- Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen, and: There and Back Again: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit by Mark Atherton
Last year marked a significant milestone for J.R.R. Tolkien’s first published novel. It has now been seventy-five years since The Hobbit first captivated readers, never once out of print in all that time. Tolkien’s beloved tale of a hobbit who went on an adventure, faced a dragon, and lived to write about it in his memoirs has itself now reached the age of a full human life, and we should have reason to hope that studies of the novel have reached a corresponding stage of greater maturity and sophistication. In just a few more years, The Hobbit will have lived longer than its own author. Such an auspicious, even liminal, anniversary has been heralded by more than the usual number of new books about Tolkien in general and The Hobbit in particular, not to mention the arrival of the first installment in Peter Jackson’s three-part film adaptation. Among the books published in 2012 are two full-length explorations of The Hobbit, one from either side of the Atlantic. Both have merits as well as flaws (though not in equal proportion), and considering them together will afford us the opportunity of making some profitable contrasts.
Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is the product of Corey Olsen’s experience teaching Tolkien at Washington College. Olsen has been a great popularizer of Tolkien, both in and outside the classroom, for which he deserves the Tolkien community’s gratitude and congratulations. The community has therefore looked forward to his first book with great anticipation. Its dust-jacket describes it as “a fun, thoughtful, and insightful companion volume designed to bring a thorough and original new reading of this great work to a general audience.” It is written in informal, approachable language, free of jargon and academic apparatus, suiting it well to a general audience. And it is certainly thorough, almost relentlessly so. It is occasionally insightful, but I regret to say the promise of an original new reading is too generous for what the book actually delivers.
Olsen’s book is one whose value depends very much on who is reading it. For scholars and advanced readers already immersed in Tolkien and his fictional world (for example, anyone likely to be reading reviews in Tolkien Studies), its value is unfortunately minimal. But for those not yet serious about Tolkien—the general audience to which the dust-jacket refers—its value may be much greater. For some [End Page 226] readers, undergraduate or high school students studying The Hobbit, and perhaps for their teachers, it may well be indispensable—as a ready-made study guide or lesson plan, respectively.
This is, for me, the fundamental defect of Olsen’s book. The majority of it comes across like a crib for The Hobbit, rehearsing the plot points of each chapter in tedious detail and unjustifiable length. Olsen’s chapters even correspond to Tolkien’s, one for one, something you normally see in study guides. Subtracting the plot summary alone would reduce the book’s bulk substantially. There are no great revelations, no substantial scholarly discoveries. Like a series of undergraduate lectures in an elective seminar on Tolkien, Olsen’s chapters are heavy on exposition, light on insight, seldom telling you something you didn’t already know.
When he is not summarizing the plot, the interpretations the author offers are usually obvious or superficial, often simply restating what has already been said quite explicitly in the novel itself (for example, Gandalf’s appraisal near the end of the novel that Bilbo has changed, on which more below). In addition, Olsen frequently talks down to his readers, or so it seems...