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I hadn't read The Hobbit since I was a kid, so, given the upcoming movies (evidently there are going to be two, not one), I felt it was time to revisit Bilbo and Smaug. Having finished it, my review:

Though this was a re-read for me, the first go-round was so long ago that I'd forgotten a lot of the book. (Hey, look at that! A whole passel of giant spiders! And Frodo and Sam thought *they* had arachnid problems.) Tolkien, as ever, excels at his world-building: the landscape and its unusual inhabitants feel totally real, and made me look around with new appreciation at rocks, plants, and streams in my own neighborhood, as if they all might harbor magical beings or properties.

I take a star off because, as with The Lord of the Rings, the pacing is kind of screwed up. They kill the dragon too soon (shot by a guy who barely figures in the story up to that point), then *other* battles happen as the kinda-sorta-climax, and then (as with LOTR) the giant Eagles end up saving the day at the last minute rather than our heroes saving themselves. Also, that Necromancer who Gandalf was off fighting, completely off screen--well, that makes sense if you've read LOTR (oh yeah, it's Sauron), but viewing The Hobbit as a novel on its own, that development is a bit perplexing. LOTR has more human (/hobbit/elf/dwarf/etc.) emotional drama to give it greater merit despite the pacing issues, while The Hobbit feels more like it's meant for children--and that's okay in some ways, as it's also a lot less heartbreaking.

Also, what was up with the silly elves? I said to my husband, mid-read, "The elves in this one are weirdly happy. Like, cracking jokes and being goofy. Maybe later on, the whole Ring situation, and the going-west stuff, was making them grumpier...?" But it still doesn't completely make sense. So I'll be curious to see what Peter Jackson does there. I really cannot see Elrond singing tra-la-la rhymes and dancing merrily. Legolas, maybe, if he had a frat-boy phase. Orlando could totally play that.

All that said, Bilbo is a charming protagonist, and there are lots of gems of scenes in this book. Also some actual gems, like the Arkenstone. Hah.

Incidentally, have you seen Peter Jackson's video blog entries about the making of the new films? Huge fun. I need to go back and view the ones I haven't seen yet.

From The Hobbit I moved straight to a long-intended re-read of Les Misérables. I'm now about a third of the way in, and so far I am annoyed with Victor Hugo for these things:

1) Burying a wonderful, amazing novel among a bunch of extraneous chapters about French history, which dissuades people from reading it. Therefore I recommend you read the *abridged* version--or else get the unabridged, but skim when you find yourself wading through Waterloo or the Paris sewers or someone's needless monologue. I want people to love this novel as much as I do, and they won't if they force the unabridged upon themselves.

2) The title. Jeez, Victor, who's going to want to read this? There's misery in these pages, sure, but the story is much more about love and compassion. And it's even funny or sensual in several places.

3) Creating seriously huge dilemmas for his characters, reaching a point of agonizing conflict which *my* novels may never approach. Example: Ex-convict Jean Valjean has disguised his identity and established a new and benevolent life, in which he's about to do a dying woman the favor of rescuing her little daughter from the slavery she's currently trapped in. However, that same week, he hears that the "real" Jean Valjean has supposedly been caught on a petty theft, and, being an ex-con, is going to be put back in prison for life. So. Save the innocent guy by revealing his identity, and thus get recaptured and be unable to help the little girl? Or save the girl and let the innocent man go to prison for life? I mean, seriously. I never manage to plot stuff this awesome. (Spoiler: Valjean manages to do both of the good things. That's why he's a hero.)

4) Being heartbreaking enough to hurt, but beautiful and romantic enough to keep me obsessively reading. I cain't quit you, Les Mis.

There's an upcoming movie for this too, complete with new and fully heart-rending trailer:

Marius fangirl sidenote: though I liked Eddie Redmayne perfectly well in The Pillars of the Earth, and though he looks lovely in that trailer, he just does not look like the curly-black-haired, marble-skinned Marius described in the book. For me Marius will always look like Rufus Sewell back in the young days. (Rufus also starred in The Pillars of the Earth, as it happens. Kinda why I watched it.)

Rufus Sewell


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 12th, 2012 08:11 pm (UTC)
I did watch the Les Mis trailer and sobbed like a baby all the way through. I assume it's the hormones.....
Jun. 12th, 2012 08:21 pm (UTC)
The hormones certainly can do that, but that can't be the whole explanation, because it makes me all misty-eyed as well. And did for my mom too, who is well beyond childbearing age. :)
Jun. 13th, 2012 06:10 pm (UTC)
I skipped large sections of Les Mis. I didn't need all that detail about the sewers! Looking forward to the film, have seen the stage show several times.
Jun. 14th, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC)
I think I'm going to have to see the movie on DVD, as I don't like finding myself sobbing in cinemas. :)
Jun. 14th, 2012 12:18 am (UTC)
1. "Legolas...*if* he had a frat-boy phase"? Has he ever had anything else?

2. Those are different elves, anyway - the elves of Mirkwood are second-class (or even third-class) elves, and those snooty Noldorin look down their noses at them, probably because they like to have fun.

3. The dragon being killed offstage by a minor character is one of the things I love about The Hobbit. When I first read the book I was twelve, and until then my experience of adventure fiction was that everything interesting was done by twelve-year-olds. (Unless it was one of those books with kissing in it; then it was done by sixteen-year-olds.) It was pretty hard for me to get past the first few pages: Here's the protagonist. He's fifty years old, short, and considered boring even by his unbelievably stodgy neighbors. But somehow Tolkien kept me from giving up on Bilbo, and pretty soon I found myself rooting for him. At some point I realized the author was deliberately challenging my preconceptions: "Burglar" is not a euphemism for what Bilbo does. He's reflexively secretive, and nearly as reflexively dishonest. Yet he's still a good guy - well, this sort of anti-hero is old hat now, but it wasn't to me then, and it wasn't when Tolkien wrote it.

And then: "Who kills Smaug?" I'm thinking, my twelve-year-old inner voice pronouncing it "Smog," the dragon afflicting Los Angeles. "Bilbo? Thorin? Gandalf?" "Ha-ha," chortled the author. "None of them." "Who, then?"

"Just some random guy."

And then the ending: The (anti-)hero returns home to... Marry the princess and live happily after? A ticker-tape parade? The gratitude of millions? No, he returns home to find himself presumed dead, thanks to his greedy relatives, and said relatives absconding with his possessions.

I never read another work of fiction the same way again.

4. As for stuff like the Necromancer being Sauron, and the allusion to the sinking of Beleriand at the end of the First Age, those are sort of like Bilbo's song about Eärendil in FotR: They're part of what gives Tolkien's world its sense of enormous depth. Perhaps someone, somewhere, has matched it, but not with the same commercial success; Tolkien manages to evoke a much larger world and a much longer span of time, of which the story you're reading at the moment is just one tiny part.

5. And on to Victor Hugo: Wait, those historical chapters are what makes it work for me! But I'll admit I may be in the minority there.
Jun. 14th, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
I totally say it "Smog." Which, really, is a good name for a smoky, stinking dragon who destroys cities. Also, my edition of The Hobbit doesn't come with a pronunciation guide at the back, the way some Tolkien does.

Tolkien manages to evoke a much larger world and a much longer span of time, of which the story you're reading at the moment is just one tiny part.

This is really well put. That feeling of "giant detailed world first, this episode second" is what makes Tolkien legendary. If he'd followed the genre-fiction rules and made each novel stand alone tidily, with the hero killing the big baddie at precisely 90% into the novel, he'd be less memorable. We genre fiction writers who are not allowed to break said rules get annoyed sometimes about it (because we aren't allowed to), but still, it works in its unique way.

I actually do like the end, with the relatives selling Bilbo's possessions and everyone being grumpy that he's still alive. It's funny, in a dark way, and I appreciate humor. (Hobbits always bring the most humor, too, of all the races. Probably why they're my favorites.) In fact, I suppose the infighting after the dragon's death is even kind of a dark-humor development. It's like Tolkien said, "Yeah, you know what really happens, in real life? The good guys defeat the enemy, then start fighting among themselves over the spoils." They'd probably have gotten into another all-out war if the goblins hadn't poured in and reminded them who the real enemy was. Meanwhile, Bilbo gets knocked out and misses the end of the war. Heh. Also rather funny.

As for Les Mis, I find I'm liking to slow down occasionally and take in some paragraphs of the historical details of Paris etc. back then, because it does add to the atmosphere. So perhaps my real recommendation is that people get the unabridged to give themselves that option, while being allowed to skim if they're impatient to get back to the actual characters.
Jun. 14th, 2012 08:25 pm (UTC)
Also, I should have mentioned in the original post: this might be the most female-less volume of any of Tolkien. Does any female of any species have any lines in it whatsoever? I can't think of one off the top of my head. We all know it was lopsided in LotR, though at least there we got a couple of interesting women like Eowyn and Galadriel. And the Silmarillion had quite a few (though, as with most people in the Sil, their stories usually ended deep in "freaking depressing" territory, so I'm unlikely to reread it in its entirety). But we're sorely lacking the womenfolk in The Hobbit, even when I'm sure there are interesting stories involving some of them. Toward the end he casually mentions Beorn becoming a chief with a long line of successors who could turn into bears too. Hang ON. Some woman married giant shape-shifting bear dude and could safely give birth to his children? Who is she??
Jun. 17th, 2012 03:44 am (UTC)
Of course, now I'm trying to put them together. It might be a sign to go to sleep.
Jun. 18th, 2012 06:16 pm (UTC)
Hee. Don't give me ideas--I'll end up trying to apply the Les Mis musical songs to Tolkien moments or something equally time-wasting.
Jun. 19th, 2012 03:08 am (UTC)
you might have to go back to the Silmarilion to get the right characters. I don't think LotR or the Hobbit has the right characters unless you cast Gollum as Jean Valjean.
Jun. 20th, 2012 01:48 am (UTC)
Haha! Hm, yeah. That doesn't feel right.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )