“The Hobbit,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy-adventure tale of a hesitant hobbit, 13 dwarves, and a gray-robed wizard, was published 75 years ago this September. A more urgent date for many: the arrival of the first installment of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit’’ movie trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Of the many precious and not-so-precious Bilbo-flavored books taking advantage of this moment, I’ve selected five worthy of your tightly guarded dragon’s treasure.
For those interested in rereading “The Hobbit” with a more expanded consciousness — no, I don’t mean pipeweed — try Corey Olsen’s “Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.” Olsen directs a center to further Tolkien studies, the Mythgard Institute, and runs a podcast called the “The Tolkien Professor.’’ His book is a chapter-by-chapter, erudite discussion of the major ideas stitched into this deceptively simple children’s book. We learn about Bilbo’s split personality — reserved vs. adventuresome — which, while not as clinically debilitating as Gollum’s DSM-worthy disorder, drives much of his action. We hear about Tolkien’s theme of “dragon-sickness” — greed and desire — and the role of luck. Despite the tale’s cheery reputation, Olsen argues “The Hobbit” is “quite serious, and even at times gruesome,” but Tolkien, aware of his juvenile audience, was clever to mask the dark matter behind “just a hint of frivolity.” Olsen’s indispensable book reminds us that “The joy of the good resolution will be tempered, as it always is in Tolkien’s fiction, with the reality of human suffering.”
Tolkien geeks often complain: How dare Jackson deign to visualize such a rich literary work, when images conjured in the reader’s mind are more powerful than any CGI brain candy? And yet, as “The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien” proves, Tolkien himself aimed to visualize much of his Middle-earth. A not-too-shabby artist, Tolkien made hundreds of drawings and paintings while writing “The Hobbit.” Some were planning doodles; some were more polished; and others were intended for publication. More than 100 of these are collected in this lavishly illustrated tome by renowned Tolkien experts and Williamstown natives Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. Painstakingly reproduced here are pencil sketches of Bilbo’s crib, Bag End, Rivendell, Mirkwood, and Smaug, as well as Tolkien’s wonderful maps and runes. The authors’ thoughtful commentary reminds us that while enjoyment of “The Hobbit” does not require pictures, “when the author himself has provided the art . . . it opens new dimensions to an already excellent story.”
For innumerable peeks behind Jackson’s film production curtain, see “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Official Movie Guide.” Author Brian Sibley spent days on the set, talking to cinematographers and wig-makers, conceptual artists and movement coaches, and interviewed cast members from Martin Freeman on down to each dwarf. Don’t expect anyone to dish on Jackson being a tyrant; this book is another cog in the movie’s hype apparatus. But the unabashed movie fan will be thrilled by the insights, from how “breakdown artists” used a variety of wire brushes and blow torches to make weapons and clothing look road-weary, to how set builders took silicon molds from real rocks and trees to create lifelike environments on the set. I also appreciated the recipe for troll snot.
More highfalutin is the hilariously titled “The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard and Your Way.” This collection of 17 quasi-scholarly but accessible essays connects “The Hobbit” and the plight of Bilbo to the great thinkers: Plato and Marx, Aristotle’s virtue theory, the Zen poet Gary Snyder. One chapter raises the notion of “courage and decision making” as they relate to Bilbo, risk, and you: “Should I take my money out of the stock market?” What would you do, were you to walk in Bilbo’s hairy feet? Middle-earth, while a fantasy, becomes the place where philosophical ideas about life and culture might be a model.
In a similar hobbit-as-self-help vein comes Noble Smith’s clever “The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life.” Mixing literary themes and character studies from “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” and sprinkling in anecdotes from his own experience, Noble delves into Middle-earth to show us how Tolkien can instruct us how to live a better life on Regular-earth. Chapters like “Your Own Personal Gollum” discuss how to defeat those who have a “great hole of want” and “suck the souls right out of our bodies.” Notes help the less hard-core visitor to Middle-earth grasp all of the author’s references.
For a fan like me who seeks a bridge between my life and the Tolkienverse, Noble’s book — and all these volumes — work their magic. “The wants rule out our needs and drive us to ruin our emotional and physical health in pursuit of that elusive dragon’s hoard,” Noble advises. “And we forget about the truly important things that make us happy.” Like a safe hobbit hole to sleep in, a warm meal, and a good tale to tell.
EXPLORING J.R.R. TOLKIEN’S THE HOBBIT
By Corey Olsen
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp., $25
THE ART OF THE HOBBIT
By J.R.R. Tolkien
By Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 144 pp., $40
THE HOBBIT: An Unexpected Journey: Official Movie Guide
By Brian Sibley
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 192 pp., paperback, $14.95
THE HOBBIT AND PHILOSOPHY: For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way
Edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson
Wiley, 272 pp., paperback, $17.95
THE WISDOM OF THE SHIRE: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life
By Noble Smith
Thomas Dunne, 224 pp., $22.99