The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.Sixty-second printing of a mass market paperback Ballantine Books edition (1977). No designer is credited, but the cover painting, titled, The Hills: Hobbiton-across-the-Water, is by Tolkien. All three books were a gift from my aunt.
The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien.Sixtieth printing of a mass market paperback Ballantine Books edition (1978). No designer is credited; cover painting by Tolkien.
The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien. Fifty-sixth printing of a mass market paperback Ballantine Books edition (1977). No designer is credited; cover painting by Tolkien.
I first heard Williamson’s recording over twenty years ago on a series of LPs that I checked out from the library. I had probably already read The Hobbit half a dozen times by then, but Williamson’s sonorous voice—along with the music and audio production effects—added another layer to Middle Earth.
My daughter, five, already familiar with the 1977 Rankin-Bass film, had no problem keeping pace with the story (although she occasionally asked me to pause for clarification on a few finer points, such as the delicate distinctions between goblins and trolls, or just who exactly is this guy Bard who shows up all of a sudden?) My favorite part of the entire weekend was my two year old imitating Gollum, sniveling a sinister, “My precious!” while squinting gleefully.
There are few books I’ve read as many times as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy: I read it countless times between the ages of 11 and 15, read it again as an undergrad, then read it again–twice, I’m not ashamed to admit—when Peter Jackson’s adaptations came out. However, despite reading The Hobbit repeatedly as a kid, I’ve never really gone back to it. It traffics in a gentle folklore that seems out of square with the epic mythmaking in The Lord of the Rings, and I think that I was always unsettled by a certain discontinuity between the two books that was easier to ignore if I never went back to The Hobbit.
Memory has a way of eliding details, and books are especially susceptible to this wearing down and smoothing out. So, I remembered The Hobbit as a quest, a miniature epic with Bilbo Baggins leaving the comforts of home to find treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug. I remembered Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves invading Bilbo’s tidy hobbit hole; I remembered trolls who turn to stone; I remembered riddles with Gollum and a ring that turns its wearer invisible; I remembered Mirkwood and barrels and the mountain lair of a dragon. I vaguely remembered the Battle of Five Armies, where the enormous eagles literally swoop in and save the day, deus ex machina style.
Listening to the unabridged audio, I was struck by just how much had escaped my memory: I barely recalled the spiders of Mirkwood or the talking ravens or the part where the wargs tree the dwarves. I had completely forgotten the shapeshifter Beorn, a creature straight out of Scandinavian myth.
What I found most strange in revisiting The Hobbit though was its radical compression, its tendency and willingness to pivot sharply, to cast its characters about or trample them under (metaphorical and sometimes literal) foot, or throw them in dungeons or barrels or some other danger.
Whereas The Lord of the Rings progresses from the folkloric feel of The Shire through to the high-adventure sweep of Icelandic saga and ultimately to a King Jamesish condensation of near-pure archetypery (and back again, of course), The Hobbit showcases a rambling, flowing, discursive, “out of the frying pan, into the fire” rhythm.
In short, The Hobbit, as it turns out, is a picaresque novel.
And just what is a picaresque novel, and why is The Hobbit one?, you may or may not ask.
Michael Seidel offers a clear definition in his introduction to Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (an excellent picaresque, by the way):
. . . the tradition of Continental picaresque, or rogue, literature . . . became popular throughout Europe with the publication of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) in Spain. Picarós and picarás are orphans, vagabonds, desperadoes, and reprobates trying to manipulate the conventions of a world largely determined by established family and class connections. . . . Picaresque fiction is the story of outsiders trying to get in, and the fortunes of the protagonist often depend on adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior as picaresque characters become who they need to be to survive.
The Hobbit is very much the story of the topsy-turvy turns of Bilbo Baggins’s identity. At the adventure’s outset, he’s a respectable—comfortable—Baggins of Bag End. Not the sort of fellow who goes on adventures. And yet he’s enlisted by Gandalf to serve as burglar for the expedition, a picaró in the making who steals a purse from a troll and never looks back.
It’s not just Bilbo’s various thefts, but also his “adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior” that marks him as a picaró. His scheming is evident repeatedly in the novel, whether he’s riddling with Gollum or Smaug, devising a breakout from the Elf King of Mirkwood’s dungeon, or playing the long con against the parties involved in the Battle of Five Armies. He echoes Gandalf in this way, whose talents seem to veer more toward trickery and cunning than dazzling spells or marvelous magic.
Bilbo’s picaresque turns of fortune and turns of identity are neatly summarized in a late exchange with yon dragon Smaug, who immediately calls him out as a picaró:
“You have nice manners for a thief and a liar,” said the dragon. “You seem familiar with my name, but I don’t seem to remember smelling you before. Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”
“You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air, I am he that walks unseen.”
“So I can well believe,” said Smaug, “but that is hardly our usual name.”
“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I am chosen for the lucky number.”
“Lovely titles!” sneered the dragon. “But lucky numbers don’t always come off.”
“I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.”
“These don’t sound so creditable,” scoffed Smaug.
“I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider,” went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.
“That’s better!” said Smaug. “But don’t let your imagination run away with you!”
But imagination is of course the primary tool of the picaró, and Bilbo is no slouch: The Hobbit condemns evil, greedy Smaug when it shows the rewards of letting “your imagination run away with you.” Indeed, the entire novel is a running away, a constant deflection of stable identity, as Bilbo twists and turns his way back to The Shire.
And what happens to Bilbo? What happens to that once-stable, once-comfortable identity? We learn at the novel’s end about the queering of his identity—
. . . he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’—except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders. I am sorry to say he did not mind.
So! Queer, strange Baggins the picaró embraces his “Took side,” his disreputable adventuring side. And still the narrative comes to a lovely cozy warm respectable ending, Bilbo’s identity transformed, sullied, illuminated, and enlarged by his picaresque adventure.
And the picaresque? Well, maybe I’ve stretched its definition a bit simply because I’m so fond of picaresque narratives these days. Maybe I’ve simply revisited a childhood classic and imposed a new viewpoint upon it. (And maybe years and years from now I’ll revisit it again with grandchildren, and find something new and different there as well. I hope).
I think what I enjoyed most about The Hobbit this time was hearing the rambling discursiveness of it all—here we have a narrative that understands the perilous and precarious position of the storyteller, he or she who might lose the thread—or worse, lose the audience!—at any damn time. So keep the story sailing, shifting, rambling out into new moods, modes, movements.
And this is the power of The Hobbit—which is to say the staying power of The Hobbit—its ability to evoke the imaginative force of one damned thing after another sheerly happening for generation after generation.
Book shelves series #22, twenty-second Sunday of 2012: Tolkien, Faulkner, McCarthy
As always, sorry for the glare. Shooting this case head on is almost impossible because of the windows on the other side of the room. Anyway.
I’ve read everything by Cormac McCarthy with the exception of his screenplay for The Gardener’s Son, which I found a week or two and picked it up. I don’t own a copy of No Country for Old Men because I haven’t found one that isn’t a movie tie-in.
This copy of The Lord of the Rings—my first—was a kind gift from some friends we were staying with in Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida).
I’ve read it at least four times; I have other copies of LoTR and have read them too. It’s probably the book I’ve read the most, although I haven’t read it since 2002. This copy is kindly inscribed:
There’s a slim space on the shelf that currently holds a few books that I’ve been meaning to read:
Now, if you have even a passing acquaintance with this little blog, you know that I love novels, that Biblioklept primarily focuses on novels, and that I love books in general. I am not anti-novel or anti-giving-novels-as-gifts. Send me a novel as a gift. I will appreciate it (or trade it toward another book, which is kinda sorta a form of appreciation).
I went to my favorite bookstore today, in fact, to buy some books for Christmas presents. But I restrained myself from picking up novels as gifts.
If you love books like I do, I’m sure that some of your most favorite gifts ever have been novels. Some of my most favorite gifts have been novels. The remaindered copy of The Lord of the Rings (from the South Barwon Library that some friends of the family gave me on Dec. 5th, 1990 when we visited Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida)) is probably one of my all-time favorite gifts. I know the exact date because the nice lady who gave it to me wrote a kind note in book and included the date in her note.
I could never bear to get rid of an inscribed book given as a gift, but lots of people do get rid of inscribed books. This is a monstrous practice, one that attests to just how easily people will discard your oh-so-earnest gifts. If you spend a lot of time in used bookstores (I do) you will come across these sad markings. Because it’s close at hand, and I’m aware of its inscription, I’ll share the note that Jean wrote to Helen (no, of course I know neither of them) in my copy of Balthus’s memoir, Vanished Splendors:
I am aware that the memoir of a pervy artist is not the same as a novel, and that, as my first illustrating example, I already seem to be losing my metaphorical balance, but again, it was close at hand, right near the Tolkien in fact (by the bye, Vanished Splendors is pure gold).
In any case, I think Balthus’s memoir “reads” like a novel, which is to say that it’s mostly big chunks of text that require time and energy to decipher, set against the backdrop of TV, internet, movies, etc. It has some pictures, but not many. There’s no gimmick to it. I’m guessing that Helen just wasn’t into Balthus, or, if she had a passing interest in his art, it didn’t translate into wanting to read his memoir. She certainly didn’t read any of it (yes, I have a special sense that tells me when a book has been read. This baby was a virgin). Every time I look over the book, I feel sorta bad for Jean, whose gift seems to have gone unappreciated (by Helen; not by me. I was happy to pick it up used).
To return to an earlier point: yes, some of our favorite gifts ever might be novels. However, most of the life-changing novels I received were rarely given as birthday or Christmas gifts. They weren’t gifts of obligation, if you’ll forgive the ugliness of that term. Most of the great novels that were given to me were handed along free of occasion, given because the giver thought (knew) I should read them.
At Christmas though, we feel obliged to give. Sometimes we get some great novels as gifts. More often though, it seems like that relative who knows you “like to read” gives you a novel by, I dunno, Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy. The worst though are those tiny little hardback books that are designed specifically to be gifts, little faux-tomes of faux-philosophy usually connected to golf or angels or some other bullshit (I was horrified last year when DFW’s “This Is Water” speech got this treatment). Anyway, if you like books, you probably just go trade in this bullshit toward the books you like.
But this post isn’t really about the problem of getting airport novels or gimmick books as gifts. This post is about those of us who insist on giving novels we love to people who we know don’t really love reading novels. Especially really big, somewhat (or very) experimental novels. Important novels. Those novels that we read and decide that everyone needs to read this to become a fully realized human being [gags on that phrase].
I think sometimes we give our friends and relatives novels as gifts because we love them so much and we also love the book so much that we are maybe gunning for an intellectual three-way. We want them to read the novel so that we can share in it together, discuss it, rant about it, argue about it (remember though: that’s what the internet is for).
What often happens though is that these gifted novels (forgive the ambiguous, awkward modifier) tend to lurk about the giftee’s abode, brickishly unread, like dour unwanted houseguests. They skulk at the margins of bookshelves or migrate to the bottom of “to read” stacks; a lucky one might find occasional fingering above a commode. They are ugly reminders to the giftee, signals of how he or she has failed to meet your expectations (your expectations re: 9 or 15 or 25 or 30 hours of her time). (Young people, by which I mean college students in the liberal arts, are the exception here; they probably aren’t going to read the novel, but they are absolutely fine with putting it out for show).
People like books with pictures though, generally.
Even though I think novels tend to make lousy gifts, we should give them to our friends and loved ones anyway, even on those days of obligated giving. We should still offer novels up like they were somehow a part of our own selves in the deluded hope that the giftee will read them and discuss them with us, and that the novel will become an internal, virtual, shared experience. We should give them knowing that it’s likely they’ll go unread, that they may even be a point of shame for the giftee (especially when we ask, “Have you started . . . ?”). We should give them aware that they might point toward our own selfish desires.
Even if a novel may be a gift that implies a certain level of intellectual work, it also implies a sense of trust and respect toward the giftee, and in this sense, giving a loved novel is a clear way to show love.