for now (these posts will by necessity be short, otherwise they will turn into a chore and I will not complete this project). I’ll have more on Chapter 2 in a few days.
Thanks Henare for the great idea.