The first and original book review of The Hobbit was candidly supplied in 1936 by the ten-year old son of publisher Sir Stanley Unwin:
“Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting (sic) time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home — rich! This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.”
The story goes that it was Rayner Unwin’s review that convinced his father to publish the story – the younger Unwin said of the matter: “Not a very good piece of literary criticism…but in those happy days, no second opinion was needed; if I said it was good enough to publish, it was published.”
Well, this only adds to the appeal of The Hobbit, that it rightly got its approval from a child rather than an adult. And that a child’s word was enough is quite heartening.
My own young nephews of a similar age are finally reading The Lord of the Rings (after much pleading on their part, and thanks to encouragement on Twitter from those who also read the books when they were quite young). I wasn’t sure if they’d be able to understand it, but with a bit of help they seem to have risen to the challenge. It’s a wonderful feeling to see them enjoying a book that has played an important part in my life. And I’m also very proud of them for appreciating the book, for immersing themselves in the story and really connecting with the characters. It’s not easy in the current era we live in for an eleven year old and twelve year old respectively to have the patience with a lengthy tale, that requires commitment and perseverance and a willingness to be enchanted despite the disenchantment all around us. It’s so much easier for young people (and older people) to resort to movies and video games for entertainment. But seeing my nephews – who like their fair share of children’s video games too – embark on this journey so enthusiastically, and establish their own relationships with the book independent of me, proves that children are not bored of books just yet. They absolutely have the capacity to comprehend some of the depth behind the story and the characters.
Whenever someone is encountering the Lord of the Rings for the first time, without knowing anything about the plot, it’s always fascinating to ask them about their reactions – there is something special about one’s thoughts on a book when the plot is still unravelling, when they haven’t yet got the full picture of all the connections and cannot yet understand the full meaning of a particular sentence or scene. It is a very sincere reflection of the power of the story, and autonomy of the world built by but not controlled by the author, that it can produce such personal and diverse feelings among readers of the same text.
And so, while my nephews have been reading (or having the book read to them) I have have tried as much as possible to discuss it with them to gauge their reactions. I’ve found (to my great delight) that they are capable of articulating quite insightful opinions about the plot twists and the characters, though expressed in their simpler, endearing ways.
Perhaps inspired by the young Rayner Unwin’s example, I suggested to my nephews that they write down their reflections of the book so far. Beyond all the deep and scholarly debates that have been generated by the book, how does a child see this vast and intricate world? I told them to write about a character, or a recurring theme, or a specific chapter. They both chose two different characters. I learnt a lot from what they wrote.
Here is the first one, written by one nephew who had just turned 11. When he wrote this, he was just approaching the end of “Flight to the Ford”:
“Gandalf is a very mysterious and perplexing character. He seems to have a vast knowledge about The Ring and also other things like Smeagol and Deagol. However, it is surprising that he disappears in “Three is Company”.
I always thought Gandalf could never run into trouble and that he always knew what to do. But when he doesn’t return to join Frodo, and when Gildor finds out, he starts to get anxious. *[That also makes us anxious!]
When the letter arrived at the Prancing Pony, [at first] I felt relieved, and also realised that Gandalf had a slight sense of humour.
But later, when the hobbits saw the markings on Weathertop, I thought Gandalf must be in danger as he sent a quick code. Luckily Strider was there to help them. Strider also says that Gandalf is greater than the hobbits know – which comforted me.
Both Gandalf’s letter and code-markings on Weathertop were hasty therefore hinting that he was probably [being] pursued.
Gandalf also seems to travel far and wide, even in pursuit of Gollum.
I think Gandalf has a vast knowledge and knows many dark things. I feel comforted and relieved that Gandalf is most likely alive, but he seems to be in trouble, probably from the Black Riders – thus leaving me in a state of anxiety…”
A lot happens in book 1, mostly concerning the hobbits. But isn’t it so interesting that the character that has captured my nephew’s imagination the most is the one who is also mostly absent! This is a sign of a great story-teller at work – what is not revealed is just as important as what is; the suspense, uncertainty and to quote my nephew, anxiety, underpins and drives forward these first chapters in the book. Those who complain about the ‘slowness’ of the first part of the book clearly don’t tap into this mystery which perplexes us as much as it does the hobbits, Gildor, Butterbur, Strider and Glorfindel. Moreover, quite apart from the skill in creating this tension, it tells us just how successful Tolkien’s characterisation of Gandalf has been.
This is why one must read The Hobbit before reading The Lord of the Rings – our anxiety and confusion about the silence and absence of Gandalf is based on what we personally know about him from The Hobbit: we are not just relying on what Gildor and Strider are telling us, though their concerns compound what we are already feeling. We have seen Gandalf disappear from the story before, but the difference then was that he always turned up just when he was needed most – his timing was impeccable, allowing Bilbo and the Dwarves to develop and learn for themselves, but also returning to guide and support them when the matter was beyond their skills. In the Lord of the Rings, however, Frodo and company are clearly in need of Gandalf’s guidance and help, again and again, but he is not there to give it. Even for my nephew, perhaps especially for him as a child, Gandalf’s uncharacteristic absence is so worrying precisely because the wizard more than anyone else is usually so dependable – when Gandalf is present, you feel relieved and a whole lot safer. To create a character that can exude such palpable emotions among readers of all ages is sheer brilliance.
*The brackets are my nephew’s spoken clarifications. Also thanks to the great Tolkien artist John Howe for some of – in my view – the best illustrations we have of Gandalf the Grey. The artwork above in particular – Gandalf’s purposeful, hurried stride, the detail in the grass, the dream-like clouds and fields in the background and the falling rain, capture so many feelings that are spot on.