If Lyra Belaqua is one of the great characters in fantasy fiction, for me her equal has to be Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.  They couldn’t be more different.  Lyra is serious, thoughtful, and determined.  Bilbo is sometimes serious and determined, but at heart he is a trickster.  Tricksters have a special place in stories, especially in tribal myths and legends.  They break the rules, disrupt normal activities, they are cunning and often naughty, but their games and actions tip established rules and reasons on their head, and as a result create something new.  Bilbo is the archetypal trickster, a mischievous character telling lies and causing trouble.  He makes The Hobbit, a precursor to Lord of the Rings, a far more enjoyable book than the somewhat heavier-handed seriousness of the succeeding books which focus on Sauron and the destruction of the ring.  Years ago, travelling with my wife and three young children, we listened to The Hobbit as we drove from Melbourne to Adelaide – and, entranced, we even stopped just outside Adelaide to give ourselves time to finish the last tape before we arrived!

Today The Hobbit is seen as a precursor to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but when it was written, that wasn’t the plan, as it was later Tolkien began to develop the trilogy.  It has a different ‘feel’ to it, more clearly aimed at younger readers, with a character with whom they could identify.  In terms of the kind of fantasy, this wasn’t low fantasy, but with the creation of Middle Earth, it was if Tolkien wanted to keep the story close enough to our world to make it accessible to young readers.  As a creation, hobbits were perfect, enough like humans to relate to, and yet different in ways that made them appealing and ‘magical’.  They lived when there were elves, dragons, dwarves and all sorts of other fantastical creatures, but there were men, too, men who would play a key role in the trilogy.  This was an in-between world.

Tolkien had a great sense of fun when he was writing The Hobbit.  Here’s the opening:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.  The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors …

Except for Michael Hordern (I think) reading, our car was silent for our car trip.  We learnt before we’d left Camberwell that Bilbo Baggins, whose home it was, had an adventure and “found himself saying and doing things altogether unexpected”.  Hobbits, we were told are “little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves.  Hobbits have no beards.  There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary, everyday sort ….”

Rereading The Hobbit reminded me how wonderfully the story progresses.  Perhaps I am allowed one more, early quote, this one from page 3!  The wizard Gandalf has arrived in The Hill, forgotten since his last visit had been many, many years earlier.  On seeing an old man, Bilbo welcomes him (Bilbo was always polite – well, almost always):

“‘Good morning!’ said Bilbo, and he meant it.  The sun was shining, and the grass was very green.  But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

‘What do you mean?’ he said.  ‘Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?’

‘All of them at once,’ said Bilbo.”

There is a sense of fun in this book which, sadly but inevitably, seems to get somewhat suppressed under twenty years later, when Tolkien produces the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.  Paunchy Bilbo will be set to one side, and replaced by the earnest Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli.

It would be foolish to suggest that The Hobbit is all fun and frolics.  Far from it.  But even in the worst moments of the story, we know that Bilbo will continue to be a little naughty and devious.  As Tolkien’s letters made clear, he saw The Hobbit as a children’s tale, but The Lord of the Rings was darker, more serious, and addressed to an older audience.  Less frivolity.

There are some wonderful scenes in The Hobbit.  When Bilbo first meets the dwarves, there’s a meal, and while Bilbo panics that food will be spilt, crockery damaged and glasses chipped, everything is done with great care.  All Bilbo’s belongings are cleaned and carefully put away.  After some songs, it is time for business, and Bilbo faints, almost runs away, and yet eventually sits in with the dwarves and Gandalf, only to hear himself described as a ‘burglar’.  This hobbit is a delightful creation, with the ability to talk himself into, and out of, all sorts of situations.  He talks himself into joining the band of dwarves, who are planning to go to the Mountain, near Dale, and take the gold that Smaug the Dragon is holding.

Part of the skill in this first book is the way Tolkien makes the potentially frightening moments enjoyable.  When the band is trapped in sacks by a trio of Trolls, with the intention of cooking and eating them, they are saved by Gandalf.  He uses his skills to sound like several people, answering each troll when they ask a question, and by this means whipping them up into a fury, to the point they don’t notice dawn has arrived, and, caught outside, are turned into stone.  What could be scary becomes a scene in a comedy, and the band escape while we laugh at Gandalf’s funny trickery.

Tolkien knew how to spice a story with clever observations.  A little way into the adventure, they meet the elves, and stay at the ‘Last Homely House’.  Unimportant to the story, and so this part of the journey is dealt with quickly:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating and even gruesome may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.  They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave. … Yet there is little to tell about their stay.”

About a quarter of the way through The Hobbit, we meet another of Tolkien’s inspired creations, Gollum, who calls himself ‘my precious’.  Gollum lives underground, his ‘home’ on an island in a large lake, and we are advised “I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was”.  However, we soon learn Gollum is on the lookout for ‘tasty morsels’, of which Bilbo, lost and parted from the rest of the band, looks an ideal example.  Gollum loves riddles and agrees to a game of riddles with Bilbo (if Bilbo loses, he’ll end up being eaten).  The five pages of the riddle game are delightful, extremely funny, with Bilbo surviving on his wits and luck.  This is where he will learn the ring he picked up (which he knew Gollum was seeking), made him invisible.  He wasn’t going to hand it back.  Nor, when he rejoins the dwarves and Gandalf will he tell them what he has found (or stolen?).

The sign of a master storyteller, slowly this adventure is becoming more serious, and there’s a shift taking place between challenges and adventures as opposed to stories and good humour.  The Hobbit is taking on a darker character.  Indeed, it is around the middle of the book we discover all the dwarves have been trapped by spiders, and Bilbo sees them cocooned and ready to be eaten.  It is one of the more frightening passages in the book, and I suspect many young readers might find this chapter lingers on, even well after Bilbo has freed his friends.  He uses the magic ring that makes him invisible once more, but still fails to tell his colleagues what he can do.  You begin to sense that Bilbo likes being able to disappear whenever he wants.  So far it has been for good reasons, but will that always be the case?

Fortunately for the young reader, despite whatever pickle the dwarves and Bilbo find themselves in, there is always a way out, even if it requires using such means as floating in barrels down a stream, methods that are as much funny as they are serious.  However, we know that Bilbo will have to meet Smaug, the mighty dragon, at some point, and we also know he must have been having second thoughts about this crazy expedition.  With a deft skill that reduces our anxiety, the first meeting between Bilbo and Smaug takes place inside the Mountain, Bilbo staying invisible as he is wearing the ring.  It is a masterpiece of repartee, with Bilbo unable to stop himself as he refers to who he is and where he came from.

Here is Bilbo still not answering the dragon, at the end of increasingly confusing comments about who he might be (Bilbo does get rather excited at times):

“I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles.  I am Ringwinner and Luckbearer; I am Barrel-rider” he declaims, increasingly pleased with his riddling:

“That’s better!” said Smaug.  “But don’t let your imagination run away with you!”

This of course is the way to talk to dragons if you don’t want to reveal your proper name (which is wise), and don’t want to infuriate them by a flat refusal (which is also very wise).  No dragon can resist the fascination of riddling talk and of wasting time trying to understand it.  There was a lot here which Smaug did not understand at all (though I expect you do, since you know all about Bilbo’s adventures to which he was referring), but he thought he understood enough, and he chuckled in his wicked inside.

“I thought so last night,” he smiled to himself.  “Lake-men, some nasty scheme of those miserable tub-trading Lake-men, or I’m a lizard.  I haven’t been down that way for an age and an age, but I will soon alter that.”

“Very well, O Barrel-rider!” he said aloud.

If Bilbo was an inspired character, Smaug wasn’t far behind.  I love the passage where he muses out loud as to how Bilbo and his friends could take his gold away, assuming he didn’t stop them.  “But what about delivery?  What about cartage?  What about armed guards and tolls?”  It’s impossible not to laugh with him.  What’s more, the more Smaug comments, the more Bilbo begins to wonder about all these issues.  Had the dwarves though about cartage?  “This is the effect dragon-talk has on the inexperienced.  Bilbo of course should have been on his guard; but Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality”.  Even as we read about the fearsome nature of Smaug, you can’t help but like him.  Here’s a dragon with a sense of humour.

Fond as I am of fantasy, I have to admit some of the adventures I read are a combination of terrible and threatening situations, unbelievable stress and demands, leavened with a little romance.  Those writers who learn from Tolkien understand that humour has its place too.  It doesn’t get rid of the drama, but it gets over what can be unrelenting challenge and disaster.  Must fictional life always be grinding and grey?  The Tolkien of The Hobbit set a standard that more writers might aspire to copy.

I could continue to offer quotes from The Hobbit.  It’s 289 pages of compelling writing, every page with clever, funny and ingenious moments.  But it is also a series of portraits that make you stop and think.  Surely you have met a Smaug, a rich, clever, dominating individual, who makes you feel small and inadequate.  Surely you have met a Bilbo, anxious but slippery, someone about whom you have this series of tentative but unclear suspicions, that what’s being said isn’t really what happened.  Surely you’ve met a Gandalf, tall, striking, and yet curiously not quite with you, who seems to flit off every so often to attend to some complex issue of which you were unaware and will remain so.  Tolkien describes the lazy, the indulgent, the verbose and many more.  Part of the success of The Hobbit is that it simultaneously describes a ‘fantastic’ world, but also one full of people you could and even can and do meet in your own life.  Realistic fantasy?

The edition I borrowed from the local library has illustrations by Alan Lee.  I found them fascinating.  Lee is wise enough to offer only a few, and several are atmospheric rather than specific, although I did love the sight of the wrapped-up dwarves hanging from branches where the spiders had left them, hanging in their larder I suppose.  Those that work least well are those that deal with Bilbo, who looks rather like a plump adolescent, and, for me, not very hobbit-like.

Overall, I have real doubts about illustrations in fantasy because it works best when the story creates the images for you.  It is the same dilemma when a fantasy is made into a movie.  Quite apart from the variations from the story that are inevitable, there’s that gap between what you have conjured up in your imagination, and what a film director has developed for the screen.  This is one reason why I always read books before I watch movies based on them.  At least I can balance what I see on the screen with what I have already imagined.  The other way round, the image on the screen crushes any attempt to see the characters differently:  they are frozen into the people or images that were used.

In recent weeks I have been reading several books by Terry Brooks, in his monumental Shannara series.  It is a wonderful collection, people with characters at least as compelling as any Tolkien invented.  However, there is one striking difference.  In a Brooks story, we can expect that there will be a high ‘failure rate’ for the heroes.  Adventures, battles and events are nasty, characters are mortal, and many die, some in rather awful circumstances.  I’ve learnt never to come too close to a Shannara character because I know there’s a good chance they may not make it!  Is this offering a rather more realistic perspective on life in a fantasy, as compared to Tolkien’s approach, where most of his characters survive the journey?

Perhaps that is also part of a broader comment about fantasy.  Some fantasy writers are ‘story tellers’, and the characters are somewhat subsidiary to the events in the story.  We read along, wanting to know how a saga will be resolved, drawn in by set pieces like battles or the manipulation of the levers of power.  Others use fantasy to delve into the characters, and much of the story provides us with an insight into the ways individuals respond, love, fail, and achieve.  Rereading The Hobbit has surprised me.  Now I find the story, engaging and exciting as it is, as mostly providing a context for us to learn about Bilbo, who’s a superbly rich, complex character.  Tolkien shifted over the years, I suspect.  The Lord of the Rings is more about events and the dramatic context for those events.  The shift is slight.  Some characters shine.  Gandalf continues to be mysterious.  Gollum is still there!  However, for me the three well-meaning and adventurous hobbits in The Lord of the Rings lack something of the compelling complexity of boastful, tricky, scared and loveable Bilbo.