Back from Uganda!
Okay, actually I've been back for two weeks. Just haven't felt like blogging. And it's been mostly uneventful: hot summer weather (well, hot for Germany), boys in school (German school goes to the end of July).
One thing of interest: I spent about ten days reading The Hobbit to the boys, mostly as a bedtime story.
They loved it. Totally utterly loved it. Gollum was almost too scary, but the goblins, the spiders, the dragon, clever resourceful little Bilbo -- pure gold. I had tried to read it before, a year or two back, and they hadn't liked it. But now Alan is eight and David is just-turned-seven, and it just clicked.
Some things. One, the Hobbit doesn't read like a first novel. Carlos pointed out that's because Tolkein rewrote it about eight times before publication and a couple more times after, which make sense. Still, it's not just about the quality of the writing. The plotting and story structure is very... assured.
(Although: did you know that in the very first edition of the book, Gollum was much less monstrous? Apparently he actually gives up the Ring to Bilbo when he loses the contest. Tolkein later retconned this in later editions, so that the backstory to Lord of the Rings made sense. Then in the introduction to LOTR, he retconned the retcon by saying that the version in the first edition was based on the false version that Bilbo told, which had crept into some otherwise reliable chronicles. Did that make sense? Pretty postmodern for an old Oxford man, if you ask me.)
Two, the Hobbit has a fair number of odd words. Not as many as LOTR (thrawn? oast?) but quite a few. I read every sentence, but I'd sometimes swap words so as not to interrupt the flow -- "branch" for "bough", and the like.
Three, the Hobbit manages to be a very moral work without having the least hint of spinach. That's no small accomplishment. Good is rewarded, and evil and greed and folly are punished, but none of it comes easy, and sometimes it gets very dark indeed. Bilbo does the right thing with the Arkenstone and nearly gets thrown down a mountainside by his employer. Smaug gets his comeuppance, but not before he completely destroys an innocent town. Thorin, a pompous and stiff-necked but basically kind and honest character, falls under the spell of the dragon-hoard and turns grasping, bitter and treacherous. Dora the Explorer it is not.
Random thought: in some ways the Hobbit reads like a Buddhist work as much as a Catholic one. Accidental, I'm sure -- but it's all about the corrupting effects of desire, and Bilbo's virtues are kindness, generosity, pity, and unwillingness to judge. (If I really wanted to be silly, I'd note that it's a Journey to the East.)
Critics have picked over the book pretty thoroughly, but here's one minor point I don't think anyone has mentioned. (As long as I'm being a big old nerd.) We're told that the most miserable part of the whole adventure for Bilbo is the time he's forced to spend as the Elvenking's involuntary guest, sneaking and hiding and stealing, using the Ring to stay undetected while he tries to free the dwarves. Given the other stuff Bilbo goes through, "most miserable" is a pretty high bar, but the narrator is quite clear on this point. In other words, Bilbo is never so desperately unhappy as when he's... being Gollum.
Anyway. The boys loved it. I don't think they're ready to move on to the LOTR, though. So, movie? Or wait another couple of years?