The Hobbit (1937) is J. R. R. Tolkien's famous children's book, which introduced the world to Hobbits and Middle Earth. A wonderful mix of adventure and fantasy, the story follows the quest of Bilbo Baggins - a Hobbit (small, simple folk who till the earth and enjoy a good ale) and unlikely hero - as he joins up with a group of Dwarves as they attempt to reclaim treasure stolen from them by the dragon Smaug. Bilbo is introduced to the party by Gandalf the Grey (a powerful wizard) who discerns in Bilbo the makings of a first rate cat burglar - just the thing needed for a quest that will lead its participants through all manner of tricksy adventures. Bilbo and the thirteen Dwarves bicker their way across Middle Earth, getting into scrapes with trolls, goblins, and elves, and not forgetting the great dragon that they hunt - a mighty big adventure for such a little Hobbit.
Bilbo lives a life of simple pleasures in Hobbiton, and he is all but innocent to the darker corners of the world. When Gandalf (who despite featuring far less than he does in the Lord of the Rings series, is crucial to Bilbo's development and acts as a guiding presence) sets Bilbo off on his great adventure, the Hobbit is forced for the first time to venture out into the world and widen his own horizons. The small Hobbit grows as a character as he passes through trial after trial in the archetypal hero quest, perhaps the most notable being his passage through the Misty Mountains, where he is forced to descend into the deep places of the Earth - a metaphor for Hell and the darkest places within oneself. It is here he finds the One Ring and faces the creature Gollum - a dark shadow whose presence warns of what a ring bearer might become. That Bilbo is able to restrain himself from killing the creature when he has the opportunity proves that he will not give in to the power of the ring as Gollum has, and marks him as a worthy hero.
When Bilbo eventually encounters Smaug the story becomes more complex. Though Smaug springs from the tradition of dragons as destructive, unfeeling monsters, Tolkien turns from the standard mythology and gives Smaug human qualities; making him intelligent and articulate, as well as the marauding archetype. Bilbo grows as he faces terrible dangers, but it is his encounter with the dragon that is the moral turning point of the novel, after which good and evil are less easily defined, and the story becomes more than a straight-forward episodic tale of adventure and transforms into a subtler and more interesting tale. By defeating Smaug, Bilbo's transformation is completed and he is able to return home to enjoy the spoils of his adventure as a wealthier and more accomplished Hobbit. Bilbo's transformation from a sheltered and seemingly insignificant hero represents the potential of all people, the strength which can be found when necessary, and it is likely that Tolkien's own experiences in the first world war informed this message.
The creation of Middle Earth - its languages, history, geography, etc. - represents one of the great creative efforts of the twentieth century, and The Hobbit was Tolkien's first step along this path. That so much of the mythology of Middle Earth was already present in Tolkien's consciousness at the time of writing The Hobbit is testament to his love of detail, particularly in language. Indeed, Middle Earth sprung from words rather than ideas. Tolkien always said that the word 'Hobbit' came to him while he was marking a batch of test papers. Taking a break in between papers he scribbled the word down without any notion of its meaning and from there he decided to invent an etymology for the word. Over subsequent years he went on to develop the world these 'Hobbits' inhabited, guided always by words and language. It's no surprise then to find that names in The Hobbit are all significant and represent perfectly the being, place, or item upon which they are bestowed. Tolkien's detailed descriptions of different landscapes within Middle Earth too are gloriously rich and his understanding and the back-story of the world shines through at every point. If The Hobbit has its roots in any literature it is most closely associated with the Norse tradition, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf one of the largest influences. But Tolkien plays with the tradition and draws plenty of humour from this.
While the detail is exquisite, the plot is predictable in the main although it does have unexpected subtleties along the way. By modern standards there are a great many aimless passages between the action, but much of The Hobbit's appeal is gleaned from these sections, where the party bicker with one another and scrape along in an often grumpy manner. Much of the humour is typically English, and Bilbo himself is written as a slightly blustering Englishman in many scenes. There is something terribly endearing about the unflappable, grumpy, food-obsessed Hobbit who grumbles his way through most of the adventure, and something so typically English in this. Hobbits are undoubtedly borne from Englishmen and their history bares many similarities to that of Anglo-Saxons. Tolkien strongly asserted the Englishness of his stories, and The Shire in particular is based on the rural lands of pre-industrial England. Hobbits mix the genteel ideals of the middle-classes with the traditional labour of the rural yeoman - this creates a gently satirical portrait, but more than anything conjures a nostalgia for the English Shires of old, where small communities would exist amongst themselves in the main, living off the land, and enjoying simple pleasures.
As Bilbo travels across Middle Earth he encounters many different races all of which seem to have their own traits that are imbued upon all of their members. For example, Goblins are all evil, Elves are at peace with nature, etc. This is a simplified view of life, where moral judgements are easy to draw, and older readers might find some of the story overly simplistic. The Dwarves in Bilbo's party are all but indistinguishable from one another with the possible exception of Thorin, but this matters little to the story. Tolkien once wrote "I do think of the 'Dwarves' like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations" - an interesting parallel, and perhaps not a flattering one based on the Dwarves portrayal in The Hobbit. Tolkien would bestow upon the race a more heroic quality in the Lord of the Rings, but it's interesting to note his own perceptions of the Dwarves in The Hobbit. However, whichever race one considers, lineage is very important to understanding them, and the characters' inner conflicts are often described as a conflict between different inherited qualities from their lineage.
One unusual facet of the story is the complete lack of female characters - in any form. This seems to have had very little impact on the reach or readership of The Hobbit, but certainly roots it more firmly in the adventure tradition with books like Treasure Island, where females are almost entirely surplus to requirements.
Tolkien built the story from tales he used to tell his children and essentially The Hobbit should be considered a children's book, with Bilbo a stand-in for the child protagonist. Thus much of the book is a relatively simplistic hero quest, with one adventure followed by another. Despite this fact, the story has proved popular with adults as well as younger readers, and the richness of Tolkien's world, and the humour and development of Bilbo make this an accessible read for people of all ages. Tolkien's prose recreates the oral style in which the stories were originally told and this forms an intimate and cozy bond between the author and reader, which has no doubt heightened the book's appeal. The Hobbit - a classic quest story - has gone on to become, along with The Lord of Rings trilogy, almost the modern archetype for this style of story - an achievement indeed for a simple Hobbit of The Shire. The Hobbit is escapism - it's childish in comparison to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it is intended to be a children's story so this is hardly surprising. More than an appetiser for the main course, this is a lively tale full of ideas and magic.
I really enjoyed the humour in this, but in truth I think a lot of modern readers will find much of the prose too ponderous, with long gaps between the 'action'.